The Life-Changing Magic of Journaling
now THIS sparks joy

2017 was a huge turning point in my life, and it all started because of something ridiculously petty: I got like 84% on a physics test.

Doesn't seem substantial at first, but I had stupidly high standards. Asian roots, you know: the mark was either >95% or I failed entirely. It wasn't even enforced by my family; it was literally just me beating myself up for nothing.

So what did I do after this "failure"? Vent. And I vented by writing a completely incoherent 2000-word garbage dump about the disintegration of the education system. I would never write when I experience something like this. I would normally numb myself by binging YouTube videos or video games, so doing this was definitely out of character for me at the time. It was a rather off-the-cuff reaction, something different.

And when I look back at that entry, it just makes me laugh, because it's such a huge overreaction to something that isn't even a bad result. Especially being in university now where getting an 84% on an exam is like reaching a transcendental state of being.

This 2000-word monstrosity became a starting point for my journal. And I actually kept going, as releasing all of that mental tension felt very liberating—like a weight has been lifted off of my shoulders. So I kept journaling, not every day, but on the days where I had some thoughts to write down, or when I was grappling with some sort of mental struggle.

Where I Am Now

Eventually, journaling started becoming a daily thing, and here we are now, 3+ years later, and I have accumulated 900+ journal entries, including digital and physical entries. That is a huge number, now that I think about it. It's a whole lot of words just talking about random stuff, often very mundane and trivial thoughts about life.

Despite that, I can singlehandedly say that starting a journal has changed my life in ways I can't describe. I wish I had started sooner, because I've lost a lot of interesting thoughts and experiences from the earlier times in my life. Albeit looking at my old journal entries is definitely super embarassing even to myself, there are a lot of lessons I can pull from even my more immature years. Not like I'm any more mature these days; I still act like a child sometimes, to be honest.

I suppose this is me trying to persuade people to start a journal of their own. It's always something that I recommend people to pick up all of the time, especially for those trying to better themselves. It may seem stupid, it may seem meaningless just writing to yourself about a whole lot of nothing, but there are so many benefits that I've experienced myself that I can't help but talk about it. Me starting a journal kicked off a lot of things in my life: getting back into art, trying out new hobbies, and overall just experiencing life to the fullest.

Mental Clarity

If there's one skill that I believe to be so important and yet so neglected, it is the skill of introspection. And I call it a skill because it's something that actually improves overtime with practice.

People are often put into situations where they're forced to evaluate their lives by analyzing their thoughts after something bad has happened. Our shortcomings sneak up on us until it suddenly comes barging through the wall like a bulldozer. A healthy amount of introspection in our daily lives helps alleviate this sudden disintegration of reality when we realize that we were nothing like the person that we make ourselves to be. Introspection can be used to ground ourselves in reality, and to broaden our perspective, because oftentimes tunnel visioning makes us not see the big picture; it suddenly gets difficult to see why certain things are happening, and we become very despondent about life in general. It doesn't necessarily take that feeling away directly, but it puts us in a position where we can do something about it.

Journaling is one of the best tools that cultivates introspection. Often we don't know how to solve our problems because we don't even know what the problems are. We're hurting inside, or we're being hurt by something, but we don't know what it is. To try and put it into words may be difficult at times, but even the act of trying helps a lot with putting things into perspective. When you express complex emotions and mental struggles into words, things just suddenly start becoming clear. The abstract turns into something that is tangible, and the tangible is something that we can actually analyze and deal with.

In the beginning, you may not be able to express your thoughts properly into words. It may seem that the writing isn't capturing the full picture, but that's OK, that's part of the process of working the introspective muscle.

For example, in my earlier journal entries my feelings were often summed up in a sentence or less. "This day sucked because X", "I am depressed", or things of that nature. Admitting problems and discontents is a start, but as you begin to start identifying the problems, the more deeper you start looking into it. "Why did this day go badly? Could it possibly be due to X, or maybe Y? I think it would be best to do Z", and so on and so forth. It's an extremely simple example, but journaling has helped me tackle very complex topics: questioning and tempering my own beliefs, breaking apart certain arguments about issues I disagree with, moral issues, and things of that nature.

Peering deep into one's mind is one of the most powerful things that a person can do to start making changes to it. Oftentimes we treat our mind as this enigmatic thing that we bend to, succumbing to our destructive natures, but our mind has more behavioural patterns than we think. Introspection helps rein that in. Like a wild horse, it's dangerous if we let it go unrestrained, but all horses can be domesticated. The same goes for our brain.

Healing The Mind

I have a very messy mind. It's all over the place, and like the physics exam fiasco I had mentioned in the beginning of this article, I get a little dramatic sometimes. Just a tad bit; and by a tad bit, I mean that I go off the rails like you wouldn't believe. The only possible reason why people think I'm such a calm, composed individual is because my journal is keeping me in check. If not, I probably would have self-destructed a long time ago.

A quote from Anne Frank has always stuck with me with regards to how I treat my journals:

“Paper is more patient than man.”

Not only is paper more patient than man, but it also does one thing that people (and many other inanimate objects) won't do: it will show you who you really are. Paper is like a mirror: it lets you hear the very voice of your soul, and it forces you to confront that.

It's definitely scary when it comes to that point.

There's one sign that I look out for to know whether I'm mentally unhealthy: I start avoiding my journal. It's one thing being scared to confront other people. That's understandable, with social anxieties, pressures, and the like. But when I'm scared of confronting myself? Then it is clear that something's up. Something is very wrong if I'm hiding something from myself. When that happens, I have to let myself know that there's nothing to hide, and that it's best just to write about it, even if I'm scared to put it into words.

My journal is my safe haven. It's my therapist, my life coach, and an ear that's ready to hear. There may be no response, but sometimes we don't even need a response. Sometimes all we need to do is to speak it aloud, to write it down, and that's all that we need to start healing. I can say that it has definitely supplemented my self-improvement journey a lot. I've learned a lot of things about myself, how I work and how I think, and overall just finding my discontents and looking for ways to improve my situation.

There's also something very therapeutic about the act of writing a journal, whether it be typing into a digital journal, or physically writing one. By and large it's the act of mentally releasing that's calming about journaling, but the physical sensation of writing/typing helps a great deal as well.

An Added Bonus

This is probably one of the last things that I would have expected from journaling: it has actually improved my writing significantly. So much so that my grades for classes revolving around writing papers started going up, much to my surprise.

Truth be told, I used to be an absolutely awful writer. English was by far my worst class in school back in the day, with it being my second language. I didn't know how to perform literary analysis, or really how to write an essay with proper structure. And even if I somehow got a proper thesis running (like I even knew what that was back then), I couldn't write my points to save my life. I avoided writing as much as possible.

However, when I started journaling, my writing started getting better. I still don't know exactly why this was the case, honestly. My journal entries were very messy for a good few months, even years: very disjointed writing with no coherent connection between points. But the more I wrote, the more I started noticing that my flow of thought started improving dramatically. My writing from one topic to the next started flowing seamlessly, and I could find connection to things which I previously thought to be entirely separate entities.

And the more that I got better at writing, the more I actually enjoyed it. It wasn't the case where because I enjoyed writing I got better—it was the exact opposite. I detested writing, got better at it, and now I practically can't live without writing something throughout the day. I wouldn't be writing huge articles for this website if I hated writing, now would I?

It's not to say that my journal entries were well-structured or well-written. I certainly did not force myself to write the "perfect" journal entry. I just wrote a lot. A large majority of my journal entries were around 1000 words, some reaching 2000, or even 5000 words. This is definitely not the case for everyone, nor am I saying that there's a standard to how long they should be; I just had a lot of things to write about, personally.

I guess this is an example of improving by doing. Want to write better? Write a lot, and I sure did write a lot. I probably wrote more than a million words spanning all of my journals, and this resulted in me writing better. I mean, I'd hope so, considering that a million words is a huge amount: that's around 9-10 super long novels. Yikes.

Some Thoughts When Starting A Journal (optional section)

For those who want to pick up journaling, I do have some pointers, but they are not really "rules" that have to be strictly adhered to. They are just some things that I've learned from my own experience that may help make it a more sustainable, and more rewarding activity.

Keep it private - I get that people like writing things that other may see. It helps sort of "validate" our opinions and our thoughts that way, and it gives a sense of purpose in doing it. But I recommend everyone to keep a private journal/diary. Even for those who have a public journal or blog, I recommend having a private one just for yourself. Not that you have to get rid of the public one—you can have both. I have both my website and my private journal, and everything works smoothly.

Why I say this is because we will say something that we'll regret sooner or later, especially with something as personal as a journal. Emotions may be tense, our thinking one-sided, and we can go overboard very quickly. With a private journal, this is no big deal. Just move on to the next journal entry with no hitch. I've had times where I've written 3000-word monoliths of just pure anger, despair, or whatever. They still exist somewhere in my journal, but I don't have to bring it back up, nor is it forever haunting me in my mind. I can essentially throw that huge thought-dump into the recycling bin and not have my life impacted in any negative way.

The problem with public journals/blogs is just that: they are public. Even if we call it a place where we talk about "whatever we want", we're still going to hold back, even if we don't realize it. And it's not even holding back in the form of lashing out anger, or emoting, but rather we hesitate in sharing our real vulnerabilities, what we're truly feeling. And if we truly don't hold back, we often regret it.

Essentially, I'm saying to remove all possible barriers that may hinder you to write freely. Create a safe space for yourself, where you can truly write about whatever you want. And even if it may seem that it won't make a difference, just try it. If not, well there's nothing really lost, now is there?

Don't force a word count - that is, don't think that a journal entry isn't a journal entry unless you write an X amount of words.

There are some days where I would use my time unwisely and I didn't give myself enough time to write in my journal, so I wrote very little, like a single word. More often than not, though, that one word ends up growing to at least a paragraph, and then I stop. The only thing that I aimed for was writing something every day, even if that something was literally one word.

If you sense that you're running of things to write in your current entry, it's OK to stop. Whether it is 5000 words or 1 word, it's still a journal entry. It doesn't necessarily have to be written in one sitting as well. It could be written throughout the day if that's your style. I personally do a morning entry and an evening entry for my journal, and all the thoughts in between go into my notebook, but everyone has different ways of going about it.

You don't need the "right" tools - if you have a piece of paper and a pencil, then that's more than enough to start journaling. Heck, you can write on your hand if you're desperate enough. But what you don't "need" is these fancy-schmancy books, pens, or whatever.

It's not to say that they're nice to have. I'm a huge sucker for stationery so I have some better quality notebooks and fountain pens. But when I first started journaling I used all that I had, and that literally was my computer. I started journaling digitally first, and then I bought a cheap notebook and wrote with a pencil when I started a physical journal. It wasn't a problem for me, but some people are more likely to use their lack of "specific" tools as an excuse, when really those things aren't necessary.

Case in point: we all have the tools to start journaling right at our disposal. It's nice to have these cool tools and notebooks, but they are a luxury, not a necessity.

It doesn't have to be perfect - sometimes we get intimidated by these people on the Internet with their super cool journals. Very neat handwriting, decorations everywhere, and it's all aesthetically pleasing. Their journal is like a piece of art.

But your journal doesn't have to be a piece of art. Mine certainly isn't. It's a huge mess. I reserve all artistic expression for when I make art pieces, not my journal. My journal is a scribbled heap of who knows what. I can barely read my cursive handwriting sometimes, and in a way it feels liberating, moving on from old hurts and struggles because I can't even read what I've written in the past.

This struggle is similar to artists who have trouble starting sketchbooks because they think they'll "ruin" it by screwing up the first page. It's important to know that there's no real "perfect" start to a journal anyway. It's your playground: kick all of the rocks everywhere, scribble all around, have fun with it. You're not writing an autobiography for everyone to read, but you're writing for yourself; for your healing and your growth.

Parting Thoughts

Whew, that was a lot of words! I'm kind of winded after all of this writing, but this was all to say that I really, really love journaling, and I think that everyone should do it. Heck, some of the most influential people in the world have kept their own journal, diary, or at the very least a notebook. I won't list them here, as they can be easily searched up. Here, I'll even do it for you.

Journaling is one of those things where if I don't do it, I fall apart. It's essentially the backbone of my entire life. I recall a few months ago where I fell off the habit of journaling and I was in shambles. I was unproductive, depressed, and overall not happy with my current situation, especially being stuck at home for nearly a year because of the good old 'rona virus.

Instead of beating myself up for falling off the productivity bandwagon, I told myself to do only two things in the day. If I did these things, the day was considered a success. The two things were:

That was literally it. After doing that for like a week I already saw great improvements in my mental health and productivity. From there, my morning routine grew a considerable amount, and I started integrating some new productivity systems into my life. Through all of this I realized that I literally can't live without journaling anymore; if everything else failed, I would always fall back on journaling.

Is journaling the magic pill that will cure all your ills? Well, probably not. It's not going to "fix" your problems, but it certainly will put you in a position where it will make it easier to deal and cope with said problems, while also discovering a whole lot of things about life, and most importantly you'll start learning more about yourself.

Though despite all of this serious talk, it's not always serious. An adventure has its fair share of tense inner battles, and comic relief; so does a journal. I'll leave this off with a moment of pure irony back in 2017 which I still laugh about to this day. It's just something you can't make up:

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