Inner Limits

Why You’re Not Getting More Out of Journaling

Isaac Smith / Unsplash

By Frank Anaya

Every day you journal, you’re bringing fresh soil into your idea garden. But if you never look back at what you wrote, you’re losing the opportunity to till that soil, to work it and see what grows.

Experts like Tim Ferriss and Julia Cameron say that the process of journaling is beneficial on its own, and that you don’t need to—and even shouldn’t—review what you write. But this “no review” rule deprives us of the opportunity to dig into the roots of our insecurities, uprooting our real or imagined fears. 

The practice of reviewing my journal entries helped me face a fear that had defined much of my life: the fear of writing. English was not my first language, and learning it gave me a lot of anxiety. I felt shy, judged, and not enough. When I got an F on a paper in 9th grade English, I told myself: “You can’t write.” Years later, when I began reviewing my journal entries, I discovered that not only could I write, but I could express myself powerfully in writing—I could even find myself in writing. 

You may never have to learn another language, but you can probably relate to the insecurity that comes from not being able to express your thoughts confidently. That self-judgment holds us back from realizing the benefits of journaling.

What Journal Reviews Can Do For You

In Tiago Forte’s course Building a Second Brain, I heard him say something about writing that was so different from what I had always believed: “’We don’t give our own ideas the same worth we give others.”  

Whoa. I realized I had habitually dismissed my ideas for years. I felt unworthy of my thoughts and judged them harshly. My shift came in seeing a new glimpse of myself – a being with ideas worth sharing. So I began to journal. 

I quickly realized that there could be so much more to journaling than mere writing. Writing is a powerful tool, but not the only one. We can record our spoken words, film our body language and voice, and listen to ourselves gain insights in real time. I left so much unsaid, unexplored, when all I did was write. 

I developed a system of journaling that incorporated all of these methods into a review process that helped me get more out of my experiences. My review system enables me to slow down and immerse myself into my experience. I am able to transform the process of journaling into a reparative process, revealing lessons, feedback, and a space for creativity. I can capture ideas for future articles, essays, and projects that I would have otherwise missed.

This methodology has helped me get over my discomfort in hearing and seeing myself speak, all while allowing me to process what I’ve written down. Now I understand how I make decisions, and patterns in my behavior and thinking. 

My journaling process incorporates multiple layers of review, each one providing a deeper level of discovery. As you read the steps below, consider how these steps can integrate into your current workflow. The key is flexibility and adaptability. 

The deeper I go, the more value I get out of the process. Being intentional and focused in journaling while being confident of the process is how I harvest the best fruits from my idea garden. That extra bit of effort grows the seeds of my ideas into blossoming trees.

A Step By Step Journal Review

This step-by-step process will help you access the limits of your inner self. 

STEP 1: WRITE AND SCAN

The process starts the moment you capture your thoughts, ideas, and reflections in your journal. You make an intentional choice, a vote of confidence to listen to yourself.

I follow Julia Cameron’s journaling recommendations in The Artist’s Way. Cameron’s suggestion is to write “morning pages” (which you can do at any time of day), a process of writing three pages in a stream-of-consciousness style. That means writing three pages without any filters. Don’t hold back or start with any expectation for a specific outcome. I choose to write three pages in longhand because it’s a great way to capture my ideas without being too selective:

How to do it

  1. Use any physical journal to write. For me, I use a Mead composition notebook, which costs less than a dollar.

  2. Use the Evernote “capture image” feature to scan the written entry into your digital library. 

Benefits and Explanation

Once I started scanning and looking back at my morning pages, the review process’ first lesson became clear: I could see an uplifting, encouraging voice emerge. I saw a vision of a person who would step into the roles and opportunities life presented them. I liked this person. It was me. 

STEP 2: READ AND RECORD

Once I have a scanned copy of my journal entry, I read it out loud. This is a crucial part of getting the most out of your writing! I do this every time I journal. 

How to do It

  1. I use Otter.ai to record my audio and produce an automatic transcript, and make note of the tags it creates. 

  2. Simultaneously, I record myself reading aloud using Loom. 

Benefits and Explanation

Reading out loud is a way to gain perspective. When you read aloud, you build a stronger connection with what is written and can gain the clarity you didn’t have when you first wrote. You see and understand the material in a new way to increase your cognition of the written material. 

Video and audio recorder tools allow for objectivity. There’s a space created that enables us to observe the ideas and thoughts we have. Writing alone doesn’t give me the feedback of interacting with a person (in this case, myself). Video enables me to coach myself. Coaching is being able to see the picture outside of the frame. With video feedback, I see what improvements and changes in my life I need to make. Reading aloud will allow you to process feelings and emotions you may have glossed over when writing. I find myself applauding and reacting to moments when I review.

STEP 3: STORE YOUR ENTRY IN YOUR SECOND BRAIN

Your “second brain” is an external, centralized, digital repository for the things you learn and the resources from which they come—it’s where you store your assets. My second brain consists of many tools; the main players are Notion and Evernote.

How to do it

1. Store your journaling entry as an image 

  • Tip: Pick a note capturing tool that allows for quick import. Speed matters. The faster you import your written material, the faster you’ll create a habit. If possible, automate a workflow to send your captured images to a predetermined Journal Binder. I use Evernote for this task. 

  • Take a picture of my written journal entry using the Evernote Mobile App. I select the Handwriting option and have Evernote convert the images into scanned entries that are OCR’d. 

  • I have a binder in Evernote where I store my entries. I don’t worry about organizing the structure, all I want is a place where I know the entries are stored. 

2. Add Raw Digital text from the Otter.ai transcription. I add it to a column.

3. Don’t worry about sorting and organizing your journal entries. Just capture them.

4. Bonus Step: Export from Evernote To Notion.

  1. I export my entries using the Notion Importer. 

  2. I open the Notion and Evernote transfer side by side, copying the text, and pasting the Loom Link because of the automatic video embedder option in Notion. 

Notion is my organized second brain, and where I actively maintain my knowledge in digital form. Evernote is the uncurated, disorganized space where I don’t really make an active effort to maintain a structure.

Benefits and Explanation

By storing my writing, I capture a source of knowledge that otherwise would be inaccessible. I can relive my life anytime, anywhere, because it’s stored. 

With access to knowledge previously trapped in my journal I can instantly search, categorize, and experience my life when I need it. You can rapidly retrieve ideas when it’s time to work at creating your next writing assignment or even look up your reflections and strategies on how to approach the difficult conversation you’ve avoided having. 

Having direct access to my experiences allows me to reap the benefits of the work I did once, many times over. Emotions, thoughts, and ideas over time become a searchable database of my life, which allows me to see patterns in thoughts and behavior. 

STEP 4: PROGRESSIVE SUMMARIZATION

This step is where you reap the seeds you’ve planted in your journaling. You can till the soil and pick the fruit with progressive summarization.

The idea of progressive summarization is to take a note at layer 0, which is the unprocessed original, full-length source text, and design it for your future self in a way that is meaningful, by adding bold passages, highlighting information and even “remixing,” or creating a mini summary of points or highlights to use at a later time.

Source Article: Progressive Summarization: A Practical Technique for Designing Discoverable Notes

How to do it

  1. Bold your raw text. I do a quick pass, and whatever words stand out, they get selected. 

  2. Highlight. I’m looking for links for article ideas or content pieces that are seeds beginning to sprout. 

  3. Ask questions to trigger the unconscious mind. Next, I ask and start wondering about meaning. That’s where the intuition part comes to play. I capture that last part as a thought in the last column and next step. Here is where I start to ask questions. 

Tip: Don’t overthink, and please don’t try to get it right. I don’t, because that takes the joy and positive feelings out of the process. 

Benefits and Explanation

Intuition, imagination, and feelings are not always easy to listen to. This process allows me to hone and develop my ear to see and feel what matters to me. I also realize that “the gut feel” is the unconscious brain signaling patterns. 

By the time I reached this level, I’ve passed through many levels of review, so often what comes to the top is the revealed, valuable insights that mattered to me.

Explaining this process takes much longer than actually doing it. While not a hard rule, I usually pull out a few sentences or even keywords, to contemplate the reason and connection to me. That’s how I see meaning from what I write.  

STEP 5: INSIGHT INTEGRATION

Insight is visual, a simple flip of the word and you get “sight-in.” In the last step we talked about intuition and questions. In this step we burrow deep into the soil of perception and insight. 

Insight is using intuition to reveal patterns of understanding significant to you. In the stillness of your process, you can glimpse that inner part of yourself externalized in your journal. 

The work you’ve done in the prior steps to listen to that voice now allows you to perceive what you ignored before. If you’re feeling stuck in a project you’re currently working on, or not sure how to deal with a person causing you problems, or if you’re feeling confused and overwhelmed about what your next step is, then here is where your answers will show up. 

How to Do it

  • Ask questions to reveal the answers
  • If you can ask a better question, you can change the focus of your outcome.
  • Use “helping questions” when you look over your recorded entry
  • Asking questions is an art, but there’s still a foundation we can use. Questions can be like our own personal helpers ready to serve us in our lives. Rudyard Kipling once wrote, “I keep six honest serving-men (They taught me all I knew); Their names are What and Why and When And How and Where and Who.” Ask the same questions Rudyard did or come up with your own. In the end this process is intuitive and built with practice. 
  • Think about the areas you are focusing on
  • For my own life, I have seen a few themes show up, like my relationships, business ideas, and dreams and aspirations. I have a clear idea of what areas matter most to me. Whether I need to pursue projects, take on challenges, or ask for opportunities, having a clear picture of my areas as I look at my insights, I see what’s important to me. 

Benefits and Explanation

Procrastinating, ignoring the projects and problems in our life, or not being aware of them can hurt and hold us back. Listening to the themes that surface at this level, I have been able to make positive changes in my life that have shifted my future.

This process has helped me establish a body of work, and a practice where I know I can refer back to the core of what I’m here to do. I am able to connect to the bigger picture of my life, and become grounded in my purpose. In this step, I see how my vision and dreams unfold to get a stronger glimpse of what is truly important to me. 

Are journal reviews worth the work?

Before I started reviewing my journal entries, I thought I knew what was holding me back. I didn’t. There were rules I had learned and adopted without question. These were hidden until I started to see them surface as judgments and stories in my journaling process. I discovered a whole new world of possibility and thought, mostly one I had been closed off to. 

With the world in a pandemic, doom and gloom prevail. In my journaling practice, I realized I felt safe to explore more profound, more essential matters in my life—for example, death. I experienced the death of a friend who was a couple of years younger than me. I mourned in my pages, reflecting on the fleeting nature and shortness of life. 

In reflecting on these moments of pain when reviewing my journal, I can say that I found an opportunity to see and honor the joy, which means seeing and embracing the positive side of life. This is a choice I realize I can make every day. 

Reviewing my journal entries helped me gain confidence in my relationships, too. Reviewing helped validate my thoughts and ideas, and made me feel ready to share myself with others. It gave me the confidence to ask a friend I’d known for the better part of nine years to start a relationship together. Had it not been for journaling I would have suppressed my feelings, played it safe and avoided the risk of getting hurt.

When I began reviewing these journal entries, there were three deep discoveries:  

  1. By involving my whole self in the review process, I could self-validate that my thoughts were worthwhile. I had never been able to before.

  2. Reviewing my work helped me improve and recognize patterns that weren’t helpful to me, both in my life, and in how I was writing. 

  3. Elements of improving my confidence and getting rid of this really deep-rooted anxiety about self-expression came up. Reviewing my journal entries helped me get over that. 

I now see that I have a say in my future and how I view it. I see an optimistic, positive attitude reflected at me. 

It is a wonderful gift to live in a world where your ideas, conversations, and inner self can surface daily. Journaling is where a glimpse of the future comes into the present. Through the process of journaling and reviewing, I’ve discovered the real me. 

If I could go back in time with what I know today and write to my 9th-grader me, I would happily say, “Hey Franky, Ms. K. marking up your paper isn’t so bad. Don’t let it stop you. Keep persevering. Someday you’ll write for thousands of people. It’s happening, and you have no idea what doors will open when you step into your voice. Show her this article for me, ok?”

Journaling Next Step and Prompts

Now, what about you? Are there areas in your life that could benefit from a review process to explore and review them with courage? 

Is there a story or narrative where you have done the same? 

What are the critical areas in your life you can benefit from diving into and reflecting on more deeply? Is there a problem, a situation, or a moment you can benefit from exploring at this time?

Thank you for reading. What resonates with you? I’d love to hear how you have dealt with writing and creating content in your life, as you’ve overcome inner limits. You can message me on Twitter at @peoplewhogrow.

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