The Power of Journaling and How to Get Started
Time to clean your glasses
⛄ Hello Friends,
I’ve been under the weather this week–looks like Santa came early this year and delivered the common cold instead of coal. Not sure I know what I did to deserve it.
In any case, I’m sharing a piece originally published on my personal website a couple of years ago. This is a guide on how to get started with journaling. I’ve remastered it. You can call it Camilo’s version if you want.
I truly believe that journaling has been one of the most important habits I’ve developed in my life. I hope you find this useful as you get ready for 2024.
🎄 Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays! 🎄
I know what would make quite the Christmas gift for me.
(Originally published March 9th, 2022)
Ten years ago, I spent Winter in the land of glüwein and spatzle.
It was int the outskirts of Frankfurt. I used to go to the mall next to the place where I stayed and sit in the food court; coffee, croissant, and notebook on hand.
The children’s shouts, the neighboring conversations, and the hiss of the espresso machine were the perfect score for my journaling sessions.
I had written some reflections before, but it was mostly poems and sporadic accounts of my travels. The solitude of my life in Germany taught me that I needed to clean my lenses.
You see, in my early 20s, I realized my mind was wearing dirty glasses. Thoughts and anxieties moving around my brain like a school of fish in disarray. I struggled seeing the world, because I had to see through my thoughts first.
I wrote observations of life in Germany. How they would always switch to English once they heard my shoddy German. Or my love affair with the currywurst, a torpedo of flavor in the shape of a sausage dressed in sugary ketchup and spicy curry. I would also watch movies in German and write down words that sounded fun or interesting (genau, hähnchen, scheiße)1.
I tried to keep up my new habit after I came back to the US. I would write maybe once a week. It felt like a chore. Journaling was supposed to be helpful, but I avoided it. The blank page was an unflattering mirror of my mind's chaos. The thought of writing down my most personal thoughts was scary. Who wants to do something that is scary and anxiety inducing?
In hindsight, I know that what I needed at that time was a reframe, a why, and a structure. Luckily, I got to where I am today—a consistent journaling practice—by stumbling across these elements over the last ten years.
With the wisdom gained from multiple years of mastering this habit, I will share how you should think about journaling and how to start today.
Staring at a blank page awaiting your most intimate thoughts is terrifying. You know what’s worse? Letting those thoughts live rent free in your mind, fueling your inner critic, robbing you of the joy that is your birthright.
Eventually, I saw journaling not as my daily encounter with my anxieties, but as the daily opportunity to rid myself of frustrations and endless ruminations.
I saw it as an opportunity to acknowledge the privileges and blessings I enjoy; a sense of perspective is a wonderful stimulant.
I saw it as the place that harbored my dreams and visions; where I built the rocket ship for my moonshots.
I saw it as an opportunity to reveal unspoken problems; those things I don’t talk to anyone about, but kept showing up on the page.
Journaling is a microscope, a telescope, a compass, and a map. All at once.
I journal to force those hard conversations with myself.
I journal because it connects to my essence; my anchor amidst stormy waters. I can always look back through the pages and tell myself “This is who you are!”
I journal to explore ideas and go from babble to intelligent opinion. I journal to accept that I don’t need to have an opinion about everything.
I journal because it has made me more compassionate, tolerant, and accepting. I journal to plan difficult conversations, so that I engage with people more authentically.
I journal because writing it down helps me realize the little silly thoughts that put me in a headlock I can wedge myself out of. I’ve gotten better at mitigating self-sabotage.
To start, find your medium. I see journaling as the daily process to manifest your thoughts into the physical realm. The way you manifest those thoughts is unique to you. It is not bound to writing.
For some that may look like sketching, for some it may be recording voice notes, for others it may be good ol’ writing. The first step is to identify which format serves you best.
Second, think about journaling as a habit. And to build good habits, you can borrow from James Clear’s four-part framework shared in Atomic Habits.
Make it obvious: The night before, I leave my notebook and pen on my desk. After waking up, taking a shower, and drinking my espresso while I tackle the daily Wordle, I sit at my desk. The notebook and pen are my cue. It’s the first thing that I have to do2.
A cue for you might look like placing a post-it on top of your phone, clearing the home screen of your phone of everything except your note-taking app, or leaving a doc open on your computer the night before.
Make it attractive: Combine habit stacking and temptation building. Habit stacking is identifying a habit you currently do and coupling it with the habit you want to avoid. Temptation bundling is linking an action you want to do with an action you need to do.
For example, if a cup of tea is your morning ritual–can you kickstart your practice by journaling in the 5-10 minutes it takes to boil and steep your tea? Right before watching TV, can you set a 10 minute timer to journal?
Make it easy: I was 19 the first time I meditated. A mentor took me to a Buddhist center for guided meditation. Here I was in a room with freaking monks, given little instruction, and immersed in an hour long silent meditation. It was too much. I didn’t meditate for years afterwards.
Don’t start at the deep end. Below are three levels of journaling you can progressively work your way towards. The key is consistency.
Level 1 (5-10 minutes): Start with a gratitude reflection—three things you are grateful for. They can be as mundane or profound as you want.
Second, write three affirmations. How do you want to see yourself? What identities do you want to embrace? Write those.
Third, write a sentence or two about what you are looking forward to that day. Is there something that excites you? If you struggle answering this question for a period of time, that’s a sign to explore that deeper.
Finally, write a sentence or two about something interesting that happened the day before. Life goes fast. Capture the highlights!
Level 2 (10-20 minutes): You can build on top of Level 1 and add one of the following reflection questions (or your own)
What am I anxious about today? Why?
How am I complicit in creating the conditions for my life I say I don’t want? (one of my favorite questions that comes from life coach Jerry Colonna).
Where am I contradicting myself? What actions/words are not matching my intent or values?
Level 3 (30-45 minutes): Use Level 1 + Level 2 along with anything else you want to capture. It could be about yourself or an idea you are exploring.
The goal is to commit to a certain volume everyday (e.g. three pages)3. This works like silence–if it’s long enough, you tend to break it by saying something. Embrace that discomfort. Epiphanies await.
Make it satisfying: Once you have a solid practice, you will derive the rewards from clearer thinking, better mood, and stronger self-awareness. But as you get started, find the rewards that work for you.
Short-term rewards are the bridge towards long-term benefits. Find that reward bridge that works for you and use it for as long as you need until you crave journaling.
Now you are ready to start. Use this habit building structure and focus on consistency. Spend as much time in Level 1 as you need. Aiming for perfection is a sure way to avoid your practice.
As you improve, you will find yourself in a place where you’ve gotten so good at self-reflection, that your ego pushes you to stop. Do not avoid hard conversations with yourself. That’s where the gold is buried.
Lastly, realize that you are playing an infinite game. You will need to clean your glasses everyday. Just know that if you show up everyday and embrace the opportunity to explore yourself and the world, you will reap the rewards and become a better person.
Best of luck on this new or renewed journey. And remember: All the answers you seek lie within.
These words mean Exactly, chicken, and shit, respectively.
My routine remains fairly similar, though I’ve retired from Wordle.
Yes. These are otherwise known as Morning Pages from The Artist’s Way.