I’ve been interested in journaling for a while. At the outset, I was looking for ways to cultivate a writing habit. As I looked into it more I found many more reasons to keep a journal.
Throughout history, people have kept journals. They have served as permanent records for historical events as seen from different viewpoints as well as for cathartic release. In more recent years there has been a lot of scientific research which shows that journaling has a positive effect on both physical and mental well-being.
Let’s look at some of the reasons and benefits that regular journaling can bring.
Better writing skills
Writing is like a muscle, the more you exercise it the better you will become. What better way to exercise it than through daily journaling? As we’ll see later, there are many kinds of journal which can provide you with a specific focus or constraint.
Daily structure and routine
I journal as part of my daily morning and evening routines which act as bookends to my day. It helps me prepare for the day ahead and process it at the end of the day. I try to take on board the lessons of the day to actively improve myself. It’s not enough to simply write some stuff, you have to think and reflect and take some action to change. Science backs this up.
Improved retention and learning
If you learn something new, a journal or commonplace book is a good place to store the details. Note down your ideas and thoughts throughout the day and you’ll soon build an impressive collection of knowledge. The act of handwriting helps your brain make stronger connections to the information. I will often note things down on paper and later review and rewrite them into my commonplace book. By actively consuming information and writing your own summaries, you’ll retain more and truly learn it.
Over time as you read and learn more, your brain will make more connections between these islands of information. You’ll find you have more interesting thoughts and generate many more new ideas.
Allow yourself to self-reflect
In the modern world, our lives are very hectic. We try to fill every moment, usually with superficial thoughts and don’t take any time for deeper thought. We don’t think about our purpose, how we feel about our life, what we want out of it and where we’re going.
Journaling allows us to step back from ourselves and reflect on our day and our emotions. Writing this down allows us to see patterns in our behaviour over time and set out ways to correct it where it’s undesirable.
“Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.” - Ferris Bueller
Clarity of thought
As you think and write more, it will have the effect of improving the clarity of your thoughts as you set them down on paper or screen. It will improve your ability to focus too. Ask yourself questions. The better the question, the more fulfilling your answers will be and will be more helpful for you. I have a note page in my commonplace book where I collect interesting questions to answer later.
“Journaling helps me clarify my thinking, process my feelings, and make better decisions.” - Michael Hyatt
Psychologist and researcher James Pennebaker at the University of Texas at Austin found that regular journaling can strengthen your immune cells and can decrease symptoms of asthma and rheumatoid arthritis.
In his research1 Pennebaker and colleague, Joshua Smyth at Syracuse University discovered that writing about stressful events helps you to come to terms with them which reduces the impact that they have on your physical health.
Other research suggests that it’s not enough to only write about it. You need to use the writing to actively think about, and change your mindset to achieve a positive effect. Venting your emotions is not enough. You must aim to develop a greater awareness of the positive aspects of the stressful events. To my mind this is not dissimilar to stoic philosophy, looking for positives. The act of writing this in your journaling helps to further cement more permanent change.
Types of journal
There isn’t a single type of journal. It can take many different forms and you can keep several on different topics or for different purposes.
The most common form is a diary, recording and recalling the events of the day. I follow this format using a template which helps me record the most pertinent things that I want to remember later. It also provides a daily record I can use to review and reflect on later. Within this classification are some more specific diary types such as a travel diary, recording things of interest during your travels so you have a specific record and memory of the trips.
This can be as simple as taking a couple of minutes and writing down three things that you are grateful for that day. If daily feels too often then make it a weekly habit instead. Research has shown that the greatest and longest lasting effects of gratitude journaling come from doing it every few days or so.
This is a daily morning practice where you write a stream of consciousness, capturing all those thoughts that swirl through your head. It doesn’t have to make sense, and you don’t need to stop to edit it. Write whatever comes to mind for about 3 pages, or 750 words. Julia Cameron says, “they are about anything and everything that crosses your mind - and they are for your eyes only. They provoke, clarify, comfort, cajole, prioritise and synchronise the day at hand”.
Journals can be used to log all sorts of things for keeping track of your progress and you can refer back to later. For example, I keep a workout log where I record what exercises I did on which day along with any notes about how well I did, or didn’t, perform them. I might note where I need to pay attention next time, and I’ll re-read those before my next workout.
Themes and prompts
Finally, journaling isn’t a static thing. It’ll become different things to you at different times of your life. Sometimes, or if you’re like me, very often, you’ll struggle to know what to write. I’ve found that having themes or prompts to focus yourself on different areas to be very helpful. If there are particular areas of your character or personality you want to work on, then pick themes or prompts around that.
I use the Daily Stoic Journal as part of my stoic practice. Each week it focuses on a different area then each day has a specific question to prompt you.
Create your own themes and challenges to keep yourself engaged and continually learn more about yourself. You could try setting out a different theme to focus your writing each month or set yourself a challenge to write 500 words every morning for a week.
If you’ve been convinced that journaling is a powerful way to improve your life don’t procrastinate. Just start. Pick one thing and give it a try; keep experimenting until you find something that works for you and keep iterating.
In case you’re wondering, today is the best day to start your journal. Get yourself a notebook and pen, put it by your bedside and start writing yourself to a better person.
Journal of the American Medical Association (Vol. 281, No. 14) ↩