If we want to know what we’re really consuming each day, we have to keep track. If we really want to know whether we’re feeling more pain, more anxiety, or more fatigue, we have to keep track. If we hope to focus on experiences that create feelings of happiness, peace, gratitude, accomplishment, and joy, we have to keep track.
At some point when you’ve expressed a desire to improve some area of your life, you’ve probably been instructed by a friend or professional to keep a journal of what you eat or what you dream or how much pain you feel. You may have ignored these instructions. At times, I have too. It sounds like a lot of time and effort and I already have plenty to do. What’s the point?
There are many reasons to keep a contemporaneous record…
If you’ve ever kept a weight-loss journal, you’ve probably surprised yourself. What you thought you ate each day and what you wrote down when you began keeping track may have been significantly different. You also may have noticed that your records were more accurate when you made them immediately following a meal rather than when you tried to reconstruct all of your meals at the end of the day.
If you try to remember Monday’s breakfast in exact detail on the following Monday, it is nearly impossible to do so accurately. It is the same with any memory. As time goes on, the details of an experience become more vague and less accurate. Recording what happens contemporaneously is a great reality check.
In the middle of any difficult situation, it’s hard to step back enough to gain perspective. Writing down what happens each day and how we feel about it gives us the opportunity to review later when things have calmed down. This can lead to valuable insights that would otherwise be lost.
Over time, a written record may reveal significant patterns related to health – pain levels, hormone changes, symptoms of inflammation, sleep patterns, blood pressure, response to foods, response to medications, or a myriad of other health related patterns. Presenting our documentation to the doctor can help her with our diagnosis and an appropriate treatment plan.
A journal can also reveal patterns of behavior in our relationships, jobs, and self-care routines. It can show us how we respond when we feel dismissed, defensive, afraid, or overwhelmed. This is powerful knowledge! While we may not see these patterns as we go about living our lives, having them revealed gives us the opportunity to make informed choices. I can’t think of anything more powerful than informed choice.
We can’t control the curve balls life will throw us. We may suffer an accident or health crisis or loss of our home in a natural disaster. We may suffer abuse or neglect from our parents. We may lose our jobs because a coworker lies about us. The greatest power we have in these situations is the choice we make about how we will allow these events to affect our lives in the long term.
Until we recognize any lingering pattern of behavior that helped at a difficult time, appreciate and acknowledge both the positive assistance and coinciding limits that pattern creates, we cannot make this choice because we don’t see a choice. That makes the journal an immensely powerful tool for improvement in all areas of our lives.
When we are exposed to something over and over again, we develop the ability to tune it out and tolerate more of that stimuli. For instance, if you move to a new city with lots of traffic noise during sleeping hours, you will eventually become desensitized to the noise and be able to sleep. If the level of noise increases slowly over time, it is unlikely that your sleep will be disturbed.
The same is true with gradual increases in pain, fatigue, and general malaise. Our bodies get accustomed to the discomfort and a gradual increase may not register. We tolerate symptoms that would have been clear warning signs if their onset had been acute. Recording details daily and reviewing once a month can help you give your doctor a more accurate view of changes in your condition.
In order to compose a journal entry, you must shift your focus to the subject you’re recording. If you keep a dream journal, your focus will be dreams. If you keep a gratitude journal, your focus will be on things for which you feel grateful. If you keep a pain journal, your focus will be on recording the specifics of your pain.
When we focus our attention on something, other things shift and typically our focus begins to define how we feel. Focusing only on pain can easily lead to feeling helpless, depressed, or discouraged. Because of this tendency, I like to keep balance in my records. If I keep a record of pain, then I like to simultaneously keep a record of accomplishments and things that make me feel good. The two-to-one ratio of things that feel good to things that feel bad ensures that I don’t become absorbed by pain.
In order to see all 3 categories at once, I use a colorful plastic box and a tiny notepad. (There it is in the graphic above. Isn’t it cute? Cuteness makes me feel good.) Each evening, I make 3 lists on separate pieces of paper identified by category, then sit them out side by side. Once I’ve seen the lists together, I put them back in the box until the end of the month. At that point, I review.
I recently used Accomplishments, Things That Made Me Feel Good, and Insights as journal categories for a month. I was struggling. I felt so behind that I had lost any sense of accomplishment. The events that put me behind were also making me feel discouraged.
I decided I would record the tasks I completed so that I could gain perspective. At the same time, I’d record anything that made me feel good so that I could deliberately increase those things and thereby increase how often I felt good. Along the way, I knew I’d have a few revelations.
At the end of the month, I felt better even before reviewing the lists. Recording my accomplishments had already given me a realistic view that I was behind because I had too much on my plate, not because I was being inefficient, lazy, or incompetent. Knowing that meant I could direct my energy toward setting better boundaries and reducing my task list. The shift from only seeing the problem to also seeing possible solutions felt positive, optimistic, and freeing.
Catalyst for Change
If a shift from seeing a problem to seeing solutions feels positive, optimistic, and freeing, why are so many of us averse to change? Fearful habits often keep us stuck in miserable places. We may not register a feeling of fear. We may feel the anticipation of another’s disappointment, shunning, cruelty, or displeasure with us if we buck the system, but we express this as family obligation, work ethic, being considerate, or being conscientious. Sometimes we may even call it love.
We may feel reluctance to challenge a belief that we’re not worthy of good things…what if we find out we’re not? We may be sensitized to emotional danger in a way that makes us hyper-vigilantly avoid rocking the boat at home, at work, or with our friends. No matter how we label these fears, our commitment to them prevents us from embracing change.
Keeping a journal, can be an effective catalyst for change. It’s much harder to deny or ignore how we feel if we’ve recorded those feelings when we experience them. By writing events down, we preserve an accurate record for later reference. And using a journal or a box full of lists to focus our attention differently can make it easier to see solutions to long-standing problems.
They say that if we don’t learn from history, we’re doomed to repeat it. I’d rather keep track now so that I have more options later. How about you?