This is not uncommon; writing out your problems and triumphs has a range of benefits. Continue reading, and you’ll not only learn what these mental and physical benefits are, but how you can reap the rewards yourself. If you write about your life experiences consistently, you not only learn a lot about yourself — you’ll become your own coach, and push yourself ever closer towards your goals.
The power of writing
Researcher James Pennebaker has studied “writing therapy” for many years. In one experiment, he had students write about traumatic experiences for 20 minutes a day. The control group simply wrote about mundane topics and did not reveal any opinions or emotions. While the control group experienced no changes in mental or physical health, the students who wrote in a journal:
- Experienced better mental health.
- Had an improved immune system.
- Visited the doctor less often.
They also had higher grade-point averages in the months following the study — suggesting that a journal can improve your performance at school and work as well.
Keeping a journal can improve your performance at work.
Why does writing about yourself produce such dramatic changes? Psychologists believe that it’s due to the brain’s left and right hemispheres. The right hemisphere specializes in emotions and narratives, while the left hemisphere is better at language and logic. When you write about yourself, your right hemisphere recalls your experiences and how they made you feel, while your left hemisphere translates these experiences into words. By “filtering” your memories through your left brain, you distance yourself from their emotional component. You’re able to look at a traumatic experience rationally and come to better conclusions; you clarify your thoughts and learn why situations make you feel the way they do. Naturally, this makes the experiences much less stressful, resulting in greater overall health (e.g., an improved immune system).
Keeping a journal also allows you to discover patterns in your thoughts and behaviors. Certain people or situations might consistently stress you out, or you might notice that certain activities consistently bring you joy. By examining past entries and comparing them to current ones, you’ll notice these connections, and do more of the things that bring you joy — and less of the things that bring you stress.
The foolproof method of journaling
The problem with learning new behaviors — even when they improve your life — is that they’re tough to implement. We’re creatures of habit, and the behaviors you engage in today are likely to be the very same ones you engage in tomorrow. If you’ve spent 20, 30, or 50 years not keeping a journal, it’s going to be incredibly difficult to start keeping one.
So I’m going to teach you how to start.
The key is get specific. Create a detailed plan for how you will begin keeping a journal. Complete the following sentences in writing:
- “If it is [TIME], then I will take 15 minutes to write in my journal.”
- “I will do it in/at [LOCATION].”
- “To do this, I will need [SUPPLIES or STIPULATIONS].” (e.g., my laptop, a quiet room, etc.)
- “The biggest obstacle that could derail me is [OBSTACLE].”
- “I will overcome this obstacle by [PLAN].”
Keep this written plan for as long as you need it. The key is to remove any source of ambiguity or resistance. Make journaling your “default” behavior.
A successful plan might be something like, “If it’s 7:00 p.m., then I’ll take my laptop into my room and write in my journal for 15 minutes. My dog might stop me from doing this if he wants to go for a walk, so I’ll take him for a walk in the morning to prevent this.”
With this plan in place, it’ll be hard to come up with excuses for why you shouldn’t write in your journal. It will be your default activity at 7:00 p.m., and you should certainly write this in your planner if you haven’t already.
You don’t have to be a writer
One common obstacle to keeping a journal is the act of writing itself. When we’re asked to do something we’re not good at, we try to weasel out of it to avoid failure and stay in our comfort zones. If you’ve never considered yourself to be much of a writer, that’s okay.
This is for your eyes only.
Don’t worry about spelling or grammar. You shouldn’t view this activity as a source of stress, but rather as a source of mental and emotional renewal.
So how do you write? It may be useful to follow Pennebaker’s instructions. Write about the things that are bothering you. Write about the things you’re happy about. Dig deep; relate them to previous experiences when you can. Pennebaker says, “The only rule is that once you begin writing, you continue until the time is up.”
I’d add that you don’t want to dwell on single experiences for too long (more than a week or two). Doing so will just train your brain to continue noticing all the negativity in your life rather than everything you’re grateful for. Take a balanced perspective when you can; notice the negative with the positive, and explore why things make you feel the way they do.
How to create a digital journal
While some studies suggest that physically writing engages the brain more than typing, this may not be true for everyone. Personally, I believe that any writing method you can commit to is the better choice. And although a pen and paper may be more mentally engaging, digital journals still have a clear advantage: they’re searchable. Physical journals require lots of skimming when you need to refer back to an old entry, but you can find these entries instantly if you use your computer. So let’s discuss how you can create a digital, searchable journal using Google.
Visit Google Drive and set up your account if you don’t have one already. Click the Create button and open a new document. To get the full benefit of digital journaling, you should create a new document fairly often — perhaps every week.
If you click where it says “Untitled document” up top, you can change the name. I suggest naming it by date, with the year first, then month, then day (this makes sorting and organizing much easier). Using this system, the day February 9, 2013 would be written as 20130209 (don’t forget the zeros).
This format is ideal because you can sort alphabetically when you want to view them in sequential order. If you use some other format like Month/Day/Year, your February 2013 entries will get mixed in with your February 2014 entries. We don’t want that.
If you’re already using Google Drive, you’ll want to name these files in way that sets them apart from your other documents (of course, you can also create a folder). “Journal 20130209” is a good file name, but I suggest adding some “keywords” at the end of each name. “Journal 20130209 david surfing” would be descriptive if you met David and took a surfing lesson that week. You’d see that journal entry and instantly recall that week, and have some idea of what you wrote about.
So now that you understand how to organize your journal, just start writing. The formatting is up to you, but I’d suggest keeping it simple. Just write the date or topic in bold, as a header, and then share your thoughts. It might look something like this:
June 2nd, 2013 – My first surfing lesson
Steve always tells me I should try surfing, so I took my first lesson this weekend. I was pretty nervous and didn’t know what to expect, but it was a lot of fun and I’m going to sign up for another lesson in 2 weeks.
June 3, 2013 – New hire
We got a new hire in the office today. He name is Mary and she has a great attitude. She’s going to be reporting to me and I’m actually pretty excited about mentoring her.
And so on. Once the week is up — or you feel some event warrants a new document — simply start a new one.
Once you have a few weeks’ worth of entries, you’ll start to see why this method is so magical. Say you’re considering a new hobby, but you’re intimidated by everything you’ll have to learn. You can simply go up to the search box at the top of Google drive, type in “surfing”, and pull up all the entries in which you wrote about surfing. You pull up your entry dated June 2nd (because it’s the first one about surfing), and read about how you were apprehensive at first but were glad you did it. This is incredibly motivating in getting you outside of your comfort zone again.
This works for any topic you write about. You can pull up all the entries about surfing, Mary, David, your job, and so on. Your life history is at your fingertips.
Finally, let’s talk about advanced searching techniques. Say you want to read about the time you went surfing with David. You can type “surfing AND David” in the search bar and you’ll only see the entries in which you mentioned both topics. This makes it much easier to pinpoint certain events; in this example. you just search for what you did and who was there. You might also search for two people at the same time, a location and a person, and so on.
Getting into the habit of keeping a journal takes some practice, but it absolutely pays off in terms of health, well-being, and possibly even performance. Journaling improves the way you cope with stressful situations, reduces stress (and the side effects that go along with it), and quiets your mind so you focus on important tasks when necessary.
To get into the habit of keeping a journal, remove all sources of resistance and make it easier to write than not to write. This means reserving time in your schedule and identifying ahead of time what obstacles might stand in your way.
When you write, focus on the good experiences along with the bad, and explore why this events happened, how they relate to past experiences, and how they make you feel. Writing about bad experiences allows you distance yourself from them emotionally, while writing about good experiences gives you the opportunity to express gratitude for all the good things in your life.
Finally, keep a digital journal so your thoughts are organized and you can quickly refer back to past events. Using Google Drive will help you quickly notice patterns in your feelings and behaviors, allowing you to make changes in your life to have more good experiences and fewer bad ones.
Do you keep a journal? Leave a comment below and let everyone know how it’s helped you!