Read Time: 8 minutes
“Fundamental habit change happens with a transformation of Self-Identity.” –James Pennebaker
I want you to know that this recommendation, that you start journaling everyday, is the culmination of 5 years of research. I have a Bachelor’s of Science in Cognitive Therapy. I’ve read between 50 to 80 science-oriented (not New Age) psychology books. I’ve invested all this time into this because philosophy and psychedelics almost caused me to lose my mind.
Journaling has been the foundational habit in my progressing from atheistic neuroticism to feeling an authentic meaning in my life. It is not a panacea, but it changed my life.
My advocacy for journaling rests on significant scientific research, but it also rests on some quirky metaphysical ideas I’ll share.
- I believe each of us has some fundamental creative skill that lights up our nervous system.
- Doing this creative skill everyday is the most important thing we can do each day.
- Doing this skill everyday is how we discover who we are, which really means, who we can become.
The fundamental truth in Depth, Psychoanalytic, Cognitive, and Clinical psychology is that our lives are stories we are telling ourselves. And most of our stories are unconscious. Most of these stories are other people’s stories.
As Pennebaker said, the essence of all habit change rests upon transforming our Self-Identity. The essence of our Self-Identities are the stories we tell ourselves.
In order to transform our self-identity, we first have to become aware of what story has possession of us. Then we can begin creating the story we want to be possessed by.
Journaling exposes the stories that possess us.
“People don’t have ideas. Ideas have people.” –Carl Jung
First, I’ll flesh out a metaphor I keep in mind to remind me of the significance of journaling daily. It may be a bit archaic for the more rational-leaning, but it helps me. It might help you.
Then, I present the two techniques, and link to detailed guides over how to do them. These are the two most effective writing techniques I have found. They have been experimentally tested in a combined 300+ studies.
Lastly, I share what my daily journal looks like. My journal, like you, and I, is verbing. It is not definitive. It is a snapshot of where I am at on my journey. I know it would have helped me 5 years ago. I think it’ll help some of you.
The Digger And The Lost City
Since I was boy, mythology has fascinated me. I like to turn abstract concepts into little mini-myths. They help me remember the ideas in images.
Imagine a vast desert. There is a little digger there. He isn’t sure why he’s out there. Around him are all kinds of tools. Below him is an ancient city filled with treasure.
The digger is the ego, the tools are our creative habits, and the lost city is our highest authentic potential. Other ways to think about the lost city is the Jungian “Self,” or God, or Dharma, or your Truth. Remember that words are maps, not the actual territory. The point is, the most important thing in human development is to connect with that city.
Never attempting to dig is the psychological state many people are in. They do not know why they live. These are the archetypal zombies, or “sheeple” as resentful quasi-intellectuals like to call them (my egoic ass a couple years ago.)
Writing, drawing, programming, dancing, singing; these are all types of tools we can dig with. Each of us are drawn to specific tools early in life.
I truly believe that when you recognize your tool, and you begin your process of digging daily, you start to “come together.” Your life starts to organize around you. The wrong people fall away and the right people fall in. Life starts to have a musical quality to it you can feel.
Life doesn’t become easy or void of problems, but life becomes meaningful and the right problems appear.
This is admittedly my woowoo, but there is substantial scientific evidence that specific writing techniques improve our lives in surprising ways.
The scientific literature on Expressive Writing is some of the most interesting I’ve combed through. The arrays of benefits humans get from the right kind of writing begins to question the fundamental rational dualism of mind and body.
People heal faster, go to the doctor less, sleep better, improve range of motion and reduce inflammation simply from writing about their past of their future.
The two most effective ways to discover your Self-Identity are the Expressive Writing Technique for your past, and the Best Possible Future Technique for your Future.
I’ve written a detailed ebook on how to do the Expressive Writing for your past here. (You’ll find cited studies and their effects on pages 3 and 9.
Here is a guide to the Best Possible Self Technique.
To keep it concise, if you want to improve your health, your working memory, GPA, and life satisfaction, expressively write about your past and your future.
Do the Expressive Writing technique first. It will take four days.
Then do the Best Possible Future Technique.
After you have done those, I’d recommend you start a daily journaling routine to something like mine. (Really, the most important part of my routine below is the stream-of-conscious writing. Everything else is a useful add-on.)
My Journal Routine
My daily journaling practice takes about 15 minutes to do.
Here is what my daily journal looks like. I’ll break down each element.
(I use evernote but there are plenty of free word document programs. Studies have not found any measurable difference between longhand writing vs typing, so do whichever you prefer.)
“He who has a why to live, can bear almost any how.” –Nietzsche
The psychological research of having a life purpose or meaning is clear. Having one makes people more resistant to addiction, they recover from illness faster, and they report greater life satisfaction.
I tell myself my purpose everyday. “My purpose is to help people heal themselves.”
The science behind affirmations are tricky. If you repeat affirmations you know are unrealistic, they can actually harm performance and self reported happiness.
I look at my affirmation list as more a little summary of things I believe are pragmatic truths.
Everything works out more perfectly than I can possibly imagine.
I am not a noun, I am verbing. (Helps me not be a perfectionist.)
I seek to add value to every person I meet.
I seek to talk with one person I don’t know per day with the goal of adding value to their life.
I candidly admit my flaws.
I listen for what people are able to teach me.
I love and respect people.
I care more about understanding then being right.
Three Things You Are Grateful For And Why
Dr. Seligman, the founder of Positive Psychology has found that one of the most scientifically powerful ways to boost reported life satisfaction is to articulate three things you are grateful for and briefly write about why the thing you are grateful for happened.
This is the research the 5 Minute Journal is based on. However, their journal falls short by not asking the reader to explain why the grateful event happened (Seligman is vocal about how important this step is.)
Save some money and get more out of the technique by following Seligman’s advice .
Current Mastery Habit
This is my personal addition and I don’t know of any science that supports it. I like to identify what the most important current skill is that I am honing. At this stage of my life, mine is attempting to write high quality articles.
Articulating Your ONE Thing
No book on productivity has affected me more than The ONE Thing. I love this book. And everyday I seek to articulate my one thing. Today it was to write this post.
This is the bread and butter. This is where it all started. Before I had a blog, before I started reading like a madman, before I thought what I thought was worth sharing, I read The Artist’s Way and she introduced me to the daily pages.
I’ve got a couple notebooks full of my earlier writings. Her rule was 3 pages a day, every day. You write in a stream-of-conscious style. No editing. No pausing. No critic. Just let your brain come out of you.
This was my digging. This is how your ego can manifest your unconscious. This is how I got to know myself.
It is insane to think how much of our waking day we spend doing anything but getting to know ourselves. We talk to everyone but ourselves. I think this is a fundamental flaw in our culture and one that I’ve rebelled against.
That Gita quote keeps me sane. Creating can be hard. That quote relieves me of my neurotic pressures and allows me to create, attachment free (or at least I’d like to pretend. I’m verbing lol.)
In order to transform ourselves, we need to understand ourselves. Specific writing techniques, such as Expressive Writing and the Best Possible Future technique help us do this.
Each of us has a creative skill our nervous system wants to do. By doing this skill daily, I believe we are engaging in something sacred.
Don’t let a day go by where you don’t pick up your shovel.
What is your creative skill? What does your daily practice look like?
Thank you for reading and feel free to share this with anyone you think it’ll help.