Suck At Journaling? Here's the Weird Brain Trick I Used to Effortlessly Write 35,395 Words Last Year
A simple single-sentence resolution has generated 280,000 words in the past 12 years
Robert Shields was a strange man.
He was an American minister and high school teacher by day, but his real passion was keeping a diary. Starting from the age of 54, he chronicled every five-minute segment of his life until a stroke disabled him 25 years later. By the time he died, his self-reflections filled 91 boxes and ran for more than 37.5 million words.
That’s the equivalent of 625 non-fiction books.
I told you he was strange!
I tried to keep a journal for years, and always unsuccessfully.
I tried using a physical hardback journal.
I tried a pocket leather journal.
I left them beside my bedside.
I left them in the bathroom.
I left reminder notes for myself.
I scheduled time every Monday morning in a coffee shop.
Some success is better than no success, but while I managed to journal a few dozen times per year, it never became the guaranteed-for-life journaling practice I desired.
Then, one day, I figured out a super-simple method that seemed to almost magically make it stick.
Since then, I’ve journaled consistently 200+ times per year for twelve years running, penning more than 280,000 words. That’s nearly five non-fiction books. If I keep it up until I’m eighty, I’ll hit 1.25 million words and twenty books.
Best of all, the practice has been virtually effortless.
Before you can execute any what, you need a sufficiently-motivating why.
I torched 20 pounds of fat in 2023 thanks to finally generating a sufficient why for my health.
Journaling is the same way.
Normally, it’s not one why that helps us cement a new habit — it’s usually a constellation of brilliant reasons.
Figure out why you want to journal. It could be:
To process emotional pain and trauma.
To get better at writing.
To become a more self-aware person.
To build a bank of memories for old age and/or to not lose all the thousands of precious little moments with your loved ones and kids.
One of the major reasons I journal is to leave a record for my son. I SO wish my ancestors had left details and stories from their everyday lives. Plus, I want Concord to have a good sense of his childhood and his dad’s values.
One of the reasons my wife journals is so she can take a few hours on her birthday to read back through the last year
I also asked AI to generate a list of ten additional possible reasons and motivations to start journaling:
1. Journaling can help you increase your self-awareness by reflecting on your inner world and noticing patterns in your thoughts and behaviors
2. Journaling can help you improve your emotional well-being by processing and expressing your emotions, especially the negative ones, and releasing stress and anxiety
3. Journaling can help you gain clarity and problem-solving skills by organizing your thoughts, exploring different perspectives, and generating creative ideas
4. Journaling can help you boost your creativity and self-expression by stimulating your imagination, experimenting with different styles and formats, and finding your unique voice
5. Journaling can help you enhance your memory and learning by reviewing and consolidating your experiences, reinforcing your knowledge, and making connections between concepts
6. Journaling can help you achieve your goals and dreams by setting intentions, tracking your progress, celebrating your achievements, and overcoming challenges
7. Journaling can help you develop your gratitude and happiness by focusing on the positive aspects of your life, appreciating what you have, and expressing your thanks
8. Journaling can help you grow your confidence and self-esteem by affirming your strengths, acknowledging your successes, and challenging your limiting beliefs
9. Journaling can help you heal from trauma and grief by providing a safe space to cope with your emotions, make sense of your loss, and find meaning and hope
10. Journaling can help you connect with yourself and others by deepening your understanding of yourself, your values, and your purpose, and by sharing your insights and stories with others
When I was four or five years old, my mom took me to the Robidoss’s home to bake bread. Mom and Mrs. Robidoss made beautiful loaves, but then let us kids do whatever we wanted to do. I liked salt, so my recipe was basically one cup of water, one cup of flour, and one cup of salt. I was serious disappointed when my inedible, rock-hard salt lump came out of the oven.
Figure out which mix of ingredients (motivations) delivers the outcome you desire: A nice, fluffy, tasty… journaling practice that consistently fills the books with memorable stories and worthy insights.
Okay, here’s the simple secret
I love New Year’s resolutions. Of course, you can resolve to change anything any day of the year, so if you’re keen to solidify a journaling habit, it comes down to a dead-simple resolution:
I will write one imperfect sentence 3–4 days per week.
That’s the resolution that has delivered a twelve-year 280,000-word journaling habit to date.
Notice the three qualifiers:
1. That you will write ONE sentence.
It was the minimum effective dose (MED) to get me journaling. It’s too vague to say “I’m going to journal” and too much of a commitment to say, “I’m going to journal 1,000+ words.” Set the bar as low as possible. The mental trick, of course, is that once you start journaling, you rarely write just one sentence! Overcoming the inertia and initial hurdle is paramount.
2. That you will write one IMPERFECT sentence.
Journaling is not performative.
Get rid of the need for perfection.
I’m a full-time author who’s published five books, and 1000+ articles including in publications including Esquire, USA Today, Christianity Today, and TIME magazine, plus I’ve produced four films. But guess what? I don’t even spell-check my journal.
I want my son to know I wasn’t perfect.
I want to let the words flow from the creative hippie artist side of my brain, not have them get stifled by the bossy librarian editor side of my brain.
3. That you will only commit to journaling a few days per week
Committing to journaling every single day will be a failure because it puts too much pressure on yourself.
You’ll feel guilty when you fail. Your imperfection will leave a permanent niggling in the back of your brain. I should be journaling. I forgot to journal yesterday. What’s the point of journaling now that I’ve missed three days?
Keeping it nebulous is key. “3-4” is far better than three or four, because both numbers are strictly limiting and guilt-inducing. I’ve committed to journaling three or four days per week, but realistically, I end up journaling five to six days per week.
The key really is to make it as easy as possible.
Figure out what works for you.
I’ve learned that physical journals just don’t work for me in this season. Plus, one of Michelle’s journals got stolen in Guatemala and she lost six months of travel memories, so that gave me serious pause.
I needed to make journaling as easy as possible, with a visual reminder always present…
So I started journaling directly into my schedule.
My schedule is super minimalist (just a TextEdit document) and here’s what it looks like today:
January 10, 2024
9:00 Read Bible, pray, walk
10–6 Work (I won’t bore you with a breakdown of the details here)
6:00 Work out and shower
7:00 Cook, eat, star saunter
9:00 Concord bed routine
Funniest thing of the day:
I’ll delete each line as I go through the day, and maybe journal a bit about a piece or two or three. So by the end of the day, my “schedule” will look something like this:
January 10, 2024
“Make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; and to godliness, brotherly kindness; and to brotherly kindness, love.” 2 Peter 1:5–7
The loft insulation guy came by to do a quote — sadly, we can’t afford to finish the attic into a guest room thanks to the water leak we need to repair, but at least we can get it insulated for now.
Published an article on my journaling practice.
My back is still killing me. The MRI results were due weeks ago, but everything is slower since the corporatist British government ransacked the health service. You can’t spell Conservative without Con. [Now I’m really performing here. 😂]
We dodged an astounding scammer today! Michelle tried to hire a cleaner to get rid of the smell of nicotine in our new house, and I suspected something was strange when he refused to give the company registration details so I could verify him on the government’s business registry. A British-Indian fellow then called to scream-tell me they do “all the cleaning for the police and the Air Force, and we can send a police officer to your house to verify that we are a legitimate business.” I did some research and discovered this new company was registered just a few months ago, and he has started and dissolved 11 companies in the past 3.5 years. Saved ourselves $2,858.59. [TRUE STORY!]
It’s sad how many tens of millions of full-time scammers there are in the world. From banksters to land-lorders to carpet cleaners, the love of money really is the root of all kinds of evil. Would there be fewer scammers if there were more legitimate opportunities? Or are humans just so wretchedly greedy that we’ll continue to worship Mammon until it sacrifices all on the altar of profit?
Funniest thing of the day: On our walk this morning, Concord spotted a huge pile on the road and said, “Eww cow poop! Concord no eat it.”
At the end of each day (or often even the next day) I copy and paste the entry into an online backup file.
(Each year, I print the whole journal, archive the digital version, and start a new online file.)
It’s that simple.
Suddenly, “one imperfect sentence every few days” becomes a few hundred words on the daily, and the next thing you know, my descendants get to have a good rip-snorting laugh about great-great-grandpa Concord not eating $#!t. And maybe they learn a timeless thing or two about the perspectives of one writer living in the declining West in 2024.
The moral of the story?
Don’t let perfection be the enemy of good.
Millions of people are missing out on decades of cherished memories because they’re too hard on themselves.
Set the bar as low as humanly possible.
Your future self will thank you.
I hope this has been helpful. (Feel free to share with a friend.)
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