After we read the diary of Anne Frank in junior high, I started my own diary because I figured it would make me more interesting than I felt at the time.
It was really boring, describing the TV shows and street hockey games that constituted my life at the time. After a week or two, it occurred to me that it would never be studied and admired by future students, and that nobody was even going to read it, including me. So I stopped.
It was years before I could even begin to understand why anyone would write in a journal if they weren’t hiding from an occupying army. Clearly I was missing the point. Journaling has a much more immediate and universal benefit.
One of the most common questions I get emailed about is how to get “un-stuck,” in the general life-situation sense, and I’ve been promising to write about it for a while. These days I do a certain form of journaling, which is by far the most consistently effective way I’ve ever found to get over the feeling of being stuck. It works every time unless I forget to do it. I kind of stumbled across it through blogging but anyone can do it.
I got an early hint of it in high school when my mom suggested I try something she’d been doing, called “morning pages,” where you write three pages of stream-of-consciousness writing first thing in the morning. You just write what comes to mind, no matter how disjointed, meaningless, or negative it is. The idea is from the gazillion-selling creativity bible, The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron. My mom has been doing it for years, and I know some of you do too.
I hated it but it really worked. It knocks something loose in a good way. If you’ve never tried this, it’s hard to explain what this early-morning verbal purge does to you emotionally, but you feel different when you’re done. You could say that you finish with a clearer idea of what the rest of your day ought to be about.
When Cameron gets asked, “Why should we do morning pages?” she often says, “To get to the other side.” This is a great answer. Writing freely does get you to the other side of something: the cloudiness of unexamined thoughts. When you write out what’s on your mind, you break that cloud down into finite, meaningful parts, and often it looks quite workable from there.
I didn’t make habit of morning pages though. The part I didn’t like was that you’re supposed to do them every day, and I’m allergic to things I’m supposed to do every day (as followers of my experiments probably know.) I start to feel like it’s not always appropriate every day, and I’m just doing it because someone said so, and I begin to resist it in general.
Luckily the reflective writing habit found another route into my life. When I started blogging, my life began to get generally better very quickly, and I attribute most of that to the regular work of articulating my thoughts.
Words make it real
The simple act of writing out a thought keeps it still long enough for you to get a good look at it. Once it’s there in front of you, you can decide if it’s true, and whether you ought to do anything about it.
It translates feelings into something coherent, something you can work with. It’s one thing to feel generally frustrated, but something empowering happens when you actually write down the words, “I am frustrated with X because of Y.” It becomes a clear part of your reality. When you expand on it, often the solution becomes obvious. If not, at least the problem is obvious, which makes it a lot smaller in the mind. Articulating a problem gives it hard edges — a beginning and an end.
Blogging brought this kind of clarity into my life in a big way, because I was regularly transcribing my thoughts about the things that most affected my life. There were always issues, though, that could use a good writing-through, but which wouldn’t make for good blog posts. So a couple of years ago I started doing it outside of blogging too — I took a suggestion from good old Steve P and started keeping a journal on my laptop, so I could talk out any issue without dumping it in some form on my readers.
When I feel stuck I just open up my journal and begin by typing out what the problem is, and see where I go from there. I let the words wander — where I’m at with something, how it feels, and (maybe) what I might do about it. After twenty minutes of this, there’s more than a few revelations staring me in the face, and I have some real perspective about the problem and probably a place to start.
I do this maybe 5 or 6 times a month, but could stand to do it a lot more. It gets me past the overwhelmed, “stuck” state, even if I don’t actually solve any of these problems during the journaling session. Stuck-ness comes from not knowing what the problem is.
This little journaling process helps me with just about a hundred percent of the problems I bring to it. The biggest issue is just getting myself into the chair and getting the first sentence down before I talk myself out of it. When you’re feeling frustrated or overwhelmed, there’s a lot of resistance to doing even easy things.
This is part of the reason pen and paper never worked for me. Too much internal resistance. My generation has been typing its whole life, and three pages of longhand would probably put me in the hospital.
So I type. I’ve tried a few programs, including my word processor, and eventually settled on an indie program simply called The Journal, because the demo was free and Steve Pavlina is always raving about it. Later I bought the full version and have no regrets. I doubt I would still be doing this if I didn’t. You can download the free version here.
Whatever you use, it has to be quick launching to minimize the resistance factor, and it has to be more organized than a word processor. Otherwise you probably won’t make much of a habit of sitting down to do it, because you’ll end up with a bunch of messy documents you’ll never look at again. (Remember that you’ll be journaling most when you’re frustrated and stuck.)
If you use a pen and paper, get a dedicated book for it that’s attractive to you. Keep it in the same place and keep a working pen with it. A good pen, not a crappy real estate agent freebie pen.
How to do it
The moment you recognize the “stuck” feeling, open up your journal (online or off) and get the first few words down. Gravity’s on your side after that.
Write out your most prominent issues in terms of what they feel like, what you think is working, and what’s not working. Don’t worry about describing the day’s happenings beyond that, and definitely don’t write it as if you expect someone to read it.
Keep it confined to how you feel today, right now. Don’t tell your life story, just the things that are going particularly well, or particularly poorly, or the things you can’t help thinking about.
If you’re like me, you might have four or five issues you want to lay out and look at. Instead of trying to remember them all while you explore the first one, just leave a few lines (this is where an electronic journal is far superior) with a single word reminder for each one: “fitness”, “work”, “finance”, or “badminton” or whatever makes up a big part of your life.
In mine I use hashtags as these quick headers so that I can search for, say, “#productivity”, and see only my entries on personal productivity, instead of all occurences of the word regardless of context.
This is super useful. If I need ideas about how to deal with a financial issue, I have a couple of years of different perspectives from different days at my fingertips, on that exact topic.
Getting words down makes the situation finite and specific again. It’s typically just a few uncertainties and the feelings that go with them. This pattern in itself is reassuring. Usually I end up with a paragraph or two about each issue, and feel a lot better, even if I don’t have any solutions.
At the very least, I can no longer believe I’m truly stuck. If I still feel stuck it’s because some part of me wants to be. Usually “being stuck” only means you’re refusing to shine a light on what’s really going on with you. Words light it right up.