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How Journaling Can Help You Create a Better Life

What comes to mind when you hear the word “journaling?” Images of an elementary school girl recording which boys she thinks are cute and scoop on her BFFs in a book decorated with images of horses and rainbows? Full disclosure, that was me, except my diary was encased in thick pink plastic and had a little lock and key on the side that a gust of air could have broken through.

Now there is nothing wrong with journaling inane musings or romantic confessionals, and a few YouTubers have gained huge followings doing just that. But a journal can be used for so much more. Ideally, it is a safe place for you to reflect on your life, think about challenges and wins, work through issues and get perspective.

Barbara Fagan-Smith, the Chief Catalyst for Living ROI and author of Living ROI: A Weekly Guide for Soulful Living, believes journaling can be a powerful tool in helping a person thrive.

“I think reflecting back and looking forward has been one of the most powerful things I’ve done,” she said. “That wasn’t part of my practice for most of my journaling years, where I used to check in about how I felt or what was happening in my life. Now I’m seeing if my life reflects the priorities I have defined as most important to me, like family connection and personnel wellness.”

Fagan-Smith started journaling as a pre-teen over 40 years ago. This lifelong practice has allowed her to think through challenges and maintain a healthy perspective throughout different phases of life.

When she worked as a London-based television producer for ABC News, covering revolutions in Eastern Europe and the 1990–1991 Gulf War, journaling helped Fagan-Smith deal with the constant threat of violence and death. It became a grounding resource as she got married and raised two now-adult children in the San Francisco, California area. Journaling also helped her stay focused in building ROI Communication, which is the largest independent consulting firm focused exclusively on employee communication and engagement, create her encore career helping others with Living ROI and deal with the stress of the COVID-19 pandemic.

If journaling became an Olympic sport, Fagan-Smith would be a gold medalist. It is all about living in alignment with her intentions, beliefs, and values.

Fagan-Smith starts it off with an annual process to answer questions like: “What do you care about?” “What do you want?” and “How do you want to be spending your days to become more conscious and awake about the life you’re living?” Defining those parameters allows her to become deeply intentional about life. She then gets the biggest impact from designating one day each weekend to use journaling to reflect back on the previous week, look over the upcoming seven days, and plan to make the most out of that time.

“Journaling is a very powerful, focusing, intentional practice that I do on a weekly basis,” she explained. “Inevitably it has to do with connections with people, getting certain things done and maintaining healthy habits, which for me has been about exercise, yoga, eating healthfully and meditation. It has me living a great life.”

Fagan-Smith has a separate daily gratitude journal and also keeps a five-year journal to gain a long-term perspective.

Okay, I bow down before her in amazement. What Fagan-Smith does clearly is working wonders in her world. For me, journaling is something I do most mornings before heading off to work or the gym. Sometimes it takes five minutes, where I focus mainly on acknowledgement or gratitude and other times, I’m sitting with it for 20, 30 minutes or longer trying to wrap my head around how to handle a problem or issue.

What’s important is to find a journaling practice that works best for you.

If you’d like to enhance your life with journaling, here are four ways to build an effective journaling habit:

Give it time.

Journaling is a practice. It starts with being more intentional with listening to and loving yourself. Don’t expect change overnight. My biggest “aha” moments usually come after weeks of writing regularly about a few items and then suddenly, the truth, answer, or solution I was seeking can hit me like a bolt of lightning. Followed inevitably by more weeks and months of practice before the next nugget hits.

“Journaling is not some miracle drug,” said Fagan-Smith. “It is about working it regularly and not having great weeks every week. Sometimes you feel sad, upset, or hurt, or whatever life brings you. More than anything now, I accept that and just listen to myself, my body, and my energy.

Choose your medium.

When I first started journaling as a therapeutic tool about 30 years ago, I wrote my thoughts out by hand into lovely, hand-bound books. Over the years, I found that my writing speed simply couldn’t keep up with all of the insights pummeling through my brain at once. I shifted to using a computer, which allowed me to quickly download thoughts using a keyboard. Now most days, I open a new Word document on my laptop and let it fly.

Other people prefer writing their thoughts into a specially-designated book, typing notes into their smart phone, or using voice recording app to speak their truth and get insight by playing it back. The most effective medium for you is going to be the one you will actually use.

Ditch any pressure.

Waiting to sound like William Shakespeare when recording your deepest thoughts? That kind of self-induced pressure can be paralyzing, which defeats the purpose of letting everything come out to put things into context.

My two cents? Give yourself 10 minutes to engage in a stream of consciousness download where you just write, type or say whatever pops into your mind without caring about punctuation, using High SAT verbal score words and the like. Remember that this is for you and your eyes, not anyone else’s if you have no desire to share.

One of my coping strategies during the pandemic would be opening a computer file and posing a question at the top of the page about a concern, challenge, or opportunity. Like “what can I do to take care of myself when we are under stay-at-home orders and I’m so freaked out?” Then I would write, sometimes so quickly that it felt like channeling, whatever guidance I needed to give myself. Yes, that is a real example. The answer turned out to be “less stress-induced baking/eating and more exercise,” which I heeded. And it helped.

Seek accountability.

Remember that weekly journaling practice that Fagan-Smith references? She usually does it on Sundays along with two friends, which creates more support and accountability for her journaling process. All three of them are entrepreneurs whose children are about the same age, creating multiple commonalities. During the pandemic, they shifted the process to Zoom and now are meeting on Fagan-Smith’s outside porch.

“I highly recommend people have a date with friends where they’re actually sitting down, doing this work, and then sharing it with each other,” she noted. “I’ve been doing that for more than six years with these two women who were acquaintances and are now some of the deepest friendships I’ve ever had in my life. We now know everything about each other and are providing deep, conscious support on this life journey.”

Your accountability partners can shift at different times in life. A close friend might not be the right person, while others who are focusing on similar business or personal goals provide the support you need. The key is finding someone who is also committed to having an intentional life. Choosing multiple people ensures that even if someone is unavailable, the weekly sessions can continue with some participants from your small group.

Want some help getting started? Fagan-Smith offers a free journal starter guide on her website.

How do you keep a journal? What have you gotten from that practice?

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