I initially moved some of my journaling techniques into Roam because I wanted to learn to use the database.
Why was I motivated to learn the database that seemed so perplexing at first?
Several reasons, really. But one of the most compelling motivations is that I loved the Roaman community on Twitter and I wanted to be part of the conversation.
Meanwhile, my journaling practice flourished in Roam. My graph took every technique I had been practicing with a pen and notebook and improved my practice.
Daily Notes templates helped me with consistency.
The ability for me to tag my future self helped me reflect on previous writings, which led me to more celebrations of growth and more stinging realizations about where I needed improvement.
Self-reflection and insights increased exponentially as the number of blocks in my graph increased.
I asked lots of questions on Twitter, and shared my graph and my thoughts.
Benefits from the past 7 years – how am I different?
I’ve been keeping a journal for about seven years.
My journaling journey began when a friend challenged me one November (Thanksgiving month in the U.S.) to start keeping a gratitude log. I gave in because she and I share the same birthday in November and it seemed like I was giving her a gift.
After the first 30 days, I kept going.
Even though I’d only logged a gratitude list in my Day One app about four days out of every seven, I was changing.
Others were noticing. I was different.
The most startling comment I received was from a co-worker.
Every morning for years, I’d walk through the front door to our office suite, make a remark to our receptionist, and stride into my office to start the day.
Two or three weeks or so into my gratitude practice, the receptionist (who remains a dear friend) mentioned that I was actually saying “Good morning!” when I walked through the door every day.
It seemed odd. Didn’t I say “Good morning” every day?
Then came the truth.
She said that, up until late November, I’d walk in every morning and blurt out some sort of complaint about the weather or traffic or some other negative thought.
I didn’t even know how negative I’d been for all those years.
Her observation helped me realize something that absolutely blew my mind. With a ridiculously simple daily habit, I could be a consistent encourager instead of a perpetual spreader of negativity.
Seven years later, and I’m still surprised when people tell me I’m “kind.”
While I don’t want to paint a picture of my past self as an unfeeling and uncaring jerk all the time, I must admit that in my professional career there have been many times that I’ve been much more concerned about results than people.
Today, I’m a different person.
Not all of the change is because of my journaling practice. But a significant part is.
Working the 12 steps of recovery for unresolved grief, anger, and resentment and making a commitment to live life according to Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5 – 7) has helped tremendously.
When I began working the steps, my life was in shambles because I was having difficulty coming to terms with the death of my dad.
It just so happens that journaling helps me untangle thoughts from emotions and emotions from actions and words.
Full disclosure: I fail every day at following the teachings of Jesus, because it’s difficult work. Still, my life is better because I pursue the life He modeled.
From a gratitude practice to a daily inventory and beyond
It’s no coincidence that my journaling habit progressed as I worked through each of the 12 Steps for the first time.
Step 10 calls for a daily examination of our actions.
I’ve heard it called the “Clint Eastwood Step” because we examine “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly” moments in our day – the title of a 1970s era spaghetti Western film starring Mr. Eastwood.
Another journaling technique taught within my recovery community and taught by John Baker of Saddleback Church is called a HEART check.
A daily practice for several months helped me tame an overwhelming problem with anxiety.
We ask 5 questions with yes or no.
- Am I hurting?
- Am I exhausted?
- Am I angry?
- Am I resentful?
- Am I tense?
The beauty of this exercise isn’t so much in the questions (although they’re effective).
The real benefit comes when the practitioner sets – in advance – a set of protocols for what to do WHEN we answer YES 2 or 3 times in a day.
Maybe the protocol is to take a walk or do a quick meditation session.
(These are examples. The person practicing this on a daily basis works with her team to define the parameters.)
With each affirmative response, the protocol is ramped up.
So if the answer is YES to all 5 questions?
Call your recovery sponsor.
If you’re responding affirmatively to 4 or 5 on consecutive days, call your mental health professional.
Practising this daily for several months helped me tame an overwhelming problem with anxiety.
I haven’t used this method in Roam Research yet because, thankfully, I haven’t needed to re-install this practice into my daily journaling habit.
These three practices have been at the core of my journaling work:
- Daily Inventory
- HEART Check.
Doing them has brought serenity to my work, healing within relationships, and joy in my life.
What this tells me is that a good number of my struggles weren’t so much a result of annoying people or what I thought were ridiculous circumstances. Instead, a surprising number of struggles in life have been a result of my approach to life, work, and relationships.
Journaling helps me focus on the good in this life — for which I am not responsible.
Journaling helps me tell myself the truth about my daily actions — the good and the bad — and holds me accountable for quickly making amends when I have been wrong.
Journaling helps me acknowledge my emotions to myself and to at least one other person I trust.
In the midst of all this new growth, I lost my job, sold my house, moved in with my mom and lost a close friend to pancreatic cancer and a beloved relative to suicide.
Working the 12 steps – and doing so through journaling and staying in touch with my recovery community – helped me to do more than survive these events.
Much to my surprise, I continued to thrive, even when I needed to take some time to catch my breath after an emotional gut punch.
I was also teaching journaling techniques to women in my recovery community.
When they would come to me with some sort of problem, I’d give them 2 or 3 journaling prompts to try – sometimes for a few weeks.
The next time we would meet to work through their responses, more often than not, they had found clarity through the prompts.
My search for an understanding of WHY journaling works
As my normal brain function returned after months — even years — of being emotionally way off-kilter – I started digging into the science of these journaling habits.
Why were these ridiculously simple habits so transformational?
And what else could I incorporate to continue healing and to facilitate growth?
I began studying the science of recovery, journaling, behavior, habit design, and neuroscience.
Connections between ancient religious teachings and philosophies seemed to confirm groundbreaking images of our brains in action.
In the summer of 2019, I started a series of podcast interviews called The Change Journals.
I reached out to people who had written extensively about their journaling practices.
One of those interviews was with Dr Benjamin Hardy, an organizational psychologist and author who writes about personal growth.
During my conversation with him in early 2020, I finally found a science-based answer that actually made sense to me.
It clarified something I’d been doing intuitively for several years – the note I’d been writing to my next day self – and had even written about it for content creator Shawn Blanc’s blog.
Why journaling works
Journaling forces us to reckon with our three selves.
In our conversation, Benjamin Hardy said:
“…One of the big things that I’ve continued to find is that, as a person actually goes through the change process, they become increasingly compassionate and empathetic towards their former self — not judgmental. You get more context. You don’t relate to your former self, but you better understand why that person was the way they were. From a psychology perspective, it’s really smart for decision-making to view your former, your current and your future self as three different people.”
Oh, my goodness! Talk about a lightbulb moment!
I started to understand why the note I’d been writing to my next day self for the past five years had been so effective. I’ve been making peace with my today self, making amends when necessary to my next day self, and then setting my intention for my next day self.
Later in this article, I’ll show you how I write this note to my next day self in Roam Research. What’s really interesting about how we view ourselves through the lens of our past is that the stories we tell ourselves about our past weighs heavily on the choices we make today.
We’re too often not even giving our future selves a chance!
Roaman journaling changes our relationships with our three selves
In his book Personality Isn’t Permanent, Benjamin Hardy writes about the critical relationships between our past, current, and future selves. He explains these are three very different people, and we should want that to be so – especially in the sense that we are striving to grow and learn and change.
Unresolved trauma too often informs our current and future selves because we think we still are who we once were because of what has happened to us.
“Every time you face your past, you change it. Every time you face your future with honesty and courage, you become more flexible and mature. You build confidence, which enhances your imagination. You stop being as limited by who you were and how you feel, and instead, you’re enabled to be and do what you want, regardless of what is involved in being and doing it.” (Benjamin Hardy, Personality Isn’t Permanent)
Regardless of what techniques you use when keeping a journal inside Roam Research, you’re about to fundamentally change the way you see your three selves, simply because block embeds, backlinks, and visual graphs make it almost impossible to not review writings from your past self, and make it ridiculously easy to speak truth to your future self.
We separate ourselves from our past in order to gain empathy and clarity about our past, which allows us to embrace who we once were as a gift that brought us to today.
During the past three years, I’ve interviewed close to 100 people about changes they’ve navigated in their lives and careers.
In nearly every instance, my Reboots Podcast guests have said that change began with a decision, followed by a series of moment-to-moment choices.
When we use our past to speak wisdom to our today selves, we get to remember that one big decision, that moment of clarity, when we changed our approach.
“Life starts taking on a whole new meaning when you begin thinking right now what your future self will want.” (Benjamin Hardy, Personality Isn’t Permanent)
I use that reminder to help me in those moment-to-moment choices which guide me toward the person I want to become.
James Clear talks a lot about how what we do today shapes who we will become:
“Your identity emerges out of your habits. Every action is a vote for the type of person you wish to become. Becoming the best version of yourself requires you to continuously edit your beliefs, and to upgrade and expand your identity.
The real reason habits matter is not because they can get you better results (although they can do that), but because they can change your beliefs about yourself.” (James Clear, Atomic Habits)
For me, keeping a daily journal of some sort is an atomic habit that helps me become that best version of myself. When I’m able to focus my journaling in a way that helps me change my mindsets or my approach to life, then I’m leveraging my journaling habit.
Before we beat up our past selves too much, let’s have a look at what writer and productivity guru Mike Vardy told me recently about why he keeps a journal:
“…for me, it was very much a form of self-correction, self reflection…I look at a journal as like the person that you were is very well-informed at the end of the day…
A day is like a lifetime. You start your day and you’re a baby. You end your day and you’re an elder.
So when the next morning comes and I want to go back and see what I’ve done, or see what I’ve planned or if I even want to look further down the road, it’s my ancestor that is telling me, ‘Hey, this is what we said you wanted to do and now here’s the opportunity to do that.'”
So I look at it from that vantage point. It helps me keep up and be consistent.
Here’s where Roam Research offers the opportunity for explosive growth through journaling.
Because of Daily Notes, block references, and the new Delta feature, this time travel between our selves is seamless.
There are many different ways to journal in Roam, which I explore more in my course on journaling in Roam.
Below is an explanation of my Daily Notes template and how I incorporate the Note to my Next Day Self process within it. It’s the foundation for my journaling practice and it keeps my “right now” self engaged with my future self.
In summary, I write a Note to my Next Day Self at the end of each day and then I read it to myself right at the beginning of the following day.
We can have big ideas about what our tomorrow is going to look like. But then when we get to tomorrow, the thing that our wise today self told us to do can feel intimidating and scary.
So, by setting our intention about the things we’re going to do in the Note to my Next Day Self and by addressing the difficulty of doing those things, we can let our today self encourage our tomorrow self.
There are many other reasons why I do it:
- it helps me to learn to separate my today self from my tomorrow self
- it makes me summarize my actions today and think about how they impact my tomorrow self
- it leaves breadcrumbs for my next day self about where to begin tomorrow
- it’s a way of encouraging my next day self in the same way I might support a loved one’s efforts
- it helps me learn to show respect for myself.
Here are some of the ways I approach writing the Note to my Next Day Self.
I face reality by acknowledging where I blew things today — quickly, efficiently and without judgement. And I make sure not to blame others for the mistakes I made today.
If I need to make amends to myself or to someone else, I offer myself guidance about how to make it right the next day
I also celebrate the great work I’ve done today to make things easier for my next day self. So for instance, if I’m working on a project, and I really hustled and had great focus, then this is what I might communicate to my next day self:
“Look, we’re making great strides here. Let’s have fun and enjoy the day. And in fact, if you stick with this flow again in the morning, maybe you can take tomorrow afternoon off.”
I address any difficult things on my agenda tomorrow and encourage my tomorrow self with empathy and with confidence that it is up to the task.
As I’m writing my note, I make sure I actually look at my calendar for the next day so that I know what I have to do tomorrow. This means I can tell myself things like: “Look, you’ve got a tight squeeze on these things tomorrow. So please get this done quickly.”
I open each note with a neutral to affectionate salutation — “Dear (next day) (Name)” — and then close it by signing the note “Respectfully” or “Love” (day of the week) (your name)”.
The wonderful thing about Roam is that I can easily make the Note to my Next Day Self show up in my Daily Notes for tomorrow.
This is the process I use:
- I write the note in the NTNDS section of my daily template.
- On the NTNDS title line, I tag the note with tomorrow’s date.
- I set up my Tomorrow page adding my Daily Notes template.
- At the top, under the Read Me First heading, I create a block embed.
- I then type in NTNDS — and when I see the appropriate block for the day, I select it.
- At the beginning of the next day, I start off by reading the note.
You can see the process in action in this video.
Another important part of my daily template is the DAY LOG, which is a place where I do regular check-ins with myself during each day via a time stamp (using Roam’s backslash current time function).
What typically emerges from those conversations with myself are revelations about my focus for the day, action items that I didn’t know were on my mind, and stray thoughts, anxieties, mental blocks and insights into a particular problem.
Understanding your why
It’s been fun to see how fellow Roaman Journalers are adapting the techniques that I’ve been sharing for using various functions in Roam.
Questions about block references and Delta functions make for interesting discussions. But I’m discovering that the most important question that leads to an effective journaling habit — in Roam or using more traditional methods — is understanding your why.
I leave you with a challenge, then.
What is it that you want from journaling?