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August 23, 2013

Non Sequitur Fridays

Journaling as a Tool for Self-Improvement

This post is part of our Non Sequitur Fridays series, which will feature a different Wistia team member's take on a non-Wistia-related topic each week. It's like our "employee of the month" but less "of the month"-y. Robby Grossman is an engineer at Wistia. Last time, he wrote about buying headphones for work.

In an age of communication tools aimed at sharing our thoughts with the world, there's little homage paid to a quaint form of writing: the journal. Journals are commonly associated with autobiographical memoirs, Anne Frank's being the most widely known. Other famous examples are those of Lewis Carroll and Harry Truman.

But journaling can be about more than recording a historical record. For me, it's about thinking through problems that are too complex to keep in my head. It's a very different form of writing: most writings are written for a reader, while journals are written for an author.

I've been journaling for about a decade now. I began with a single goal, and over time, I've found more and more benefits and reasons to keep doing it.

Benefits of Journaling

Relentless Questioning Improves Self-Awareness

When I was in college, I had some moments of struggle and some questions that were weighing on me. Per the advice of a friend, I tried the counseling center. At times, it was helpful, but I noticed that all of the revelations I had were my own words, not those of the counselor, who was effectively a device that would make two kinds of interjections:

  1. She'd bring elements of my subconsciousness into my consciousness, i.e., "You seem happier today than you did last week." These remarks increased my self-awareness and got me in the habit of acknowledging my feelings, habits, assumptions, and sometimes actions that I didn’t otherwise consciously think about.
  2. She'd challenge me when there was dissonance between the things I was saying and the conclusions I was drawing, i.e., "You say your Data Structures class bores you while your National Security Policy class fascinates you, yet you are set on a career in technology. Why?" Critical here is that she asked questions like this without casting judgments or making assumptions, which might otherwise bias the way I'd respond. You can imagine I'd have heard that question differently were it asked by one of my respective professors.

After some time, I learned that I could perform either of these interjections on my own. I also discovered that they are harmonious. By questioning why I do the things I do or why I believe the things I believe, I became more aware of my own feelings and motivations. At the most basic levels, I was using the Socratic Method to learn about myself.

Other Benefits

Better Preparation for Meetings

Over the years, I've discovered other benefits of journaling. I often journal at night about problems that are perplexing me at work. Usually they are technical; occasionally they are cultural or existential to the business.

Applying the aforementioned process forces me to consider viewpoints and underlying assumptions that I may incorrectly take for granted. Usually, I'm not the only one thinking about these things, so pondering them in advance prepares me for when the issue comes up in a meeting.

Reducing Stress

I especially make a point of journaling when I'm facing a problem that keeps me up at night. Usually this happens when I can't see all the way through it in my head, causing my mind to race through all of the possibilities and making it difficult to sleep or focus on other things.

I've found that taking 20 minutes before bed to ponder the problem and possible solutions puts me at ease. Sometimes it's because I have a revelation, but more often, the process of writing it all out simply reassures me that there is a path from beginning to end, that it merely requires more to get there than I can juggle in my head in a single thought.

Correcting Bad (Often Implicit) Assumptions

When I have a revelation, it’s usually the result of disproving an incorrect assumption I'd made. One example of this came at my last job, when I had to build a highly available data-collecting web application that could handle thousands of requests per second, but cost as little as possible to host and store the incoming data. I considered every distributed database I could think of, both sharded SQL and NoSQL variants. All of them required multiple dedicated boxes just for the databases, which wouldn't be cheap.

The solution hit me in bed one evening as I was jotting away: since we weren't doing any joins, we didn't need a database engine at all. We could have every web server write to a special logfile that gets uploaded to an existing redundant storage array, and process the logs in batches rather than in real time.

Prove to Yourself that You're Growing

I rarely read old journal entries; in fact, an overwhelming majority (I would estimate 95%) of my entries have never been read even once. However, I do occasionally go back and skim pieces from years ago if they relate to a current problem I'm having. Never do I feel older, wiser, and more sophisticated than when I go back and see how young, stupid, and immature I was several years ago. I'm sure that in a few years I'll look back on a post from this week and think the same thing.

Get Started!

In most situations, I find the hardest part of writing to be picking a topic and beginning to write about it. Journaling is easier because I don't have to worry about whether my content is interesting to a reader. As soon as I have a personal frustration or a professional difficulty, I have a topic to write about. If I have an opinion going in, I have an assumption to validate. If I'm totally lost, I have questions to ponder. Either way, it's easy to start writing.

Typing vs. Handwriting

I've tried both handwritten and digital journaling at length, and I have a strong preference for handwritten journaling for a few reasons:

First, it incentivizes me to be succinct because I don't want to handwrite pages upon pages of unnecessary text. This, in turn, makes me think hard before I write anything down, which is beneficial for an exercise that based entirely around one's thoughts.

Second, I spend less time worrying about structure and more time focusing on my thoughts. My journal isn't for anybody except me, and I find that extremely liberating. I don't need to worry about segues or introductory paragraphs or conveying a nonobvious subtext.

Word processors are great for tweaking these things, but in a journal, these things are misfeatures because they waste time. For me, the core purpose of journaling is to edify myself and increase my self-awareness. Worrying about how my writing would appear to others is a distraction from this. My published works are written to be read later; my journal is written to understand things now.

If you write often, you'll quickly realize how luxurious this is! You are free to write all you want and you don't for a second have to consider the weight of a reader's feelings or comprehension. Nobody will be offended if I consider a terrible thought before concluding it is terrible. Nobody will think less of me if I ponder a stupid question whose answer should have been obvious but wasn't. Nobody will be confused about what I'm asking if I omit the full context for my question. I can focus on my writer's experience because there is no reader's experience.

Third, I've found that writing by hand leaves me with more memorable takeaways than writing digitally. I believe there are two reasons for this:

  • Fewer thoughts are recorded, so each one carries more relative weight throughout the entry.
  • Study after study shows that we are better at remembering things we've written than things we've typed.

The advantage of committing your takeaways to memory cannot be overstated. In many facets of life, knowledge is only as useful as its ability to be recalled. Whether you're debating The Prince in a college classroom or a database sharding technique in a business meeting, you'll be able to make a stronger case if you can recall your arguments from memory rather than have to look them up on your phone and re-internalize them in order to regurgitate them.

No Rules About Size

One of the difficulties I hear about frequently from bloggers is the burden of writing about something grand enough to merit addressing, yet small enough to to be conveyed in a single blog post. I struggle with this too, as evidenced by the fact that my most recent blog post took a week to write and weighed in at 3,600 words.

Journaling need not be so heavy handed.

I have dozens of entries that are only a word or two—nothing more than a reminder to think about something later—so that if I have a potentially good idea on a whim it isn't marooned by my poor memory. I have other entries that explore the 5 Whys of situations that confused me. It took thousands of words of probing questions and answers to get to the heart of the confusion.

Give It a Try!

Don’t get caught up in how long or short an entry needs to be to be useful or how critical a problem needs to be in order to merit writing about it. In my experience, there are no subjects too big or too small, too trivial or too deep, to address in a journal. If you are a driven person, at some point soon you will be perplexed by a situation. Articulate why that is. Acknowledge your feelings. Challenge your assumptions. Challenge your conclusions. Go on, write.

…and when you're done, leave a comment and let me know how it goes.