Are you feeling stuck, but see no way forward?
I’ve been stuck too. Many times. Mostly because I wasn’t self-aware. I finally learned one habit that not only gets me unstuck, but enables me to change any of my habits.
If you want to make a big change in your life, you need to change your habits. Habit development starts by practicing self-awareness.
A couple of years ago I interviewed 500+ people who got themselves unstuck and transformed their lives to include the work they’ve always wanted to do. I asked each of them, “What was one key action you recommend to someone to get unstuck?”
Over half of them said writing a daily journal.
Keeping a daily diary has been a key habit of successful people throughout the ages. Some avid journalers include Benjamin Franklin, George Sand, Thomas Edison, Virginia Wolfe, John D. Rockefeller, Kurt Cobain, Louisa May Alcott, Bob Dylan, Dorothy Day, George Patton and Buckminster Fuller. One of the earliest known diaries comes from the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius.
The most important self-awareness habit you can practice is writing.
You might be wondering, “So what exactly should I be writing about?”
A good place to start is to write about an area of your life you want to change or you wish was different in some way.
How to Get Started
Starting a journal can be intimidating. Staring into the abyss of a blank sheet of paper with no idea what to write about because it’s about you.
One of the most important rules of writing my 7th grade English teacher drilled into my head was “know your audience.” You are keeping a journal for no one else but yourself. You are writing for an audience of one.
The purpose of keeping a journal in the context of developing your practice of self-awareness is to get to know yourself in a deeper way than ever before.
It’s an opportunity to communicate with your subconscious feelings you might be overlooking or ignoring. The act of writing provides a stage for those feelings, so you can more easily bring awareness to them.
Here are my basic recommendations for getting started:
1) Monitor a specific aspect of your life to provide you with a focus.
2) Begin by monitoring your most positive and your most negative feelings each day.
3) Choose a system to record your entries like a paper journal, a note on your phone, or an app that will make it easier for committing to your new writing habit.
4) Schedule a time of day when you will journal to reinforce the habit (the time of day doesn’t matter, whatever works for you).
What You Can Monitor
There are a variety of reasons for starting a self-awareness practice like a daily writing habit, but one of the most common reasons is to make a big change in your life.
If you are reading this blog, your motivation for starting a self-awareness practice and a writing habit is to make a big change in your life.
Transforming your lifestyle requires changes in your thoughts, habits, and behaviors. To change them you need a benchmark.
This is accomplished by monitoring the following aspects of your life (once again I strongly recommend focusing solely on each one on its own for its own period of time).
Monitor your most positive and negative feelings each day.
Paying closer attention to your feelings will get you to connect with who you really are. Your subconscious mind often knows what you really want before your conscious mind does.
Monitor your energy to identify your “peak performance period,” the time when you are most productive each day.
Ideally, you want to track your energy levels throughout the day. Consider tracking more than once a day: morning, afternoon, evening.
This will help provide a more accurate read on your natural energy levels. If possible. note activities that energize you and drain you as they occur.
Monitor your time to see how, with whom, and where you spend your time.
You might organize your writing by making a list of entries by time of day. If possible describe your primary activities in 30-minute increments throughout the day. You may also want to use an app like Toggl.com
Monitor your spending to see where your hard earned money is really going!
How you spend your money says more about you than you might imagine. You can use a spending app, but I highly recommend trying handwritten entries first.
Taking the extra effort to record each expense by hand will bring more awareness to how and why you spend your money the way you do.
There are countless aspects of your life you can monitor, but these are the 4 areas that will generate the highest quality information the most quickly to help you design your ideal lifestyle.
Journal Format Options
There are lots of different methods for journaling depending on your personal preferences and what you’re monitoring. What’s most important is that you choose a format that makes it easier for you to commit to your new writing habit.
Here’s a comparison of some of the different options:
Old-fashioned written journal
I know we live in the digital age, but I truly believe there is something transformative about writing about yourself in your own hand.
It creates a sense of authorship. No one else in the span of human history has your handwriting. There is a deeper connection between your handwritten thoughts and your brain.
There are 2 writing approaches you can use to keep a written journal:
1) Free writing
The benefit of “free writing” is there are no boundaries. You can just start wherever your brain wants to begin. This approach has the potential for getting your creative juices flowing and reduces the influence of your rational thought.
Sometimes people (like me) need some direction to help spark their writing habit. Using “prompts” is a good way to go. They can be in the form of standard questions you ask yourself every day, lists, or predetermined entries to fill out.
An example of a prompt for tracking your feelings might be “Write your most positive feeling today.”
If you are tracking your time you might have a list of predefined entries dividing up your time into 30-minute periods to fill out as they occur.
Note on phone
It’s probably one of the easiest forms of tracking for me because I always have my phone with me, so there is no excuse not to do it. I also find that I record a greater volume of information and in much better detail because I record it as it happens.
You can also email yourself. It’s as easy as keeping a note on your phone, but has the advantage of creating a searchable archive of your entries. Most of us know have unlimited space in our email, so we can save every entry sorted by date, subject and keywords.
From my experience apps make tracking things like your time and how you spend your money much easier. I recommend Toggl.com for tracking your time, Mint.com for tracking your money and MoodPanda.com for tracking your feelings.
I don’t believe Excel is a commonly recommended tool for journaling, but I have used it for that purpose often. It’s a simple tool that enables me to sort data in lots of different ways to provide me with new insights into my thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. Before you judge me, give it a try. 😉
Still Skeptical? Experiment With It
If you are serious about designing your lifestyle around work that satisfies you, you have to learn about yourself first. The most effective way to learn about yourself is through experimentation.
Explore your potential by engaging with the real world, instead of limiting it to the confines of your mind.
From all my experience, research, and conversations over the past 16 years, journaling will help you learn more about yourself faster than any other method.
At the very least experiment with it. The worst that will happen is you’ll learn a little more about yourself.
Here are a few more reasons to give it a try:
1) Unburden your mind.
Stop locking up your dreams inside the prison of your mind and set them free by writing about them! Redirect the energy of your mind from holding tightly onto your thoughts to turning your thoughts into a physical form like the written word.
2) Prime your creative pump.
If you think the ideas in your head are great now, wait until you start writing about them! Ideas beget ideas. The process of writing is a physical representation of your stream of consciousness. Unfortunately, your train of thought is backed up because you won’t let it leave the station of your mind!
3) Create a baseline for changing your habits.
The process of habit development begins by the acquisition of self-knowledge through the practice of self-awareness. A writing habit sparks that momentum of change like nothing else.
4) See new perspectives.
Turning your thoughts into a written form provides you with a new perspective. You get to see them outside your mind for the first time. You can engage with them in a new and different way.
What I Write About
I didn’t journal for most of my life because I had preconceived notions of what it meant to keep a diary. I thought it was only something teenage girls did. Pining away about my feelings didn’t seem like a good use of my time. How wrong I was!
I did, however, keep journals when I traveled, so I could recall every moment and experience. I kept my first one when I lived with a family in Southport, England for a month when I was 14 as part of an exchange program. I continued the habit for every major trip I embarked on through my late 20s.
My travel journals were more about what I did and less about my innermost thoughts. It wasn’t until my early 30s that I started paying closer attention to my feelings.
I have come to realize that journals at their best are a conversation with yourself about your feelings, nagging thoughts, your hopes, behaviors you want to change, and anything that’s bugging you. It relieves my anxieties, helps me change my habits, and grows my ideas.
Currently, I’m journaling in a few different ways:
1) I keep a written journal for my “loop thoughts.”
“Loop thoughts” are thoughts that keep going round and round in my head with no resolution. They are distracting and drain my energy.
I can’t tell you how many times writing about them has helped me find a why to either resolve them or cope with them within days of turning them into written form.
I don’t write about them every day, but I write about them frequently throughout the week. I also generally write about them in the morning.
2) I also keep an Excel spreadsheet to track key behaviors I want to change.
Currently, I’m tracking behaviors like drinking, eating sugar, unproductive web surfing, and complaining about the weather. I track that last one as a way to bring awareness to how often I complain about anything. Living in New England, complaining about the weather is a pastime for many.
Each behavior has its own column. At the end of each day, I record the date and insert an “X” for each behavior I successfully avoided that day.
3) Record ideas and notes on my phone.
When I want to track my thoughts regardless of where I am, I generally keep a note on my iPhone. Anytime something pops into my head I want to track, I record it in a dedicated note.
Just Start Writing
Don’t get overwhelmed by all the recommendations provided in this post. They are just ideas to get you started. What’s most important is to start AND commit to a daily writing habit focused on changing whatever aspect of your life you wish were different.
Writing daily will help improve your self-awareness practice by providing you with a written record of your thoughts, so you can reflect on them more easily than relying on your memory alone.
As you write, you’ll begin to see what’s holding you back from making the change you want to make in your life. The practice of writing daily will provide a constant reminder of why you want to make this change in your life and begin to show you how to make it possible!