I’ve tried several times since I was a kid to keep a journal. I’ve never stuck with it very long because it got boring to account the events of my day each night on the page. I was a nobody, doing nothing interesting; who would care to read my thoughts or my daily activities? When I was learning Arabic, I kept a daily journal but that was more to force myself to produce in the language daily than it was about capturing anything meaningful.
In my recent readings I came across a different justification for journaling. My previous mistake was that I had always considered journaling as an activity one did for others. I was always looking at my journal as though it were some tool for posterity to benefit from my wisdom and actions ( I know, right!?). I’m journaling again, both in this blog and using a new app, but my purpose now is to think. I’m writing to think about my day and process the events and not just to chronicle them for some unlikely biographer.
The idea for stoic journaling was first introduced to me in a YouTube video by Tim Ferriss, author of the Four-Hour books. He was showing a worn out book that he used twice a day to capture his thoughts. The book is commercially available. It was called the Five-Minute Journal. I consider myself a busy person, but felt even I could crank out five minutes.
The five minute journal is done twice a day, upon awakening and before going to bed. The idea behind the five minute journal is to capture three things for which you are grateful, and three things you can do in the day ahead to make it great. Each day you are greeted with a quote on which to meditate and encouraged to create an affirmation. At the end of each day you write about what you accomplished and what you could have done to make the day even better.
The journal has been a useful tool that lets me think about what I really want to accomplish and to hold myself to a standard at the end of the day when I have fallen short of my own expectations. Beyond gratitude and tasks, there is a deeper purpose to journaling.
Marcus Aurelius regularly captured his thoughts on a wide variety of topics. His journals were later collected into a book called Meditations (It’s FREE for Kindle or a buck if you want a print copy!). I’m reading through it now and recommend it to anyone interested in philosophy as it applies to real life.
The first part of Meditations resembles the morning ritual in the Five-Minute Journal. Aurelius details the many things for which he is grateful. The wide ranging subjects of his gratitude are a great example of really looking at one’s life for things to be thankful for.
The most valuable for me are the examples of introspection in Aurelius’s examinations of his day. This is far beyond the mere retelling of events. The recollection of daily life is filled with observations about his own reactions, especially where he feels that he could have better handled a situation.
Finally the writings serve as an exploration of the tenets of stoic philosophy. Ryan Holiday has written a lot recently on the value of stoic philosophy in daily life. Capturing my own thoughts on detachment and presence has been useful for me mostly in recognizing where I allowed the events or people around me to frustrate me or otherwise influence my demeanor or actions.
Ulysses S. Grant, Civil War General and Former President, wrote in his memoirs (less than a buck!) of attempting to capture on a regular basis summaries of what he had read since his last entry in order to help remember. I usually read 5-6 books a week but have never really tried to capture what the work meant to me. I’m embarrassed to admit that I’ve gotten halfway through some fiction books before realizing that it is one I had already read.
Going forward, I am trying to engage more deeply with my readings. While reading I am highlighting and taking notes. Since most of my reading is on Kindle, I can do this on the device. Speaking of Kindle, if you read voraciously you really should consider Kindle Unlimited.
I need to spin through and figure out exactly how much this service has saved me, but it is a lot. I keep ten books on my Kindle at any one time and am constantly cycling new titles in from the Unlimited collection. If you’re not interested in Kindle Unlimited but subscribe to Amazon Prime, check out the Prime Reading selections. They are not as comprehensive as the Unlimited catalog but still a valuable benefit you may not be maximizing. If you don’t already subscribe you can try it for free. Try Amazon Prime 30-Day Free Trial
I’ve been trying to combine Grant’s method for capturing what I read, combined with a marginalia and index card system preached by Ryan Holiday and Robert Greene. I’m doing this two different ways right now. I’ve begun a Commonplace book for capturing meaningful quotes and my own thoughts. My Commonplace book exists in two formats. One version is in Microsoft OneNote, the other is a series of 4×6 index cards in a box. I’m playing with both until I decide what is best. Ryan believes the handwritten way is the best way because of the effort involved. I feel like the benefits of having the material digitally and available across multiple platforms may outweigh the benefits of scribbling something in my terrible handwriting.
Seriously, it’s terrible. When I was in third grade my handwriting teacher gave me the cursive textbook to take home over the summer. I must have lost it because I mostly print to this day in a scribble that even I have difficulty reading most of the time.
The Examined Life
Socrates said at his trial that the unexamined life is not worth living. I think that the strength of these journaling efforts is not that it will preserve my thoughts for posterity but that it will allow me to explore myself and improve my daily interactions. I’m the farthest thing from perfect, but I hope that by capturing and reflecting on my day, I might become a better person. In the end all we can control is our own reactions to things. I hope that through introspection I might become the master of myself instead of a slave to the whims of the day and my own destructive habits.