On Journaling

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Recently, outside of solely blogging here, I’ve been keeping a personal journal on the side. It’s been a mix of DayOne posts and a separate WordPress.com blog that I have set to private.

I’ve found it to be really helpful in terms of catching my thoughts and recording ideas throughout the day. Mainly, I’m journaling at night after a full day of work and other activities. I find that the brain dump at the end of the day is a refreshing way to calm my mind.

I’ve been blogging for quite awhile, and I’ve always found it helpful to channel my thoughts on a particular subject, but I’ve just recently started a personal journal where I collect things that I don’t really intend on sharing. The idea started while I was reading Moonwalking With Einstein, particularly this passage:

Monotony collapses time; novelty unfolds it. You can exercise daily and eat healthily and live a long life, while experiencing a short one. If you spend your life sitting in a cubicle and passing papers, one day is bound to blend unmemorably into the next—and disappear. That’s why it’s important to change routines regularly, and take vacations to exotic locales, and have as many new experiences as possible that can serve to anchor our memories. Creating new memories stretches out psychological time, and lengthens our perception of our lives.

Essentially, the author is explaining that our lives tend to blend from one day into the next. Memories tend to “stretch out” or extend time and make it feel like we’re living longer.

I’ve experienced this many times before. It’s similar to the times when you’re driving a route that you take every day. You can drive five miles without remembering one bit about the trip. Since the trip is so routine, your brain shifts from an active, thinking role into more of an auto-pilot. Daniel Kahneman references these two mental states in his book Thinking Fast and Slow, calling them System 1 (auto pilot) and System 2 (more concentrated and awake). When auto-pilot is switched on too often, it can be easy to skate from one day to the next without actually remembering a thing that happened. That’s where journaling comes in.

By keeping an active journal, I’m able to document and record events and experiences in my day-to-day that may not necessarily be earth-shattering but can still help me piece together a mental recollection of my day. For example, here’s a short blurb from a recent entry:

Well, we’re at Charlotte’s first police exam right now. I’m sitting in the parking lot waiting for her to come out.

That happened on February 17th, so about one month ago. Normally, I don’t remember a single thing I did 30 days ago. However, from that small sentence, I can remember exactly what I was doing and where I was. I remember writing that on my iPhone in my car in Arvada, CO. I remember the coffee shop I worked from that day and the strange city planning meeting they were having at 3:00PM on a weekday. I remember getting tea to drink (I had already had two cups of coffee and a latte earlier that day). Before that, I enjoyed a walk outside in some beautiful weather with my best friend that happened to be in town. I remember the park we went to with my two dogs. That was right after we grabbed breakfast at Snooze in downtown Boulder (for the record, I had Eggs Benedict).

All that from one small detail. A ton of memories that otherwise would have been lost in the mix.

In Moonwalking With Einstein, Foer interviews a scientist, Gordon Bell, that uses a camera around his neck and several other techniques to record literally everything and anything he’s ever done. From emails to internet search history to phone conversations, Bell has it all. He refers to these small details that trigger a rush of memories as “information barbs”. The idea is that our brains house all of our memories. The difficult part is just retrieving them. Bell argues that all you need is to remember an “information barb” that will help you to retrieve tons and tons of memories. 

I don’t have any interest in going to the extreme of Bell. That just seems to be more work than it’s worth, but I have found some real value in journaling. Just reading over the past month of entries, I found a ton of “information barbs” that I’ve used to remember small details about my day. I’m looking forward to giving journaling a go for an extended period of time. Hell, life is short already. I don’t have an interest in making it any shorter.

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