When Hans Schroder and Jason Moser conducted a study to measure the brain, they discovered something inspiring. By putting two groups of Michigan State University students together for a test, they uncovered a remarkable link between the practice of journaling and mental performance.
The study required each group to write for eight minutes before taking a test. The researchers’ goal was to measure the students’ overall response accuracy and reaction times. They asked the first group to write down their thoughts and feelings about the test. Then, they asked the second group to write what they had done the previous day.
While both groups completed the test with similar levels of accuracy and speed, the two researchers found that the first group had done so using fewer brain resources than the second, as measured by an EEG machine.
The results suggest that expelling our thoughts about an impending task or event before it occurs frees up “brain space” and cognitive ability to perform the task even more efficiently.
As one of the researchers behind the study explained: “Expressive writing makes the mind work less hard on upcoming stressful tasks, which is what worriers often get ‘burned out’ over . . .”
So, if writing down our thoughts and feelings reduces stress and boosts productivity, why don’t more of us do it?
Continue reading to learn why journaling is so good for our mental health and how to reap the benefits. We’ll explore:
- What journaling is
- Direct benefits of journaling
- Examples of leaders who practice journaling
- How to make it a daily habit
What Is Journaling?
Journaling is the act of writing through your thoughts so you can fully process your emotions. At face value, journaling (or “expressive writing”) may just look like writing notes, thoughts, and ideas down. But it facilitates the necessary neurological processes required to think deeply, form new opinions, and gain additional insight into your thoughts and feelings.
Many psychotherapists agree that speaking about your thoughts and feelings may not be enough. When you bottle up and internalize your feelings, issues like isolation, depression, and stress may occur. For great mental health, you need to get negative thoughts and feelings out. One way to do this is by journaling. As you put words to how you feel, your brain fires up a specific part of the mind that initiates emotional processing.
The Benefits of Journaling
Journaling is a tool to put our experiences, thoughts, beliefs, and desires into language, and in doing so, it helps us understand and grow and make sense of them.joshua smyth, co-author of opening up by writing it down
The benefits of journaling can be vast and long-lasting, especially if your practice an atomic habit. From improved mental health and physical immunity to boosted confidence, journaling can change your life.
Here are some of the most significant benefits of journaling:
- Improves Mental Health: In meditation, our minds are called the “monkey brain” because it can sometimes feel like a jungle of conflicting thoughts. The “monkey brain” can make us feel emotionally drained. However, the practice of journaling helps us untangle these thoughts and make sense of them with reason. The clarity we gain from this allows us to see situations for what they are and not what we think they are. This is tremendous for improving overall mental health.
- Reduces Stress and Anxiety: Keeping a daily journal, particularly when something is bothering you, can be instrumental in helping to identify root causes and triggers. When you know what the core problems are, you can begin to form healthy solutions. This identification helps to reduce overall stress and anxiety.
- Boosts Performance and Efficiency: As the earlier study demonstrated, writing down your thoughts and feelings about a challenge before it occurs can increase efficiency. This essentially off-loads any worries on your mind, freeing up cognitive energy to focus on the task and any related decision-making.
- Strengthening the Immune System: Trauma, stress, and depression, as many studies show, are linked with our immune systems. But leading researcher and Chair of Psychology at the University of Texas, Dr. James Pennebaker, believes that journaling is an effective treatment method for trauma and other emotional damage. This is because the more stress we carry, the more inflammation we have, and the weaker our immune system is. But if we work to remove stress and trauma, we’ll reduce our inflammation, strengthening our immune system.
- Improves Mood: Journaling can provide the time you need to get organized with your problems, fears, ideas, and goals. When you have clarity on what’s holding you back, your mind is eased, and your mood naturally improves. Journaling can also help you learn how to be confident and approach tasks and challenges with grit.
- Expands Self-Awareness: What drives you? Does anything excite you? Is something challenging you? Asking yourself these questions when journaling can help increase your self-awareness and perspective.
Leaders Who Practice Journaling
Follow effective action with quiet reflection. From the quiet reflection will come even more effective action.peter drucker
Many leaders practice journaling as part of their daily routine. To organize thoughts, create plans, and identify solutions, those seeking growth have found expressive writing pivotal in their daily routines.
A few notable leaders who journal:
Richard Branson: Billionaire founder of the Virgin Group, Richard Branson, is said to carry a notebook everywhere. He lists goals that he’d like to achieve (like being the oldest person to cross the English Channel on a kiteboard, which he accomplished). He also jots down business notes and ideas whenever inspiration comes and refers to journaling as his “secret life hack.”
J.K. Rowling: Known for writing the famous Harry Potter book series, author J.K. Rowling journals before beginning any new book project. To organize her thoughts, she uses writings and color-coded images on loose-leaf paper before transferring them onto a computer.
Tim Ferriss: Entrepreneur, author, and well-known lifestyle guru Tim Ferriss attributes his success to keeping a solid journaling habit. His “morning pages”—a concept stemming from author Julia Cameron’s book The Artist’s Way—help him work through thoughts by writing them down. He says it’s “the most cost-effective therapy I’ve ever found.”
Pat Flynn: The entrepreneur, blogger, and creator of the Smart Passive Income podcast practices journaling as part of his daily morning routine. He uses the 5-Minute Journal to reflect on what he’s grateful for and to think about what he wants to accomplish each day.
How to Start Journaling
Like with any new habit, journaling takes time and practice. But, with the right plan in place, journaling daily can become as second nature as drinking coffee or exercising.
1. Select a Journal That’s Right for You
Selecting the right journal for your needs can make journaling more personal and practical. For example, maybe you like structure and organization, so a basic-style notebook is preferred. If you’re creative and want to lean on visuals, a notebook with blank pages for more free-form journaling is probably better. Finally, leaders can take it a step further to minimize work stress by using Michael Hyatt’s Full Focus Planner in conjunction with a journal.
2. Choose a Specific Time Each Day
Before you begin journaling, give some thought as to when it will produce the best results. Are you a morning person? If so, consider waking up 30 minutes earlier each day to journal. Or maybe before bed is when you feel your most reflective and relaxed. Once you know when would work best, choose a specific time that you can commit to daily. Set a reminder, block time on your calendar, or create an alarm—anything you need to do to ingrain it into your schedule.
3. Understand the Process of Building a Habit
Whatever your goal(s), building good habits is vital. But, building good habits means more than just declaring what you want to start doing and setting a reminder to do it. It requires you to build whole systems. For example, say you set the habit to start eating healthier, but you still leave a stash of cookies in your pantry. Because of this, you may find that new habit difficult to uphold. Having a whole system in place that supports your habits will set you up for success.
Habit stacking is one way to build a supportive system. This is when you add on to a habit that you already do. For instance, if you already meditate in the morning, you could then follow it with journaling for 20 minutes. This practice increases your chances of success and provides a supportive framework for your new habit.
4. Use Prompts
If you’ve never practiced expressive writing before, prompts can be a helpful tool to get started. Of course, as you continue journaling and become comfortable with applying words to your feelings, you’ll need prompts less and less. But if you’re stuck, these are some excellent starting points:
- What excites me?
- What did I really enjoy doing as a child?
- If I had an extra hour each day, how would I spend it?
- What am I finding challenging right now?
- How am I feeling in this moment?
5. Stick With It
New habits take time to solidify. This is why many quit new habits they’ve tried putting in place. The key is to give it time. When you begin journaling, commit to it for at least three months. Even if you feel you don’t have much to say at first, keep going. Allow yourself to open up and experiment with what you record and where it leads you. You may find you have more to express than you thought.
Journaling Is a Personal Journey
Journal writing is a voyage to the interior.Christina Baldwin
There is no right or wrong way to journal, no matter what your method is. Journaling is a personal journey that looks a bit different for everyone. The point is to find a groove of writing down your thoughts and ideas each day so that your brain can fire up that prefrontal cortex and begin making new connections. Mental growth and healing happen when we form new healthy habits and stick to them.
Journaling and other healthy habits can help if you’re feeling burnt out. Recharge your mind and body with 6 Signs of Burnout and How to Beat It.