Wellness, Productivity, Balance for Graduate Students and Beyond

Journaling - a #MindfulPhD tool

I have never kept a traditional journal. When I was little (and let's face it, I haven't changed that much) I always wanted to have a journal just like Harriet from Harriet the Spy, but that was less of a journal and more of an exercise in voyeurism. But the habit of sitting down, every day, to record the day's events and my feelings always seemed appealing, but out of reach. Who has the time, or the supplies, or the life interesting enough to record? 

But as I moved through life, and various journeys (the PhD, mental health, marriage, an obsession with One Direction ;) ) I realized that I was journaling, just not in the ways I had seen it done. I've also grown to appreciate the mindful aspects of journaling - taking a minute to pause and reflect on the here and now, big and small. During the PhD especially, my life seemed to move unevenly - big, huge professional goals set, but day to day life was marked by a sense of waiting - waiting for the chapter to be done, waiting for feedback, waiting for the seasons to change, waiting for the publication to come out. And everything seemed to take a back seat to the dissertation. When I think back on those five years, I think about what I accomplished, but not always about the life I had in the process. I got married, I made friends, I cooked dinners, I practiced yoga, I adopted cats, I moved, I traveled. Journaling helped me, and helps me, mark down the smaller things that happened alongside the big milestones. 

So in this post, I'm introducing you to some of the ways I "journaled" during the PhD, and how I journal now. I'm also including a ton of resources to help you build a journaling practice that fits your life. I've grouped them into a few types of journals: long-form, productivity, 1-line, visual. 

Long-form journals

This is what people imagine, I suspect, when I mention journaling - people writing in bound notebooks with fountain pens transcribing the day's events and their emotional responses to it. But there are definitely variations here! Here are some things to consider about the long-form journaling form. 

  • Journaling is another form of free-writing! As I went back through my Scrivener free-write files, I realized how much journaling I was actually doing, and how valuable that information was in tracking my progress through the project. Being able to track how I was emotionally processing the work of the dissertation, as well as how the ideas shifted and changed intellectually, became extremely valuable. I captured small tangents, interesting leads, and marked how much I was learning about myself as a scholar and professional in my "freewriting dissertation" journal. 
  • You don't have to go back and reread your journal. When I was in therapy, practitioners often suggested that I journal, and I vigorously objected to the idea of writing down how I felt. I worried about having to go back and reread those entries, written at times when I was not at my best. It was liberating for me to learn that often, the value of writing a journal was not in the long-term information capture, but the in-the-moment processing. I could write and write and write, and then never look at it again. Writing was an valuable act of its own. 

Productivity Journals

I've blogged a few times about my bullet journals (see here, here, and here) but in addition to keeping me productive, they also serve as a record of what I was up to, and what I was working on. In this vein, you could also consider using other productivity tools as a "productivity journal": 

  • I run my life with a Google Calendar, and have looked back at various months and days to remember where I was, or what I was working on.
A moment in time, where I can see clearly that I was trying to set boundaries by working anywhere but on campus 

A moment in time, where I can see clearly that I was trying to set boundaries by working anywhere but on campus 

  • Keeping a hold of old planners (I have all of mine from High School on) can be a great way to remember the day-to-day minutiae that would otherwise slip from memory. 
  • Try taking picture of your to-do list every day, and archive in Evernote or Google Photos. Keep track of important tasks, but also record the moments in time more permanently. 

1-line Journals

These can be a great compromise for those who want to build a journaling practice without committing to a large chunk of time or energy. These take a lot of forms but here are some of my favorites:

This journal builds over time - one sentence a day about the highlights, with the bonus of building in a bit of reflection as you see all the previous entries for that day. Think of this as the written version of Facebook's "On this Day" algorithm! 

This is also super easy to build on your own - I've seen versions on notecards, or in notebooks - just write today's date (including the year) and a quick note about the day. 

  • Gratitude journals can also be quick and simple. Try closing off your free-write for the day, or writing in a planner, or separate notebook, a few things that you're grateful for. Finishing the work day on a positive note can help to reframe difficult or challenging work sessions - bonus! 
  • Write down one idea, scholarly or otherwise, that struck you that day. How cool would it be to flip back, 10 years after the dissertation was defended, and see how your ideas changed over time? Other variations could include: a mantra, devotional, song lyric - the ideas are endless. 

Visual Journals

My personal favorite! I am a visual person, and now that I have a camera with me at least 70% of my day, it is so easy (and fun) to take pictures of my day as a form of visual journaling. 

  • On Instagram, I tried to take a picture every day that I was actively writing my dissertation. You can see that series starting here but in this moment, I'm trying to take a picture every day for 100 days of a moment that I tried to be fully present for: 
  • Lots of apps will prompt you to take a video or picture every day, and store them in a more private place than Instagram or Facebook. My favorite is 1 Second Everyday, which compiles one-second videos over the course of a week, month, or year. It might not seem like much, but the videos made over a month, or even a year, are evocative without requiring a huge amount of work on your part. 

Why journal during the PhD?

In my work with clients, and my own personal experience, I see how dominant the PhD can be in the overall narrative told about life during that period. I felt that so many days were absolutely, 100% defined by my work on the degree, and for the degree, and it became hard to notice, let alone value, the other parts of life that were happening concurrently. Taking a few moments, maybe as short as one second, to document life as the PhD happens can help redirect some of that tunnel vision impulse. 

But it's also a powerful tool for the degree itself. So much of the progress in our thoughts, tools, and skills during the degree can be lost when we just focus on the finished output. Tracking some of these things can not only save fleeting thoughts and ephemera (and the hard work they represent!) to the busy mind of a PhD student, but also be a good record of that work to reflect on when you feel that no progress is being made. 

My co-host and partner Rebecca Enderby in all things #MindfulPhD and I are looking forward to talking on Twitter 8/7/2017 about all things journaling - follow the hashtag to hear all the wisdom that we hold collectively!