How Do You Use a Journal?

It’s not just a diary…

Note: This version differs from the original, which had to be edited due to a typo caught by an alert reader. Thank you!

Recently I got into a discussion about how people use journals in their personal and professional lives. As of this upcoming Christmas, I will have been keeping a journal regularly in paper and electronic form for 30 years. For me, it’s become an indispensable tool for multiple mental tasks.

As a Work Tool

Meeting minutes

Keeping a journal handy can be useful for multiple work activities, chief among them taking notes during meetings–for yourself, if no one else. During a meeting, I would take my version of the minutes, which on more than one occasion got me the duty of typing up my notes and emailing them to the team after the meeting…after they were curated/edited by my manager, of course. 

Why edited? The journal, usually handwritten, was my version of events–calling out information or behavior that was of interest to me. I’ve got a Gen Xer’s sarcastic bent, and sometimes I’d make my own comments/observations on what I heard, which was why my manager would edit my notes before I sent them out. My leaders didn’t always appreciate my interpretation. As a result, I’d end up writing two sets of notes: one for me, one for public consumption.

I was once asked, since I was using them for work, if I wanted the company to reimburse me for the cost of my journals–I’d go through 200 5 X 8-inch pages in 1-2 months–and I refused, mostly because once I left the job, the company would own my thoughts…and quite frankly some of my thoughts were none of their business.

Thought tool

In addition to taking notes, I would also collect acronyms from meetings–NASA is awash in them–and from those notes I’d create an acronym document for myself…which, again, would often become a shared document in the office.

Also, I’ll write down questions to ask myself or others later: points of clarification, items to research, or the meanings of things I didn’t think could be found in my existing sources. I’ve written preliminary thoughts for future products as well. 

In short, my journal can be the starting place for my rough drafts.

As a Personal Development Tool

Literary therapy

The personal or “diary” function of a journal can also be a useful tool for sorting out your thoughts about work, your home life, or anything else happening in the world. Before I started taking my journal to work, it was my go-to place for writing down my thoughts and feelings. However, it wasn’t until my 20s and 30s that I really started using my journal as a way to try solving my problems, not just rant about them. 

One key thing about writing for your own purposes is the opportunity to write honestly about yourself and others. Mind you, your opinions might not always be welcome or appreciated (I’ve learned that the hard way upon making the mistake of sharing my journal with curious onlookers). Still, if you keep the journal out of sight from others, you can use your self-honesty as a way to sort out what you’re thinking/feeling and why. If you’re not going to be honest with yourself about who you are and why, why bother writing?

Some good questions to ask yourself when faced with a personal dilemma include:

  • How does the situation make you feel?
  • What, specifically, is bothering you–others’ behavior, your reaction to it, or something else?
  • WHY does the situation bother you?
  • Have you felt this way before? How did you handle it?
  • What could you do to respond to the situation or think differently about it? 
  • What outcome(s) would make you feel better?
  • What outcome(s) would be most realistic?
  • If you handled something badly, what can you do in the future to prevent the behavior?

These are the types of questions therapists might ask, so you can think of a journal  as a literary form of therapy (for considerably less money). This is why I’m planning a nice bonfire for my journals upon my death. They’re nobody’s damn business but mine.

Family history

Mind you, the “therapy” version of a journal is written assuming that you are the sole or primary reader. You might choose to keep a journal as a chronicle of world or personal events (and your reactions to them) so your family will have a keepsake when you’ve passed on. In that case, you might consider writing with more concrete questions in mind:

  • What events happening in the wider world are affecting your life right now?
  • How do you feel about them?
  • What are the particulars of your life at the time you’re writing? This could include:
    • Where do you live? 
    • What are your most prized possessions?
    • What’s the weather like?
    • What sort of clothes are you wearing?
    • Who are your closest associates? What are they like?
    • What do you do for a living? What sorts of problems occupy your time?
    • What is going on with your family? (Nothing intrigues like old family gossip!)

The thing about writing for others–say, your children, grandchildren, or some other future generation–is that you might be tempted to censor yourself or show yourself only in a good light. Or you might let them see yourself as you are, warts and all. In which case it’s probably a good idea to wait until you have died if you want to avoid a lot of ugly arguments. Your call.

Bottom Line

A journal can be used any way you like. Address it as a long letter to your Deity. Write to it as a friend (“Dear Diary…”). Write to yourself. Write to that long-distant future relative. Make it a work tool or a mechanism for personal growth. Any way you put it to use, you are likely to benefit.

About Bart Leahy

Freelance Technical Writer, Science Cheerleader Event & Membership Director, and an all-around nice guy. Here to help.
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