Michelle Obama is right

Updated: Jan 19, 2020, 09:52 IST | Gitanjali Chandrasekharan | Mumbai

Everyone should journal. A hospital chain's COO, a human resource head, the founder of a charity and a successful contemporary artist discuss how putting pen to paper (or finger to keyboard) guides you to the sweet spot

Dhruvi Acharya, Artist, Draws in a journal her reactions to interactions. Pics/ Shadab Khan
Dhruvi Acharya, Artist, Draws in a journal her reactions to interactions. Pics/ Shadab Khan

Following the success of her 2018 memoir, Becoming, former first lady of the United State of America, Michelle Obama released a journal, titled Becoming: A Guided Journal for Discovering Your Voice. This too has fast become a bestseller. Now, why would the former FLOTUS sell a notebook, you'd ask. Well, we at least didn't buy it. But, this one—unlike the list of things-we-don't-need that Marie Kondo started dishing out last year to much criticism—isn't quite useless. For several reasons.

When the title says "guided journal", it truly offers guidance. On every page, Obama shares a pearl of wisdom or tells you what to write about. Try this for therapy: "Write about a specific experience when someone dislodged a dream of yours by trying to lower your expectations. How did it make you feel? How did you try to overcome that obstacle?" After you have written this in about 20 lines, the next page does something more extraordinary. It allows you to find your own voice when it asks you to list five ways in which that person was wrong. Obama has once again in our eyes become a champion of finding one's own voice. And if the notebook does push you to difficult self-introspection, does Rs 632 seem too much?

Michelle Obama followed her best-selling memoir Becoming, with the release of the Becoming journal, which guides readers towards finding their voice. PIC/GETTY IMAGES
Michelle Obama followed her best-selling memoir Becoming, with the release of the Becoming journal, which guides readers towards finding their voice. Pic/ Getty Images

Journalling, or in the words of our Std 5 teacher's words—writing a diary—has many listed benefits. A 1999 study led by Joshua Smyth, PhD, of Syracuse University, had 107 asthma and rheumatoid arthritis patients writing for 20 minutes on each of three consecutive days—71 of them about the most stressful event of their lives and the rest about the emotionally neutral subject of their daily plans. As per an article in the American Psychology Association, "Four months after the writing exercise, 70 patients in the stressful-writing group showed improvement on objective, clinical evaluations compared with 37 of the control patients. In addition, those who wrote about stress improved more, and deteriorated less, than controls for both diseases."

And while that should be reason enough to journal, India's CEOs will tell you that it's great for success in the boardroom as well.

At 47, Joy Chakraborty is the COO of Hinduja hospital and is perhaps more millennial than you. He has ditched the notebook for an iPad in which he jots down his thoughts for the day. "Maintaining a diary has been a childhood practice and I would write as a daily routine—what I do, have done. Something unique I did or something I was proud of. However, when you start working, there are constraints of time and you stop documenting the mundane events."

Joy Chakraborty   CEO, Hinduja Hospital  Writes to get a sense of what he has achieved and what he could have done differently.  PIC/BIPIN KOKATE
Joy Chakraborty, COO, Hinduja Hospital writes to get a sense of what he has achieved and what he could have done differently. Pic/ Bipin Kokate

Which is why his trusted iPad has become his diary, where Chakraborty jots ideas that he comes across, or something he knows he needs to learn in the future. "I may not remember everything, but on a regular basis at the end of the day, when I get a chance to look at these notes, I also get a sense of what I have achieved and what I could have done differently." Chakraborty ensures that he spends an hour and a half every Sunday going through these notes and keeps them as base to plan for the next week. It could be work related or something new for self development.

Diary notes also help analyse how work interactions went and, then, could they have been better. So, while Chakraborty revisits conversations and often returns to the in-person dialogue with new insights, Santanu Mishra, co-founder and executive trustee of Smile Foundation, uses his morning journaling to set the agenda for the day. To give an example, he says, "I assess if I have handled myself properly. You have to improve yourself every day. So, I may have written an affirmation that says, 'I will not get angry today'. Then I go back in the evening and write in the diary and introspect on whether I met any circumstance or person that made me angry again."

Mishra, who started keeping a diary as a child, says he lost touch with the practice in college only to discover its advantages in his professional years. "Once you are up in the morning, you are bombarded with information. Can you take out one hour to take a pause and think, 'what am I going to prioritise today'? Writing is about keeping yourself focussed toward a goal."

Reeni Lionel, 31, started documenting her time with her kids two and a half years ago. The COO and head of human resource at IndiaFilings, now also puts down her prayers and inspirational quotes that she may come across in a book she is reading. "It helps me centre myself," she adds.

But, not all journals need to be filled with words.

Santanu Mishra Co-founder, Smile Foundation  Writes to later assess if he handled himself well because “you have to improve yourself every day
Santanu Mishra Co-founder, Smile Foundation. Writes to later assess if he handled himself well because “you have to improve yourself every day

Mumbai artist Dhruvi Acharya, 48, says it was after moving to the US in 1995, while dealing with homesickness that she started drawing her thoughts. "At that time, a call from home would cost Rs 100 a minute, so I took to drawing [instead of writing]. While it's not a daily practice, I draw about things that are on my mind or what I felt about some interaction."

The visual entries also help with instant recall. Acharya, who has a show currently on at Delhi's Nature Morte, titled, permeated absence, says there's a soft sculptural bedroom installation where drawings from 20 years have been put up on the wall. "And while looking at these images, I realised some were made on trips I had taken. Sometimes, it's somethings I had read about." The drawings also help her with work. "I scan them and save them on my desktop. I return to them when I am looking to make a painting."

For Mishra, who aims to keep an hour aside every day for reflection, not writing is disturbing. "I feel like there's something I haven't done," he says, adding that going through some of his previous diaries lead to interesting discoveries. "I looked at what I'd written, say four years ago, and realise I was a different person at that time. If I had known then what I know now, I would have lived my life more happily."

Journalling tips

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  • Set aside a time daily/weekly to write
  • Ask what did you achieve and what could you have done better
  • Write down ideas and come back to them for inspiration
  • Write an affirmation for what you want done in the day
  • Not just events, write about what you learnt or hope to learn

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