How I Journaled My Way to 4 Major Life Shifts
There’s this thing I do when someone introduces me to something new, and it’s hilariously predictable.
A friend tells me about about a business, brand, or blog I’d really like, and that I should check it out. For a while, it falls to the bottom of my to-do list and I don’t get around to it despite my good intentions. I have more urgent things to do right now, but I’ll check it out soon.
Then I go from putting it off, to telling myself I don’t actually need another newsletter in my inbox, or another podcast to follow. I’ll then hear their name mentioned a few more times, and it almost brings out a stubborn streak in me. Well now I can’t go follow them, just because everyone is telling me to!
But eventually, curiosity gets the best of me, and I check it out. And they almost always become a new favorite of mine.
My newest Favorite du Jour that a friend recommended is Steph Crowder of the Courage and Clarity podcast. She’s got a no-nonsense vibe and serious emotional intelligence – a blend I can’t resist. One of the first things I did when I visited her site was download her free 15-minute planner method, where she gives a great succinct lesson on productivity for business owners.
In the guide, she references a demo you may be familiar with – it’s the one where a professor shows his students the only way to squeeze big rocks, pebbles, and sand into an empty mayonnaise jar. Spoiler! The only way to do it successfully is to start with the big stuff.
If you start with the sand and the pebbles, there’s no room for the big rocks at the end. But when you start with the rocks, and then the pebbles, the sand cam shimmy its way into the gaps.
The original demo’s purpose was to make a point about making room for the most important things in life (“the rocks”) by putting them in the jar first. Steph points out there’s a great lesson in there about productivity in business, too.
But I think the biggest lesson to be learned here is about priorities, and how we define them.
Think about the three categories of things we try to make time for in a given week, or even in a day:
Category #1: The immovable plans (appointments, meetings, scheduled commitments)
Category #2: The chores, errands, and other necessary tasks (pay the bills, pick up groceries, meet work deadlines)
Category #3: The stuff you know deep down you should make time for (self care! personal development! creative projects!) ...but that you almost never get around to
If you’re like me, you probably prioritize them in that order. You know you’re locked into the things in Category #1, then you focus your energy on the things in Category #2 because they have to get done… and by the time you make it to Category #3, you’re maxed out. So they get bumped to the next week… and then the next week. And then the week after that.
We like to treat personal development and self-care activities as the third priority – the sand – but we almost always run out of room before we get to them. And that’s because we have it backwards.
Personal development and self-care activities like rest, reflection, and journaling aren’t the sand. They’re the pebbles.
There’s something about self care, and about journaling in particular, that seems like a nice-to-have-but-non-essential – which explains why so many of us love the idea of journaling more, but rarely feel like we have the time to actually do it. We’re busy prioritizing and carving out space for other things we tell ourselves are more important.
I’ve been guilty of this for years. My bullet journal gets packed to the gills with urgent tasks — stuff I can't justify bumping for more "luxurious" things. But the truth is, it’s easy to overestimate the need to make time for the chores, and underestimate the benefits of journaling and other forms of self care.
The necessary errands and tasks will get done because they have to. And if they don’t, there’s a chance they weren’t that necessary to begin with. So instead of making sure to carve out space those things, I’d urge you to block off the time for the acts reflection and self-care that may seem frivolous – but will actually impact your life in big, meaningful ways.
It’s easy to dismiss journaling as non-essential, but it will serve you in life-altering ways when you decide it’s worth your time.
It’s a tool, a process, and a lifeline that’s helped me move through the phases of making many life-shaping changes at my own pace, in my own way – many times, helping me through the process before I even realized that something in my life needed to change.
It has guided me from that inner ‘ping’ of knowing, to trying to ignore it, to being willing to look it, to trying to gently untangle the feeling, to sitting with it, to consider what a shift might look like, to eventually taking small steps in a new direction. All while feeling organic, and not rushing me through the process.
Below are 4 examples from my life of how journaling – something I used to treat like ‘sand’ – has pointed me toward some of the most solid, meaningful ‘rocks’ in my life:
1. It helped me locate my boundaries, and identify my values
When I think back to some of the tougher chapters of my life, I can point to moments where my boundaries were being violated even before I’d identified where they were, or what that meant for me. But even if I didn’t realize that’s what was happening, I could feel it in my body. My stomach would twist, my voice would shake, and my heart would race.
Stepping away from the situation and reflecting on it helped me make sense of that feeling. Hindsight and a pen helped me sort through what I was feeling, and what I wished I’d said or done differently in the moment – which just made me better equipped for future challenges.
Similarly, there have been moments and conversations that have resonated in a deeply positive way, and left me feeling seen and understood. Grabbing a journal and tracing that feeling back to the source has helped me pinpoint what others saw in me that made me feel so appreciated, and how that ties into my personal values.
2. It gave me the clarity I needed to leave a long-term relationship
Looking back now, it’s so clear that this particular relationship was a complete mismatch for me in a thousand ways. But that’s the beauty of hindsight, no? When I was in the thick of it, it wasn’t so easy to see the forest through the trees like that. What I did know at the time, however, was that something about it fundamentally didn’t feel right.
The more I put pen to paper – whether it was an unfiltered brain dump, a list of all the things I wished I could just blurt out, or the questions I was quietly wrestling with – the more I could start to make sense of the nagging feeling in the pit of my stomach. Finding words for that feeling and where it was coming from helped me isolate what was bothering me – even if I wasn’t quite ready to act on it.
And then by the time I was ready, I felt clear and confident enough about to take that step, without getting swept up in a tornado of doubt.
3. It helped me process my therapy sessions, and make the most of that investment
When I was new to therapy, I had an oversimplified (read: totally wrong) idea of what that experience would be like. I’ll talk about my feelings. She’ll make sense of them, and tell me what to do. I’ll walk out the door with marching orders and a smile.
The reality was a whole lot more murky, and involved much more emotional legwork from me than I was prepared for. I’d leave my sessions feeling a million feelings at once – hope, overwhelm, fear, validation, confusion, clarity… the list went on.
At some point I started keeping a notebook in my purse that I used just for processing therapy. I’d get to my car after a session and give myself a few minutes to jot down all my thoughts, realizations, and emotions while they still felt fresh. The more I did this, the easier it became to sift out the big important takeaways, and eventually start to take action on them.
4. It helped me make the decision to shift my career
I was lucky enough to land a great job after college at a nonprofit I loved, doing work I enjoyed. But 5-ish years in, I couldn’t help but notice that sense of fulfillment had faded. New job opportunities would come onto my radar, and I’d wonder: am I supposed to chase this one? Or am I supposed to stay here?
Eventually the questions were too much to hold in my brain. And when I started exploring the answers on paper, wisdom straight from my intuition jumped off the page. I started to understand that there were doubts I couldn’t un-hear, and feelings I couldn’t un-feel in my job at the time. It became clear that staying wasn’t a long-term solution for me, and that was the realization I needed to move forward in my job search with a sense of patience and purpose.
What about you?
If you’re a journaler: what’s one tangible way journaling has impacted your life for the better?
If you don’t journal: what’s one area of your life where journaling might help you make a purposeful decision, or find some clarity?