If you’re like me and have ever:
- Wondered why people including the likes of Charles Darwin, Winston Churchill, and Sara Blakely would spend so much of their precious time writing things that will never be seen by another soul;
- Dismissed journaling because the thought of plumbing the depths of your soul and spilling it out on paper makes your skin crawl; or
- (Upon being convinced that keeping a journal is, in fact, a worthwhile pursuit) gotten stuck on just how the heck to get started,
…then this article is for you.
What you write, you learn
We consume a massive amount of information over the course of a day—but how much of it do we actually remember, much less use in any meaningful way?
The key to learning is to stop passively consuming information and start actively engaging with the ideas we encounter. Think about the student who writes down what her professor says verbatim, versus the student who summarizes the information in her own words and then connects it back to concepts she’s learned before: Who do you think learns more?
Unfortunately, most of us no longer have exams, research projects, and class participation points to force us to engage more deeply with the flood of information we’re constantly inundated with. So how can we make active learning a habit?
One effective way researchers have found to reinforce learning is through reflective writing. It turns out that regular journaling can be used to train our attention and strengthen neural pathways. As neurologist and teacher Judy Willis explains:
The practice of writing can enhance the brain's intake, processing, retaining, and retrieving of information… it promotes the brain's attentive focus … boosts long-term memory, illuminates patterns, gives the brain time for reflection, and when well-guided, is a source of conceptual development and stimulus of the brain's highest cognition.
Reflective writing has also been shown to improve decision making and critical thinking in a number of medical professions, including physical therapy and nursing. For practitioners, journals proved to be invaluable tools for examining past experiences, evaluating their own actions, and drawing insights for encountering future challenges.
Ameet Ranadive, former McKinsey consultant and product manager at Twitter, summarized the more practical career benefits of personal writing with the McKinsey maxim “writing clarifies thinking.” He describes his writing habit as a “forcing function” to better structure ideas and arguments, reconcile disparate viewpoints, identify the important information, and extract insight from data.
In today’s knowledge economy, productivity is no longer about producing the most widgets in an hour; it’s about the speed at which you can learn new things, and about your capacity to think critically and creatively. Thus, like any habit that helps you learn more deeply and think more creatively, journaling is worth investing a few minutes of your time in.
What you write, you control (in a manner of speaking)
It’s an established fact that journaling helps to improve both your mental and physical health; numerous studies (of the scientifically rigorous variety) have shown that personal writing can help people better cope with stressful events, relieve anxiety, boost immune cell activity, reduce viral load in AIDS patients, and even speed up healing after surgery.
But why? What exactly goes on in our brains and bodies when we journal? There are a couple of different things at play when we write about what’s on our minds that contribute to a greater sense of calm and control.
Research has shown that our short-term memory storage is limited. The vast majority of us can only hold five or six, maybe seven items in our head at a time (hence why phone numbers are seven digits long). Anything beyond and we start to forget things and feel overwhelmed with information.
Recording your thoughts in a medium outside your own head clears out that storage. As a result, your mind becomes quieter: It stops returning to the same worn-out mental loops over and over. You can begin to think more clearly.
Another effect of journaling is something psychologists call reframing your personal narrative. When you recount and reflect upon your thoughts and experiences you are, in effect, telling your own story. Journaling helps us clarify, edit, and find new meaning in these narratives.
One study conducted at Stanford University focused on African-American students who were struggling to adjust to college life. One group of students was asked to create an essay or video about what college was like, to be seen by future students. Those who reflected on their experiences through writing or video received significantly better grades in the following months than their peers in the control group.
An older Stanford study asked students to keep a journal while home on winter break. Half of the students were told to write about their personal values and how they connected back to the day’s events, while the other group was simply asked to describe the positive things that happened during the day.
When they returned to school the next semester, researchers found that the students who journaled about their values were healthier, reported feeling higher energy, and displayed more positive attitudes than students who simply recounted positive events.
“These writing interventions can really nudge people from a self-defeating way of thinking into a more optimistic cycle that reinforces itself,” Timothy D. Wilson, a University of Virginia psychology professor, told the New York Times. “Writing forces people to reconstrue whatever is troubling them and find new meaning in it.”
In her book The Upside of Stress, Psychologist Kelly McGonigal described the remarkable benefits of journaling interventions:
In the short term, writing about personal values makes people feel more powerful, in control, proud, and strong. It also makes them feel more loving, connected, and empathetic toward others. It increases pain tolerance, enhances self-control, and reduces unhelpful rumination after a stressful experience.
"In the long term, writing about values has been shown to boost GPAs, reduce doctor visits, improve mental health, and help with everything from weight loss to quitting smoking and reducing drinking.
By connecting the worries and hassles of the day back to personal values, study participants are essentially rewriting their narratives, finding meaning and purpose in otherwise unchecked events.
What you write, you (are more likely to) achieve
If the advice to write down your goals triggers a reflex to roll your eyes and click away from this page, I don’t blame you. If it were really that easy, the world would be impossibly overpopulated with New York Times best-selling authors, Academy Award-winning actors, and Super Bowl MVP quarterbacks.
But there is real evidence that this shallow self-help mantra holds a nugget of real insight into how our brains can work to set us on a path to achieve our goals.
One study looked at 149 participants from six countries, who worked in various fields. The participants were divided into five groups, each group asked to go through a different process in setting their goals and working towards them:
- Simply thinking about their goals.
- Writing their goals down.
- Writing their goals down and forming action commitments.
- Writing their goals down, forming action commitments, and sending both to a supportive friend.
- Same as #4, as well as sending weekly progress reports to a friend.
After four weeks the participants rated their progress towards their goals.
Group 5 achieved significantly more than the rest of the groups, with group 4 not far behind. But, surprisingly, group 2 came in third. In fact, simply writing down their goals improved their chances to achieving them by 42%.
Why did committing goals to writing make such a large difference? The reasons are multifaceted. Journaling about your goals helps you clarify what you want and encourages you to consider the why and how, not just the what. Reflecting on goals in writing continually reminds you to take the next action necessary to achieve them. They serve as a tool for identifying what you should prioritize on a daily basis, and what you should let go of.
Lastly, journals give you a record of the progress you’ve made toward your goals to keep you motivated in the long slog of actually reaching them. As Franz Kafka (much more eloquently) put it:
In the diary you find proof that in situations which today would seem unbearable, you lived, looked around and wrote down observations, that this right hand moved then as it does today, when we may be wiser because we are able to look back upon our former condition, and for that very reason have got to admit the courage of our earlier striving in which we persisted even in sheer ignorance.
But how to get started? A few thoughts for getting the most out of journaling…
As someone who started regularly journaling precisely 13 days ago in preparation for writing this article, I will now speak authoritatively on how to do it “right.”
Just kidding. But from all the articles out there on the Internet written by people who do seem to know what they’re talking about, there are some key pieces of advice that I did—and I hope you will—find helpful:
Use pen and paper
According to nearly all sources, using good old-fashioned pen and paper is key in reaping the psychological and productive benefits of journaling; writing things out by hand improves memory, encourages deeper thinking and reflection, and keeps you from ending up in the deep recesses of your Facebook feed without remembering how you got there in the first place.
(Personally, I found it highly motivating to spend an unnecessarily large amount of money on a fancy journal that makes me feel both scholarly and reflective, but a 10-cent spiral notebook and a No. 2 pencil will do just fine.)
Make it a habit
But how? First and foremost, you need a consistent trigger that signals to your brain it’s time to write. Incorporate journaling into your morning and evening routines directly following a habit you already do every day. For me, my habit is making my morning cup of coffee—and lord knows I’ll never forget to do that. I’ve used this pre-established habit to trigger a new one: sitting down with my journal.
Keep your journal in the same spot where you’ll see it at the same time every day, like your bedside or dining room table. Sit down to write in the same place, like a favorite chair in your house or your favorite coffee shop. The more consistent you can keep your journaling routine, the easier it will be to keep.
We don’t often take the time to sit down with our own thoughts. Writing a journal can feel self-indulgent or a waste of time. Resist the instinct to rush through it to get to the next thing, especially when life reaches its busiest. As we learned above, journaling can actually save you both time and stress by clearing your mind and clarifying your thoughts. Treat it as an investment in your productivity rather than a detractor from it.
Don’t make it sound good
Self-consciousness is the enemy of writing. Your journal doesn’t need to make good reading for you or for anyone else—the point is to get your thoughts on paper, not to create a masterpiece. Don’t edit; just write.
Make it useful for you
In this article, I’ve created a very broad view of what it means to journal: doing, really, any kind of personal writing. There’s no one way to do it correctly. You don’t even have to follow the same approach every day, although giving yourself some structure in what you write makes it easier to stick with the habit instead of getting overwhelmed with the possibilities. Experiment and find out which approaches work best for you.
A few approaches to try out
Now that you have the why and the how of journaling, we’ve come to the what. The good news is there’s no “right” or “wrong” way to keep a journal—it depends on what you want to get out of it. But that freedom can also be overwhelming and keep us from ever getting started. Here are a few structures to experiment with to find what works for you:
The gratitude journal
One of the easiest and most impactful ways to start journaling is by simply writing about something that you’re grateful for. Studies have shown this simple habit can improve your sleep, increase happiness, and even reduce symptoms of illness.
To reap these benefits, however, there are some guidelines to follow. Robert Emmons, a professor at the University of California, suggests the following:
- Make a commitment to becoming happier and more grateful before getting started. Emmons points to research showing that going through the motions of a gratitude journal won’t work if you’re not truly committed to it.
- Focus deeply on few things. Superficial writing about many things is less beneficial than really digging into the details of one particular thing.
- Focus on people. Writing about things you’re grateful for doesn’t have the same benefit as focusing on people.
Make a note of unusual events. We tend to be more grateful about unexpected or surprising events.
- Don’t write in your gratitude journal every day. Studies have shown we adapt so quickly to positive events that the benefits wear off if we focus on what we’re grateful for every day. Writing a gratitude journal once per week is more likely to be beneficial.
In her book The Artist’s Way, Julia Cameron describes a daily practice of writing that she calls "morning pages." Before starting work each day, Cameron writes three pages, long-hand, of anything. Literally anything: “There is no wrong way to do Morning Pages—they are not high art. They are not even ‘writing.’,” she explains. “They are about anything and everything that crosses your mind—and they are for your eyes only.”
The point is to put down whatever swirling thoughts you have on paper to start your morning with a clean slate, so to speak. For entrepreneur Chris Winfield, Morning Pages have been a life-changing habit allowing him to tap into greater creativity, work through issues that seem overwhelming, and quiet his mind before starting his day. Try writing three Morning Pages every day for a week. Track if you feel calmer or more productive on the days you write.
The goal journal
Don’t just write out your goals once and look them over every once in awhile—incorporate them into a daily journal. Here are some tips for making the most of your goals-based journaling practice:
- Start with a list: Not to get too meta, but listing your goals or hopes is a quick, easy way to write down everything you’re working toward.
- Looking to the future: Your journal doesn’t just have to be a list of everything you’re trying to do this weekend; it can be a list of things you want to accomplish in the next year, routines you want to start, or anything.
- Looking to the past: Likewise, your journal doesn’t have to be a to-do list—it can be a got-done list. Journaling is a great way to be reflective about what you’ve accomplished, not just eager for what’s coming up next.
- What’s in your way: Sometimes you’re writing down your goals and can start thinking about the things that stand between you and them. With a journal, we suggest writing these things down, too, as parts of your life to be keeping track of.
- Progress reports: Since your journal is a place to tell your story, you don’t just have to keep track of what’s done and what’s not. Take time to write about the progress you’re making and the parts of your goals you’re getting to, not just whether you’ve taken care of the whole thing yet.
- Intangible goals: Your journal can be a place to write down things you’re working on that don’t have outcomes, like working on your relationships with your friends, improving your confidence at work, and making time to reflect.
Remember: when journaling toward your goals, just writing them down is a huge step to getting them done. Whether it’s things you need to get done at work or places you want to be in 10 years, committing your goals to paper starts down a road of being more likely to get there.
The values journal
As we learned above, connecting daily events back to your personal values can be a powerful way to manage stress, improve relationships, and feel more confident and in control. Start out by identifying the values that are important to you. You can even write a personal mission statement. Then write about how the events of your day connect back to your values. You may also want to take a step back every month or year to write about your values in the bigger picture of your life. Productivity writer James Clear writes an annual “Integrity Report” on what’s he’s done to live out his values over the year.
The ideas journal
We all come across interesting things and new ideas throughout the day. Some are useful and some aren’t, but it’s difficult to tell which is which in the moment. Some steps toward clearing out that clutter:
- Keep a small notebook and pen with you wherever you go. Jot down those brief moments of inspiration or nagging thoughts you have as soon as you can; this will help get them out of your head so you can focus on more whatever you’re doing in the moment.
- In the evening, take 15 minutes to review what you’ve written throughout the day. Is there a thought or idea that strikes you as particularly interesting? Are any of the things you wrote related to one another? Do they connect back to other problems or ideas you’ve been mulling over?
- Take a page or two to further explore one idea or several related ones. Taking the time to reflect on our thoughts helps us draw deeper insights, discover new connections, and reach more creative solutions.
The curiosity journal
This method has become a personal favorite of mine. Research shows that curiosity has been shown to be associated with stronger relationships, greater levels of happiness, higher intelligence, and more acute problem-solving skills. As the University of Pennsylvania’s Authentic Happiness website explains,
Although researchers have not identified the precise pathway by which curiosity leads to cognitive growth, a likely explanation concerns the rich environment curious people create for themselves as they seek new experiences and explore new ideas. Put simply, curious brains are active brains, and active brains become smart brains.
It’s easy to get stuck in routines and our own way of thinking about things. But research has shown that it’s possible to cultivate curiosity by intentionally training your attention. Much like how writing what you’re thankful for can help you feel more gratitude, writing about what makes you feel curious can conjure up feelings of curiosity.
Sounds simple, right? It is: Challenge yourself to write about one thing every day that made you stop and ask a question. It could be anything—a building you pass on the way to work, the way something functions, a story you heard about on the radio. Write about it. Why does it make you feel curious? What questions do you have about it? You may look into it further, or you may not. It doesn’t matter. It’s the act of noticing novelty and asking questions every day that’s important.
In his 2012 Person of the Year interview with Time Magazine, President Obama described the incredible power of writing this way:
In my life, writing has been an important exercise to clarify what I believe, what I see, what I care about, what my deepest values are. The process of converting a jumble of thoughts into coherent sentences makes you ask tougher questions.
You don’t have to be a writer, or a creative, or a new-age hippie to keep a journal. Whatever your goals are—to feel happier, manage stress, think more clearly, learn more deeply, or better align your daily actions with your values and goals—making time in your busy life to journal can help you get there. Just pick up a pen and start writing.
Becky is editor and logophile-in-residence at Doist. You can find her trying not to take life too seriously. So far so good.