My journal used to be exactly what you probably picture when you think of a preteen writing in her diary. Pink and floral, it was sealed with a cheap gold lock and a key I kept around my neck. And, if you were to jimmy it open, you would find exactly what you would expect: uneventful days recounted in meticulous detail, confessions of first crushes and frustrations with parents and siblings.
Journaling is a habit that has stuck with me over the last two decades, but it has evolved significantly. Although I wouldn’t say I’m above the occasional emotional rant, my journal has actually become a tool in my life and my business. As an adult, I’ve been able to use my journal to make adjustments to my mindset and ultimately change the way I behave and the outcome of my days.
Why I keep a journal
As a teen, writing in my journal was a way for me to test out theories about myself and the world around me. It was a safe space for me to explore how I felt and what that meant about who I was.
Today, my journal serves a similar purpose.
When I use my journal to take a close look at how I feel on a specific day or in that current moment, I can also use it to write my way to a healthier mindset. With a safe space like a private, blank piece of paper, I can ask myself hard questions and explore the truth about the life I am living without fear.
Why is this so important? How we think ultimately influences how we behave. Getting to the truth about our mindset can help us shift our beliefs and take action to make important changes to our life. Personally, it’s a habit that has helped me to be braver in my work as a writer, to be more intentional in my life as a parent and spouse and to take deliberate action to improve relationships with my friends.
Getting started: Hang-ups and worries
For me, so much of changing my mindset has been about honestly exploring my hang-ups and worries. If I’m not careful and mindful, I can easily continue on with my life and my business with fear as a driving force. If I keep going about my days without time for reflection, I can avoid acknowledging or noticing how my mindset is controlling my decision-making.
This is why I journal regularly and take extra time to write when I notice I feel off.
It’s a simple enough habit. I typically start journaling by silencing my phone, putting it away and taking a few quiet moments to breathe and think. Silence is hard to come by these days, so don’t be surprised if this simple act is all it takes to start stirring up your thoughts.
Once I’ve enjoyed the silence, I begin by freely writing what is on my mind. I answer questions like, How do I feel today? and What worries me about my work? I pay close attention to how my body feels while I’m writing. Do certain topics cause me to feel tension or increase my heart rate? Anything that creates extra anxiety for me is likely a mindset I need to explore. If I notice that there is a specific idea, emotion or thought that could use a little extra attention, I will focus on writing about only that for several minutes.
This is when I explore the “why” behind how I feel.
For example, if I’m worried about the instability of freelance work, it doesn’t take long to determine why. I’ve lost work in the past and I’ve seen friends struggle, too. Acknowledging my fear and the reason behind it is an important first step when I journal to change my mindset.
Next steps: Changing your mindset
Sometimes just being honest about how I feel frees me up to think differently. This is especially true if my fear isn’t very rational. If I’m anxious I’m not being a good parent, spouse or friend, for example, sometimes getting that worry on paper is enough to remind me how untrue that belief really is.
Other times, though, worries really stick. Perhaps, like my fears about freelancing, they are fears that have facts to back them. Maybe I’ve feared that thing for so long that it is going to take some work to move forward.
Here are a few ways I use writing to change my mindset and think more positively about my work and relationships:
- Explore the truth. I journal through the facts of my fear. This means I take the time to be honest about when my work or life played out exactly as I fear and all the times it didn’t. Positive thinking isn’t about believing life will be perfect; it’s about acknowledging that I have the skills to navigate life, even when things don’t go as I hoped.
- Explore the consequences. What does operating out of fear mean for my life? If I continue to let my mindset keep me from taking action, what are the consequences? It may be true that my mindset protects me from risk, but it is also true that living a risk-avoidant life keeps me from finding success and fully engaging with the world around me.
- Imagine an alternative. There are no risks when I’m writing privately. Knowing this, I spend time exploring what could be if this specific fear wasn’t ruling me. What could my life look like? This is when I dream big and imagine the best-case scenario for the future. This is an exercise that creates a strong emotional connection to my new mindset and a reason for taking action.
Once I have a handle on my mindset, I know the next step is taking action. For me, it is so important to decide in advance how I will behave when a situation arises that triggers my fears. Changing the way I respond is a chance for me to create proof that my imagined alternative is possible. Am I worried about rejection? Contributing new ideas regularly is a great way to create the proof that my new ideas will sometimes be accepted, and when they aren’t, I have the grit to move past the rejection.
While I don’t end every journal session this way, I often try to wrap up by setting a small intention for how I will behave moving forward. It’s a simple, one-sentence statement that encourages me to be brave enough to live the life I want to live.
When I journal consistently, I feel much more in control of my life and I think more positively about the future. It isn’t always easy to find the time, and it isn’t always an easy process, but I am always grateful for the way a change in mindset affects my days.
This article was published in February 2019 and has been updated. Photo by @bradneathery/Twenty20
Mary is a freelance writer living in the Midwest. She writes primarily about family life, food and mental health. Mary’s work has been featured by Vice Munchies, SheKnows, Babble and DailyWorth.