Journaling expert Laura Rubin puts pen to paper for many reasons at the start of a new year, but resolution-setting is never one of them. “I’m not anti-aspiration. It’s great to have goals,” says Rubin, founder of notebook- and writing-workshop brand Allswell Creative. “But resolutions tend to focus on what you’re not—a deficit you’re trying to fill or a perceived shortcoming you’re looking to change.” That said, the first few weeks of January are a great time to reflect on where you’ve been and where you’re going. And in Rubin’s opinion, there’s no more cathartic way to do that than by finding some inspired journal ideas and putting your feelings onto the page.
In fact, she believes that keeping a private, analog journal is extra-important in the digital age. “We have more incoming streams of data than ever before. Amid all that static, it’s harder to get in touch with how you’re really feeling,” she says. And even if you don’t particularly enjoy writing, the benefits of journaling still extend to you. As Rubin points out, drawing and list-making can be just as enlightening as penning paragraphs of text.
But where to begin? Below, Rubin shares four journal ideas that she uses to reset and reorient herself for the year to come. When you’re done, you can do what she calls “heat seeking,” or going through your entries and taking note of any themes or words that give you a little thrill, using them as your roadmap for the year. Whether you doodle out your responses, answer them bullet-journal style, or tap into your inner Joan Didion, you’re sure to come away feeling a little bit lighter, clearer, and pumped up for 2020, no resolutions required.
Read on for 4 journal ideas that’ll set you up for your best year yet.
1. Ask yourself “how are you?”
Although this question might feel like flippant small-talk fodder, Rubin says it’s actually one of the best journal ideas for getting to know yourself. The catch? “Fine” doesn’t constitute an appropriate response, because the magic comes when you go deep.
“How are you really? How do you feel physically, emotionally, mentally? Take stock,” says Rubin. “It’s really simple and it’s incredibly illuminating.” She recommends setting a timer for six minutes and free-writing for the entire duration, then stepping back and seeing what came through.
2. Make an anti-resolution list
Rather than focusing on what you want to change about your life, Rubin suggests setting a timer for 7 minutes and journaling about what’s going really well. “Self-love is a fundamental building block of a well-lived life,” she says. “Write 15 things about yourself that you admire, respect, and enjoy. If it’s too triggering to go for 15, then start with 10. Want a bonus round? Stretch it to 25.”
After you’ve made your list, says Rubin, take a moment to journal about how the exercise felt and what you learned from it. “Was it harder or easier to get to 15 than you expected? Did you like it? Did you hate it? What did it bring out in you?” Going through this exercise can help you pinpoint the areas where you could use some more self-kindness in the year to come.
3. Get clear on your “big rocks”
As one personal-development folktale goes, a professor stood at the front of his class with two jars and a set of materials—sand, gravel, medium-sized stones, and big rocks. In one jar, he poured the sand, gravel, and stones first, and had no room left for the big rocks. In the other, he added the big rocks first, leaving the smaller materials to fill in the spaces around them. In the second scenario, all the materials fit into the jar with ease. Moral of the story? Figure out what the “big rocks” are in your life—the key things that will help move you closer to your goals—and put them above all less-critical matters.
“You need to not only make your list of priorities, but prioritize your priorities.” —Laura Rubin, Allswell Creative founder
“As an allegory, I think this is really important,” says Rubin. “You need to not only make your list of priorities, but prioritize your priorities. Make your list of what is important to you, but then go back through and label them big rocks, small rocks, gravel, and sand.” Then, she says, look at your “big rocks” and ask yourself if you’re spending most of your time focused on those things—the ones that bring you the most joy and contentment. If not, journal about ways that you can give them a starring role in your 2020 schedule.
4. Discover your “why”
If you’ve already made a resolution list, Rubin suggests going through it and journaling about why you want to achieve those particular goals. “Maybe you want to switch up your exercise routine or your eating habits, but are you setting that as a goal out of subtle self-loathing or out of a sense of celebratory self-worth? Evaluate if this is something that’s truly, fundamentally supportive of your highest good.”
If your intentions aren’t serving you, says Rubin, continue to journal about them to get to the source of what you’re really looking for. And if your goals are coming from a positive place, Rubin recommends journaling about how you want to feel while you set out to achieve them. “People who have mastered the experience of enjoying the process are so much happier than those of us who are only happy when we achieve the desired result,” she says. “It’s just math: You’re in the process so much more of your life than you are on the podium.”
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