This post was originally shared on Medium.
It is a truth universally acknowledged that stress kills a boner.
Recently1that’s a relative term, I wrote about the ways in which my brain betrays me, and questioned what a “normal” emotional experience was. Today, I’m going to continue talking about what it’s like in my head by sharing one way I disarm anxious thoughts–with the help of something I call Anxiety-Bot.
Please note: This post is most emphatically not advice. I’m not saying this is what anyone should do, because I’m not in a position to provide that sort of advice. All I’m doing here is sharing my own personal experience.
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I’ve said recently that my new journal has made me fall in love with pen and paper all over again. This is that journal. It’s a black hardbound medium Piccadilly notebook with graph paper, and it hardly ever leaves my side these days.
Why has it so quickly become such an important object to me? Well, in part because it’s such a versatile tool. Its dimensions are great for slipping in a messenger bag, so it’s quite portable, but it also gives me substantially more space than a pocket-sized notebook like NOTES or my second brain books. And thanks to Ryder Carroll’s Bullet Journal method of notation, I’ve found it trivial to roll many of the functions I’d previously reserved for discrete notebooks—diarying, making to-do lists, capturing stray thoughts—all into one journal. It’s a book endowed with a considerable portion of my self.
This one started at Powell’s. On one of my pilgrimages to the legendary bookstore, I noticed, among their journal offerings, a “five-year journal”. It contained 365 pages, each with five blank spaces stacked atop one another, the idea being that you wrote one small thing every day and could eventually look back on “this day in history” for five years of your life.
I liked the idea. Specifically, I liked the idea of keeping a more granular record of my life than my personal journals held, though I cared less about stacking five years atop each other. I shied away from buying the dedicated five-year journal, though, because a) I’m a verbose fucker and was thus skeptical of having text boxes of a predefined size, and b) it was, like, twenty bucks, and I could get a blank notebook for so much cheaper.
So I did. Eventually.
I already track my finances with a spreadsheet and with Mint, but last year, I began doing so another way: by noting my expenditures in a notebook. This little book cost maybe a dollar and is slightly damaged, and yet, it’s just the thing for keeping a running list of the money I’m spending.
In the last few months of doing this, I’ve noticed that it serves a slightly different purpose than my digital financial tools. My spreadsheet and Mint, they record data. I turn to them if I want information. Writing dollar amounts in my ledger, however, is primarily a personal act, not an informational one. By writing down each expense, I hold myself accountable to every dollar I spend. It also gives an at-a-glance view of my cash flow, sure, but that function is secondary. First and foremost, writing out my expenditures keeps my money, even my purchases on debit or credit, real.
Journal 4 doesn’t really have a name like the journals before it. When I started it, in the spring of my last year at Whitman, I felt no particular naming inspiration. That wasn’t as huge of a departure as it seems, though; after naming Exponents, I spent very little effort naming my subsequent journals, which were more or less handed to me with their titles already emblazoned across their covers. Journal 4 is a handsome folio of cocoa-colored leather with no name in sight, so I just opened it up and got to writing.
I have a really lousy memory for small things. It’s fitting, then, that when I had the idea for my “second brain”, an all-purpose notebook that I could carry with me everywhere to capture stray thoughts, I had completely and totally forgotten about NOTES from three years prior, despite the fact that the concept was nearly identical. I thought my notion was singularly novel, when in fact I had unknowingly plagiarized it from my own self.
The day I turned 20, on a whim, I wrote an email to myself one year in the future. I bemoaned present-day politics, laid out a sketchy set of hopes for my year to come, and scheduled the email for delivery, beginning a tradition I still keep today.
I went analog after the first one, but the idea is otherwise unchanged: each year on my birthday, I read past years’ letters to my future selves, then write one for the year to come, inevitably cracking at least one joke in the process about the grammatical difficulties of writing to oneself in the future. Then I seal it up and stow it away for another 365 days (give or take).
Although I record big events and milestones in my personal journal, these annual letters have grown to serve an important role for me. Each year, I get to reflect not only on the past year, but the years before it as well, and see how I’ve grown. At the same time, I record a snapshot of the present and consider my future. It’s a tradition of mindfulness that I deeply treasure.
Writing to myself has also helped me remember to treat myself with love, and it does so precisely because of the form of the letter. In my journal entries, I am telling stories or expressing myself for an empty audience—I’m not talking to anyone, not even myself. But letters are, by their very nature, social. When I write a letter to myself, I have to think of myself as I would any other person—I use the pronoun “you”, for instance. This structure curbs any impulse I might have to be excessively self-critical or mean, because I would never write such things in a friendly letter to another person.
I have to treat my (future) self with the dignity and respect I’d show any other friend I wrote to, and over five years, that has helped me immensely to build a loving relationship with myself.
I tried taking class notes digitally when I got my first laptop in high school. It seemed like the obvious solution; after all, I type much faster than I write by hand. Not only would my computer allow me to capture more information in a class, it would also make it easier to search through the notes I’d taken.
It was nowhere near the success I’d hoped. Being able to capture anything led me to try to capture everything without ever parsing its importance. What I was doing wasn’t notetaking, it was recording. Furthermore, the rigidity of the digital page was another hurdle; in my word processor, I couldn’t easily draw arrows or include quick figures like I would on paper. And, of course, typing did not engage my brain nearly in the same way as writing by hand. All of this combined meant that the information slipped from my brain like water off a duck’s back.