Solitude in Journaling
I still remember vividly the time when one of my colleagues looked at me with derision when I mentioned nonchalantly that I did not have my phone with me. She had texted me just a few moments prior and had expected a quick response. I do not recall the content of the message but to her it was urgent and therefore important.1 I was stunned by the look of bewilderment in her face upon learning that I had left my phone unattended somewhere in the office. After that awkward moment, I realized then that I had come face to face with what Cal Newport in his book Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World identifies as a person hooked on the “digital attention economy.”2
The demands of life in our modern world are difficult enough without the added pressure of constantly checking our digital devices for updates. This is one of the reasons I have learned early on to adopt a lot of suggestions in Newport book. He calls for more people to join the Attention Resistance3, to be more minimalist in their adoption of technology.
Perhaps the best tool or discipline that has helped me personally to remain focused on the important things in life, while at the same time help mitigate the constant distractions from social media is journaling. Newport calls this the practice of writing letters to yourself. He writes on Moleskin journals; I type mine on a document on my laptop. He writes topically; I write about my random thoughts at random times. He writes to himself on an irregular basis; I try to write regularly. Some of his writing gets included in published works; mine will never see the light of day.
I have maintained an electronic journal since 1989, right around the time the Mac was invented. Transitioning from the typewriter, in which a lot of my college papers were written, to this new invention whose primary benefit at the time was its ability to save work and allow editing was a treat. It was also during this uncertain period of my life that I decided to adopt the discipline of journaling. Most people who journal write using the traditional method—pen on paper. I do mine on a Word document I keep on the cloud. That is intentional. I have given some thought about my preference of typing my thoughts on a computer because it provides some advantages. This is in deference to Newport’s admonition to ask this question before adopting new tools: “is this the best way to use technology to support this value?4” In my situation, the answer is yes. The value is in my ability to search the past more easily and systematically. I share some of those values here.
Format: Every new entry starts with the date and time. The date and time helps me locate and situate myself in history. I want to be able to capture the moments of my thoughts. This way I can better compare how I felt and imagined certain things between periods of my life. Did I mature in my thinking over time? Have I become a better person compared to a year ago?
Setting: Here I describe the place where I am, the weather and other relevant events around the time of writing. Again, this helps me not just get reacquainted with my state of mind, but helps me recall how I felt, getting connected emotionally with the content of the entry. I spend time trying to describe in detail where I am sitting, the room I am in, the noise level, the colors of the room, the people around me or absent from the place. Is it sunny, cloudy, raining or humid, etc. All these descriptors help me relive those moments, good or bad.
Content: Since I have determined in advance that this journal is not going to be shared with anyone I am free to include anything without fear of being judged. This is between God and me. I have no restrictions as to whether I write formally or informally; coherently or incoherently. I incorporate my best ideas and half-baked ones, joys, despairs, prayers and answers to them, lessons I’ve learned and habitual sins I struggle with. Most of the time it’s crying out to God for help.
Practice & Solitude: Writing is not only a good skill to have, but it is indispensable for leaders. Good leaders communicate constantly and clearly to their constituents, keeping them informed of goings on at the organization. I have found it extremely helpful to accustom myself to the habit of writing, expressing my thoughts and ideas to keep me mentally, spiritually and emotionally sharp. Since solitude is more about what is happening in the brain5 as opposed to the environment around us, writing gives me the space to be creative and explore original thought.
Cal Newport has given us shape and form to some of challenges of our hectic modern lives. He asks us to always check our value system, is what we are engaged in shaping us into better people, contributing to human flourishing? In a Christian context, are we doing things that contribute to loving others as ourselves? To be a digital minimalist is to say like the Apostle Paul said “…but I will not be enslaved by anything…”6
1 Charles E. Hummel, Tyranny of the Urgent (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1994), 1.
2 Cal Newport, Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World (New York: Portfolio/Penguin, 2019), 237.
3 Ibid., 213 – 253.
4 Ibid., 32.
5 Ibid., 96.
6 1 Cor. 6:12
6 responses to “Solitude in Journaling”
Leave a Reply
You must be logged in to post a comment.
Harry, I love that you journal. Every year, I purchase a blank book to write in but rarely do it. I wonder if using a computer to type would help. I was wondering, do you think it is easier to disconnect from the digital world because of your age? I think because I did not grow up with these devices, although I find them useful, they annoy me at times, and I can ignore them. Just wondering what you think about the age factor.
Hi Mary. Good question. You made me think about my response here. First of all, I’m not sure how old you think I am. Hahahaha! On a serious note, I think it has less to do with age as it has more with level of maturity.
I know folks older than me who, on impulse answer their phones, willing to be interrupted only to say that they are busy. Why couldn’t they just let their phones pick up the message? Are they always expecting an emergency? I doubt it.
I’m old enough to have used phones attached to a wall with answering machines. Early on I told my family that during meal times when we are enjoying each other’s company around the table that we would just let the phone ring and let the machine take the call instead of being interrupted out of an important value — the value of intentionally being wholly present for each other during those moments.
Nowadays, my wife and I would insist that our boys would not look at their phones while we are in social situations, i.e., eating out, hosting guests at home or being received as one, etc.
I think this has been helpful to teach our boys that there are such things as values and that they ought to exercise discernment and wisdom in evaluating each of their merits.
Excellent, Harry. For years I had used journaling as my devotional method. After a while I let it become mundane and stopped. Now it is sporadic but on deeply personal things I want to memorialize. My husband began writing in a journal everyday and his topic is a personal affirmation. He said it was awkward at first but after a while became deeply meaningful and prayerful. If nothing else, journaling helps us reflect which attaches meaning to the events of life. I’m a fan!
Hoooray for journaling. Isn’t it amazing reading personal history and see how God has worked in our lives and the lives of others. I know we’re forgetful creatures, I know I am, and so writing about God’s grace, goodness and providence helps me satisfy the “experience” factor in my relationship with God.
I think if we’re all honest with ourselves, (believers and non-believers alike) what appears to be a hindrance to a satisfying and fulfilling relationship with God is the lack of experience. Evangelists and apologists are good at giving facts about Christianity but many aren’t persuaded to be followers, much less disciples. I think what they need is experience. They want to experience all that God offers. And God does offer that but we are too busy and distracted to notice. Journaling, quieting ourselves for moments when we ponder these things and do something to help us recall these things are what’s needed in our modern hectic world today.
Harry, Thanks so much for sharing how you journal. It almost sounds like a captain’s log to yourself. I must say it is the most interesting journaling technique I have come across. I am particularly drawn to the developmental skill of becoming a better writer. Thanks so much for sharing and I will let you know should I start my own captain’s log!
Harry, I admire your intentional journaling because I have not managed to keep the discipline consistently but I appreciate its importance. I really like your emphasis on how Newport’s digital minimalism can help us focus on the things we value. I believe its important for one to have the presence of mind to choose the values that are important and to do things in the ways that support your values.