The science behind why skipping a day or week shouldn’t make you feel bad.
I’ve been journaling since I was thirteen. But if you ask me whether all the boxes of used journals I have at my parents’ place have an entry every single day, the answer would be no. No matter how badly I’d want to be consistent, I still skip days (sometimes even weeks and months). On some days, different commitments come up. On others, I’m just too exhausted to put pen to paper. Either way, I haven’t been able to stick to the daily journaling habit as strictly as I’d like to.
If you go by the advice often prescribed by writers and speakers in the self-help field, you could say I’m a failure. That because I miss days, I’m not eligible to get all the benefits from journaling.
Speaking from experience, that’s not true. Journaling has helped me reflect on a lot of decisions and improve myself based on the outcome. It has helped me perform personal annual reviews to understand my goals better and accordingly set new-year resolutions. It also pulled me out of some of the darkest phases of my life. Even though I don’t do it daily, journaling has helped me become more comfortable in my identity.
In this post, I'll share the science behind why missing a day (or a week) in your journaling habit doesn’t hamper your overall chances of getting the most benefits from it. I’ll also discuss some steps that worked for me and how you can apply them to get back to daily journaling habit even if you relapse.
Identify Your Why
As Viktor Frankl famously quoted, “When you know your why, you can endure any how.” In the case of skipping your daily journaling habit, the first thing you need to know before attempting to get back on track is to figure out your why. Ask yourself the following two questions:
Why did you miss the day?
If you missed writing for some reason that’s not in your control, it’s okay. Take a deep breath and forgive yourself. In my experience, when I gave myself the luxury of skipping a few days if I had to, it was easy for me to jump right back into the habit once the stressful situation was over.
Even if you simply felt lazy and didn’t write for a few days, forgive yourself and move on. Self-compassion can be a valuable tool on this journey of personal development. As this article on Harvard Business Review states, people with high levels of self-compassion demonstrate three behaviors:
- They are kind rather than judgmental about their own failures and mistakes
- They recognize that failures are a shared human experience
- They take a balanced approach to negative emotions when they stumble or fall short — they allow themselves to feel bad, but they don’t let negative emotions take over.
Why must you get back to your daily journaling habit?
The other why you need to figure out is your reason for wanting to maintain a journal. Is it because you want to practice self-reflection, or are you trying to build a gratitude habit? Either way, when you know the reason behind wanting to stick to any habit, it becomes a lot easier than blindly trying to do it just because some random article on the internet told you so.
According to anthropologist and conflict resolution expert, Aldo Civico, Ph.D., the best way to stick to any new habit is: “be clear about your “why.” Uncover the most profound purpose that underpins your goals. Why do you want your commitment to become a reality? How will your life change as a result of living the intention of your resolutions?”
Make Up For Lost Time
As a 2001 study published in New Directions for Adult and Continuing Education suggests, the biggest advantage of journaling is being able to review or reread earlier reflections and a progressive clarification of insights. In other words, a few missed days do not matter much in the grand scheme of things.
Sure, you weren’t a hundred percent consistent, but writing in your journal on the days you can is better than not writing at all. As James Clear puts it, just because your adherence to a preferred habit is not optimal doesn’t mean it’s not beneficial.
“Just because you can’t stick to the optimal schedule, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t stick to it at all. Good habits are built gradually. Start slow, live your life, and get better along the way. Progress is a spectrum, not a specific place.”
— James Clear
In my experience, here’s what works and how you can apply them:
- Whenever you get the time, write your daily reflections. Then, rewind whatever highlights of the previous few days come to your mind and write them down.
- Any ideas or insights that you’d been ruminating over but hadn’t really had the time to write, pen all of them down in a single day.
Be Consistent in Other Forms
Even if you can’t put your pen to paper every single day, maintain your reflections in some form. I usually type out a note on my phone when I’m too tired to actually sit and write. On some days, I even record myself speaking all the things I wish to reflect on or be thankful for, and send it as a voice message to myself on WhatsApp.
Coach Tony calls this the Minimum Consistent Dose (MCD)— the smallest version of your goal that you’d be willing to give yourself credit for. Find your MCD and stick to it daily. Thus, when you exceed your MCD, you’ll get a sense of momentum and feel proud. On the days when you can’t journal, at least you’ll know you’ve done your MCD, and your streak won’t be broken.
As a bonus, when you return to your usual journaling method on a subsequent day, you can listen to the voice recordings or read the note snippets on your phone and turn them into insightful journal entries.
Like journaling, as in the case of every new habit a person tries to build, the first step is usually the hardest. But if you know your motivation behind it, you’ll be able to get back to your journal, even if you missed a few days in between.
When you’re finally able to stick to writing again, rewind the past few days' happenings and write what you remember from memory. In addition, define your minimum consistent dose and at least stick to that — even on your worst days. For me, it’s sending a small note to myself on my phone about the incident that I’d like to focus on in my journaling session.
Remember, no matter what self-help writers on the internet might tell you, it’s indeed possible to get the most of journaling even when you don’t do it every single day. You can still reap the benefits out of it as long as you push yourself back to writing as consistently as possible after your missed sessions.