• Jesse Engelbrecht

The Power of Journaling

This blog takes a more zoomed out view of a very powerful psychological tool – journaling. Journaling will not only begin to help you get better on the court but will also help your life in all you do and encounter day to day. I am a big believe in what I call “the spill-over effect”. Which in simple terms means that what we do in a typical day or week will be reflected and affect the way we perform on the court. If we are going around super busy and stressed, with interactions filled with arguments and disagreements and overall being very reactive to whatever comes into our field of focus, we are only training these parts of our brain and body and therefore will “spill-over” onto the court when we are confronted with pressure situations. Some people can compartmentalise a busy, hectic, stressed, and rushed life and use squash as a filter and a safe space to play and compete, but this is a huge rarity overall, and one I do not subscribe to or recommend.


“Writing is a neuro-muscular activity which helps bridge the conscious and subconscious minds. Writing distils, crystallises and clarifies thought and helps break the whole into parts”. - Stephen R. Covey

How we go about our life on a regular basis is reflected on how well we can perform on the court and have our mind and body in the here and now. It is a skill worth practising and honing on a regular basis and with time you will see the positive results of this.


So, as you read below, think about how this tool for life can really have a positive and impactful effect on your squash performances.


Journaling is not just a little thing you do to pass the time, to write down your memories—though it can be—it’s a strategy that has helped brilliant, powerful, and wise people become better at what they do. Journaling is something I am personally hugely passionate about and found the benefits of doing so over the past several years in my personal and professional life.


The French painter Eugène Delacroix says, “It’s a way of calming this nervous excitement that has been worrying me for so long”. It’s a few minutes of reflection that both demands and creates stillness. It’s a break from the world. A framework for the day ahead. A coping mechanism for troubles of the hours just past. A revving up of your creative juices, for relaxing and clearing the mind.


It’s a few minutes of reflection that both demands and creates stillness.

The author James Clear talks a lot about the idea of “atomic habits”—a small act that makes an enormous difference in your life. Furthermore, Stephen R. Covey, in his best-selling book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People states, “writing is a neuro-muscular activity which helps bridge the conscious and subconscious minds. Writing distils, crystallises and clarifies thought and helps break the whole into parts”.


Oscar Wilde, Susan Sontag, W.H. Auden, Queen Victoria, John Quincy Adams, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Virginia Woolf, Joan Didion, John Steinbeck, Sylvia Plath, Shawn Green, Mary Chestnut, Brian Koppelman, Anaïs Nin, Franz Kafka, Martina Navratilova, and Ben Franklin were all avid journalers—just to name a few. It was, for them and so many others, as Foucault said, a “weapon for spiritual combat.” A way to practice their principles, be creative and purge the mind of agitation. It was part of who they were. It made them who they were. It can also make you better too.


The science behind journaling


[*] According to a study conducted by Harvard Business School, participants who journaled at the end of the day had a 25% increase in performance when compared with a control group who did not journal. As the researchers conclude, “Our results reveal reflection to be a powerful mechanism behind learning, confirming the words of American philosopher, psychologist, and educational reformer John Dewey: ‘We do not learn from experience…we learn from reflecting on experience.’”


[*] Another Study by Cambridge University found journaling helps improve well-being after traumatic and stressful events. Participants asked to write about such events for 15–20 minutes resulted in improvements in both physical and psychological health.


[*] Improved Communication Skills — A Stanford University study found the critical relationship between writing and speaking. Writing reflects clear thinking, and in turn, clear communication.


[*] A study by The Journal of Social and Personal Relationships found that writing “focused on positive outcomes in negative situations” decreases emotional distress.


[*] Improved Sleep —The Journal of Experimental Psychology found that journaling before bed decreases cognitive stimulus, rumination, and worry, allowing you to fall asleep faster.


[*] Boosted Cognition — Research published to the Journal of Experimental Psychology found that reflective writing reduces intrusive and avoidant thoughts about negative events and improves working memory. These improvements in turn free up our cognitive resources for other mental activities, including our ability to cope more effectively with stress


In the Research section of this piece, we mentioned one study that proved how journaling helps improve well-being after traumatic and stressful events. Similarly, a University of Arizona study showed that people were able to better recover from divorce and move forward if they journaled on the experience.


Keeping a journal is a common recommendation from psychologists as well, because it helps patients stop obsessing and allows them to make sense of the many inputs—emotional, external, psychological—that would otherwise overwhelm them.


“One of the more effective acts of self-care is also, happily, one of the cheapest,” as Hayley Phelan of the New York Times wrote of starting her journaling practice at a time when “I was in a place where I would have tried anything to feel better.”


"We do not learn from experience…we learn from reflecting on experience". - John Dewey

Journaling examples


Your journaling is not you performing for history. It’s you reflecting. It’s you working through your problems. It’s you figuring things out and clearing your head. Write about the maddeningly frustrating people you encountered today. The comment, the tweet, the news headline that made you furious. Write about the wounds you still carry from childhood. The person who didn’t treat you right. The terrible experience. The parent who was just a little too busy or a little too critical or a little too tied up dealing with their own issues to be what we needed. The sources of anxiety or worry, the frustrations that routinely pop up at the worst times, the reasons you have trouble staying in relationships, whatever problem you are dealing with—take them to your journal. You’ll be shocked by how good you feel after.


Eugène Delacroix, struggled as we all struggle with occasional, even frequent internal tormenting: “My mind is continually occupied in useless scheming…They burn me up and lay my mind to waste. The enemy is within my gates.” Later he writes,


“I am taking up my journal again after a long break. I think it may be a way of calming this nervous excitement that has been worrying me for so long.”

As Tim Ferriss has said of his daily journaling habit, “I don’t journal to ‘be productive.’ I don’t do it to find great ideas, or to put down prose I can later publish. The pages aren’t intended for anyone but me…I’m just caging my monkey mind on paper so I can get on with my day.”


Yes! That is what journaling is about. Instead of carrying that baggage around in our heads or hearts, we put it down on paper. It’s spiritual windshield wipers, as the writer Julia Cameron once put it. I’ve written about how taking something I was angry about to my journal kept me from doing something stupid, something I would have regretted.


Abraham Lincoln called them “hot letters”—whenever he felt a pang of anger towards someone, he would grab a pen and a blank piece of paper and spill his pent-up rage onto the page. Then he’d write, “Never sent. Never signed.”


“Constantly down the list of those who felt intense anger at something: the most famous, the most hated, the most whatever,” Marcus Aurelius wrote. “And ask: Where is all that now? Smoke, dust, legend…or not even legend.” We all carry around destructive thoughts. About the things that went wrong. The people who hurt us. The mistakes we’re embarrassed about. The promises we made and then broke, or that were made to us and then broken by someone else. The love interest who had no interest. The business partner who screwed us over. It all adds up. It builds and builds, burning us up inside. Don’t turn into smoke, dust, or legend, like so many people in history. Burn it out of yourself and onto the pages of journal.


We so often make big decisions in life based on predictions of how we think we’ll feel in the future, or what we’ll want. Your past self is your best indicator of how you actually felt in similar situations. So, it helps to have an accurate picture of your past.


If you’re feeling you don’t have the time or it’s not interesting enough, remember: You’re doing this for your future self. Future you will want to look back at this time in your life, and find out what you were actually doing, day-to-day, and how you really felt back then. It will help you make better decisions. Just put aside a few minutes to write what you did and how you felt today.


How often do you consult your past self to make decisions? Could you do so even if you wanted to? Or have most days, most experiences, most feelings, most thoughts vanished from memory? Journaling is a memory bank with unlimited storage. It’s an archive, a reference manual, an unmatched tool for learning from today to inform tomorrow. That’s why journaling is so transformational. “Journaling,” Maria Popova says,


“is a practice that teaches us better than any other the elusive art of solitude — how to be present with our own selves, bear witness to our experience, and fully inhabit our inner lives”.

How to begin


What’s the best way to start journaling? Is there an ideal time of day? How long should it take? How many pages?


Forget all that. Who cares? How you journal is much less important than why you are doing it: To get something off your chest. To have quiet time with your thoughts. To clarify those thoughts. To separate the harmful from the insightful. To prepare for the day ahead and review the day that passed. There’s no right way or wrong way. The point is just to do it.


There are no rules in journal writing. The pages are for your eyes only. Be your weirdest self. Be your most curious self. Be your most prolific horrible idea-having self. Dump out everything and anything that comes to mind. There’s no one way to journal. There’s no right way to journal. There’s only your way of journaling. Make it weird. Make it fun. Just do it.


And if you’ve started before and stopped, start again. Getting out of the rhythm happens. The key is to carve out the space again, today.


Just know that it may turn out to be the most important thing you do all day.


Your journaling does not need to produce Nobel Prize-worthy prose. You don’t need to commit to a life practice right now. Start with one line—about how you are feeling, something you did yesterday, something you are excited about, someone you are thinking about. Start by doing it for one week. Start by writing a few things you are grateful for. Start with a sentence about the mindset you are going to attack the day with, about something interesting you learned in your reading yesterday, about your plans for the day. Whatever it is, start ridiculously small. You’ll know when you’re ready to build on it and write in more depth.


Use Your Journal to Prepare in the Morning


Despite his admitted struggles to get out of his warm, comfortable bed, Marcus Aurelius seems to have done his journaling first thing in the morning. From what we can gather, he would jot down notes about what he was likely to face in the day ahead. He talked about how frustrating people might be and how to forgive them, he talked about the temptations he would experience and how to resist them, he humbled himself by remembering how small we are in the grand scheme of things, and journaled on not letting the immense power he could wield that day corrupt him.


Who knows what kind of emperor, what kind of man, Marcus would have been without that preparation? Instead of letting racing thoughts run unchecked or leaving half-baked assumptions unquestioned, he forced himself to write and examine them. Putting his own thinking down on paper let him see it from a distance. It gave him objectivity that is so often missing when anxiety and fears and frustrations flood our minds. It let him enter his day and the important work calm and centered.


My morning journaling begins in The Daily Stoic Journal where I prepare for the day ahead by meditating on a short prompt. Marcus said, “When you wake up in the morning, tell yourself: The people I deal with today will be meddling, ungrateful, arrogant, dishonest, jealous, and surly. They are like this because they can’t tell good from evil.” I think about all the things that I’m going to face in the day and how I want to be ready for them and how I want to respond to them.


“A healthy mind should be prepared for anything,” Marcus was reminding himself.

What I am really doing with The Daily Stoic Journal is setting an intention or a goal for the day. Maybe it’s that I don’t want to lose my temper or my patience when I go talk to my neighbour about something that’s been bothering me. Maybe it’s that I want to make more time for stillness than I’ve been able to lately. Maybe it’s that I want to get the draft of an article finalised. It doesn’t need to be some lofty, earth-shattering goal. The point is to give myself something I can review at the end of the day–that I can actually evaluate myself against.


I also have a second journal I use after The Daily Stoic and is a basic Moleskine journal and I have 3 questions/prompts I ask of myself each morning when I come down to write in this one. It is more of a freestyle journal but with a loose structure each day:


· What am I grateful for?

· Thoughts about the day ahead?

· Something to avoid


This structure has been honed over the years and these questions for me right now are highly relevant and purposeful. I can imagine in time these questions may change and evolve to something different, but I have found this current structure of The Daily Stoic and then my freestyle journal work really well each morning.


As a slight addition to this, I also do not check my phone or look at any emails until I have dedicated to completing my journaling process. I do not want to give away my mental energy that early in the morning to others. For me it is of imperative importance to have my mental energy dedicated purely to myself for the first 15-30mins of each day. I feel when I get this right, I can win the day ahead no matter what I am confronted with.


As Tim Ferris says,


“Win the morning, win the day”.

Use Your Journal to Review Your Day in the Evening


Unlike Marcus, Seneca seemed to do most of his journaling and reflection in the evening. As he wrote, “When the light has been removed and my wife has fallen silent, aware of this habit that’s now mine, I examine my entire day and go back over what I’ve done and said, hiding nothing from myself, passing nothing by.” He would ask himself whether his actions had been just, what he could have done better, what habits he could curb, how he might improve himself. Winston Churchill was famously afraid of going to bed at the end of the day having not created, written or done anything that moved his life forward “Every night,” he wrote,


“I try myself by Court Martial to see if I have done anything effective during the day. I don’t mean just pawing the ground, anyone can go through the motions, but something really effective.”

That’s what the path to greatness requires. Self-awareness. Self-reflection.


It’s also what journaling is uniquely suited to help you do.


The founder of Linkedin, Reid Hoffman, jots down in his notebook things that he likes his mind to work on overnight. Similarly, chess prodigy and martial arts phenom Josh Waitzkin, has a similar process:


“My journaling system is based around studying complexity. Reducing the complexity down to what is the most important question. Sleeping on it, and then waking up in the morning first thing and pre-input brainstorming on it. So, I’m feeding my unconscious material to work on, releasing it completely, and then opening my mind and riffing on it.”

In the evening, my process mirrors my morning but there is a slight difference. I start with The Daily Stoic journal and read what I have written in the morning. I then take a moment to reflect on this before putting my day up for review and writing what happened and if I felt I achieved all I set out to do. When I then change to my Moleskine journal I ask myself 2 questions after reading what my intentions were from the what I wrote in the morning:


· Put my day up for review

· One positive taken from today


This process is done as the last thing before I go to sleep and there is no phones or emails about 20-30mins before I start my journaling routine. This for me is my daily shut down and once I am done and close the book on the day, I feel this mentally helps me really switch off to get a good sleep and maximise my health benefits from correct sleeping. There is nothing worse than ruminating on a problem all night. This only serves to exaggerate the problem in the mind and then make you tired for any effective decision making the next day. Let your subconscious do some of the heavy lifting when you go to sleep. Try and shut your day off when you have closed the journal on it.



In summary, hopefully you can appreciate and understand the real power of journaling now? I would highly encourage you to pick up this tool and make it a habit in your lives. I can personally attest to its power, and it has helped me through some really tough and challenging times. I am a better person because of it both on and off the court. My mind is a lot clearer, more open, rational, and pragmatic. Yes of course I still have the odd bad days and react terribly to challenges I confront, but then going to my journal and reflecting on it helps inoculate me for future similar situations and to help me cope and deal with them better when they do arise. As we know, the one thing constant in life is change!


In closing, if you are looking closer at squash and trying to link it to your performances, Dutch scientist Marije Elferink-Gemser studied the qualities that helps people get past performance plateaus and found that


“Reflection is…a key factor in expert learning and refers to the extent to which individuals are able to appraise what they have learned and to integrate these experiences into future actions, thereby maximising performance improvements.”

Practical tips


· Start small but start right away, there should be no excuse to delay, even if it is 1-line in the morning and 1-line in the evening. This is enough

· Create a habit of this, master the art of showing up!

· Do it in your own way, but if you need some guidance to start, feel free to use the questions and prompts outlined above for my morning and evening journaling process

· Do not overreach and fail, start small and get a streak going

· You can use the SquashMind app for a digital journal to use at any time, see below...




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