In previous years, Mental Health Today has kindly invited me to write articles about Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT).

Broadly speaking, those articles aimed to give the reader the gist of ACT. However, they also served another purpose: in a brief and fleeting way, they introduced the reader to me, as the co-author of The ACT Diary.

This year, that’s all about to change. This year, rather than making minor reference to the diary in an article about ACT, the diary is going to take centre stage. “Why?” I hear you ask. Well, this year marks the 5-year anniversary of The ACT Diary and with 1000’s of sales we thought that readers might like to know (1) how the diary came about and (2) why the diary helps to improve wellbeing.

How the diary came about

In 2015, with a good friend of mine (Dr Duncan Gillard), I delivered an ACT-based stress management course to schoolteachers. The course aimed to develop participants Psychological Flexibility. To remind you, Psychological Flexibility, which is the core thing that ACT tries to achieve, means accepting our unwanted thoughts and feelings while moving our feet towards our values. As is usual in courses such as this, early on the teachers had to complete a values clarification exercise, which required them to gradually narrow down their most important values until they were left with only three.

In the next session then, we aimed to illustrate how it’s possible to bring our values to life by creating goals that are in line with them. We asked the teachers to get their sheet out from last week, the one with their three personally chosen values on, so that they could start to think about the goals. However, we’d hit the post. We’d forgotten to ask the teachers to bring those sheets along from the last session to this session.

This isn’t a problem” we said confidently. “Just write down the three values from last week on a new sheet of paper”. However, people couldn’t remember them. The values had escaped from the teachers’ brains.

As a result of this experience, later in the course, the teachers could nicely rattle off their values in our sessions. But now there was another problem. During our chats about how their homework went (where they had to complete values-based goals), many teachers, amongst the hustle and bustle of everyday life, reported that they had totally forgotten what their values-based goals were, and even that they had to complete values-based goals at all.

My personal experience, and my experience of doing ACT with many other human beings, was that these teachers were not especially deficient in their ability to (1) remember their values and (2) remember to bring their values to life by completing goals. Nope, this seems to be an actual thing: people easily forget their values and they easily forget to bring those value to life in their actions.

Why the diary helps to improve wellbeing

So, what could we do about this? The answer that immediately jumped to my mind was that we needed an environmental cue. I grabbed my diary and wrote the words ‘fridge magnet’. Later that night, I grabbed my diary and wrote the words ‘coffee cup’. The following morning, I grabbed my diary and wrote the word ‘pen’. All those things could be used to remind people of values and goals. And then it happened. As evidenced by the growing list of environmental cues in my diary, I realized that a diary is the perfect environmental cue.

Shortly afterwards, I approached a good colleague and friend of mine, Dr Freddy Jackson Brown, and he saw merit in the idea straight away. So, we set about creating the first version of the diary, which essentially asked people to write down their values and their goals each week.

Of course, over time, the diary has evolved. For example, if you decide to make a purchase now, then you’ll see information, exercises, and metaphors about experiential avoidance and the six ACT processes, you’ll frequently be asked to clarify your values, you’ll be given the opportunity to reflect on how life is going as you bring values centre stage, you’ll see the dates and days of the year, you’ll see spaces to write your meetings in each week and you’ll see some inspirational quotations.

However, make no mistake about it, the basic purpose of the diary is still exactly the same as it always was, and we think this is the main reason why the diary can improve wellbeing. That is, the diary is simply an environmental cue for valued action, and the more valued action we take in our lives the better our wellbeing will be.

I recently read a review about the diary, which said that there wasn’t enough self-help information in the diary. I wanted to reach through the screen and say to the reviewer: “This isn’t a self-help book, it’s just an environmental cue”. And so, I leave you with this: if you use a diary, and fancy having one that will remind you about the importance of values, and help you to live a life that’s in line with them, then The ACT Diary is for you.

To order and for more information on how the Acceptance and Commitment Therapy Diary can help you move forwards in 2022 in step with the things that matter most, please visit the Pavilion Publishing website.