How A Bullet Journal Helps Ease My Anxiety

I started keeping a (modified) bullet journal in January 2017, and I’ve recorded almost every day since. Not that I’ve written every day, but I’ve almost always gone back and recreated days I miss.

My journal is more diary than journal, recording events, how I’ve slept, what we ate, where we’ve traveled, things to do. I’ve occasionally written longer forms (this post started as handwritten pages in my bullet journal), but not often.

Lately, I’ve discovered that my notebook contributes greatly to managing my anxiety. On a recent Saturday I was feeling anxious and blue, more than I had in a while. It had been an emotional week. I’d seen my Uncle Don for the first time in years. I’d visited my 90-year-old mother in Michigan and found it difficult to leave her to return home. My husband’s sister was in the hospital with a life-threatening health crisis.

With all of the travel and activity, I hadn’t written in my journal. Sunday morning I made time to catch up on my entries for the week. As I wrote, I could feel the anxiety melting away. Nothing had changed, but the act of documenting my days seemed to be the panacea for my disquiet.

journal with micron penI realized that writing down these events ensures that I’ll have a record of them, that I won’t forget. But my journal also is a container for the challenging events in my life. I can close my journal, snap the elastic band around the cover and my emotions are safe, caught within the margins.

I spend a fair amount of time going back and reading what I’ve written in my notebook. Although mostly mundane, these entries serve a valuable purpose. They fill the gaps in my memory. They remind me of all of the wonderful people I have in my life. They show me that I’m resilient and can make it through any trials life throws me.

Unlike other journals I’ve kept, my bullet journal provides structure and order, two things I crave in my life. I often joke that I have “control issues.” But it’s not really a joke. I need to feel that I can have some control or influence over everything in my life. When I don’t, I get anxious. In a small way my bullet journal gives me that control. If I can put the words on paper, I can get them out of the endless worry loop playing in my head. I know I can always go back to my journal if I need to.

Another thing I love about my bullet journal is that there are no rules. (That seems a little contradictory to the previous paragraph, doesn’t it?) I can use it however I want. I control the contents. (Ah, there it is.) I can put a calendar on a page if I want one there, I’m not confined to the page with the pre-imposed date.

I’ve always loved calendars, but I can’t even count how many planners/diaries I’ve abandoned in my life because I’ve missed days or weeks and can’t tolerate the taunting of all those blank pages. This notebook is the perfect solution. Every page is full of ideas, events, thoughts, emotions, and yes, a calendar if I want one.

My favorite pages in my notebook are probably my version of the Calendex. I create small calendars across the top of the page using the grid, with a blank column beneath. Throughout the month I document the highlights (dinners out, parties, major purchases or repairs, writing groups attended and missed). At a glance I can recreate a week or month. I can then go to the date in my journal for the details.

Calendex

(Note for BUJO purists: I don’t use my Calendex for future planning. Eddy Hope explains how he created this concept in case you’re curious.)

I’ve learned that I prefer a “dot” notebook with a light grid on the page (Luechtturm1917 is my current favorite brand). I keep a ruler in my notebook and use my favorite pens (Micron-black) to draw lines to section off the page and create calendars and lists. (Lists! How I love a good list.) But I always write in pencil, I like to be able to make changes.

Recently I’ve decided that I want my journal to be more than just an accounting of days. So I’ve started adding sections periodically for “mood” and “observations.” I’m trying to be a little more thoughtful each day and use my notebook for inspiration and creativity. I usually journal early in the morning, when the house is quiet and I’m calm. I realize that it’s probably this time that I gift myself for quiet reflection that contributes most to my emotional state.

My bullet journal is the talisman that allows me to bring together the things that matter most to me – creativity, structure, order, inspiration – to live together in one place. The blank pages aren’t daunting. They’re beautiful and calm, waiting for me to use them.

 

Treasure Hunt

Periodically, a writers’ group I belong to has a writers’ retreat. This weekend we stayed at The Anderson Center in Red Wing, Minnesota.

The Anderson House in February 2015

It’s an inspiring place—a stately old home set on acres of land with a sculpture garden on the grounds. There’s a sunny library filled with novels, volumes of poetry, memoirs, histories, and art books. Many were written and contributed by the Center’s guests. In each of the bedrooms, there are journals in which previous visitors (including some well-known writers) commented on their stay. Often they mentioned a breakthrough and expressed gratitude for the Great Things they accomplished . . . which was a bit intimidating.

IMG_2353

Contemplative view from my window, minus the other treasure hunter

On Saturday morning, I sat at my desk and stared out the window.

Outside, a young guy in a hoodie and camo pants moved among the trees, sweeping a metal detector across the lawn. He squatted, dug up something with a trowel, then repacked the dirt, and smoothed it out.

What could he possibly have found—a bottle cap? A quarter? The Anderson House is nearly 100 years old. Maybe a long buried artifact had worked its way to the surface.

Inside, I too was treasure hunting. I sifted through files, piles of words, scraps of images, mining my mind for a memory or a line to spark inspiration.

We both worked doggedly at our tasks.

I hoped to uncover an idea that would justify my presence there, so I’d feel worthy of the gift of time.

Quickly I covered up that wasps’ nest of self-doubt and tamped down my frustration. Smoothed over my prickly worries. Don’t be so driven. That’s not how inspiration works.

I reminded myself: Just spend the time. Do the work.

It will come.

Secrets of a Successful Writers’ Group

Several years ago, Lisa, our writing group’s founder, tried to quit. She feared the realities of her treatment for stomach cancer (belching, gas, occasional gagging, and a backpack of liquid food that connected to a port in her stomach) were off-putting. She was also discouraged, because “she wasn’t contributing anything,” meaning that she didn’t have any writing to share with the group.

WordSisters

The WordSisters a few years ago — Brenda, Jill, Elizabeth, Ellen, Lisa, and Jean. Rose is behind the camera.

The other five members of the group listened, but as she talked, it was clear that thinking about writing gave her a break from thinking about her health, and she still enjoyed our company. One member suggested that we could all chime in with our own bodily noises if it would make Lisa feel more comfortable. We swiped away tears and laughed ourselves silly at that suggestion. Lisa agreed to stay involved in the group.

We support each other as writers.

That moment exemplifies the basic philosophy of our creative nonfiction writers’ group and why we’ve been together for 13 years: we meet to support each other as writers. Sometimes that goes beyond reacting to each other’s writing.

Besides giving each other feedback about writing projects, we also provide moral and tactical support:

  • Celebrating our publishing victories and sympathizing when someone’s work is rejected.
  • Sharing our grant proposals and writing award applications, even when we’re competing for the same grants and awards.
  • Offering support when a member’s personal life is trying.
  • Organizing our own writers’ retreats.
  • Launching a campaign to get Lisa published when she didn’t have the energy for submissions.
  • Attending each other’s public readings.
  • Organizing several extra-long review sessions to provide feedback on book manuscripts.
  • Recommending marketing and promotional ideas, most recently for Elizabeth’s House of Fire book launch.

Most of all, we believe in each other.

The Magic of Keeping a Journal

Recently, a request for volunteers to decorate personal journals caught my eye. The organization requesting help—The Family Partnership—says journaling is helpful to their counseling clients. I’ve kept a personal journal off and on since I was a teenager, and it certainly improves my mental health. Journaling also provides useful material for my writing projects.

Writers are always advised to keep journals. In high school, when I first realized I wanted to be a writer, I drafted poems and stories in spiral-bound stenographer’s notebooks. In graduate school, I made notes about some of the encounters I had as an ER clerk.

One of my early journals

One of my early journals

From the beginning, my journals also included impassioned blurts—here’s what’s bothering me and why. Finding words for my surging feelings made them concrete and more manageable. The process of writing calmed me. Often I felt like, “There. Now I understand what upset me and I feel better, so I can move on.” I thought the insights might be useful someday. If I ever feel so concerned about XYZ again, I can return to this hard-won insight and get feeling better, faster.

That’s funny now. I’m never going to be 19 again. Why would I need to look up the entry about fighting with my parents?

 

The journals became historical as well as therapeutic.

Journaling reminds me about how I got to this place in life, and that’s useful. I’m not still a heartbroken 24-year-old graduate student or an overwhelmed 34-year-old mother. Seeing that I’ve grown and changed is reassuring. I do figure things out. Things do get better.

Asking why and wondering about the meaning of certain events, comes naturally to me and is central to the essays, memoirs, and blogs that I write. I’m making sense of the big world as well as my own world.

A friend hand made this journal, which I used while teaching at UMM

A friend hand made this journal, which I used while teaching at UMM

When I was in my late 30’s and early 40’s, I began writing essays and memoir in earnest. Then the old journals offered valuable documentation about what happened when I was 24 or 27 and what I thought of it.

Rereading passages from old journals can be cringe-inducing. When skimming old journals, I understand why some people view them as the height of self-involved navel-gazing. Who is that whiny awful person? But that’s the magic of keeping a journal—within its pages, I can be my worst self on my worst day and spare the rest of the world a lot of my angst, anger, depression, and tedious analysis.

That’s also the danger of keeping a journal. The words and feelings included there would necessarily be taken out of context by anyone reading them. I journal when I’m confused or distressed. Good times don’t require explanation and analysis. I want to keep the journals for my use, but at some point I will need to get rid of them, since I won’t always be around to say, “I was having a bad day when I wrote that. I don’t still think that.”

My recent journals are much smaller-- 5x7, in this case

My recent journals are much smaller– 5×7, in this case

But the writer and philosopher in me resists. I’ve been writing about my life for 20 years. There might be some good material in there. I hate to dump it now!

If you keep a journal, how do you use it? Will you get rid of them at some point?

5 Procrastination Tips Writers Can Really Get Behind With

  1. Read the newspaper thoroughly while eating breakfast. Beside the news, be sure to read the book reviews and the funnies. It’s important to know who’s being published and by whom. And the funnies help you keep your perspective.
  2. Those dishes aren’t doing themselves. Before tackling revisions, better get the dishes out of the way. That food will be congealed and disgusting later.
  3. Don’t be antisocial. It’s been days since you’ve scrolled (and trolled) through Facebook and Twitter. How will you ever build an author’s platform if you don’t keep up?
  4. Pay a few bills. If you leave them, they might get lost among the stacks of How-to Write-More-Effectively books you haven’t finished.
  5. 15 minutes isn’t enough time to do anything. Better to start fresh tomorrow. Whoa! Where’d the time go?

Do you have any tips for how to be a better procrastinator?