What to do when stress breaks you – Part 2

Relaxing is hard. I mean truly relaxing, where your mind is calm and freed from its rush of thoughts so you can disconnect from everything around you and focus on the moment you’re in without distraction. Remember that thought, we’ll come back to it.

The need to move on…..but how?

In Part 1 of this article series I wrote about how a few generally stressful years in a row (and one terrible year in particular) brought me to my brink with stress, and how I ended up in the hospital because of it. In Part 2 here, I’ll focus on how I brought myself back from that brink using some initial tactical steps to get my days under control and reduce mental overhead. The final Part 3 article will focus on strategic steps that I took for long term overall health and well-being, and the sometimes surprising results of those steps.

To be clear I’m not a doctor, therapist, or licensed in anything that qualifies me to offer medical advice, so you won’t find me doing that here. What I am is an average guy who’s logical, organized, pragmatic, and has a lot of common sense. When I have a problem I learn about the things associated with it, pull together facts and concepts that I can relate to, and then put that knowledge to use solving the problem. I’m open-minded to new ideas, and that open-mindedness was the key to me beating stress.

I don’t want to over-simplify the conditions of stress and anxiety. They’re both complicated beasts that can cause a myriad of health problems, and they often land people in doctor or therapist offices. My particular situation was somewhat straight forward to resolve once I set my mind to it and stuck with my approaches, but your mileage may vary with basic stress management techniques. At some point you might need to investigate professional help if you can’t ease your situation by yourself. But regardless of whether basic techniques work or you need something more advanced, the key point is not to ignore stress because it’s an insidious thing to live with.

My tactical steps for immediate help

I saw two basic problems that I had to tackle right out of the gate. First, over a long period of time my average day had morphed into a zoo of personal and work activity that was simply too much to handle. I was rarely achieving the goals that I set for any given day and this created a lot of mental churning and angst because I’m normally a very organized person at home and work. Second, there were a lot of negative and energy-draining activities occurring without a lot of positives to counteract them. This quite frankly became a big downer over time, and both of these scenarios were sinking me.

It’s important to note that I didn’t de-stress and ease my mind overnight. It took many months of sticking to the following approaches to feel better in a holistic way. But I did it, and maybe some of these things will help you as well.

With the above statements made, below are the tactical steps I started with. Some might work for you, others might not, but remember that open-mindedness I mentioned? Try to absorb what’s here without judgement. If you see an idea that you want to explore further, try it. If something doesn’t click with you, then just pass it by. Make the concepts work for you…

1) “Houston, we have a problem”… so make a list!

The first thing I did was acknowledge to myself that I was in over my head with stress. Something was wrong, I knew it, and I had to do something about it. The morning after my hospital visit, I sat alone for a long time and thought about how I got to the point of being so stressed out. How did I get bogged down by a conspiracy of topics to the point that it affected my physical health? My mind was swirling on the topic without focus until I decided to make a list of the things that were bothering me.

Some topics immediately came to mind (my Dad dying), but other things were much more subtle like an endless to-do list, home projects that I saw unfinished every day when I walked around the house, a friend causing angst, etc. Those items and many more weighed on me to varying degrees, and if you think about it you probably have things just like them in your life as well.

Stress is insidious. It’s like rust. It eats away at you like rust does to metal, and before you know it you’re crumbling. These items on my list, both large and small, were overtly (and sometimes more subtly) eating away at me and contributing to my overall stress picture until I snapped.

This list-making process requires soul searching and honesty, there’s no getting around that. I found that nothing can go unexamined because stressors can creep in from many paths in life. Look at your daily activities, your work, the people you spend time with, the things you do throughout the day, time you might be wasting that could be spent better elsewhere, etc. Real…honest…examination. If you’re not willing to be honest with yourself about what you really think and feel, then this process will fail. Write down each item and why it bothers you.

Well, let me tell you, I had quite the list when I was done! It took me a few days of off and on again work and coming at it from different viewpoints to get it completed, but a strange thing happened when I finished. I looked at the list and breathed a sigh of relief. My mindset had already started to shift more positive because there it was, staring me right in the face. There on my list were the major contributors to my high stress level. Amen!

For me this was a difficult but crucial first step because it helped me to qualify and quantify my situation. It put meaning and guardrails around it. It was a starting point in an otherwise swirling and concerning situation. And from there I went on…

2) Focus on what you can control, and learn to let the rest go

When I looked at my list I started to see commonality between some of the items, and two high level buckets emerged quickly: 1) Things that I have control over, and 2) Things that I don’t.

People generally like to control as much of what goes on in their lives as possible, and I think that’s human nature. Who wants to live in a constant state of reactive chaos, right? You try to resolve things, put some order on things, move forward, and lead your version of a normal life. That’s great, until you try controlling things that are out of your control. All that does is create friction and stress in your life, “rope burn” if you will.

You have to control what you can control, and you have to let go of what you can’t control because when you try and control something that you actually have no control over, that’s called rope burn.

Travis Eliot

Here’s a story about how this type of rope burn eventually wore me down…

After my Dad died, I was the family member responsible for handling his estate and dissolving it equally between me and my three sisters. He had a lot of different accounts at many different financial institutions. Each one had a Beneficiary Services department and specific processes for how they handled the closing of accounts. Each day was a process of endless phone calls, paperwork, signing, scanning, and mailing documents. More phone calls, more waits, etc. I’m sure you can imagine…

The process really started to grate on me after a while because with every phone call I would get more and more frustrated at the long time things were taking and the incompetence of some of the people I was dealing with. Side note: It’s scary that some of these people manage money, because I found in some cases that I knew more about certain topics than they did and I’m certainly no expert.

My stress level spiraled upward with these daily frustrations until one comment from an agent at a bank snapped me out of my thought pattern. She said “The paperwork you prepared was excellent and it will make this arduous process go much smoother. I’ll take care of this and get back to you”. A few days later, she did get back to me and SHE actually thanked ME for the perfect paperwork that I submitted. The process was completed, there was no aggravation, and my stress level started to come down for this one particular situation.

The critical takeaway for me from that scenario was: You can only do what you can do, and you can only control what you can control. Sometimes the rest is up to someone else to complete and you must accept that. It is what it is.

Think about how many ways that thought can apply throughout your day, whether it’s in your personal or business life. Every day we deal with various types of situations and try to control outcomes that are at least partially out of our control at some point along their path. You have to realize when these times are occurring and let them go.

I adjusted the way I dealt with every financial institution after that. I made sure the paperwork I submitted was perfect, that it was done on time, and that it made it to the right person. Then I accepted the fact that I had done my part of the process, I had controlled what I could control and did the best I could with it. Now I had to turn it over to someone else to do their part without micro-managing it.

With this approach my expectations were more realistic and the small wins started to come, one after the other. And you know what? Everything worked out fine in the end. It took a lot longer than I wanted for sure, but it all got done and my stress levels were noticeably reduced bit by bit along the way.

The exact same thought process can be applied to people. In your daily interactions with people, at some point their reactions and subsequent actions are out of your control, and you must accept that for the sake of your own sanity. Any parent who has tried to help their child can relate to this. You can give your children all of the solid advice in the world, but at some point it’s completely up to them to internalize it, find any value in it that works for them, and then act on it if they choose. It can be frustrating and stressful watching a proven piece of advice go unheeded when you know it will help them, but it is what it is. You have done your best.

3) Make your daily to-do list realistic, and set up the following day for success

I’m a heavy user of the lists and the Reminders app on my iPhone and Mac. I have four different lists of reminders for different purposes, but it wasn’t always like that. I used to have just one long list of reminders.

When you’re extremely busy and find yourself in a situation when you have to fit as much as you can into the usable day, there’s nothing more stressful than reviewing your to-do list and seeing 65 things on it. All that’s saying to you is “You will never finish all of these things today.” That creates subtle subconscious stress all day long. It’s more rope burn. I used to scroll up and down my list to find the highest priority items that needed attention each day, and the rest just stayed there staring at me until I eventually got around to them another day. Another week. Or never.

That situation had to end. Instead, I created lists for Today, House, Monthly and Miscellaneous. When I bucketed the tasks it was easier to see how things naturally segmented themselves and priorities became clearer. For example, I have many tasks that fall into that Monthly bucket. Why was I scrolling through them every day if they only needed to be done…once per month?!

When I look at my plans at night for the following day, I have a pretty good idea of how much free time I’ll have throughout that day. At that point, I review my to-do lists and I pull only the top priority items into my Today list that I want or need to achieve that following day. Sometimes it’s one item, other times it’s five. It depends on how much free time I have and how complex the tasks are.

You have to be ruthless with what makes it onto the Today list. Keeping it low volume and achievable sets the tone for the whole day that will come with the morning. When that’s done, I turn out the lights and fall asleep with a clear, organized mind knowing (for the most part) what the next day will bring with regard to work. I rest easier doing this the night before instead of figuring it out in the morning. It allows me to start my mornings much more peacefully because I don’t feel that morning rush to get things organized anymore.

In reality you’ll still have just as many to-do’s as you did before. However, when they’re managed in this way you don’t have the subconscious stress of staring down an endless list of things you know you can’t finish in a day or don’t need to be focusing on at all that particular day. You’ve chunked the list into realistic and achievable goals.

Bonus tip: Keep your calendar realistic in the same way as managing your to-do’s. Set up your day so that you have some blocks of time to rest, process the events of the day as they’re unfolding, and get ready for the next thing you have to do. Don’t eat breakfast or lunch while working. Avoid back to back appointments. And for sure, don’t double-book yourself on your own calendar! It’s literally impossible to be in two places at the same time, yet I’m amazed at the number of people who double or even triple book themselves in the same time slot. It makes zero sense and only creates stress to see that mess staring back at you.

4) Focus on the small wins and they will add up to big wins

We’ve all got busy and challenging lives. Sometimes you run into a string of days, weeks, or even months that just don’t go well. I had a lot of bad days in 2019, which I mentioned in Part 1. It’s easy to get into a cycle of feeling like things are just going wrong and there’s not much light at the end of the tunnel.

I found success in re-framing that situation. Things go wrong during the day, but things go right as well. I started focusing more of my attention on the things that were going right and adding up the small wins throughout the day that made me feel good. The things that made me smile or laugh. When I focused on the good parts of the day, my mindset started to shift to the more positive side. I still had the problems, I still had the to-do’s, work, etc, but I took those wins during the day and banked them.

By doing this, I found that at the end of the day I was no longer focused as much on what went wrong and what I didn’t get done. Instead I was focused on what I did get done and the things that made me feel good. Over time this approach put a blanket of peace on the end of the day. I found that when I framed my day with a good start (using #3 above) and a positive end that things started to smooth out overall. Some peace was coming at last…

5) Move!

I originally titled this item “Get some exercise”, but then I realized that this is something different and much simpler than that. It’s really just about moving yourself and giving your body and mind some activity and a few minutes to refresh and reset periodically throughout the day. Some people experience barriers to entry with starting an exercise program, but there are no barriers to simply moving and refreshing your perspective.

I typically work from home as an IT Manager, but these same principles apply to an office as well. When I get bogged down with work and personal tasks, I realized that I was stuck at my desk or in one room of the house for hours on end. This can get to be a bit much when it happens over the course of many months, so this suggestion is simply about recognizing when that’s happening and counteracting it by getting some motion into your day. Move to a new room to do whatever you’re doing, go outside for a little break to catch some sun and hear the sounds of the outdoors wherever you live or work. It does wonders for your mind and body to just…move!

I live near wooded areas, so when I go outside for a few minutes I can smell the grass and fresh air. I hear the birds singing, the wind blowing through the trees, and the sun has a chance to hit my face. I can walk around the yard or neighborhood to get my blood flowing. It’s well documented how much this helps your well-being and I highly suggest trying to work these small mental and physical breaks into your day. It makes a huge difference. It’s precisely why many companies are restructuring their environments to provide employees with these opportunities for breaks. Apple, for example, has taken it to an extreme with their amazing new Apple Park office in California that pushes their employees toward nature literally in every direction they turn.

This need to move is also the essence of why fitness devices like the Apple Watch and Fitbit have reminders to stand, move, exercise, and take breaks several times throughout the day to do some deep breathing exercises. Science clearly shows the benefit of doing these things, it’s not just an opinion or marketing tricks. That’s why these devices try to motivate you with daily goals, activity rings to close, and visual reminders of your progress. They’re all forms of motivation to get you moving. (Anyone who owns an Apple Watch recognizes that little tri-colored ring above…Did you close your rings today?) 😉

6) Do nothing

To the opposite of #5 above, try this one as well. Sit still. It’s OK sometimes. Let your mind wander and maybe let it go down a rabbit hole to satisfy your curiosity for a while. Stop worrying about always making progress with everything. It can wait.

This is a critical thing I needed to remember while I was trying to de-stress and get myself back on track because I’m typically not one to sit still for long. The combination of having a lot to do for my job, many chores, and also making time for my hobbies and other fun things put me on a treadmill of always doing something. I forgot to just stop once in a while to take a breath. Read a book. Watch a movie. Watch the grass grow. Take a short nap. It’s all OK.

Don’t hurry. Don’t worry. And be sure to smell the flowers along the way.

Walter Hagen, from his autobiography. This is the phrase that later morphed into “Stop and smell the roses” some time during the 1960’s

I think modern culture is so fast paced that people begin to think that by sitting still, enjoying the moment, or doing something just for the sake of doing it that they’re wasting time and letting life pass them by. I would argue the exact opposite. I think that when we rush around like maniacs that life passes us by much faster. We need to remember how to savor the moments, and stop to smell the roses.

Takeaways

The content above is a lot to process, so let’s summarize the takeaways from this second article:

  1. Identify your stress points. Dig deep, be honest with yourself.
  2. Focus on what you can control, and learn to let the rest go.
  3. Manage to-do lists and calendars realistically, and set your next day up for success.
  4. Focus on small wins that add up to bigger wins.
  5. Move!
  6. It’s OK to do nothing sometimes.

These were the immediate tactical steps that I took to calm my days and bring some peace of mind. Having chaotic, emotional, always-on days was the primary cause of many of the items that I listed out in #1 above. It’s just not sustainable.

If you’re feeling that your days are not quite yours anymore, I encourage you to try some variety of the ideas above to throw a rope around things and calm them down. There are many websites about creating effective to-do lists, managing your day in a mindful way, 7-minute exercise routines to get some motion into your day, etc. The ideas presented here are meant to be seeds for further investigation if you see value in them. Google is your exploration friend!

Last but not least

Remember what I said in the beginning about relaxing and how hard it can be to really let go? Using the tips above can help you frame your day better and remove some of your daily stressors so that you can start moving toward regularly getting some chances to relax. It takes time, but slowly and surely things will catch on. The final installment in this series will focus on the strategic long term stress-reducing steps I took that could be classified as lifestyle or wellness changes. These are the things that brought me sustainable peace, and with that peace came a better ability to truly relax. Stay tuned for more…

What to do when stress breaks you – Part 1

Part 1: A relaxing evening turns into an unexpected trip

It was 9:45 pm on January 23, 2020, and my wife and I were relaxing with some TV at the end of a busy day.  She left the room to do some things and I suddenly started to feel tired, so I got up to brush my teeth and change into pajamas for the rest of the night.

Strange feelings came over me shortly after I entered the bathroom.  There was an irregular pounding heartbeat in my upper chest, feeling like it was up close to my neck.  A different kind of shorter and shallower breathing involuntarily swept over me.  Adding to these uncomfortable feelings was a sudden wave of anxiety, which was strange because I’m not prone to those types of feelings at all. I suppose it might be akin to a panic attack, but I’ve never had one so I can’t be sure.  

I quickly finished brushing my teeth (because you can’t not finish, right???), left the bathroom to sit down, and figured out what was happening.  I used my Apple Watch’s ECG function to confirm what I suspected, and I was correct. The 30-second test on the watch detected an abnormal heart rhythm called atrial fibrillation (AFib)

When your heart beats properly, you’re not even aware that it’s there because it pulses along steadily and quietly doing its job in the background of your life.  But you clearly feel it when it’s not working right, and it’s alarming. The realization causes your anxiety level to immediately skyrocket precisely because…it’s a heart incident!  This is your ticker, and if something goes wrong with it then you’re often in big trouble if you can’t get help fast enough.  The sudden and involuntary auto-anxiety that washes over you causes your body’s systems to flood your bloodstream with adrenaline and stress hormones like cortisol. Additionally your blood vessels constrict, heart rate and blood pressure increase, and your breathing rate accelerates.  The regulatory systems in your body feed off each other in a red-alert escalation.  

My Apple Watch indicated that my heart rate was up at 145, while doing nothing except sitting on the bed. Normally in that situation my heart rate would be around 60. I used the ECG function again to see how my heart rhythm looked, and when I reviewed the result on my iPhone it was ugly. It was an erratic irregular pattern with odd peaks and valleys, again indicating AFib. So at least I knew what I was dealing with, and I knew it was dangerous, so this clearly got my attention.

My normal (sinus) heart rhythm, as recorded by my Apple Watch. Perfect peaks, spacing, and valleys.
My abnormal heart rhythm of January 23 showing the temporary atrial fibrillation (AFib), as recorded by my Apple Watch. Notice the irregular spacing between peaks and the different profiles in the valleys.

I sat for a few minutes hoping for it to clear up, but it didn’t.  Things seemed to be getting worse and then came some shortness of breath when I stood up, so at that point I suggested to my wife that we should go to the hospital emergency room. My anxiety at that point was becoming uncontrollable, yet I was somehow strangely calm overall. The two are opposing feelings, yet somehow they were co-existing in that moment. I’ve never felt anything like it.

My wife drove to the hospital since it’s only twenty minutes from our house. Despite the situation, I didn’t see the necessity of calling an ambulance and waiting for transportation. It was probably a lot faster to just leave immediately and get there ourselves.

The hospital and emergency room were luckily quiet at that time of night, and I breezed right into one of the ER side rooms.  This was occurring shortly before COVID surfaced, so there was no commotion at all. They hooked me up to an EKG, blood oxygen meter, gave me aspirin and Diltiazem to settle my heart, drew blood for at least three dozen types of blood work, and took chest x-rays. Then I waited, and the stress level grew.

After several hours of monitoring and check-ins with the doctors where they explained each step of what they were doing and looking for, the decision was eventually made to release me. I left the hospital still experiencing minor AFib, but I was told to get some rest with the hope that things would settle down by morning under the medication.  With AFib still occurring at that point, my thought was “Should I really be going home already?” but the doctors said it was safe.  Appointments were made to follow up with my primary care physician and a cardiologist the following day.  

The three hours in the hospital ER were billed to me at almost $10,000, but luckily because of good insurance I “only” had to pay slightly over $1,000.  The entire experience gave me much to think about, and it started me down a year-long “reset” where I gave a lot of thought to some of the things happening in my life and how I approached them, and how I viewed and responded to sometimes difficult aspects of the world around me.  I’ll explain my reset process in a series of articles, of which this is the first.

How did I get to this point?

The year 2019 was not a good one in our house and my stress levels were through the roof the entire year, especially from November wrapping into January 2020. The years prior were a little rough too, but were less intense overall.

My Mom died in 2014 after a long, difficult, and sometimes odd health decline. In the years that followed, the family (Dad, sisters, me) went through the sad and difficult process of moving Dad out of the two-story ranch house in New York where we all grew up, and in which he was hoping to spend the rest of his life. The house was rapidly outstripping his mobility and it simply wasn’t safe anymore. He knew this as well as we did, so we eventually made the decision for him to move into a very nice senior living community with the hope that he would engage in the community there and with people his own age to find some commonality to support him. My sister lived just fifteen minutes away and was able to help and visit frequently, but sadly the scenario of him getting involved in the community never worked out and he was never truly happy there.

By 2019, Dad was experiencing rapidly declining health after a series of physical setbacks and surgeries.  There were household problems in my own home, our kids had many challenging things happening (some good, some bad), and then Dad passed away at 94 years old in August 2019.  I spent the latter half of that year working with the kids to resolve their topics and prepare them for college while also dealing with my grieving process and working with lawyers, bankers, insurance, and tax people to handle my Dad’s estate.  One of his final wishes was for me to ensure that everything was handled correctly for me and my sisters, and it was a ton of confusing work that will continue into 2021 when all is said and done.  This was all occurring while maintaining my full time job. It was a lot, for sure, and the breaking point under the stress of it all was approaching fast.

Stress + more stress = breaking point

I’m a pragmatic, logical, and persistent person.  Give me a problem and some facts, and I’ll doggedly figure it out and get it resolved.  The issue with 2019 was that life was overwhelming me from all directions at once with nothing but problems, worry, stress, and sadness.  We all have those types of years, and 2019 was mine.  It piled up on me, and I kept a lot of it inside just trying to “get the job done” so I could get to easier and better times ahead after I had solved all of the problems.

When you get that stressed out, other aspects of your life suffer greatly.  In my particular case, one example of how it hit me is that all of my creative energy went out the window because I just didn’t feel like pursuing my hobbies and there was little time to do so anyway.  The energy was sucked right out of me by everything else going on.  That only happened one other time in my life back in 2012, and I briefly mentioned it here.  It’s a completely draining, negative, cyclical experience that I vowed not to let happen again, but circumstances in 2019 conspired against me and I found myself back in the same scenario as in 2012.  There were other impacts on me as well, but that’s one of the easiest to explain here.

The thing I didn’t realize is how the stress from all of this was mounting up over several years, not just 2019. It was taking hold over a large span of time, and I just kept going forward no matter what to “get things done”, in a way hearkening back to the old British adage during World War II of “Keep Calm and Carry On”. That approach doesn’t address the root cause of the stress though, it just perpetuates it cyclically and endlessly.  

The thing to realize about stress is that it’s like rust eating away at a piece of metal. It takes hold a little bit at a time, spot by spot, until it overruns the metal and causes its surface to erode and become weak. If left unattended, the rust will engulf the metal and eventually cause it to fail.

Stress does the exact same thing to your mind and body as rust does to metal. It eats away at you on every surface, negatively affecting so many different aspects of your health that I’ve found it incredible to learn about it over the past year. Some of the impacts are to your body’s internal systems like your heart, organs, bones, etc. Other impacts are easily visible on the outside like poorer looking hair, eyes that look dim and sullen, skin problems, poor posture, etc. For some insight of what uncontrolled stress can do to you, reference this article from Healthline or this one from WebMD. There are many articles just like those that spell it out, just search on your favorite trusted/reputable source for medical information and you’ll find plenty of eye opening research.

As my understanding grew, I felt compelled to share my experience here with the hope that readers can relate to this story and take action in their own lives to “stop the stress-rust”. I had a specific set of circumstances generating my stress, and yours are certainly different. The stress might be coming from ten sources, or it might only be coming from one. Regardless, stress is stress, and it should be addressed.

Recognize and respond

Once you become overwhelmingly aware that there’s a problem in your life or with your health, as I did through my emergency room experience, how do you get past it?  How do you begin to “reset”?

The first step is the same as what you’ve heard about other personal challenges that might occur in your life: You must understand and admit that you have a problem.

So that’s where I began. The morning after the hospital incident, I was sitting alone in a quiet room thinking about the experience and about the ramifications for my life and my family’s life if things didn’t go well for me that night. I thought about the complexities of the past few years, the passing of my parents, my wife and kids and our future, and then the epiphany hit me like a bat to the head. I said to myself “I can’t go on like this. I have to fix this.” And thus my journey to reset myself began right in that moment…

That’s the beginning of this story. In Part 2 of this series, I’ll focus on the specific steps that I took to get started with my de-stressing process. I’ll explain how I calmed my mind and daily life, and how I proceeded through 2020 resolving and/or modifying one thing at a time until I was feeling better. It’s a mindful and iterative process of soul-searching and adjusting in which you must be brutally honest with yourself about…everything. For sure though, it’s something that you can definitely do for yourself if you consistently focus energy on it over a sustained period of time.

Stay tuned for more, and if you think this series of articles might help someone you know, please forward this link to them so they can follow along too. Thanks!

How to start and benefit from writing a personal journal

The path to a clear mind, and the enjoyment of tasting life twice

“Writing serves to heighten our own awareness of life…to taste life twice, in the moment, and in retrospection.”

Anaïs Nin

The quote above nicely captures why writing is important in the lives of so many people, myself included. Like any art form, the creative possibilities through writing are nearly limitless. You’re free to go wherever your mind takes you, and to explore as deeply and as long as you like. This post is specifically about how to begin writing a personal journal, and how to realize the many benefits that you can gain from it.

I’ve wanted to write about journaling for a long time, but I didn’t get around to it until something pushed it to the front of my mind recently. Maybe it was the New Year marking the end of the terrible year that 2020 was, combined with all of the hope about how 2021 will bring us to the light at the end of the pandemic tunnel. Maybe it was also because I was off from work around the end of the year and I had some peaceful time to just sit and think about personal things. Whatever the reason, here are my thoughts about journaling and developing the habit of keeping up with it for the long term. If you decide to try it, you’ll likely be glad that you did…

Physical or digital, that is the question

In order to journal, you first need to decide where to journal. Many people like the process of writing with a good quality pen in a nice leather bound journal, or some other type of notebook. If that sounds like you, then you can shop on any number of online sites or local stationary and craft stores to find one. For example, Barnes & Noble has a large selection to choose from.

Physical journaling has many benefits, one of them being that it’s tangible. You can touch, feel, and even smell your journal (if yours happens to be leather bound). It’s there. It’s sensory. You can hear the pages flipping and feel the weight and quality of the paper. You can use different color pens, sketch drawings, tape mementos like ticket stubs, pictures, or travel guide pamphlets into the journal. Some people even do things like pressing small flowers in their journal so they become flat and dried over time. Journals can be small and in the range of 4×6″ or 5×7″ which can be tucked in a pocket or purse, and others can be the size of a photo album for large format journaling with room for adding additional pages when needed. There are all different sizes and styles to suite varying tastes.

The other option is to go digital. I personally prefer using a digital journaling app because I don’t want to carry around a book and pen. More importantly though, I want the option to journal at any time, anywhere, on any of the devices that I always have with me. That freedom helps me to keep up with my writing habit. It’s also nice to have the liberty of attaching a digital photo, video, or audio file to a journal entry to enhance it. Plus, journaling apps can automatically add other valuable information to your entries if you choose. The additions could include using GPS information from your phone to note where you made an entry, what the weather was in that location, or even what music you were listening to at the time you were writing. All of these features can be turned off if you prefer, but including them is a great way to capture your thoughts while adding additional information to your entries for a richer contextual writing experience.

Whatever format you choose, remember that it’s not cast in stone. If one approach doesn’t work for you and it becomes an obstacle to actually doing your writing, then try something else. Eventually you’ll hit your sweet spot of physical or digital (or both), convenience, and features that click for you.

You just have to start…..and then keep going

“The way to get started is to quit talking and begin doing.”

Walt Disney

One of the difficult things about writing anything is that you have to…start. For some people, that might be easier said than done because a blank page can be intimidating. If writing comes easily to you then the words will quickly start flowing onto the pages when you sit down to write. However, for those of you for which writing is a struggle, you might understandably need some tips to encourage and guide you to grab a pen and paper (or download a journaling app) to write your first entries and get yourself out of the starting gate.

I’ve been journaling since 2012 and have learned some key things along the way that might help you. Here are my tips for putting pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard) and also benefiting from the writing process:

Privacy: One of my most important suggestions is to remember that a journal is your private space. It doesn’t matter what you write or how you write it. Nobody is going to judge it, edit it, or even see it if you don’t want them to. It’s your space, your thoughts. Keeping that in mind should help free you from self-editing when you write. Self-editing, and thereby blunting your thoughts and ideas before you can express them, is the biggest barrier to writing of any kind because it stops your thoughts before they even get out of your head. Journaling is all about your mind flowing to page, and if you know that people won’t see what you write unless you want them to, then there’s no worry. Be free with it!

Honesty: Be honest with your writing. The primary benefits of journaling are getting to know yourself better and getting a deeper understanding of how you think and react to the world around you. If you’re not being honest with yourself about what you really think and feel about a topic, then it’s impossible to achieve these benefits. If you feel good about something, then write about it and explain why. If you’re angry or disappointed with someone/something, you’ve failed at a goal, or you’re harboring some other type of unpleasant feelings, just let your emotions pour out honestly. No sugarcoating or self-editing. With the aforementioned privacy, be comfortable that your truth is secured, and the more honest you are then the more insightful your journal will be for you. I’ve humorously dropped more than one f-bomb in my journal when writing about something that made me very angry. I can’t help but laugh when I read those entries back to myself…

Prompts and templates: If you’re new to journaling and you’re having difficulty choosing what to write about, then try starting with some writing prompts here or here, or Google for some other prompts and journal templates that appeal to you. Journaling videos on YouTube and pins on Pinterest can help here as well. There are endless possible prompts to choose from, or you can create your own to suit your needs. Journal templates take the idea of prompts one step further, and are usually a blank page that’s divided into sections with headings that also act as prompts. For example, a template might have sections for “What happened today”, “How did it make me feel”, and “What will I do tomorrow”. Whatever the specific prompts are in a template, the goal is that they provide a way for you to frame your thinking and let the thoughts start flowing. If you’re using a journaling app, they often have built-in templates that you can select for an entry to get you started.

Simplicity: Especially in the beginning, approach your journaling by keeping it simple and low-pressure. If you start easy by writing your most basic thoughts about whatever you choose, you’ll get into the swing of journaling without pressuring yourself to write a novel every time you sit down. Get some basic entries under your belt, maybe writing just a few sentences about what you did this weekend, who you were with, and how it made you feel. Was it fun? Boring? Adventurous? If so, why? Did you have a bad weekend? Write about why, and maybe what you’ll do next time to enjoy yourself more. Using the prompt approach mentioned above is also a way to keep things simple in the beginning and jump-start yourself until you determine what you want your journaling approach to be.

No rules: Your journal entries can be as short or long as you like. You can choose to write once per day, once per week, or just whenever the inspiration hits. Some of my journal entries are just a few sentences to capture a thought, and others go on for pages. I’ve gone through periods when I’ve written more than once per day, and also times when I’ve skipped a few weeks due to other priorities happening in my life that took away my time. (Interestingly, I’ve always felt odd during those skipping periods, like something was missing. Then I realized that it was the process of journaling that was missing!) The main rule is that there are no rules. Journaling should be a pleasurable experience that you enjoy and learn from, not a chore that you feel you have to do. Of course, if you want to journal consistently then developing some good habits around it to provide regular inspiration and output never hurts, but steer clear of hard and fast rules.

Review: Re-read your entries. At some time interval of your choice, review your older entries to see the things you’ve thought about, places you’ve been, and things you’ve done. See how your journaling has changed and grown over time. Some people use the end of the month as a checkpoint to go back and review what they wrote that month, and also set themselves up mentally for how they want to approach the next month. Think about how the process of re-reading makes you feel and see which thoughts and benefits come to you. Your writing will eventually start to feed off itself when you do these reviews and realize what you’ve done and the changes in how you’re expressing yourself. Before you know it, you’ll probably be surprised at how much you’re writing!

Time and persistence: I don’t have a specific time during the day when I journal, but I do specifically find the time for it. I carve out a little slice of alone time to jot down my main thoughts, which sometimes morph into a much longer writing session. I’ve found that if I don’t specifically do that then I get engulfed with other activities and journaling falls by the wayside for a few days. Use your own approach to finding your time, but try to do it and stick with it. I regret the periods where I let my journaling lapse, they seem like holes in my memories.

One for all: You might see recommendations to pick a subject for your journal, but I don’t recommend that in the beginning. For example, some people have different journals for travel, life topics, work, general ideas, etc. When you’re just beginning, it’s easiest to just have one journal for everything so that you don’t have to segment your thinking into “Oh, this should go in my travel journal” or “This should go in my journal for work”. Remember the tips from above…keep it simple and barrier-free so that your ideas will flow easily. You can always transition to using multiple journals in the future if you decide to go that route.

Making the choice of using a physical or digital journal, using my tips above, and maybe trying a few prompts should give you enough foundational ideas to get started with your journaling. Now let’s take a look at some of the benefits of journaling…

Benefits, you say?

There are many mental and physical health benefits of journaling, far more than I ever imagined or were apparent to me at first. This article from Mindful.org or this one from Huffington Post mention some of them that have been researched over time, but if you want to dig deep on the topic then review this article from PositivePsychology.com. It’s a thorough look at how you can transform yourself through the expressive writing of journaling.

Below are some of the specific benefits that I’ve personally experienced from journaling. You might experience these and many others as well, because each person reacts to the process differently. Some benefits came immediately to me and others were realized over time, but no matter how they surfaced the impact of all of them has been undeniably positive on my life.

Stillness: You hear it repeated every day and probably by many people you know, “life moves too fast”. Think about your average day. You have work or school, chores, exercise, friends, and maybe a house, cars and kids to take care of as well. When do you get time to just…think? This is exactly what journaling provides for me, the time to do nothing but sit, think, and express my thoughts. Journaling is “my time” that I carve out for myself with all other activities and distractions eliminated. It is peace and stillness, and I strongly believe that everyone needs this private time in their daily life for optimal health. (Hint: Put your devices on Do Not Disturb when you’re writing…there’s nothing worse than having your “me time” interrupted by a buzzing phone)

Reflection: I’m a thinker. I enjoy learning about and experiencing new things, and afterward I like reflecting on them to expand and deepen those experiences further into my thoughts. I also like to think back about the things I’ve done and places I’ve been to remember and reflect on them as well. This type of reflection , which also involves nostalgia, is a great way to build memories and cement them firmly in my mind. On so many occasions, I’ve thought about a random memory of some time, place or thing and quickly grabbed my journal to write about it. Sometimes I laugh out loud while I’m writing about a funny memory. A perfect example is the time my family walked in on an already occupied hotel room in the middle of the night that was also accidentally assigned to us. We were so stunned when we opened the door, stepped inside, and then realized what was going on that the only thing we could think to do was slam the door shut in the darkness and…run! I don’t know why we ran, but we were laughing so hard that we could hardly breathe as we made our way back to the front desk to tell them their mistake. We still laugh (almost to the point of crying!) when describing each of our panicked reactions when we re-tell this story years later. I enjoy those moments of recollection and like to write about them, especially when they’re funny. Understanding and feeling what you’ve experienced in the past also helps to pave the way for your future.

Consolidation: My head spins with thoughts, and sometimes I can’t dedicate the time to them in their moment to fully resolve what I think or feel about something. Journaling provides me with an opportunity to jot down a quick thought at some point during the day and then return to it later to consolidate and solidify my thoughts. Journaling drives me to organize, articulate, and get my thoughts written down, transcribing them from my swirling mind into text on a page. It gives me an opportunity to debrief with myself.

Closure and healing: For a variety of reasons, sometimes life leaves topics open that really need to be closed for you to heal and move on from them. It could be a disappointing experience, an argument, a death, etc. Sometimes in those circumstances we just don’t say and do the things that should be said and done, and you can be left with hanging threads in your life that can drag you down. Writing about it and getting it off your mind can help to either resolve it within yourself, or lead you to a path to resolve it with others. Resolution leads to healing.

Privacy: I do occasionally write about some things that I don’t discuss with other people. I don’t have difficulty expressing myself or my ideas, so that’s not the reason I keep them to myself. It’s just because some things are…private, and everyone has some thoughts sometimes that fall into that category and you prefer to keep to yourself. Using my journal to get these private thoughts out of my head and more solidly formed in writing is like a long exhale of relief. It feels good.

Stress reduction: If you’ve read the points above and connected them together then you can easily conclude that they lead to a reduction in my stress level. I’m writing an article series about my experience with stress overload, and journaling is one of the ways I worked my way out of being buried by it, so that was a direct benefit to me. There’s nothing like a cleared mind combined with a relaxed body and soul to reduce your stress level.

Self-awareness: Through the process of surfacing thoughts and emotions about my experiences, writing them down in my journal, and re-reading them in the future to see where I’ve been in life, I create a pathway to self-awareness. I know myself very well. I understand what I like and don’t like. The experiences that have been successful, and those that have failed. This knowledge comes from the cycle of processing thoughts and emotions, and then taking the time to write and absorb them. I apply what I learn to help understand my past and also guide my future.

History, memories, and tasting life twice: I’ve saved the biggest benefit for me personally until last, which is the ongoing and rewarding experience of recording your journeys, history and memories in a way that does indeed allow you to “taste life twice”, as mentioned in the quote above from Anaïs Nin. Sometimes I journal as something is happening, and other times I return to do it when I have time at the end of the day. There are so many things both large and small that happen every day to enrich life in some way, and you simply won’t remember them all. I enjoy capturing these thoughts and occurrences so that I can look back and re-live them through my writing. It’s my breadcrumb trail through life.

How do I journal?

With the above being said, what’s my approach for journaling? I chose to go with a total digital approach on both my iPhone and MacBook computer using the excellent Day One application. It has won design awards from Apple and others over the years, and I’ve always found it to be one of the consistently best journaling apps available. Others have come close using approaches similar to Day One, but they never quite hit the same high mark of features and usability that I prefer.

I started using Day One when it was first released and have stuck with it ever since. The developer’s support for the app is strong, and they’ve made constant updates to it over the years to refine and polish it. It has grown into a seamless all-encompassing writing environment. Nearly any type of information you’ll likely want to add to a journal entry is possible with Day One. You can simply type your entries and be done with just your typed words, or you can have the app automatically add other types of ancillary information to your entries to give them more context.

For me, the digital approach strikes the perfect balance of flexibility, portability, usability, and features. If you’re interested in potentially going digital, then please take the time to read this excellent review of the Day One app on The Sweet Setup website. It’s a complete look at all of the features the app has to offer, how to use them, and how they can help you have a better journaling experience. The review also describes several other good options to pick from other than Day One.

Some of my favorite features of Day One, which many other digital journaling apps have as well, include the following:

  • Adding photos, videos, and audio files. It’s great to augment my entries with additional media to make a “complete entry” of the moment I’m writing about.
  • Using hashtags to categorize, organize, and search my entries (e.g., #travel, #movies, #kids, #books, #memory, etc). This is handy when I want to find and re-read entries about a particular topic.
  • Automatic extra data added to my posts, including weather and location. Having location appended to my entries allows me to pull up a map to see where and when I’ve written.
  • Full text search. This is huge. Having my journal entries full text indexed means I can find anything I’ve written over the years by simply searching on a word or phrase that might have been in the text of the entry, its tags, or its title. Very powerful, and not possible with hand written journals. This one feature alone would be enough to push me in the direction of digital journaling.
  • Writing prompts. The prompts included in Day One are thought provoking, and although I don’t use them often because I typically have a lot to write about, it’s interesting to try to tackle one of their prompts when the mood hits me.
  • Exporting/archiving. When I made the decision to use a journaling app, I was conscious of not tying my content up in a proprietary platform from which I could not easily get it out if I ever decided to stop using the app. Day One has good exporting features so your content is definitely yours, and there are no worries about it getting stuck somewhere against your wishes.
  • Exporting entries to print books. I haven’t used this feature yet, but it’s a great idea. The Day One service has a book formatting feature that allows you to select the entries that you would like to export (including photos) for printing into a keepsake book. If you journal about your next family vacation, include some photos about it, etc, then you can export that into a travel book for yourself or as a gift for someone else. I plan to try this on our next family trip.
  • “On This Day”. Day One has a feature called On This Day that will automatically show you the posts you’ve made on a particular day in the past. It’s fun to see what pops up on a given day, and it’s given me a lot of “Oh, I remember that…” moments to enjoy.
  • Encryption and security. Last but not least, security and encryption are fully embedded in the Day One apps and their synchronization service used across your devices (if you subscribe to that option). This is a must for any digital journaling tool. Not only is the content encrypted, but you can password protect the app itself to keep anyone else who might be using your devices out of your journal.

Take the first step

The information in this article provided a glimpse into journaling, how to get started, the benefits, and the route I chose based on my preferences. Journaling is a great private hobby that can span your entire life and provide much positive benefit to you. I encourage you to take the first step and give it a try, and if you like it then you’ll likely find that it will open your mind to new ways of looking at yourself and the world around you. It has the extra benefit of allowing you to taste life twice, and how can you turn that down when life is so short? Enjoy the journey!

P.S. – If you found this article helpful, please forward the link along to others you know who might enjoy it. Thanks!