I've had varying opinions about keeping a diary throughout my life, ranging from ‘it's for girls’ at ages c.7-10 years old through to ‘it's very difficult and I'm much too busy playing Final Fantasy’ for most of my life since then. The latter of these sentiments is probably shared by most people, wherein Final Fantasy is replaced by sleeping, working or ingesting recreational drugs.
But while an adolescence spent playing RPGs has left me with little more than an appreciation for well-distributed XP and comically large swords, five years of semi-regular diary-keeping means I now own an archive of my life that I prize among my greatest possessions. What's more, the act of writing a diary is a low-effort, zero-cost form of therapy that anyone can benefit from.
Why keep a diary?
Improved memory retention
I started keeping a diary after becoming frustrated with how easily I would forget recent events. Every Monday morning, people at work would ask me what I did at the weekend while we stood around in the kitchen. I would always stand there looking vacant while I desperately sorted through the murky depths of my brain before exclaiming “I took a shower on Saturday!”.
A diary is a more reliable and less degradable record of events than memory will allow for. But more importantly, the act of recording events can help you better retain them mentally. The process of recalling and organizing events after they have happened aids with a process called memory consolidation, the transfer from short-term to long-term memory. If we don't deliberately recall the otherwise unremarkable events of the day, we forget them.
Taking any time out of your day to be mindful is good for you, and keeping a diary is one easy way to do this. It forces you to stop and recap, even if only at a superficial level, what happened to you in the past 24 hours. One of the pleasant side effects of documenting your day is that it is often done in an environment more likely to promote mindfulness than that in which the event took place. You may look back on an experience shared with other people and have an entirely different perspective when you're alone and able to reflect more deeply.
This becomes especially useful in avoiding destructive habits and promoting positive ones. If you notice that every few weekends for the past six months you have written ‘woke up late and felt miserable that I had wasted the day’, you are able to identify a cause and effect relationship that you can begin to counteract.
A record of past selves
One of the most delightfully simple reasons to keep a diary is that you have a unique set of experiences that no one else can write about. Each day you can record what kind of a person you are at this exact point in time, and to be able to revisit that person when you're older is a truly valuable asset. In an essay entitled “On Keeping a Notebook”, Joan Didion said:
“Remember what it was to be me: that is always the point… We forget all too soon the things we thought we could never forget. We forget the loves and the betrayals alike, forget what we whispered and what we screamed, forget who we were.”
Leaving your future perception of your current self to the haziness of memory is unreliable. The seemingly insignificant thoughts and events that fall through the cracks are often the ones that paint the most accurate picture of who we were, not the extreme highs and lows that stick in our mind precisely because they were out of the ordinary.
“How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives”, wrote Anne Dillard, and if you believe that then you must record the dramatic and the mundane events alike.
To quote a third literary titan, Virginia Woolf wrote of diary-keeping that “the habit of writing thus for my own eye only is good practice. It loosens the ligaments”.
It is incredibly liberating to write something that will never be read by anyone else. It offers a chance to play with language, to experiment with new words we aren't quite sure how to use yet, to try a different voice or just write sloppily. No editing is required and there's no need to think about audience or worry about pleasing or offending anyone. There's no deadline and no external pressures whatsoever. Thoughts can pour, honest and unfiltered, straight from the mind to the page. How often do we get to write like that?
How to keep a diary
There are many ways you can keep a diary. You can keep notes on your computer, write in a book, or create audio memos on your phone. The only criteria are that you record them privately and habitually.
I use a service called DabbleMe, which sends me an email every day to which I reply with a diary entry. As someone who is slightly bothered about having emails lingering in my inbox, this is a helpful nudge for me to write on a regular basis. I can browse past entries on the DabbleMe website, and export my diary into a text file if I ever decide to switch to another format. Every DabbleMe email contains a past extract, which provides a small dose of either nostalgia or helpful reflection depending on the content.
For me, a good diary-keeping habit means replying to one of these emails, with anything from one sentence to a couple of paragraphs, at least four days a week. Obviously there's room for improvement there in frequency and quantity, but I have found that forcing myself to a higher standard of diary-writing consistently results in my abandoning the whole thing. I recommend starting small so as to increase the likelihood of building a routine.
I find diary-keeping to be most helpful when I set aside time for it every day. This helps build a routine that makes writing feel almost effortless. I also try to write soon before I go to bed, as it provides an opportunity to collate and analyze the thoughts swirling around my brain before going to sleep. What's more, I find that nightly diary entries are more detailed and therefore more helpful to me when I revisit them later. After 24 hours I have usually forgotten the small details and fleeting emotions that paint the best picture of my day. If I miss several days and try to catch up on my diary, my memories are filtered through my current mood and the priorities of the moment, and aren't a true record.
You don't need to be a good writer and you don't need to be doing anything particularly remarkable with your life to keep a diary. It's a form of therapy that only costs you ten minutes per day and pays dividends in the future. Fire up a text editor and write your first entry today.