“Dear Diary” entries might seem like a frivolous pastime, but keeping a journal has long been known to improve your health and well-being. Journal writing can increase your intelligence, help you better handle stress, and even strengthen your immune cells, helping you fight off disease.
I write every day because it’s my job, but I rarely write something just for myself. Keeping a journal sounds like work—unpaid work—but I decided to try it anyway. The thought of boosting my immune system and my intelligence was intriguing, and who couldn’t use a little help with stress?
The first week was a struggle. Ironically, I don’t know what to write about when I’m not on assignment, so I simply commented on the events of the day. That seemed boring, so a couple days later I switched to a gratitude journal, writing down the things I was grateful for. That felt good. And then I decided to add to it, writing whatever ideas or thoughts popped into my head.
While the first week felt awkward, the second week didn’t seem like a chore. In fact, I would notice things during the day that I would quickly jot down in my journal to explore later. I used my journal as a way to record and explore feelings I was having about a challenging family situation. And my journal became the place to “talk” through ideas for a new book I’m considering writing.
Who Should Journal?
“Writing serves a purpose of reaching a deeper part of yourself,” says Diane Sherry Case, author of Write for Recovery: Exercises for Heart, Mind and Spirit. “You can make decisions, clear out cobwebs, and get to what’s underneath. It helps people heal.”
The more senior your title, the more you need to keep a journal, says Dan Ciampa, author of Transitions at the Top: What Organizations Must Do to Make Sure New Leaders Succeed. “For leaders assuming the CEO title for the first time, taking time to learn and think translates into early successes. But the problem is there’s little time to do either. Information comes at them more quickly, more people than ever before demand their time, and they’re told that the myriad decisions piled in front of them are all important,” he writes in an article for Harvard Business Review.
Journaling forces you to slow down and get out of reactionary mode, where mistakes often happen. The best thinking comes from structured reflection, and the best way to do that is to keep a personal journal, Ciampa suggests.
Journals are a great place for recording events as well as your emotions. You can prepare for something that’s causing you stress or worry by writing out ideas and feelings. And you can reflect on past situations, gaining a better perspective when you’re able to look back on your notes after some time and distance.
“When you’re trying to decide how to move forward, but you’re paralyzed right now, journaling can get the negativity out of your system,” says Sherry Case. “It can be interesting to look back, but I usually don’t. I get it out of my system and move forward.”
What To Journal About
When I started, I made the mistake of writing random thoughts without a purpose. While it can help you find patterns you didn’t realize were recurring in your life, that type of journaling tends to be repetitive, says Sherry Case. She recommends using creative writing prompts, and includes several in her book. For example, “make a list of places you’d like to visit” or “write a letter to your ideal mentor.”
Gratitude journals are popular, listing the things you’re thankful for. “The list might include your health, family, a job you love, and that you mastered new software or scheduled a new client meeting,” says Tricia Molloy, author of Working with Wisdom. “That programs you to focus on what’s going right in your life and work. The universal law states, ‘What you focus on expands.’ An added benefit is that it often leads to a more peaceful sleep.”
Molloy suggests keeping a gut instinct journal if you want to develop your intuition. “You keep track of the decisions you make based solely on your gut instincts,” she says. “It might be choosing to partner with someone new on a project or deciding to work with one vendor over another. Looking back on these entries and seeing the success rate of going with your gut will encourage you to trust your instincts next time.”
Or create a “what’s up” journal. “On the top of the page, you write the simple question, ‘What’s up?’ and then start free writing,” says Molloy. “That’s when you keep the pen to the paper and refrain from editing or judging whatever you write. Within a few minutes, you will tap into your wise inner guidance. You’ll uncover unconscious motives for some decisions you’ve made and gain new insights on old challenges.”
When And How To Journal
The time of day you choose can be based on the time you have available, but first thing in the morning and end of the workday have benefits. Julia Cameron, author of The Artist’s Way, recommends a daily practice she calls “Morning Pages,” writing three pages of whatever you wish before starting work each day.
“There is no wrong way to do Morning Pages—they are not high art. They are not even ‘writing.’ They are about anything and everything that crosses your mind–and they are for your eyes only,” she writes on her website. “Morning Pages provoke, clarify, comfort, cajole, prioritize, and synchronize the day at hand. Do not overthink Morning Pages: Just put three pages of anything on the page . . . and then do three more pages tomorrow.”
Another option is to journal at the end of your workday. This is a good way to review your day, creating separation from your work and personal life
“Account to yourself what you got done that day and what needs to be moved to tomorrow. Write the things you learned and experienced,” writes Benjamin Hardy, author of Slipstream Time Hacking, adding that end-of-day journaling directs your subconscious mind to start working on tomorrow. “As you put work behind you for the evening, your subconscious will be preparing a feast for you to consume during your next morning’s creative and planning session.”
Experts often recommend journaling longhand, but Sherry Case says there are benefits to using a computer. “You can write faster on a computer, and the faster you write, the more you get to the subconscious and whatever is beyond the intellect. You’ll often surprise yourself with what you’ve written.”
After my 30-day journaling experiment, I took a break, but I quickly found that I missed it, especially when I started feeling more stress. I realized that I had been feeling less stress because I had been getting my thoughts and emotions out on paper. I’m back to journaling, and I find that I enjoy writing something just for me.
“Keep your journal locked,” says Sherry Case. “You should write with freedom of knowing that nobody’s going to read it. It awakens your creativity, which is important to do in some way every day. If you don’t use your imagination, it will use you.”