Mental Health Journaling for Today and Tomorrow

It’s World Mental Health Day! According to the World Health Organization:

World Mental Health Day is observed on 10 October every year, with the overall objective of raising awareness of mental health issues around the world and mobilizing efforts in support of mental health. The Day provides an opportunity for all stakeholders working on mental health issues to talk about their work, and what more needs to be done to make mental health care a reality for people worldwide.

World Health Organization

While I don’t specialize in mental health, I think everyone should consider themselves a stakeholder in their own mental health at the very least. For many of us, knowledge work is an active part of our weekly work routine. And even for those who don’t associate themselves with that, I encourage everyone to consider mental health as one of the many facets of health that we must all invest in (mental, physical, emotional, etc).

During my sabbatical this year, I spent a week exploring the state of my mental health and thinking of all the ways that I do and don’t care for myself enough. I ended up creating a mental health journal (as I affectionately call it) that is filled with space to clear my head, notes to myself for when I feel down, and things to track while we’re all experiencing the pandemic-specific slippage of time.

This little book is something that has come in handy almost every day since I created it. It helps me get out of my own way, and remember what “my way” is, regardless of whether I’m in the midst of an emerging crisis or floating through the unending emotional drain of a global pandemic.

I’m not much for flip throughs (I can’t imagine that anyone cares what I have to say that much), but I’ll share some of the primary components and can follow up with a flip through if folks would find that easier.

What’s In It

I used a Happy Planner notebook, in the mini size. I’ve been using their products for years because of the extensibility and quality, not to mention the disc bound system is very forgiving of errors and changed plans.

I have four sections: Goals, Track, Think, Know

Goals

This section is mostly as expected, with a laundry list of projects to do and habits to hone. It also has some pages with key questions for goal-setting (what would I do if money didn’t matter, what small changes could I make to improve my quality of life, what activities do I dread the most).

I also take time to write down why I have chosen some of my goals, because if I have learned one thing in life it’s that no plans survive contact with reality.

Track

This section, in the time of COVID, is used to track the passage of time and to remind me of the things I do that don’t require being attached to a computer. Not because I can’t figure it out for myself, but because decision fatigue is a real thing. In those moments when you find yourself once again at the end of your crisis response reserves, it’s nice to flip open a page and see that your past self was looking out for you.

For me, this section includes visual layouts of:

  • things I’ve tracked so I can make changes
  • optimal routines for my work week
  • what makes me feel happy or sad
  • the books I’ve read
  • my hobby stretch goals
  • and when I last took time for myself

It also includes two weekly prompts for gratitude and big wins – moments that often go unremarked on right now.

Think

This section is the best and the worst. It’s just blank pages that I’ve doodled some titles onto. The titles are all big, existential questions that I want to explore (so I can write about them here), or small and relentless fears that are hindering my progress through my everyday life. Because I am a happy planner, most of these pages have some supportive and semi-inspirational quotes to go along with them.

But mostly it’s just a non-judgemental place for me to clear my head and admit to what scares me.

Know

And speaking of blind panic.

This section is my favorite. It has one sheet that logs important dates in my career (and a new page that charts my path) and the rest is just illustrations and doodles of things I have come to believe as a leader.

It has quotes that I say to my team leads all the time. It has my main recommendations about how to stay resilient. It has a tree of questions for when I’m worried. And page after page of guiding thoughts for when I feel the most at sea.

I add to these pages, and refer to them for self-guidance, almost daily. It is clear to me, now more than ever, that I know who I am and what my purpose in life is. It is my sincerest hope that what I reflect into the world matches.

What’s In You

I know that pen and paper isn’t for everyone, so I make the following recommendations lightly.

I think that some of what we will lose the most in future retellings of this time period is how fiercely human this reality made many of us. We will lose our handwritten notes, we will lose how we tried to improve our circumstances, and we will lose how we tried to help each other.

I will always write here, on this site, as I have for a decade. But I think there’s something to be said for the slow, tactile experience of creating something physical that can help you now and can capture who you were for the future.

Clarity in Creative Planning

Last year my mother gave me a Happy Planner for Christmas. When I first saw it, I thought to myself “Self, that organizer is too creative for you.” It had these large, blank boxes (three per day) and a single week took up two full pages. Down one side is an area for notes, but it mostly just looked like a giant way for me to not know what to do that was interesting enough.

I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was no longer as creative as I once was. I don’t paint anymore, I don’t draw. My linocut materials have been gathering dust. I no longer scour datasets for fascinating patterns. Even my knitting/sewing/fiberworks had fallen by the wayside. I took a Sketchnotes class in the fall of 2015 and couldn’t bring myself to litter my notebooks with my now terrible drawings.

And so it was that, armed with stickers and encouraging words, I set out to use this creative planning method.

My first few weeks months were fairly uninspired. I wasn’t sure how to use so much space. I felt like I had forgotten how colors work at all. For some reason, I got incredibly caught up in the concept of foreground and how to make that work with an organizational method.

Organization foregrounds. Great.

It wasn’t until the end of April (that’s four months, my friends) that I finally got my mind around the whole thing. I learned how to make my weeks function as a unit. I discovered that if I put in my standing items at the beginning of the week, I could add as I go. Importantly, I realized that everything can get better (or re-learned) with some practice. You get things wrong when you start something new. That can be discouraging (or embarrassing, or frustrating, or horrifying), but it’s not insurmountable.

I now use this awesome planner for remembering what has gone by as much as I use it to remember what’s coming up. The sidebar tends to hold a small note-to-self from the week; sometimes a thing to focus on as I go and sometimes a lesson I learned while I was in it. The habit of physically writing down what I want to do, what I actually did, and what to focus my mind on is satisfyingly grounding.

It’s equal parts catharsis and clarity. Who wouldn’t want that?