There are plenty of reasons not to journal. You’re too tired. Nothing seems noteworthy enough to jot down. Your pen’s on your desk across the room and you’re already nice and cozy underneath your weighted blanket for the night… But if you can push through all of that and write down just a few thoughts at the end of each day, you’ll notice your life improve, both immediately and years down the line. In economic terms, the payoff from journaling far outweighs the cost upfront.
Like many, I’ve set a New Year’s resolution to journal more in 2019. It’s something I’ve done off and on for years, but for some reason, whenever life becomes busy and chaotic (i.e. any day the sun rises in the east and sets in the west), one of the first things I let slide is that five or 10 minutes I spend collecting my thoughts and taking note of details and moments I want to remember. Somehow, things like “re-bingeing ‘Parks and Rec’ on Netflix” always seem to make the cut over that.
I always know that I should be journaling, but I’m never exactly sure why. It’s one of those things, like meditating or SoulCycle, that everyone insists changes their life but that never seems as appealing or effective in the moment as, say, getting jacked up on a cold brew or taking a nap. Of course, when I’m actively journaling, I feel more relaxed and in control of my life, but whenever I slip up and forget for a few days, I become perplexed as to why I’m suddenly so anxious and unable to focus.
But journaling brings more than just clarity. In preparation for my resolution, I went back and re-read my travel journal from my trip to Ecuador in 2010. My sister and I spent a couple weeks there as members of a 20-person student ambassador group with People to People. I often cite this as my favorite journey, and it was. But as the years have gone by, my memory of those two weeks has been reduced to the select images and stories that have persisted through each remembrance and retelling. To say that I truly recall even a third of my entire time there would be a stretch.
What I found when I read through those pages was a host of reasons to journal, and specifically to journal while traveling. Travel can often feel like life stuck on fast forward. It’s a constant onslaught of new sights, sounds, smells, and experiences, and because it’s all rushing by so quickly, it’s more imperative than ever that you pause for the occasional minute to take stock and reflect on what’s happening. It may seem tedious or inconsequential at the moment, but a decade down the line, when you’ve forgotten most of what occurred, you’ll be grateful that you took the time to write it all down.
In that light, here are some reasons why journaling should be on your list of travel resolutions.
It immortalizes small details
It’s difficult when journaling to know what to include. Especially when we’re on the road, we’re bombarded with so many new sensory experiences that it would be impossible to write them all down. In fact, we often think that it would be silly to even try — I mean, why journal if it won’t begin to capture what you’re going through? However, the beauty of journaling is that even those tiny details, no matter how insignificant they may seem during the trip, can carry immense power when you revisit them years later.
In my Ecuador journal, I wrote about a hike our group took through the rainforest on July 18, 2010. I’d completely forgotten about that trek, so even a one-sentence summary would have reminded me of it. Luckily, my description went deeper, and one line in particular caught my attention: “We had to wear rubber boots because of the thick mud.” That line acted as a trigger for present-day me. The image of the rubber boots unlocked an entire film reel of memories. I suddenly recalled the cold rain from that day, how it felt seeping into the space between my rain jacket and my damp back. I remembered the suction noise as we took each step, pulling our feet from the grip of the mud. I remembered the relief when we finally stepped out of the forest and into a field of long grass, and when we were able to strip from our mud-caked outer layer and rinse off. What I wrote in the journal brought back not just the image of what happened, but the full experience of what it was like to live that moment, to be that person. When I jotted it down, that one detail was probably so fresh in my mind that it wouldn’t have seemed like a big deal — So what, we wore boots on our hike; who doesn’t?
The truth is, you never know what’s going to trigger this kind of second-wave experience, so don’t feel like everything you journal has to be profound — just record what happened and let the details live on.
It helps you organize your thoughts
The primary benefit of any type of journaling is the way it helps you process and reflect upon your experiences. This can cover big, existential questions, like What do I want my legacy to be? or the simple minutiae of daily life, like Why have I been craving waffles so much lately? The underlying theme is that our minds are constantly wandering. The gears are always turning as our brains work to sort through incoming information and apply a cohesive narrative to the world. So, whenever our minds race, it can be incredibly therapeutic to step back for a moment and write down our thoughts — even something as simple as recording what we did that day can be beneficial.
The importance of this increases tenfold when we’re on the road, because travel, at its heart, is a break from routine. Our brains are attempting to observe and process loads of new information. Scribbling down a few thoughts or things you want to remember can help you reset before taking on another day of novelty.
I can feel this process of mental organization in the words I wrote each day in Ecuador. It’s most apparent toward the beginning of the program, when I was new to the country and was still getting to know the other students in my group. In my first entry, I anticipate the upcoming trip, saying things like, “I’m excited to see the wildlife in the Galapagos” and, “I’m looking forward to standing on the Equator.” Most importantly, I use the phrase, “I’m nervous about…” three different times. Especially for less-seasoned travelers (this would have been only my second trip abroad), journeys like this can be intimidating. Every day is filled with new experiences, and to top it all off, you’re surrounded by people you don’t know very well. By identifying my anxieties and getting them out of my head and down onto the page, I was able to clear some headspace and prepare myself for a more fulfilling adventure.
It provides you an avenue to your past self
Going back through an old journal can certainly help you remember things like how fun it was to snorkel with marine life or to play football with kids in a local village, but one of the greatest joys it provides is the ability to recall the version of yourself that did all of that. When you’re writing about your experiences every day, you’re not just making a record of what you did — you’re making a record of who you were.
Reading my Ecuador journal is, in a way, like going through a middle-school yearbook. It’s cringey at times, to be sure. When I read the entry that ended with “After dinner, we had some time to chill, so of course that meant juggling,” I recalled with horror how I had actually devoted packing space to my juggling balls and then used them during downtime to try and impress the girl I liked on the trip. But overall, seeing myself from such a distance is, in itself, a form of therapy — it helps me reflect on the ways I’ve changed, or still can. I recoiled from the arrogance of one entry that said, “At dinner, I was one of the few who chose tuna over pasta. It was a piece of tuna served on a steaming volcanic rock, and it was amazing (plus, everybody hated their pasta).” Acting like I was better than others or that my choices were somehow better informed was something I did for years, and seeing it on such brash display made me remember what a poor color it had been on me. On the other hand, seeing the humor I wielded in every entry reminded the more anxious present-day me that it’s okay — and healthy, even — to laugh at things from time to time. “We walked down the street where we ate at a quaint little restaurant,” I wrote. “It wasn’t so quaint, however, after someone found a giant spider in the bathroom and we all started screaming like maniacs.”
Revisiting past versions of yourself — especially from the more awkward years — can sometimes be a difficult process. But, especially as you get older and fall into more routines, you’ll be thankful for the opportunity to remember what it was like to see the world through those eyes.
It is a gift to your future self
For two days on our trip, we stayed in gorgeous Papallacta, a small village located at 10,820 feet (3,300 meters) in the Andes just east of Quito. The region is famous for its hot springs, and the hotel we stayed at embraced the natural resources, offering a maze of thermal spas and pools around the property. My entry from the second day of our stay mentioned me and my roommate accidentally waking up an hour early because of the time change (we’d just come from the Galapagos) and taking advantage of the free time by relaxing with our feet in the hot springs. I had to read it over a few times because I didn’t really remember it.
When I told people about my trip to Ecuador, I did what we all tend to do when recounting our journeys abroad — I stuck to the same set of stories. I talked about the thrilling, if not nauseating, speed-boat rides between islands in the Galapagos. I talked about planting balsa trees with the kids in a local village. I talked about eating a freshly cooked chontacuro worm from a roadside kiosk, always mentioning that it was crunchy and tasted like bacon. But in reiterating those tales over and over, I’d slowly forgotten about this one beautiful moment — the peaceful quiet of the uninterrupted morning in the mountains, the early chill in the air, the rejuvenating feeling of dipping our feet in the warm water and just taking a minute to be still before another day with a busy itinerary. I didn’t know when it was happening that that would be a moment I’d lose, but luckily, I still thought to write it down. And now that I’m older and revisiting all of these memories, I’m happy that I did. Otherwise, it would have been lost forever.
One of the biggest things you struggle with when you start journaling is figuring out what to write about. My suggestion is: don’t try to pick and choose what matters and what doesn’t. Just write it down. Your future self will be grateful that you did.
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Header image by Briana Moore