I’ve written before about the major role my journal plays in my life, and the long-standing habit I’ve had of keeping a journal (over the last 20 years, to be precise!). As another year comes to a close, I approach the promise of a shiny new year through the joy of journaling. This is my chance to really get into the details of what has passed in this year, what I’ve really felt and experienced in order to get to more clarity and comfort with myself and my choices. In this article I wanted to share with you my reflective practice, which helps to keep me focused and ready for a new year of productivity and good mental health.
How to Keep a Journal for Better Mental Health
A guide from 20 years (and counting) of journaling and therapeutic writing…
Why Do A Reflective Journaling Session?
There are a lot of reasons. Engaging in some active reflection is great, but writing it down is, for me, the only way I can ever hope to look back and learn from what has passed before. It’s for this reason that the practice is specifically a journaling practice. Here are some good reasons to engage:
It helps you to connect the current ‘you’ with a more reasonable future ‘you’
While I do often make ‘New Years Resolutions’, I find this practice a lot more grounding — it ensures that my path for the future proceeds from where I’m at now, rather than working randomly to a set of goals that sound great, but may not have anything to do with me or my life as it stands. The latter approach feels to me like trying to use a bandaid on a wound that requires stitches — it’s just not the right ‘fix’, and I don’t think trying to force myself to become a super athlete in a year is a reasonable resolution to have. However, since I already have a yoga practice, for instance, creating specific goals that relate to improving my health via that practice is a lot more achievable and reasonable. This doesn’t mean you can never create large changes or try new things, but it helps to take stock of the now in order to understand what changes are really the ones to focus your energy on, rather than applying ‘sounds good’ solutions to your life, because you think you ought to. It’s about connecting what you really want for yourself with what you can really commit to achieving.
It gives you the opportunity to yourself hard questions
Which isn’t something we necessarily do everyday. Challenging yourself, really honestly, should be seen as an incredible opportunity. It’s the chance we all need to really dig into what’s going on, to face the facts of our lives and see if we’re happy with what’s there.
Get to know your own thoughts and feelings more intimately
We spend a lot of time cultivating relationships with those around us. But what about the relationship we have with ourselves? Cultivating self awareness is something that forms the heart of most self-development practices, so it’s important to give yourself the chance to know your thoughts or feelings better. It’s important too to note the difference – what’s a thought? What’s a feeling? Part of my meditation practice through Headspace has been about ‘Noting’ – paying attention to and gently labelling whether I’m experiencing a thought or a feeling. Not as easy as it sounds, but a really helpful practice to develop the kind of self-awareness that helps you to reflect more readily on your own actions and beliefs.
Become conscious of how you make choices
Understanding what we decide and why is such a powerful tool. If you’re more aware that you tend to make choices you regret under certain circumstances, that knowledge is very important the next time a major decision comes around.
Become conscious of what affects you
Not everything hits us in the feels. We’re more sensitive about certain subjects, certain people, for certain kinds of approval or against certain kinds of judgment. For instance, if someone slags off my fiction writing, that’s a lot tougher for me to deal with than if they told me they disliked my haircut. One of those things really hits me harder than the other, because it’s more valuable. Knowing that helps me manage feedback much more productively.
Clarify your values and goals
Without clarity, it’s hard to remember and act on your values. I prefer the term ‘values’ to ‘goals’, because ‘goals’ to me should really just be a side effect of acting within your values. But I recognise that having goals is really useful to some people. Personally, I use my reflective journaling practice to clarify what it is I’m doing versus what it is I think I value – if the two are totally unaligned, then either I’ve mistaken what I really value or I’m totally lacking my priorities in my actions.
Give rise to new ideas
The best thing about taking a moment to reflect is that it’s likely to help stimulate some new ideas about what you want and need in the future. The excuse “I don’t know what I want” is one I’ve talked about before in my piece on laziness – throwing our hands up in defeat doesn’t really help us move forwards. So using the opportunity to think through what else we might try, what else might be interesting, how better we might spend our time or tackle the things we aren’t happy with, is extremely valuable. New ideas are sure to flow in, and we can work towards a more balanced future.
What Do You Need?
A journal. I strongly prefer a paper journal over a digital one. I like having something I can colour in, decorate, stick things into, etc. I am a tactile person, so good old analogue appeals to me. But that doesn’t have to be your way of doing things. Find whatever medium works for you – whether it’s a hardback notebook, a Google doc, a video blog, or whatever. Just make sure it’s something you can return to, re-engage with, and potentially add to in future.
The Steps for Active Reflection
There are plenty of ways to go about reflectively summarising your year on paper. Let’s start with the big themes and dig in:
Key Things You Focused On
- What was the past year focused on for you? What sphere of your life?
- What did you do in that sphere? What were your key actions?
- What worked well? What didn’t work so well?
- What do you wish you’d tried or done that you didn’t do?
- What moment are you proudest of this year?
- What actually happened? Describe the situation
- What effect did it have on you? What did you think or feel about it in the moment?
- Did it have a lasting impact? What did you learn from the experience?
- How do you feel about where you are now, compared to the start of the year?
Your Sense of Self
- What did you learn about yourself this year?
- What did you let go of this year?
- What are you grateful for this year?
- When were you particularly afraid, and when were you particularly brave this year?
- What accomplishments are you most proud of? What is it about you that made those happen? Was it your skills, your attitude, something you learned…?
- What did you do to celebrate these accomplishments?
- What were the biggest challenges you faced this year?
- How did you overcome them? Which are ongoing?
- What additional tools, support, resources or advice, would you need to overcome these?
- Is there anyone you need to forgive from this year?
- Is there anything you need to forgive yourself for?
Are You Living A Life Based on What You Really Value?
Overcoming Blocks By Reasserting Your Values
- What are your key values right now?
- What would a life based living on your values be like? What would you be doing more of? What would you be doing less of?
- List out all the things you really don’t like doing, that make you anxious, worried or trouble you when you think about the year ahead. How many of those are in your control?
- For those that are in your control, what action, large or small, can you take to alleviate or accept these things?
- What do you miss doing most? What do you wish you could give another try?
- In what ways could you show yourself more compassion? More kindness? More generosity? Better self-care?
- What passion would you like to explore more with this year?
- What is the one small practice that would make your everyday a little brighter? Is it meditation, making a healthier breakfast, etc?
- What does your ultimate day look like? What would your morning consist of? Your afternoon? Your evening?
- If you had to describe yourself in words, what words would you use? How many of these do you think are positive/helpful?
- What should you change about the way you talk to yourself?
- What part of yourself do you feel requires more nurturing this year? What interest has gone neglected? What aspect of your life could use more focus?
- What skills, interests, information would you like to learn this year? What would you like to learn about yourself this year?
- What’s been on the to do list for ages, that you still haven’t done? Why? What’s the blocker? If it’s just not that important, does it still have to be on the list?
- In a year’s time, where would you like to be? What would you like to be doing? Who would you want to be with? How would you want to be feeling?
Putting Plans into Action
Thinking through everything we’d like to be doing can feel a little overwhelming. It helps to break everything down into parts, items that are small enough to tackle season by season, month by month, week by week. I like to divide my year exactly this way: starting with the seasons, then the months, then the weeks. Within each, I write down what I hope to achieve first in a bigger picture sense, then break down these achievements into month by month goals, and week by week tasks.
I journal most days. Not every day, not always a whole page, sometimes just a few lines. But this practice helps me stay grounded, check in with myself and is teaching me greater awareness of my path and my needs. These questions can be re-asked at any time. All you need is a little quiet “me time” to sit and contemplate your answers.
These questions are not an exhaustive list. But they are a great starting point to make your reflective journaling practice effective and insightful. The most important thing is this: Make it a habit to check in with yourself. This might be weekly, monthly — it doesn’t matter, as long as you do check in and don’t leave all of the reflective practice to the once a year roundup at the end.
Make this next year your most self-compassionate, most generous, most exciting, most value-based year yet. Put aside the resolutions for now: start journaling instead!