For the past couple of years I’ve committed to journalling, and in this post I want to highlight the benefits I’ve experienced in productivity, as well as what I think happens to your brain when you commit words to paper.
Before we jump in, have you ever:
- Wondered why people including the likes of Leonardo da Vinci, Charles Darwin and Winston Churchill would spend so much of their precious time writing things that will never be seen by another person
- Dismissed journalling because the thought of plumbing the depths of your soul and spilling it out on paper makes your skin crawl; or
- Upon being convinced that keeping a journal is, in fact, a worthwhile pursuit…gotten stuck on just how the heck to get started…
…then this article is for you.
What you write, you learn
We consume a massive amount of information over the course of a day—but how much of it do we actually remember, much less use in any meaningful way?
The key to learning is to stop passively consuming information and start actively engaging with the ideas we encounter.
Think about the student who writes down what her professor says verbatim, versus the student who summarises the information in her own words and then connects it back to concepts she’s learned before.
Who do you think learns more?
Most of us no longer have exams or research projects to force us to engage more deeply with the flood of information we’re constantly inundated with. So how can we make active learning a habit?
One effective way researchers have found to reinforce learning is through reflective writing. It turns out that regular journalling can be used to train our attention and strengthen neural pathways. As neurologist and teacher Judy Willis explains:
The practice of writing can enhance the brain’s intake, processing, retaining, and retrieving of information… it promotes the brain’s attentive focus … boosts long-term memory, illuminates patterns, gives the brain time for reflection, and when well-guided, is a source of conceptual development and stimulus of the brain’s highest cognition.
Reflective writing has also been shown to improve decision making and critical thinking in a number of medical professions, including physical therapy and nursing. For practitioners, journals proved to be invaluable tools for examining past experiences, evaluating their own actions, and drawing insights for encountering future challenges.
Ameet Ranadive, former McKinsey consultant and product manager at Twitter, summarised the more practical career benefits of personal writing with the McKinsey maxim “writing clarifies thinking.” He describes his writing habit as a “forcing function” to better structure ideas and arguments, reconcile disparate viewpoints, identify the important information, and extract insight from data.
In today’s knowledge economy, productivity is no longer about producing the most widgets in an hour; it’s about the speed at which you can learn new things, and about your capacity to think critically and creatively. Thus, like any habit that helps you learn more deeply and think more creatively, journalling is worth investing a few minutes of your time in.
What you write, you control (in a manner of speaking)
It’s an established fact that journalling helps to improve both your mental and physical health; numerous studies have shown that personal writing can help people better cope with stressful events, relieve anxiety, boost immune cell activity, reduce viral load in AIDS patients, and even speed up healing after surgery.
But why? What exactly goes on in our brains and bodies when we journal? There are a couple of different things at play when we write about what’s on our minds that contribute to a greater sense of calm and control.
Research has shown that our short-term memory storage is limited. The vast majority of us can only hold five or six, maybe seven items in our head at a time (hence why phone numbers are seven digits long). Anything beyond and we start to forget things and feel overwhelmed with information.
Recording your thoughts in a medium outside your own head clears out that storage. As a result, your mind becomes quieter: It stops returning to the same worn-out mental loops over and over. You can begin to think more clearly.
Another effect of journalling is something psychologists call reframing your personal narrative. When you recount and reflect upon your thoughts and experiences you are, in effect, telling your own story. Journalling helps us clarify, edit, and find new meaning in these narratives.
By connecting the worries and hassles of the day back to personal values, you are essentially rewriting your narratives, finding meaning and purpose in otherwise unchecked events.
What you write, you (are more likely to) achieve
If the advice to write down your goals triggers a reflex to roll your eyes and click away from this page, I don’t blame you. If it were really that easy, the world would be impossibly overpopulated with New York Times best-selling authors and billionaire startup founders.
But there is real evidence that this shallow self-help mantra holds a nugget of real insight into how our brains can work to set us on a path to achieve our goals.
One study (PDF) looked at 149 participants from six countries, who worked in various fields. The participants were divided into five groups, each group asked to go through a different process in setting their goals and working towards them:
- Simply thinking about their goals.
- Writing their goals down.
- Writing their goals down and forming action commitments.
- Writing their goals down, forming action commitments, and sending both to a supportive friend.
- Same as #4, as well as sending weekly progress reports to a friend.
After four weeks the participants rated their progress towards their goals. Group 5 achieved significantly more than the rest of the groups, with group 4 not far behind. But, surprisingly, group 2 came in third. In fact, simply writing down their goals improved their chances to achieving them by 42%.
Journalling about your goals helps you clarify what you want and encourages you to consider the why and how, not just the what.
Why did committing goals to writing make such a large difference? The reasons are multifaceted. Journalling about your goals helps you clarify what you want and encourages you to consider the why and how, not just the what. Reflecting on goals in writing continually reminds you to take the next action necessary to achieve them. They serve as a tool for identifying what you should prioritise on a daily basis, and what you should let go of.
Lastly, journals give you a record of the progress you’ve made toward your goals to keep you motivated in the long slog of actually reaching them. As Franz Kafka put it:
In the diary you find proof that in situations which today would seem unbearable, you lived, looked around and wrote down observations, that this right hand moved then as it does today, when we may be wiser because we are able to look back upon our former condition, and for that very reason have got to admit the courage of our earlier striving in which we persisted even in sheer ignorance.
But how to get started? A few thoughts for getting the most out of journalling…
Use pen and paper
Using good old-fashioned pen and paper is key in reaping the psychological and productive benefits of journalling; writing things out by hand improves memory, encourages deeper thinking and reflection, and keeps you from ending up in the deep recesses of your Facebook feed without remembering how you got there in the first place.
Make it a habit
But how? First and foremost, you need a consistent trigger that signals to your brain it’s time to write. Incorporate journalling into your morning and evening routines directly following a habit you already do every day. For me, my habit is making my morning cup of coffee. I’ve used this pre-established habit to trigger a new one: sitting down with my journal.
We don’t often take the time to sit down with our own thoughts. Writing a journal can feel self-indulgent or a waste of time. Resist the instinct to rush through it to get to the next thing, especially when life reaches its busiest. As we learned above, journalling can actually save you both time and stress by clearing your mind and clarifying your thoughts.
Don’t make it sound good
Self-consciousness is the enemy of writing. Your journal doesn’t need to make good reading for you or for anyone else—the point is to get your thoughts on paper, not to create a masterpiece. Don’t edit; just write.
This was the forth post in my latest challenge to write daily. I’m working on developing my communication skills, as well as making my writing more personable. If you made it to the end, thank you for spending the time! I’m also trialling the little ‘applause’ below — just give it a couple of clicks if you enjoyed!4