Raise your hand if you love a great journaling session. (Me! Raises all the hands!)
Raise your hand if you’re paralyzed by perfectionism and just can’t get started. (Anyone?)
I’m not going to go on and on about the benefits of journaling. If you’re reading this either you’re someone who already does it, or you want to up your journaling game, or you’d like to get started but you don’t know how.
Here’s a video if that’s more your style.
My journaling background
I don’t have all the answers, but I have been a serious journaler (did I just make up that word?) for a very, very long time. 20 years, in fact, with some time off while my kids were little.
The catalyst for my journaling journey was the book The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron. I highly recommend this book for anyone, not just artistic people, who might be looking for a path forward. This book is basically a 12-week course on gaining clarity on what you really want in life.
The year was 2001. I had just finished my doctoral work and had moved to a new city to start teaching part-time courses while finishing up my dissertation revisions. I had no idea what would come next, but I knew I wanted something bigger, I just didn’t know how to get there.
The Artist’s Way really helped me, and within the year I had landed my current job at Brock University where I remain today.
After all these years, the main takeaway from this book, that remains with me to this day, is the power of daily journaling.
We’ll come back to this further down the post. But first, we need to make something abundantly clear.
Rule #1: there are no rules
If you’re scanning ahead to look for Rules #2+ you won’t find them. There is only one rule, and it’s this: there are no rules.
Oh, my perfectionist friends, I can feel you already as I write this. No rules?!? It’s too broad, this leaves too many options. How will I know I’m making the best use of my (finely-tuned, scheduled) time?
As a recovering perfectionist myself I completely understand this trepidation. Sometimes we really crave boundaries. We find freedom in boundaries because they release us from the stress of having to make decisions. That path is clear, we show up and do it. Easy.
You don’t need to have the perfect book to write in, or the perfect pen (though that helps a lot), or the perfect time, or the perfect space, or the perfect schedule, or the perfect anything.
If you’re someone who really needs a guide, please know that I am also your people. This is why The Artist’s Way was exactly what I needed at the time. There are so many journaling guides out there to get you started. Just start.
What journaling approach is right (write) for me?
The journaling approach that is right for you is the one that is right for you. Haha, I just heard a collective cringe, but it’s really true. It’s more important that you just write. The more consistently you do it the more benefit you’ll gain from it.
There are so many approaches: bullet journaling, daily affirmations, prompts; food journal, fitness journal, dream journal. I know someone who experienced stellar progress in her piano practicing by keeping a practice journal. Do a quick search for “journaling types” and you’ll find all kinds of suggestions.
If you’re stuck in perfectionism paralysis for fear of doing it wrong, then you’re doing it wrong.
For the rest of this post, I will dive into the kind of journaling I do, why I love it, and why I carve out time in my busy schedule to do it every single day. Maybe this is the right approach for you and maybe it isn’t, but I hope this post will inspire you just to start.
My journaling magic: Morning Pages
When I started following the suggestions in The Artist’s Way, I fought hard against this one. However, like so many other things that at first seem impossibly challenging, this was the one habit I have brought forward with me 20 years later.
In the book, Julia Cameron instructs her intrepid followers to start a daily habit of writing first thing in the morning, as soon as possible after rolling out of bed. You sit and write stream-of-consciousness, whatever flows through your pen, for 3 full pages. That’s 3 sides of a standard 8.5 x 11 lined sheet of paper (total of 3 sides, not 6 sides). Yes, it’s a lot at first, and it takes around 30 minutes to do.
Please, keep reading. I want to convince you to try it too.
It has to be pen-on-paper, not type-on-screen. My readers likely know the value of old-school handwriting vs. new-school typing. Your goal for the three pages is just to keep the pen moving, even if you’re only writing “keep pen moving” or “KPM” like I do so often.
As your pen moves your ideas come out of your wonderfully complex mind and onto the paper. Sometimes they stay wonderfully complex. Sometimes you vent, sometimes you talk about your day, sometimes you recount a story from the previous day. Or sometimes you just write about how much you hate getting up early to write, or how you would rather be sleeping, and this is stupid, or whether you’re doing it right.
It’s all good. Write that stuff, get it all down on paper and out of your head/mind/heart.
Why do it in the morning?
Morning is ideal because it sets you up to look forward and puts you into dream-ahead mode. When you do it in the evening it’s a different experience.
If you do this exercise at the end of the day, you’re more likely to recount all the things that happened that day and relive those things. When I do The Pages in the evening, I often find it makes me agitated (if the day was stressful) or gets me excited about the future. Either way, it makes it difficult for me to nod off to sleep.
If you can manage to roll out of bed and get onto the page as quickly as possible, you’re less likely to censor what you write. Give yourself permission just to move the pen and see what happens. Yes, this is the right way to do it. Just do it.
Set up your morning for success
This is a far bigger conversation, but to make this work you will have to make some daily schedule adjustments. When you first try it, just commit to giving yourself an extra 40 minutes in the morning to do it. You’ll tweak your morning routine to accommodate this in the way that works for you.
I wrote about my personal morning routine here: Essential Oils for Dolphins, or how to get going when you don’t want to get up. If you’re not a morning person you may find some useful tips in that post. Pay special attention to the section called “Motivation”, because that’s where I talk about how the Morning Pages are the catalyst to get me up in the morning. I’m not a morning person either but I make time for my morning pages because I get so much value from them.
An important factor in getting the groggy morning moments to work for you is to minimize the number of decisions you have to make. That’s what that Dolphin post is really about. I use essential oils strategically to help propel me through those first, crucial morning moments when the bed is warm and comfy and you’ve stayed up too late.
My morning is automated now. I take time to make the coffee before I sit down to write because that’s important to me. Maybe you need to do a workout first. Maybe you need something else to make your morning work better for you.
Whatever you need to do, just try your best to get pen-to-paper as quickly as possible, while your emotional brain is still unhampered by your rational brain.
Here are my personal recommendations:
- lined paper, 8.5 x 11
- a pen that glides easily
For lined paper I have tried a number of different things and they all work. Aim for the kind of paper you use in your university classes to take notes. You can use a spiral notebook or loose pages. If using loose pages you’ll need something to house them in, like a binder or duo-tang.
My current paper setup is a clipboard with loose pages. When I’m done writing for the day, I put the completed pages into a binder, and I leave the one-sided one in the clipboard to use the next day (you’re doing three sides).
I think my favourite-ever paper setup was loose pages held in a duo-tang, those cheapies you can get from the dollar store. I got some cheapo stickers too, and every time I completed a writing session, I put a sticker on the cover. That was fun and I found it oddly motivating. We need to give ourselves stickers more often.
The pen is really important. If you have a pen that has some drag, you’ll get hand fatigue and you won’t enjoy the process. I used gel pens for a while but with that much writing you’ll blast through them really quickly. After a few months, I invested in a glorious fountain pen that I’m still using, 19 years after I bought it. I love that pen and I look forward to the daily experience of just using it.
You’ll need a space where you won’t be interrupted. This is really important, because as you get familiar with the process you’ll start to experience the flow-state magic that sometimes happens on the third page (see below).
Sometimes I use my home office, sometimes the dining room table, sometimes the couch in the family room. I don’t recommend writing in bed because it’s too easy to slip back into sleep but do what works for you.
It’s best to have an ergonomic setup that is conducive to writing because three pages is a lot of writing. If you’re not comfortable, you won’t do it.
The Magic of the Third Page
Here’s where the real magic happens, and what compels me to show up every morning.
You’re set up with a pen that you enjoy using, a comfortable and functional writing space, and no distractions. You start writing and keep the pen moving, forcing yourself not to overthink anything. You write and write and write, letting the uncensored ideas flow.
Sometimes, every once in a while, you get to the third page and you’re really on a roll. Then stuff starts happening, hitting the page faster than you realize it’s happening. You’ll get ideas for big projects, or solutions to problems that have been plaguing you. You’ll dream big dreams and figure out some steps to get yourself there.
My most memorable third-page magic moment was the time I realized I had forgiven someone for something really big. This was something I had been carrying around for a long time, and before I knew what had happened, I forgave them. There it was, right there on the page. I felt so much better, and it hasn’t plagued me ever since.
I call it “The Magic of the Third Page”, and this is why I arrange my entire schedule around writing every single day. This, right here, is what will change your life. I’m not kidding.
What do I do with the pages when they’re done?
They are not meant to be reviewed, not by anyone, and not by you. This is liberating, actually. When I first started doing pages, I felt compelled to keep track of the context for writing, like I was explaining something to someone. “Dear Diary, yesterday I blah blah blah…” Once you fully realize no one is going to read the pages, not even you, you stop needing to explain yourself.
I have occasionally gone back to read pages, but I find it makes me uncomfortable. This kind of journaling is not about keeping a record of what has happened in the past, it’s a way of finding a path forward through all the wonderful ideas swirling around in your head.
Very often I’ll come up with some great ideas, or reminders, or some great epiphany that I want to remember. What I do in those cases is I underline them as they happen or write a note in the margin. Then when I’m done, I transfer those to my Full Focus Planner where I’ll know where to find them, or to turn them into actionable items.
Then, when my binder is full, I shred the pages. Yes, you heard me. Shred those suckers. As soon as you’re done the writing they’ve done their job. Shred them. Knowing you’ll be doing this means you won’t feel compelled to edit as you write. Get it all down. It’s no one’s business to read them later, not even yours.
Give journaling a try
I will challenge you to give Morning Pages a try for one week, 7 days. Take one day and get all your supplies and your location set up. Set your alarm for 40 minutes earlier (yes, I know!!!) and figure out how to automate your morning so you don’t get stuck in decision-making before you can sit down to write.
Set up your supplies the night before. Get the coffee ready to brew. Get your clothes ready so you know what you’ll wear, maybe it’s a bathrobe or a hoody or a complete change of clothes. Pre-load the diffuser with a blend that you love and that energizes you (hint: try something minty), or something that puts you into a contemplative mood (Frankincense is great for this).
Please, friends, try this and report back. I want to know how it goes for you.
Happy writing! I wish you magical Third-Page epiphanies. Comment below, I really want to hear about your experiences.