by Virginia (Ginny) Merritt
“Whatever you can do, or dream you can, Begin it.”
W.H. Murray, from his 1951 book, The Scottish Himalayan Expedition
Writing in a journal, notebook, diary, logbook, commonplace book, or whatever you choose to call it, can be transformative. Journaling can provide you with a strategy to keep yourself on track, become better at what you do, practice your principles, make time for stillness, and enrich your life.
Journaling is but a written record of our everyday lives, thoughts, and feelings, a memory bank with unlimited storage. There are no rules, no right way, no wrong way, only the way that works for you. In fact, the type of journaling you use, whether paper or digital, can vary from day to day, from week to week. More about paper versus digital later.
Justification for not journaling can begin with your perception of what journaling is. Like popular and sometimes overused terms such as mindfulness and gratitude, the word, journaling, can conjure up many thoughts: it will be a chore, I don’t know how to start, I won’t keep it up, I don’t know what to write about and, anyway, blank pages scare me. Don’t let negative thoughts hold you back. There is too much to be gained.
You’ll need a notebook, any size that will work for the type of journaling you plan to do, long form, short form, bullet, even a Moleskine pocket journal. After trying different journaling methods, including digital, I’ve settled on a medium-size A5 dot-grid notebook, with page numbers, such as The Bullet Journal, or Leuchturn1917. The tiny dots allow you to use the pages vertically and horizontally, for writing, sketching, or making charts. Pre-printed page numbers help when indexing or when ‘migrating’ journal entries (continuing them on other pages). You may wish to write with a pen, or even coloured pens. I write with a mechanical pencil and keep an eraser handy for small changes, like spelling mistakes. Alas, there’s no auto-correct with handwriting.
There is lots of help to get you started. Many books have been written to motivate, inspire, and guide those who journal or wish to begin a journaling habit. Some books are: The Daily Stoic Journal; The Artist’s Way Morning Pages Journal; Michelle Obama’s Becoming, A Guided Journal for Discovering Your Voice; and my favourite for flexible, all-purpose journaling, The Bullet Journal (for which an accompanying app is also available).
Get the most out of your journal/notebook
- Organize your day (your planner)
- Record racing thoughts (thoughts are seeds, some will grow, some will not, catch them all)
- Capture your creativity
- Brainstorm your ideas
- Doodle, draw, sketch
- Download feelings, thoughts, and emotions to clear your mind
- Figure out what makes you tick (happy, or upset)
- Reflect (explore what is beneath life’s events)
Research published to the Journal of Experimental Psychology found that reflective writing reduces intrusive and avoidant thoughts about negative events and improves working memory. These improvements in turn free up our cognitive resources for other mental activities, including our ability to cope more effectively with stress.
- Gain insight into your emotions
- Examine and adjust attitudes
- Manage stress
A study by The Journal of Social and Personal Relationships found that writing “focused on positive outcomes in negative situations” decreases emotional distress.
Another Study by Cambridge University found journaling helps improve well-being after traumatic and stressful events. Participants asked to write about such events for 15–20 minutes resulted in improvements in both physical and psychological health.
- Provide accountability (track your diet, or fitness journey)
- Journal to your future self
- Above all, express gratitude
Gratitude is something bigger than its parts, a recognition of a moment of happiness that isn’t directly earned. Gratitude is what matters to you. Gratitude requires awareness and, especially, pausing long enough to take notice. Think about how you feel when you are touched by:
- Good fortune
- The arts, music, poetry
- Nature and all its wonder
- Peace, serenity
- Write bullet points; there’s no need for full sentences. It’s your journal after all.
- Make a template, create sections, headings, or reminders of things you want to address each day.
- Download the PDF, 365 Days of Writing Prompts, prepared by The Editors of WordPpress.com © by The Daily Post.
- Keep your notebook handy, jot things down throughout the day.
- Leave negative thoughts on the page.
- Journal before you get on the computer in the morning.
Julia Cameron, author of the Artist’s Way, refers to Morning Pages as, “The bedrock tool of a creative recovery… Morning Pages provoke, clarify, comfort, cajole, prioritize, and synchronize the day at hand.” Journaling in the morning can help you prepare for the day ahead, review your schedule, and be the foundation of ‘intentional living’. What am I thinking about? What do I want to accomplish today? This is also an excellent opportunity to write a positive or daily affirmation.
“We do not learn from experience… we learn by reflecting on experience”, said American philosopher and psychologist, John Dewey (1859-1952). Visit or revisit your journal each evening to reflect on the day, perhaps add a Reflection section. Ask yourself, how did I do today? Is there something I can do better tomorrow?
According to a study conducted by Harvard Business School (PDF) , participants who journaled at the end of the day had a 25% increase in performance when compared with a control group who did not journal. As the researchers conclude, “Our results reveal reflection to be a powerful mechanism behind learning…” Also, The Journal of Experimental Psychology found that journaling before bed decreases cognitive stimulus, rumination, and worry, allowing you to fall asleep faster.
Paper or digital?
It depends. Numerous studies, too many to itemize here, have shown that writing by hand is good for our brains. Writing makes us slow down, focus on thoughts and feelings, and concentrate on what is important. Notebooks or paper journals allow you to draw diagrams and sketch as well as write. And then there’s the tactile aspect of a notebook, the portability, the feel of the pages.
On the other hand, most of us type faster and can capture our thoughts more quickly when using a keyboard. People who journaled digitally reported they included more detail in their journals than when they wrote by hand. However, they spent more time stopping, deleting, re-writing, and disrupting their creative thought process. Writing by hand takes more time and effort, so typing makes it easier to stick with the practice of journaling.
A Lifehacker article, Journaling Showdown: Writing vs. Typing concludes: “Write by hand to get the full benefit of journaling. If journaling digitally is more to your liking, you may wish to consider a journaling app. Check out Lifewire’s, The 7 Best Journal Apps for 2020.
Embarking on a journaling journey is like learning any other habit. It takes time and a little persistence. Start slowly. You will gradually increase your awareness and insight and, day by day, you’ll reap the benefits.