Keeping a "Limited" Journal: a "While-People-are-Boarding-the-Plane" Journal

When we set a new goal, it's tempting to set the bar so high that it's impossible to sustain. By keeping the time devoted to journal-writing very limited, you can keep it manageable.
08/14/2007 05:16 pm ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Last week, I posted about the anniversary of keeping my one-sentence journal. The enthusiastic response showed me that the idea of a one-sentence journal intrigued a lot of people -- and that many people were keeping similar journals.

The common thread is that people find the idea of "keeping a journal" to be enticing, but overwhelming. We all have visions of writing with an ink pen in an elegant journal for forty-five minutes each morning -- which, for most of us, is just NOT going to happen.

But instead of giving up the idea entirely, it's possible to keep a limited journal, to enjoy the satisfaction of keeping a record of experiences or thoughts, but without the guilt or burden of constant upkeep.

A reader sent me an email describing his version of the one-sentence journal, and I thought the idea was so terrific I asked him if I could write about it here. He -- I'll call him "John" -- said to go ahead.

John has to travel a lot for work. He keeps a small notebook in his briefcase, and every time he gets on a plane, while everyone is boarding, he fills a few pages about what's happening in the life of his family. He plans to give the journals to his three children.

I think this is a brilliant idea, for several reasons.

We overestimate what we can do in the short term (an afternoon) and underestimate what we can accomplish in the long term, with constant small steps (over the course of a year). By writing a few pages every few weeks, by the end of the year, John can accomplish a sizable amount of writing.

The time spent waiting for people to board a plane seems like an frustrating, wasted period. John reclaimed this lost time to do something enjoyable, creative, and productive.

By keeping the time devoted to journal-writing very limited, John kept it manageable. When we set a new goal, it's tempting to set the bar so high that it's impossible to sustain. Reforming eating habits, taking up exercise, learning a new language, planting a garden... initial enthusiasm turns to guilt and anxiety when we don't follow through.

Pierre Reverdy observed, "There is no love, there are only proofs of love." Keeping these journals to be a link between himself and his children is an active proof of love. We think we act because of the way we feel, but in fact, the way we act shapes the way we feel -- so performing loving actions boosts loving feelings.

Studies show that one way to boost happiness is to keep happy memories fresh. Happy people don't have more pleasant experiences than unhappy people, but they remember them better. Keeping a journal (which for most people skews toward the happy experiences) will help keep good times memorable.

I want to copy this idea myself, but I haven't yet figured out how to adapt it to my life. I don't travel often enough to use John's plan. Also, my handwriting is so messy that I can't keep a written notebook, but need to do all writing with a computer.

But there must be some kind of ongoing task that I could fit into the interstices of my days...

If you'd like to read more about happiness, check out Gretchen's daily blog, The Happiness Project.