Keeping a journal can be good for us, but does it matter what we write? Lara Zielin, an author and life coach, believes it does. Ms. Zielin, who is 45 years old and based in Ypsilanti, Mich., advises her clients to follow a method of journaling she calls “Author Your Life,” where people think about themselves as characters in a story of their making. This approach can help the hesitant begin writing and break the rut that seasoned journal writers can experience when they revisit the same things over and over, she says.
“Journaling can be an excavation if you let it, it’s getting to the root of the root of what’s really going on with you and what is really the problem,” Ms. Zielin says.
Below, she describes the benefits of writing about yourself in the third person and how 10 minutes a day of journaling can be enough. Edited excerpts:
Why and how should someone start journaling?
Journaling is really, really good for us. It’s a tool for self-reflection and there are many studies that show it is good for our physical and mental health. I teach my own method but there’s no wrong way to journal. What makes journaling most effective is this idea of welcoming stillness and reflection. Where we get stuck is that in our culture everything is screaming at us to not stop.
Why do some of us write a page or so in a journal and then abandon it?
Difficulty with stillness is probably the primary reason. Also, it is really hard to prioritize ourselves. If we spend time thinking about ourselves, our own wants and what will make us happy, it feels really selfish. We’re not really conditioned to ask “What is it that I really want out of this life?”
Why did you develop a method of journaling?
I was a fiction writer and for so long I thought about what my characters wanted and what would make them happy. Then I thought, “Wait a minute, why am I spending all this time on what my characters want? I’m really unhappy, what will make me happy?” I started writing about myself like a character.
How does it work?
You make yourself the hero in a story of your own making and write about the life that you want to have. We’ve all heard the adage, “Change your story, change your life.” Author Your Life is a way to do that where you write about the life you want to have as if it’s already occurring.
There are five rules for how you do that. I call it the HAPPE method. It starts with H, which is handwriting. It slows down your brain. Many of us have heard that study where kids who type notes on a laptop in class retain less information than the kids writing by hand. It connects a motor skill to a thought, which is more likely to make it stick.
The A is for writing “as if” what we want to have happen is happening now. If I want a beach house in Hawaii, I’m not writing, “I hope one day I’ll have a beach house in Hawaii.” I’m writing “Lara sits on the beach and smells the flowers and feels the wind in her face.”
The first P is for writing in the third person. It gives us a bit of perspective and distance. For example, if I say “I’m going to try to run three days this week,” that voice might say “I’m not sure you can.” But if I have that bit of cognitive distance with “Lara runs three days this week,” my brain is more likely to believe it.
The next P is that we want to keep it positive. This is another cognitive trick. If I say “Lara doesn’t eat all the Oreos,” all my brain hears is “Lara eats all the Oreos.” Instead, you can say “Lara fuels herself with healthy foods.”
I spell HAPPE with an E, which stands for emotions. After we’re done writing, one of the best things we can do is close our notebook and begin to embody the emotions that we just wrote about. It closes the distance between all the things you want to be true and your actual presence. Our minds are so powerful that we can begin to experience that now, whatever it is. It could be a feeling of peace about your job or calm during the pandemic. You just close your eyes and begin to feel those emotions and the power of that story as if it’s happening now. If you never get that beach house, you still have experienced it in some way.
Why does that help?
One of the most fundamentally powerful things is to write a story about when you love yourself and feel good about yourself. Then when those self-sabotaging behaviors or mean thoughts that we all have about ourselves start, the tension is there on the page—that’s not my story, that’s not what I’m trying to experience. It’s a tool for awareness and hopefully a tool for change.
Why do journaling ruts happen?
People get stuck or write one page and then walk away because they’re just revisiting pain, reliving a crappy situation with no way to change it. By giving yourself permission to bring your imagination into the journaling process and allowing yourself the opportunity to say what a great day looks like or a great job looks like, it brings in new thoughts that are fresh and ushers in hope.
Any suggestions on what to write about first?
Put your hero, who is you, into an ideal day. What is happening? I encourage people to go deeper into what are they tasting, smelling, all of the senses. Most importantly, what are they feeling?
It’s not about recording what happened to you that day?
Right, I’m journaling in the third person, in the future. But if it feels good to create a record of your day, absolutely do it. Find what works for you. I have a client who hates writing but she loves lists. So she makes bullet-point lists of what will go awesome in her life and that works for her. There is no wrong way to journal.
How do we deal with regret for not journaling during the pandemic?
One of the top things that my clients struggle with is self-compassion. We are so hard on ourselves. I would invite you to write something along the lines of “ ‘Your name’ gives themselves love, self-compassion and kindness and is gentle with themselves for the year that they’ve had.” The last thing any of us need is guilt for something we didn’t do.
Any tips for people who struggle to find time to journal?
I feel for people who don’t have an hour, but you might have 10 minutes. You can make enormous progress in 10 minutes with this process. I also encourage people who feel that they don’t have 10 minutes to stop for a second and ask “Do you really want this life where you don’t have 10 minutes?” If you’re a character, and this is a story, how happy is this character, what messages are you listening to if you don’t even have 10 minutes? What are you willing to change?
How about alternative methods of journaling, like emailing yourself or using audio recordings?
The idea is to really meet yourself on the canvas, a vision board, the page, somewhere. Make it intentional and say “I’m going to meet myself through this process, I’m going to engage in reflection and allow whatever needs to come up to come up.”
Share Your Thoughts
If you have been keeping a journal, how has the practice been helpful? Join the conversation below.
Write to Ellen Byron at firstname.lastname@example.org
Copyright ©2020 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved. 87990cbe856818d5eddac44c7b1cdeb8