Exploring the high country of who you really are, while expressing what you’re really about, is the promise of a journal. But the same creative urges that got you involved in journaling can also get you into an overwhelming amount of other things to do. You’ve created relationships, a career, a family, a home—each of which brings an endless stream of projects, challenges and “woulds,” “coulds,” “shoulds.” Your creative urges got you into the park on your bicycle, but now your pant leg is caught in the bicycle chain, and you find yourself cursing the whole endeavor.
Is there a way to play this game, to keep it all in balance? Can you stay connected to the source of your creativity, continue to expand its expression and not let the results trip up the whole process?
Yes. But you don’t get there by denying the world and your engagement with it. The trick is to capture and appropriately manage all the aspects that create dissonance at every level. That can mean consistently offloading and objectifying what has your attention: Detach yourself from the details of life, and you’ll be free to experience more rewarding experiences. The act of journaling provides a key to that freedom.
Your Business is Not Your Busyness
Are you too busy to get to your journal? Careful, because being busy is not the same thing as tending to what’s important. Many people use their attachment to nervous activity as a way to avoid what they need to be about. Many times, important work is best accessed and managed from the perspectives and shifts-in-consciousness that the journaling process fosters.
“Work” exists at multiple levels. From lowest to the loftiest, you have:
• day-to-day actions
• the projects you’re trying to complete
• the responsibilities and standards you maintain
• the outcomes you want to accomplish
• the lifestyle you want to achieve
• and your purpose as a human being.
Each can be called “work.” But the volume, speed and intensity of lower-level work can easily grab the focus and cause you to lose the perspective required to keep you sane. It’s so easy to sacrifice the higher orders of business for the lower: You have so many things to do, so you don’t keep an overview of your projects; you ignore some areas you should focus on, avoid drafting blueprints of positive futures, and forget to connect back to the source of the whole game to begin with—you.
The Freedom of Detachment
How do you unhook from the pulls and pressures of your world? It would be nice if you could just shut your door or go into the garden, and the harpies in your mind—all the niggling things to do and deal with—just went away. Or, if you could just finally get it all done, so there was nothing left to contend with. Neither is likely to happen.
Your freedom will not come from trying to ignore all the “stuff” or by trying to complete everything. Freedom requires truly detaching from pressures and responsibilities.
So, how do you detach? By getting it all out of your head, and reflecting on it all, appropriately.
Emptying “Psychic RAM”
Much of the stress in the professional world these days is the result of the huge volume of implicit agreements kept in the mind but not captured, clarified and organized.
In my book Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity (Viking), I describe the insights I’ve gathered from my experience as an executive coach on how busy people can accomplish more and stress less. The first process in the coaching I do is to ask my clients to do a major “core dump” of everything they pay attention to—personal or professional, little or big—onto pieces of paper and into their in-baskets. This usually takes one to six hours. Then, I ask them to decide and write down what they really intend to do about each.
Try this with your journal: Do a core dump, and then decide the actions required for each item on your agenda. Now park the resulting inventory of actions in an organizer tool, like a planner or personal data assistant, so you are reminded of the concrete things you need to do at the times you need to do them.
Without exception, my clients come away with an incredible rush of released energy and inspiration from this, and so will you. Why? By renegotiating agreements, you can feel OK about what you’re not doing. Clarifying and renegotiating stops the experience of infinite loops of stress and obligation caused by situations that lack definition and closure.
Incomplete commitments kept only in the mind reside in “psychic RAM”— a memory space that has no sense of past or future. Everything in psychic RAM feels like it should be happening now in this moment, which creates automatic stress and failure. You can only do one thing at a time. RAM must be emptied.
The Journal as a Spiritual In-Basket
Just making a free-form list of all the things you have attention on is a form of journaling and is at least momentarily liberating. On the most mundane level, it is capturing all of the “oh, yeah, I need to …” stuff—phone calls to make, things to get at the store, things to talk to your boss or your assistant about, etc. At this level, it doesn’t usually make for a very exciting or interesting experience—just a necessary one to clear the most obvious cargo on the deck.
I often use my journal for “core-dumping” the subtler and more ambiguous things rattling around in my psyche. It’s like doing a current-reality inventory of the things that really have my attention—the big blips on my internal radar. These can be either negative or positive, like relationship issues, career decisions or unexpected events that have created disturbances or new opportunities. Sometimes core-dumping is the best way to get started when nothing else is flowing—just an objectification of what is on my internal landscape.
Something healing and positive always happens when I express outwardly and reflect inwardly on that expression, and let nothing remain resident running around in my internal squirrel cages.
Spiritual disciplines teach that neutral observation is the first gate to enlightenment. And when I just observe—what I feel, what I think, what I’m doing—it shifts me more into the one who is not my emotions, my thoughts or my body. There is no better tool than my journal to move me into that perspective. The things that distract me lose their grip because I release my grip on them. This happens because I write my distractions down, and somehow the light of my own consciousness begins to dissolve the knots.
Getting Up to Business
Although sometimes it is enough to use the journal for a good housecleaning, refreshing the psyche and straightening some of the inner kinks, there is always more gold to mine. There are still places to go, things to see, things to experience. Not out in the physical world, but into those worlds where meaning is found for everything you do. This is the bigger game, your real job. Information and inner awareness are waiting for an opportunity to be disclosed. Intelligent creativity is in store.
Clear to journal? Journal to clear? …
Whenever you are feeling overwhelmed, do a core dump—write down a list or on separate pieces of scratch paper absolutely everything you have attention on in the mundane worlds of your life and work. Don’t censor, organize or analyze any of it. This is not yet a to-do list—it is merely an objective collection of anything that pops into your head, which you might need to do something about. Sooner than later, go through all the items and make objective decisions about what actions you are going to take, and park the results in a trusted system—keep it out of your head. Keep a small note pad with you at all times to continue capturing new commitments and ideas, to ensure that nothing is allowed to crawl back up into psychic RAM.
Create a list of all your projects (things you want or need to do that take more than one action to get them done). Create a list of all the areas of responsibility you feel you need to keep your eye on (e.g., health, finances, family, staff, etc.) Ensure you have all the projects you need for those. List any goals or visions that you have for your future. Ensure you have projects and actions for those.
Practice picking up your journal in the middle of a crazy day, when it makes no rational sense to do so, and just observe and write about all the levels of consciousness you are aware of.
Use your journal for collecting the more subtle and ambiguous things that still have your attention. Describe as completely as possible all the main things currently on your internal radar. Once psychic RAM is as clear as you can get it, ask yourself what deeper conversation needs a voice or resolution. Notice anything that is not pure stillness. Give it a voice and notice where it goes, and acknowledge when it’s complete.
Now, balance going with the flow with letting go and listening. You’ve found your inside time.
David Allen has been labeled “one of the world’s leading thinkers” in personal productivity by Fast Company magazine. His book Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity (Viking) has remained on the Business Week best-seller list since its January 2001 publication. He also publishes an e-newsletter and is the founder and president of The David Allen Company.
This article appeared in the February 2002 issue of Personal Journaling.