There is little doubt that many people receive positive benefits from maintaining a regular if not daily habit of journal writing, in some form.
The word journal comes from the French word journee, meaning from sunrise to sunset.
If you ever attend a beginner’s writing course or two, 99% of the time the course teacher will, within the first hour or so, make the swinging recommendation that you should always have a notebook on hand, and you should be journaling (sometimes suggested as writing) always. But what do they mean by journaling? And why?
Let’s start with writing in general –
Warren Buffet has described writing as a “key way of refining [his] thoughts”.
Richard Branson is quoted as saying “My most essential possession is a standard-sized school notebook,” which he uses for writing.
- Many authors maintain platform websites, with news of their latest books etc. But many also maintain more personal blogs (like this one of mine) simply because they want to write out their thoughts on something. Bill Gates maintains a blog.
- The book Daily Rituals, by Mason Currey, details many writing examples where artists and authors use writing to clarify their thoughts and ideas.
Many of the writing examples above are actually examples of journals also. So what are the clear benefits of using journaling as a tool in writing or otherwise?
1. Mental, Health and Emotional Benefits of Journal Keeping
1.1 Mental and Healing Benefits (The Memoir or Creative Non-Fiction)
Regular writing can give you a safe and cathartic environment for releasing the stresses of your daily life.
- A study in the journal Advances in Psychiatric Treatment documents current research on the topic. In the article, the researchers note that 15–20 minutes on 3–5 occasions was enough to help the study participants deal with traumatic, stressful or emotional events.
- Journaling has been found to be effective in people with severe illnesses like cancer.
- The Center for Journal Therapy is dedicated to the mental health benefits of regular journaling, in both therapeutic and personal settings.
- University of Texas, Austin psychologist and researcher James Pennebaker contends that regular journaling strengthens immune cells, called T-lymphocytes. Other research indicates that journaling decreases the symptoms of asthma and rheumatoid arthritis. Pennebaker believes that writing about stressful events helps you come to terms with them, thus reducing the impact of these stressors on your physical health.
- Pennebaker’s research has also been derived by Laura A King, where participants were found to be much happier and healthier. They had journaled about stressful events, or their “best possible self”. In journaling life goals, Laura A King found similar benefits.
- This University of Iowa study (direct to PDF link) has also shown that journaling about stressful events helped participants deal with those experiences. The key was to focus on what the journaler was thinking and feeling as opposed to emotions alone. It was found that it was important how and what you write, not just writing in free-form emotional blurts.
In summary, you get the best benefits of journaling when you’re telling your personal story, not just venting or writing about your feelings on their own. It’s a great example of how telling your own personal story can make a huge difference in your well being. All those memoirists were onto something.
However, not all journaling on distressful events can be beneficial for all people:
- For a fuller roundup of all the research, read the Writing to Heal article at American Psychological Association.
- Some studies found writing about traumatic events caused more depression immediately – until over six months later.
From this, it appears that writing for therapy has a timing issue – for those who have not already set a regular writing or journaling routine as a habit, forcing them to write down or journal on a traumatic event can be unhelpful.
1.2 Emotional Benefits (The Gratitude Journal)
There is a great lot of empirical research into the mental and stress-reduction benefits of journaling – in story-telling fashion. But there are also the emotional benefits –
Thankfulness, gratitude and awesomeness – many people keep simple gratitude journals. Several websites and apps are dedicated to documenting the good things in daily life, reminding us that each day can contain these. Journaling and story telling of life should become a more natural routine to gain the most benefits.
- A Lifehacker post calls these an awesomeness journal, with the benefits that it helps with self-esteem.
- Oprah is doing gratitude journals. However, note that she is often quoted with the suggestion that gratitude journaling should be done every night, listing out five things from the day, yet in this article she admits her days were too busy at the time, but she was back to journaling electronically when she could. More on keeping a successful gratitude habit below.
- University of California’s Professor Robert Emmons is arguably the world’s leading expert on the science of gratitude and an author of some of the seminal studies of gratitude journals. At Berkeley’s Greater Good site, he provides tips for keeping a gratitude journal.
- The last bullet above provides a warning however. The evidence suggests that some gratitude journalers aren’t as successful as others. Professor’s Emmon’s first and last tips suggest –
Don’t just go through the motions. Research by psychologist Sonja Lyubomirsky and others suggests that journaling is more effective if you first make the conscious decision to become happier and more grateful. “Motivation to become happier plays a role in the efficacy of journaling,” says Emmons.
Don’t overdo it. Writing occasionally (once or twice per week) is more beneficial than daily journaling. In fact, one study by Lyubomirsky and her colleagues found that people who wrote in their gratitude journals once a week for six weeks reported boosts in happiness afterward; people who wrote three times per week didn’t. “We adapt to positive events quickly, especially if we constantly focus on them,” says Emmons. “It seems counterintuitive, but it is how the mind works.”
The key for securing a more positive and happier emotional state out of journaling therefore, in this respect, appears to lie around going into specific journaling with a conscious plan, and keeping that type of journaling for regular weekly times, looking back. Doing it daily can, for some people, become a chore, leading to failure.
2. Work and Creative Benefits of Journal Keeping
As a writer, it’s near impossible to argue that maintaining some kind of journaling or note-taking system (or systems, in many cases) does not achieve great work and creative benefits.
- Virginia Woolf on the Creative Benefits of Keeping a Diary – Brainpickings post.
- The 5 Benefits of Creative Journaling for Speculative Fiction Writers – Examiner.com
2.1 Work (Productivity) Benefits (The Work Log)
One of the more common forms of advice to maintain productivity is to do with regularly reviewing your work – some productivity systems suggest morning or night daily reviews, while others suggest weekly reviews, or monthly reviews of work done, and what is to be done next. (Look out for the upcoming Productivity Fortnight on this blog, where many of these productivity systems will be briefly outlined).
Log lists, work logs and other work diary forms of journaling provide major practical benefits in productivity. They gift you with the ability to track successes, learn from failures, and recognise patterns in behaviour and output that may require analysis.
- Lifehacker emphasises keeping a work diary – and reviewing it, to minimise mistakes and document successes.
- Dr Ira Progoff was one of the first psychologists to study the effects of journal writing. In a setting of New York City’s welfare and unemployment programs, 300 participants were studied in regards to journal writing and personal growth. Of those 300 introduced to journaling, 90% had improved their job status and housing conditions by the end of the study.
- Journaling to build and document better habits has also been shown to implement success also – if you want to get fitter, keep an exercise journal; want to lose weight – keep a food diary.
- Additionally, journaling fits in with another productivity hack, from out of David Allen’s Getting Things Done – that of listing out or emptying our minds of mental tabs – or open loops, as GTD calls them. These are the many distracting thoughts or new ideas that our 21st century busy-ness produces for us. Open loops, unless controlled, can distract us from a task in hand. Listing them out in a journal is one of the best methods to control these.
2.2 Creativity Benefits (Inspiration, Writing Practice Journals, Writer’s Notebooks)
The subject of creativity is not one that is easily supported with empirical research; – unlike some of the benefits above, creativity doesn’t come with a measurable scale. You can’t prove somebody became more creative or otherwise, simply by maintaining a journal for a week or month.
Nevertheless, most writers are in agreement that many types of journals – inspiration and ideas databases and the writer’s notebook, can and will greatly benefit our creativity and problem-solving abilities: Dull writing can be problem solved with brainstorming from those notes or files, ideas can be generated.
As regards how to do this in a journal, there are many types of journals where such benefits can be obtained. A few –
2.2.1 Practice Writing – Does Practice make Perfect?
Just slipping this out in the open – I loathe regular or systematic timed writing practice and writing to prompts. I consider warmup or daily writing exercises a “waste of words” when I could be working on a novel in progress. My feelings towards writing exercises alter within different writing phases, but this type of writing journal is not one I personally can sustain on a daily basis. I don’t keep a writing journal I write into everyday.
Regular writing exercises do provide one obvious benefit to all, though – improvement via experience. Practice writing may allow us to –
- learn how to better use words to express an idea and tell a story,
- communicate more effectively,
- and also to play around with different styles or genres in writing.
2.2.2 Inspiration and Ideas – Databases or Writer’s Notebooks
As a collector, the inspiration journals or idea piles are the form of notebook journals that I love. I have a huge “might be needed one day, but this is interesting right now” database of research, articles, web clippings and ideas. As I find and file them, many trigger me into ideas for stories or articles like this one.
What I find difficult to setup as a routine is documenting things out of my everyday life. I don’t like to note down interesting conversations I may have overheard at the coffee shop, or that “unique” person I saw the other day at the bus stop.
Some types of journaling aren’t for everybody.
Be that as it may, the scenario above is the writer’s bohemian dream–that picture of the writer sitting at a cafe table, with notebook open, pen quickly jotting down the conversation happening at the table next door.
2.2.3 Sounding-boards, Brainstorming and Planning – Writer’s Notebooks
Writing is generally a solo job – many of us don’t have the benefit of work colleagues to springboard and develop ideas with. These long hours of alone-time offer us some benefits, however – we do have the time to form our own ideas more succinctly, and a journal can provide the basis for this creative lead-off.
Many of the examples of famous author’s diaries that we savour aren’t really in diary form. Rather, many show outlining, planning and idea generation of scenes and characters to build the fictional worlds we now know so well as readers. There are examples through history of both productive work-like journals and those allowing for thoughts, reportage or memoirs and writing practice.
2.3 Combining Productivity with Creativity
No matter what the medium or style, keeping one or two different types of journal systems and routines can and will benefit any writer. But the single biggest benefit is amalgamated into the scope of creative progression. It’s one of Motivation:
Creative people such as writers care passionately about their work. The biggest benefit in journaling can therefore be found in keeping a note of progress – progress on projects which you care deeply about, is the single biggest motivating factor for more creativity. (For more on this, see Thursday’s post also).
Combine that progress journal (of any form) with something to keep hold of ideas and inspiration, and you have a system which will benefit your writing and welfare together.
3. The Journal Medium
Above I’ve documented several areas or benefits found in keeping a journal – mental, health and emotional benefits; and the productivity and creativity benefits. All of these can and have been achieved with various journaling types: from health-inducing memoir or story-telling journals, gratitude journals, work logs, inspiration and ideas, practice writing and exercise journals, and many others.
Several of these can also take the form of different methods in journaling, some of which will be profiled in the posts through the next three days. Many listed below can be melded or blended together, of course.
Here’s a list –
- Diary journaling (date, telling)
- Memoir journaling
- Photo journals
- Bullet point or list journals – See Friday for one system
- Sketch journals
- Task journals (to do’s) – See Thursday for one system
- Work logs and Daily Logs – See Wednesday for one system
- Inspiration files or databases (research, clippings)
- Idea files (ideas, brainstorming)
- A-sentence-a-day journals
- Notebooks and Journals and Scraps of Paper
- Digital apps and files
- Blog posts
- and many more.
3.1 Writing vs Typing
Many published studies have shown that increased learning, cognitive and memory retention benefits can be obtained by hand-writing (or sketching) journals and class or other notes; rather than typing them:
- Lifehacker lists many of these studies in Why You Learn More Effectively by Writing Than Typing
- Why Using Pen And Paper, Not Laptops, Boosts Memory: Writing Notes Helps Recall Concepts, Ability To Understand
- How Handwriting Trains the Brain (Wall Street Journal)
- The latest, which took the world’s news media by storm only recently is the Princeton University research into university study and memory retention methods, comparing longhand note-taking with that of laptop notes: The Pen Is Mightier Than the Keyboard – Advantages of Longhand Over Laptop Note Taking
Note: this doesn’t necessarily mean that journals must be kept in old-school notebooks (although many writers covet a good Moleskine). I use a swathe of digital apps that let me hand-write using a stylus, or draw reasonably naturally. Handwritten material such as study notes etc are also captured digitally for later reference. But yes, I too, often turn to a moleskine.
Coming up tomorrow: Daily Log Books