by Justin Standfield
We know that journalling is good for us. Research has found that writing in a journal can lead to increased wellbeing, better sleep, a stronger immune system, more self-confidence and even a higher IQ. This New York Times article explains how journalling can be one of the most effective self-care activities for many people. Not only that, journalling looks cool on Instagram – who wouldn’t want to write in a beautifully-bound artisan journal with an elegant fountain pen, while hugging your knees up to your chest, outsize mug of steaming mint tea right next to you? It looks so good and for a long time I’ve really wanted some of that in my life.
But here’s the thing: I’ve tried and tried, and I just dislike journalling. There, I’ve said it. I recently referred to myself as a ‘constipated journaller’ because although I’ve got the urge to do it, I just can’t push out even the tiniest paragraph.
My tricky relationship with journalling came to a head several years ago when I was undertaking a year-long qualification in Organisational Development (OD). It was a modular, residential programme and it was led by an incredible faculty team, many of them great OD thinkers whose books I’d read previously, so I was quite in awe of them. I usually tend to avoid that over-used word “awesome” but in this case I would genuinely describe the tutors as… awesome. Many of them were the sort of people I wanted to be when I grew up (and they still are).
Each member of the faculty covered a different aspect of OD, yet every single one of them encouraged us to journal several times a day during the classes and again at night as a form of reflection and personal development. I was familiar with the value of reflective practice from my training as a coach and liked working with the structure of models such as Gibbs Model of Reflective Practice. However, most of these tutors advised us to adopt free-writing as a method of journalling; the sage nodding and groans of appreciation from my fellow students were signs that most of the group were already well-versed in many styles of journalling and derived great pleasure from this learning process.
I had already spied (coveted, perhaps?) an assortment of journals owned by the other course participants, ranging from monogrammed, handmade Italian leather tomes to those large Moleskine journals that come in every possible colour. Accompanying their journals were an assortment of Mont Blanc fountain pens, coloured pencils and quirky Japanese biros with manga characters all over them. I’ve always loved stationery so I think a serious bit of FOMO kicked in at this point. I looked at my spiral bound notepad from Office Depot and felt woefully inadequate! As the course progressed, I watched my colleagues beavering away in their journals, the words seemingly poured from their minds without hindrance.
So how come I found it so hard? Every time I sat down to write, something inside me resisted the process and I ended up just forcing out an awkward, clunky sentence before putting my pen down and feeling ‘less than’ as I looked around at everyone else in a beautiful flow state with their journalling. Writing in a journal appeared to be such an integral part of the course – perhaps it was even a vital part of being an effective OD practitioner – that I booked in some time with the lead tutor to come clean about my shortcomings. I said “There’s something wrong with me. I hate journalling, I find it incredibly difficult and I don’t want to do it”. His words of wisdom in reply?
“Don’t do it then.”
It was liberating. One of my professional heroes was giving me permission not to journal. After a further chat with him he suggested that when everyone else was journalling perhaps I could practice some gentle meditation on the topics we’d covered and how I could integrate them into my job. That worked well for me as an alternative.
My journalling issues are a useful reminder that some people are likely to feel the same way about the personal development methods that I recommend, such as mindfulness meditation. I know that some people will be drawn to mindfulness, while others will experience an aversion to the concept; this is in large part to do with the normal neurological diversity in our brains from one person to the next, which has implications for how attention works differently for all of us. As psychologist and author, Rick Hanson PhD, puts it: There is a natural range of temperament, from focused and cautious ‘turtles’ to distractible and adventuresome ‘jackrabbits’.
I’m fully aware that the efficacy of an intervention isn’t correlated with its ease or enjoyment levels for the individual undertaking it. Over the years, journalling has surfaced time and time again in my work and my personal development. For example, many of my fellow mindfulness teachers swear by it as an adjunct to meditation, and I know that this is backed up by credible research. Nowadays, I’m much more relaxed about my aversion to journalling, though. A bit like my wife and her attitude to eating olives, I try writing in a journal every couple of years just to check whether I still dislike it as much as I remember.
As at June 2021, I’m still not a lover of journalling.