Writing And Making Use Of A Personal Development Journal

I started journaling after Natalie died. My next girl friend bought me a Sherra Club notebook and I started writing in it on Feb 18th, 1996. When I reread my first entry, which explained what I was going to do with the journal, I laugh because it sounds more like the purpose of this blog – I had wanted to write down things that others would find useful. It was my intention to help them. It’s funny now because the journal quickly changed from being something that would be useful to others to something that would be useful to me.

Before I put pen to journal paper, I had been writing on individual sheets of paper or in a blue note book. I was grieving and had found writing letters to Natalie explaining how I was feeling about her death to be helpful for me as it seemed to make my thoughts more real. The stuff was sad or self indulgent, I had noticed that I felt better after I wrote out just how unhappy I was because I never felt as bad as my words made it seem. The writing was an exercise that was moving me past the grief and mourning. Since I was feeling better 6 months on, I decided that it was time to make a more permanent contribution to the grief process by doing something that would be useful to others.

The problem was that I wasn’t anywhere close to knowing how I was feeling about death and grief and I was a far cry from being self-aware. My life and mind were littered with impulsive thoughts, anger and immaturity. As such, the entries in the journal moved from being concise and evolved lessons that could be useful for others to ideas and thoughts about whatever seemed to be gripping my mind at the time. From a quantity point of view, it was a fairly productive period because there were lots of things swirling around my consciousness and my unconscious mind seemed to be working in overdrive too because stuff seemed to flow out of me once I started writing. Some of it was really good for an incomplete man in his mid-twenties, most of it was what you would expect, not garbage, but not the stuff with universal appeal that I had hoped would be coming out of me. The journal moved from being a book of lessons to a book about my personal development.

Below are the 5 steps I took to write and make use of my journal:

The First Step in writing a useful personal development journal is populating it with honest information. You need to feel free enough to write whatever is on your mind without fear of being judged harshly by others. You need to write from the heart whenever you can because this is where the truth lies. It’s a journal and it contains your thoughts but these are NOT necessarily facts. We all think a bunch of stuff that ISN’T facts or even what we want. If we think others will be reading them, the depth and clarity of the idea will suffer. In fact, we tend to leave stuff out that may be useful; take blogging for example, I take great care to make sure every word I use is the right word and that I am sure that I think and feel how I am claiming to think or feel. The ideas are not set in stone but I’ve thought about them long enough to say that what I have written is how I think about the particular item. New information can change the idea but it will need to be pretty compelling.

The Second Step in writing a useful personal development journal is writing in it frequently. This one is a little tricky because writing is a skill that you need to practice and what you write as practice may have nothing to do with personal development. Try your best to keep the non-personal stuff out of the journal, but keep the journal close at hand when you are practicing because some of your clearest ideas will pop into your head when you’re writing something completely unrelated.

The Third Step is writing a useful personal development journal is writing about things that are personal to you – this doesn’t necessarily mean personal items, it can, but it also includes stuff that addresses or concerns how you look at the world, realization that you have just had, or things that you have learned that seem significant even if you do not know why they feel important. Information about new jobs, new classes, new friends and new romantic partners should be included. Very often these things will move your awareness very quickly and, at the very least, they open up a world of new experiences that will shape who you are.

The Forth Step in writing a useful personal development journal is filling it with information over a long period of time. While you should only write to the journal whenever you have something personal to say, you should make an effort to write at least once a week. It may not happen, but you need to try. Most often you will go in phases of intense writing, when it seems like you have a lot to say because you have reached a new place in your understanding of the world, followed by no writing, when you’ve captured everything you had on your mind. Keep your journal handy when you enter one of these no writing phases because you have no idea when the dam will break and ideas will stream out. Just make sure to date each entry with at least the month and year, but it’s a good idea to include the day of the month as well.

The Final Step is rereading it from cover to cover a couple of times a years looking for patterns, common themes, changes in your understanding and evolving ideas. This is what will make it useful to you from a development perspective. If you have followed the first 4 steps, this should be fairly easy and sometimes painful to do. Ideas evolve over a period of time and they tend to lag just slightly behind steps of increased maturity, which themselves tend to follow new experiences. Given the lag, it can be useful to read it backwards as well; this will often present you with the enhanced idea, then the moment of increased maturity and then the experience that was the trigger of all of the progress.

Regardless of the direction you read, you NEED to do this because otherwise what you have written will never come alive or resonate within you. Keep in mind that human beings are incredible pattern matching machines so keep giving it information to work with so it can start to uncover the patterns. Your brain has a lot of power that isn’t called upon very often so give it something to work with so you can tap into this ability. Remember, when you read something that you have written and it creates a sense of dissonance (a feeling of wrongness because what is written and how you view the world are not in line) you have hit upon something that is likely personal development.

Some of the patterns themes that I have found and what I did about them:

A need and a desire to be by myself (not in a relationship) for a while to figure out what made me tick. Between the ages of 18 and 31 I had been single (not in a long term relationship) for less than 6 months and the longest period of time followed Natalie’s death (about 3 months). It was everything I knew about adult life and, in hindsight, I was unhappy for most of it. There was one entry in particular that just sickened me to read because I mentioned that I was jealous of an X girlfriend who had taken the time after we broke-up to be single while I just found another relationship without thinking about what I had learned from the last one. When the next relationship ended, I took the time and have been, for the most part single and happy since. I finally got to know who I am and what I like doing, which marked the beginning of the most productive period of my life so far.

Finding completion in another person vs. in myself. Along the same lines as the need to be alone, reviewing the journal revealed that my sense of self depended upon being in a relationship. I had worth if I was in a partnership with someone else. I’m not hacking on partnerships, just those that contain one partner who isn’t already a complete individual. They say you cannot be useful to another if you cannot be useful to yourself and I tend to agree, as would my X girlfriends during this time. If the relationship went bad, I suffered and took it out on them because I felt my identify was being jeopardized. I haven’t been in a relationship for almost 2 years now and, while there are things I miss (like making dinners together, holding hands, hugging, feeling unconditional love from someone who isn’t family and having someone to be alone with) I do not miss the doubt and the toxic approach I took to get what I needed to feel complete.

The need to take an active role in my life and define my life by my actions, instead of letting stuff happen. I had the classic victim complex and I was very good at seeing reasons why I couldn’t do want I wanted. I would manufacture road blocks, transfer my feelings onto other people and basically sit on my ass while life was done to me. Oh so much wasted time. Ironically, seeing this pattern years ago, I did nothing about it until I made the conscious choice to remain single. Then, when I started doing things, I really surprised myself by what I was able to do.

A lot of self hatred. I didn’t like myself very much and I think I was trying to kill myself slowly. I was a smoker, I had a poor relationship with food, I stressed about things that didn’t matter and I would destroy anything that was good in my life because I didn’t think I had value or worth. I felt a lot of shame and anger and I blamed myself for everything that didn’t go the way I like. My friends didn’t really notice this, but my parents did and, when I started to realize it, my dad spoke very frankly about how my actions actually made me feel and what they did to him and my mom. (Part of me is very grateful that I had drifted away from my brother during this time because we never had to rebuild our relationship after I destroyed it with my self loathing). My parents stuck by me because that’s what parents do for their children.

Peace. Very, very odd. I noticed that after my trip out east last summer I effectively stopped writing in the journal. There were 3 entries after the trip and the last one was on October 1, 2006 and it concerned the success of a race my bike team entered. In fact, the last 5 or 6 entries are more just reports of events and things that I did. There was no confusion, turmoil or pain. One of them mentions the fact that what I was hoping to find out east was actually within me all along and that I was ready to deal with it. The thing was, once I realized the journey was an internal one, it was over because I knew that whatever I needed to get out of life I could manufacture within myself. All I wanted was to be happy and I can be happy whenever I want and without reason. I did not need another person, another location or another experience to bring it to me, all I needed was the will and it would follow.

My advice to you is that you start a personal development journal and follow the 5 rules. If you are already journaling, take a few hours today to reread what you have written. At worst, you get to see how your writing has improved over the last few years, at best, you’ll see yourself for who you are and finally have the strength to do something about it. Knowledge is power so make the effort to find the knowledge, the quality of your life may depend upon it.