I’ve had a running narrative in my brain as far back as I can remember.
It observes, analyzes, judges, muses, and when allowed to truly checkout, goes on lofty rants about the world around me. It wasn’t until I built a daily journaling practice did this narration find a home for my rambling ideas and emotions.
Initially, journaling felt more like a release — a place to leave my anxieties behind and move on with my day. As the habit went on, journaling transformed into a necessary tool for figuring out how I processed my emotions, made decisions, and how to communicate more clearly with the rest of the world. I have endless piles of yellow notepads, journals, word documents and have even grabbed for a café napkin on occasion.
I’m far from the only one who’s experienced the benefits of journaling. A Harvard Business School study found that journaling at the end of your school or workday can even improve your career.
Francesca Gino, a Harvard professor who worked on the study, explains, “Psychology research shows that writing about our life experiences has many positive effects, including increasing students’ grade-point averages, re-employment after losing a job, and improving memory.”
Since middle school, we’ve been taught to write for other people: clear sentences, structured paragraphs, straightforward purpose. But what about when you’re writing for yourself? How do you allow yourself to let loose and break free from the idea that this writing is only for you and you alone?
Finding the right journaling system for you can take some exploration. Here are some tips and benefits of revamping that childhood habit.
Personal benefits of journaling
Studies have found that personalized morning routines can set a clear and consistent tone for the whole day. By sitting down and either handwriting or typing a page of free-form writing, we allow our brains to enter into the rest of our day in a neutral state. This is especially helpful if we start or end the day with a list of scattered thoughts bouncing around in our brains. Any worries or ideas that rushed into your mind as you woke can be sorted or addressed on the page.
The same way we spring to our to-do lists for errands and chores, journaling at the end of each day acts as a reminder of thoughts and ideas that bubbled up when we were busy. On occasion, I’ll flip through a random old journal to read a post from the past. This both helps me recognize mental patterns or to see how much farther I’ve come than I initially thought. Spotting similarities remind me that I’ve overcome specific challenges before, and to trust that I will do it again. It also helps me catch those damaging phrases that cycle round and round, allowing me to jump in and change things when I can.
I’ve found this tactic particularly helpful when trying to work through painful emotions or periods of the day. Make a quick list, however large or small, of the things that make your life special. Doing so increases mindfulness while allowing you to zoom out and look at the big picture. My lists have ranged from listing my close friends to enjoying my morning coffee.
Working through a flood of distracting thoughts during a stressful work week is never simple. Getting them down on paper, especially when we’re trying to balance work and home life, can help clear the way for a more successful day. Gino goes on to point out, “When people have the opportunity to reflect, they experience a boost in self-efficacy. That is, they feel more confident that they can achieve things. As a result, they put more effort into what they’re doing and what they learn.”
As busy days pass us by, taking a moment to track ideas transforms our fleeting thoughts into concrete action. If we map out our patterns and habits in the office, we can recognize the ways we wish to grow and mark places where we’re stuck. This practice also breaks up the monotony of a predictable week — we realize that we are making progress, no matter how small. In this way, it’s not just another Monday like the one before. Instead, it’s a day to come up with new ideas, even if we’re unsure where or if they’ll help us in the future.
Types of journaling
Though your diary options are truly endless, here are a few thoughts to get you rolling.
If you’re held back by structured prompts, free-form journaling can break you from holding back emotionally and psychologically. Handwrite or type up a free flow of thoughts that sift through your mind at the given time. Challenge yourself to end your entry without judging your thoughts. They are what they are; you can see them and then let them go.
A more structured version of free-form writing is Julia Cameron’s “Morning Pages.” In her well-known book, “The Artist’s Way,” she advises all creative readers to spend designated time just after waking to freehand three pages of thoughts to reset the mind at the start of the day. These morning ideas create a discipline of respecting our creative thoughts and worries all the same.
Watch the world
Particularly helpful for writers, carry a pocket-sized journal with you as you go about your day and mark down any interaction, detail or conversation that sparks your interest. This also helps me keep track of book recommendations, inspiration quotes, or even to-do list items I don’t want to forget.
Five-year journals — easy to make on your own or often available at a bookstore — provide a place to record one sentence a day over a period of five years. Write something descriptive about a significant event, how you felt, or just a random observation or quote. You can go quite a long way in half a decade. These journals pair well with free-form journal writing rituals.
Making the most of journaling
Journaling will not come naturally to everyone at first. It took me a while to break free from the “I’m just not a writer” mindset. Check out a few helpful tips for pushing past your journaling resistance.
There’s no right or wrong
I cannot stress this enough: your journal will not be graded. You may find yourself dipping in and out of poetic observations or ranting about your daily commute. If you like, incorporate doodles, photos and even small paintings.
Consult the experts
Though journaling seems straightforward, you can always expand how you look at your daily writing habits by checking out trusted writing advisers. Natalie Goldberg’s “Writing Down the Bones” and other writing exploration books of hers are a great place to start. As I mentioned before, “The Artist’s Way” provides a writing structure while exploring the hang-ups many early writers encounter on their way. I find myself returning to these authors each time my own writing well runs dry.
Change it up
Don’t be married to your original journaling rhythm. As your mood changes, so will your writing needs. Write a long diatribe one day and doodle a nearby tree the next. There are some days when I benefit from the pace of typing and others when I force myself to slow down and put pen to paper.
Perhaps most importantly, be sure to do just a little bit each day. Setting yourself up to always write at the same time — either on the train, during lunch or just before bed — helps you both develop your writing with consistent practice and learn to set aside time for self-reflection without an excuse.
Journaling acts as a marker of the passing of time. There are days when I begin to spiral into a stagnant mindset, but looking back to an entry from my early twenties proves how far I’ve come.
On top of all these benefits, becoming a confident journaler opens up new options for spending time in cozy coffee shops and city parks. This weekend or even on your next work break, grab a notebook, your laptop or even a piece of scrap paper and get started — there’s no wrong way to begin.