Seven Learnings about Journaling


My Learnings Journal: Seven Learnings about Journaling


After a day or two in an NTL lab—or in other kinds of intensive learning experiences—most of us feel that we have been there a week. This is because of what I like to call the Fairfield-Hopkins Time Stretch Phenomenon. In 1972, Roy Fairfield (then my doctoral advisor) and I worked this out during a month-long workshop.

As you can see on the first calendar below, most of us go through our normal life with two or three significant events each week. Someone says something interesting or we see something new. So we get used to the feeling that two or three significant events equals one week.

Normal Week

As you can see on the second calendar, when you attend an intensive workshop, you are likely to experience two or three significant events each day. You learn something new about how you come across to other people; someone says something about her own experience of life that is completely new to you; or two people in your group communicate in a way that you have not seen before.

Intensive Week

So by the end of a day, you feel like you’ve been there a week and by the end of the week—because the effect gets compounded—you feel like you’ve been a month or more. There is a great advantage to this. Roy and I figure that—given all the intensive workshops we have attended—we have lived several hundred years already!

The disadvantage is that by the end of a “month-long week” it is difficult to remember what happened so long ago! That’s one reason why I keep a journal. Sometimes when I am too tired to write, I just make a few notes, or a quick sketch. But each day I record what I am learning.

People regularly ask me WHY I keep a journal—and then HOW to keep a journal. If you have your own reasons and follow your own methods, then ignore the rest of this. Otherwise, here is what I have learned so far.


Why do I use my Learnings Journal? 

1. Making frequent notes in my own words helps me clarify what I am learning.

2. Making daily summaries of my learnings helps me sort out all the information that I am receiving.

3. Writing in my Learnings Journal after an exercise helps me think through the feedback from my colleagues.

4. Considering how my learnings apply to my work and to my life helps me keep my learnings relevant to me.

5. Reviewing my notes helps me reinforce my learning.


How do I use my Learnings Journal?

1. I jot down notes whenever I learn something.

2. I use mind maps or other visual images to summarize my learnings.

3. I ask myself the following questions: What did I see? What did I hear? What did I learn? What do I want to start doing? What do I want to stop doing? What do I want to keep doing?

4. I remember the Seven Learnings about Journaling.


Seven Learnings about Journaling

Early in January 1996, I was visiting my relatives in Bethesda, Maryland. One day as I sat at the table writing in my journal, my six-year-old nephew appeared at my elbow to ask what I was doing. I told Devon that I was writing about what I was thinking and feeling. He was fascinated and wondered if he could do that. I said yes.

Devon raced off to ask his mother for some paper so he could “write like Uncle Walt” and I remembered how I began writing my own journal at 13 after discovering Dad’s journal in the attic.

When Devon sat down next to me with his paper, he asked me how to write in a journal. I began explaining—and that led to these Seven Learnings.

My idea of Seven Learnings comes from the Seven Laws—which I first learned about in a wonderful book by Michael Phillips called The Seven Laws of Money. There is an ancient tradition of developing seven laws by starting at the center and then moving through a series of polarities to something that transcends the sequence.

Since I prefer Learnings to Laws, I use the process to develop Seven Learnings. So here, with thanks to Devon for the inspiration, are my Seven Learnings on Journaling.



Begin writing now and write about anything

The easiest way to begin writing is to pick up my pencil or pen and write something—anything. Sometimes I write:  “I don’t know what to write. I wonder what I will write next.” As I write, something (whatever I am thinking or feeling) comes up. That is what I write about.

Why do I keep a journal? Three reasons: the Past, the Present, and the Future.

I keep a journal for the Past. I look back at what I wrote yesterday or last year or forty years ago. I see patterns of thoughts and feelings that continue over the years.

I keep a journal for the Present. I write about what happened today or I just write—and discover what I think or feel as I write about it.

I keep a journal for the Future. I write about possibilities and dreams. I imagine the best that could happen. And I try to be as honest as I can.



Write at a regular time each day

When I began my journal, I built the habit by writing every night just before I went to bed. Now I write each morning. Most important, I keep going even when I miss a day.

When I am attending an intensive workshop, I try to write something after each session—since each session feels like a whole day. Sometimes I sketch out a circle with the names of all the participants and draw lines between people to indicate the interactions.



Write whenever and however I want to

As I got used to writing in my journal once a day, I began writing at other times as well. When someone says something interesting or when I have an idea, I write it in my journal.

I copy quotations into the back pages of my journal and make my own entries from the front until the two meet in the middle.

Even if I get a binder for the workshop, I tend to take notes in my journal so that I have one compact record of my most important learnings. If I do take notes in the binder, I summarize the most important things in my journal. At the end of the week, I ask myself what are the seven most important learnings from the course and put those into the journal.



Have a conversation with myself

This is a good reason for keeping a journal. After talking and listening to other people all day, I can finally have a conversation with an equally fascinating person: me. I can talk to myself and listen to myself as I try to sort out what I am thinking. When I don’t know what to do, I can write about the problem and consider various possibilities. Often a solution emerges as I write.



Go beyond events to their impact on me

If I have just talked with a friend, I write how I’m feeling (angry, sad, frustrated—or excited, encouraged, enthusiastic). Writing about my feelings helps me clarify how I feel.

I try to begin by describing the event that led to my feeling this way. Sometimes that gets all confused—when I’m trying to describe what happened, my feelings may affect the description. So I might write: “Just as I was making a brilliant point this afternoon, George rudely interrupted me and messed up the whole thing.” That’s at least as much feelings as it is description!

So I could begin with just the description—by imagining someone else looking down from a helicopter to describe the interpersonal traffic below: “After Mary asked her question, Walt began answering and then George also began answering. Mary asked her question again.”

Now I can record my feelings: “I get angry when someone interrupts me.” And if I’m ready to explore, I can then try imagining George’s feelings: “I get so frustrated when Walt goes on and on; I just have to speak up with the obvious answer.” Of course, that is just a guess—but it gives me something to check out with George the next time we meet.



Use color, pictures, mindmaps, headlines

I used to write with blue or black ink. Now I use lots of colors. I use green when I am learning. I use purple when I am happy and blue when I am sad. I use red to record a dream. Or I just choose a color I like.

When I have had a busy day, I start a mindmap with TODAY in the center of the page—then I draw lines outward with a couple of words about what happened. From each line I draw more lines with more comments. Since I don’t have to go in sequence, I can jump from line to line around the page as one memory triggers another.

Another way I deal with a full day is to just write headlines that summarize the day quickly. Or I write a short poem that expresses how I’m feeling without having to explain in pages of detail.

If I don’t feel like writing, I could try a sketch or just create something that expresses my feelings about the day. I also put photographs in my journal so that I can remember the wonderful people I have met.



Live life fully and then write in my journal

Sometimes I get so caught up in the journal that I just keep on writing. So I need to take a break—and do a little living. My friend George teases me that while he lives to eat, I only eat to live. I do write to live. But I must also live to write. So I go for a walk with my wife. Or I have dinner with a friend. Or I work with a group of people who want to change their lives. From all these things I learn. And I write about the learnings in my journal.




The Seven Laws of Money by Michael Phillips, Shambhala, Boston, 1974 and 1993

Keeping Your Personal Journal by George Simons, Ballantine, New York, 1978

Writing Without Teachers by Peter Elbow, Oxford University Press, London, 1973