Today I am going to share an insight that shook my life pretty hard, for the good of course.
How many times it has happened with you that after reading a book you thought that you understood the idea until you were asked to explain it. The idea seemed pretty clear in your head but the moment you had to verbalise it you discovered that either you didn’t have a proper grasp on the idea at the first place or you were unable to explain it in a logical coherent way to a third person.
This is the kind of silent reaction I got from people “You’re telling me that you just finished reading a compelling book but can’t explain the central idea in few sentences?”
This problem haunted me for a long time. Then one fine day I discovered the Feynman Technique, which says that the mere action of writing something down allows for a more effective integration of the learning. This further led me to the idea of Journaling. It was a Eureka moment!
Let me first share my definition of journaling. Journaling is simply an activity of writing in plain language about what’s going on around you and what your thoughts are about them. It can include things like your future goals, plans, dreams, reminders to yourself, comments on ideas/people or any unrelated thing that crosses your mind. It’s a conversation that you have with yourself.
So what’s so special about journaling? Stick with me through the rest of the post and you might find some surprising insights.
Journaling allows you to take fuzzy thinking and distil it into precise line of thought. If you want to think better you have to start writing your thoughts. It’s not a common knowledge that writing, apart from being a communication tool, is a thinking tool too. Famous author, Dan Pink, further validated my belief in this commencement speech.
One fine day, while experimenting with journaling, it dawned on me that it’s almost impossible to write one thing and think something else at the same time. Just like it’s not possible to inhale through your nose and exhale through your mouth at the same time. It’s the way nature has built us.
The practical implication of this insight was that by forcing my hand to write something channelled my thoughts also in the same direction. I figured that I did have some control over my thoughts after all. My unchained-thought-monkey could finally be put on a leash.
Journaling turns out to be not just a tool for thinking but a powerful weapon for focusing your thoughts. The more your write, the more precision of thought you build.
Another psychological benefit created by journaling is that it deepens commitment. The very act of writing things down deepens your resolve to make good things happen in your life. It’s like a declaration to yourself.
Founder of Virgin group, Sir Richard Branson once said – My most essential possession is a standard-sized school notebook” – which he uses for regular writing. If he says so I am sure there must some merit to the idea of journaling.
What to Write
Remember, you aren’t doing this to become a professional writer. The purpose here is to discover yourself. However let me warn you that as an unintentional side effect you will anyway slowly become an effective writer.
So what do you write about? Pour your heart out. Don’t bother too much about forming coherent sentences, incorrect grammar or bad handwriting. Write without fearing that somebody might see it. You can always destroy the paper later.
One of the benefits of journaling is that it offers a great therapeutic value. While I don’t claim to be a psychic, I reckon that almost everybody has some thoughts which they are scared to share with others, even with people who are very close to them. These thoughts create unfelt emotions which remain suppressed in your subconscious.
They need a vent. Write these thoughts in your private journal. Journaling gives a platform for your unfelt emotions to process themselves. This releases you and allows you to find freedom from the latent emotional baggage.
When you jot down a thought, two things can happen. If it’s a negative thought its toxicity will get diluted and it will die out. If it’s a positive thought, it will grow stronger and more refined.
Writing is a thinking exercise and it acts as a shield against the mental rust. I wonder when majority of the old people in their 80s and 90s can barely remember their family member’s names, how come Warren Buffett who is 84 and Charlie Munger who is 91 are still mentally so sharp? Perhaps a lifetime devotion to reading, writing and learning has something to do with it.
What do I write about? I express my gratitude for all the blessing in my life. I wonder about the beauty and mystery of life.
Many creative people use writing as problem solving tool. When they are stuck they write down their question. Then they write the question again and listen for the answer to come. Sounds creepy right? Neale Donald Walsch, author of best-selling book series called Conversations With God claims that his books were not written by him, but they happened through him. Can it happen to you? You won’t know until you give it a try.
Sometimes, you will sit there holding your pen, staring at the blank paper and nothing would seem to appear in your thought screen. Then how about pondering over a question similar to what Steve Jobs regularly asked himself – “If I had only 30 days to live, what would I do?”
Decision Making and Investing
The most serious disease that plagues decision making is Narrative Fallacy (aka, Hindsight Bias), the tendency to find a cause-and-effect relationship in historical events even if there is none. And the best cure for this disease is maintaining a decision journal.
When Michael Mauboussin posed the question to Daniel Kahneman, what is a single thing an investor can do to improve his or her performance, he said –
…go down to a local drugstore and buy a very cheap notebook and start keeping track of your decisions. And the specific idea is whenever you’re making a consequential decision, something going in or out of the portfolio, just take a moment to think, write down what you expect to happen, why you expect it to happen and then actually, and this is optional, but probably a great idea, is write down how you feel about the situation, both physically and even emotionally. Just, how do you feel? I feel tired. I feel good, or this stock is really draining me. Whatever you think…When you’ve got a decision-making journal, it gives you accurate and honest feedback of what you were thinking at that time.
Once the outcome of your decision is known revisit your decision journal. Odds are you’re going to discover some surprises. It won’t be uncommon to find that in spite of the favourable outcomes, the reasoning wasn’t always right. Outcomes distort your thinking a lot. It’s very counterintuitive to honestly recall how exactly the events unfolded after the result has come.
Farnam Street blog has penned a wonderful post on journaling and decision making. It needs to be read at least twice.
Even Warren Buffett observed –
Good writing clarifies your own thinking and that of your fellow shareholders.” A profound thought from the Oracle.
I would take the liberty of saying even this – journaling, although not formally recognised widely, is an important idea to be included in your latticework of mental models.
Pen or Keyboard
I hope it won’t sound weird on my part if I asked you – “When was the last time you wrote something with a pen except of course signing a cheque?”
In this digital era of smartphones and tablets it’s not an overstatement that the coming generation will hardly be using a pen to write. Why should they? Pen is going to pretty much look like a stone age tool to them.
Now as far as journaling is concerned you could always use a digital device (using a keyboard) to write. It’s definitely better than not writing at all. But in my experience there is some magic in grabbing a pen and scribbling in your own handwriting. It generates a unique vibration and a different part of your brain is activated when you write the good old way.
One warning here – It’s very crucial that you journal regularly. Some thoughts have their own personality and the threat of getting exposed may produce a subconscious resistance. This resistance can make you feel that this activity is boring and pointless. I suggest, don’t give up.
Carve out few hours every week (if possible every day) for journaling. Very soon you will start discovering its value. Stay the course and keep on, keeping on.
Julia Cameron in her book The Artist’s Way talks about a similar idea called ‘morning pages’. She says that every artist should journal for at least twenty minutes every morning to unleash their creativity. I believe everybody is an artist. It’s just that some have already discovered their art and the rest are on their way.
One of the disciples of Gautam Buddha once asked him, “Master, what’s the highest form of knowledge?”
Buddha replied, “Self knowledge is the greatest knowledge. Know thyself.”
I am convinced that self knowledge starts with self awareness. And in this journey of self awareness pen is definitely mightier than sword.
The point really is this – “Do you think your life is worth journaling about?” If not then make it worth and then write about it. So I say, pen is your friend, my friend! Pick up the pen and journal on.
I would like to close this with a disclaimer – In this Life 2.0 series I don’t intend to create an oversupply of wisdom with unsolicited advice leading to knowledge constipation. “A mouthful of jargons”, You might say. Ignore the disclaimer please if it seemed a lame attempt of self-deprecating humour.
On a serious note, I am making a humble attempt here to distil few of my thoughts and offer them to you for your reflection. I hope you find some value in them. And I also hope that it creates a richer experience of life for you.