✓ Fact checked by: Dr. Glen M Doniger, PhD
When you were a kid, you probably kept a diary hidden somewhere in your room. Diary entries were a place to confess your struggles and fears without any judgment or punishment. And it felt good to get the thoughts and feelings out of your head and down on paper. The world made more sense that way.
Many people stop journaling when they reach adulthood, but the concept and its positive benefits still apply. Simply giving voice to emotions and problems can help defuse their power and allow you to improve your mental health in the process.
Here's how journaling helps boost your focus and clarity:
It will clarify your thoughts. Jotting down your thoughts and feelings in free form may help you understand how you're feeling.
You will understand yourself better. You will uncover aspects of your daily life that you may not have realized or noticed otherwise.
It will reduce your stress. Journaling can help you release the intensity of difficult emotions and help you feel calmer.
It will help with problem-solving. Reflection and expressive writing may help you get an understanding that you already have the solution you're looking for.
It will resolve conflicts. Writing about disagreements with others provides insight into their thoughts and feelings and helps resolve conflicts.
How to Get the Most Out of Journaling
Journaling doesn't merely need to be the act of taking pen to paper and jotting down the mundane events of your day. You can enhance your journaling practice by approaching it mindfully and making a habit of it while also ensuring that the journaling approach you choose is the right one for you.
Here’s some advice on how to get the most out of it:
1. Use pen and paper to capture your thoughts and feelings
When you're writing something by hand, areas in the brain responsible for thinking, language, memory, and muscle movement are all activated at the same time which stimulates and engages your brain better, making it easier to retain information.
Another benefit of handwriting is the lack of online distractions—no need for input from the outside world. Status updates. E-mails. Different fonts. Music. It's just you.
2. Use the Two-Minute Rule
The Two-Minute Rule states that a new habit should take less than two minutes to complete. Why two minutes? In most cases, the longer an action takes and the more energy it requires, the less likely it will occur.
So, if you don't feel like journaling, promise yourself you'll try it for 2 minutes and, if you don't want to keep going, you'll stop.
The important thing is to show up for yourself and to be consistent. Over time, this technique will help make your goal more achievable.
Pro tip: Track your journaling habit
Use a habit-tracking app or mark your calendar for every day you write in your mindfulness journal, even if only for 2 minutes. You’ll probably notice how rewarding it is to see those marks at the end of every month.
3. Take your time
Treat the time that you spend keeping a journal as an investment in your well-being rather than a distractor. Taking time to journal is taking time for yourself.
Try to resist the instinct to rush through it, especially at times when you're busy, because journaling may save you both time and stress by clearing your mind and clarifying your thoughts.
And once it becomes a habit, it won't take too much discipline. You'll probably do it instinctively rather than struggle to make time for it.
4. Choose the best approach and journal prompts for you
There's no right or wrong way to journal, but there are different structures and journal examples you should probably consider:
The gratitude journal: Write about something you're grateful for.
The gratitude journal may be a transformative habit in both your career and personal life. A series of three studies conducted by Robert A. Emmons and Michael E. McCullough found that participants who wrote about things they were grateful for scored significantly higher on several self-reported emotional and physical measures.
Compared with control participants, the people keeping the gratitude journal were more optimistic and felt happier. They reported fewer physical problems and spent more time working out.
A challenge for you: Think of the worst thing that happened in recent times. Then, try to write down ten reasons why you feel grateful for that. This practice is a great way to look at the situation from a different perspective.
The goal journal: Whether it's things you need to get done at work or places you want to be in 10 years, committing your goals to paper could be the first step in your path to achieving them.
Here are some journal prompts, questions, and ideas to explore in your goal journal:
Make a list of all of the things you would like to learn, and then create a plan for learning them.
What scares you the most, and why? How can you use that fear to improve or learn or grow?
How would your life change if you were your own biggest fan and truly believed in yourself?
What three things could you give up that would give you more time, energy, and peace?
Pro tip: Before you go to sleep each day, set aside some time to write a list of things you hope to accomplish the next day. Look through the tasks the following morning. This will give you the motivation you need to get out of bed and start your day productively.
The morning pages: Put down whatever swirling thoughts you have on paper to start your morning in a mindful state.
Writing morning pages may allow you to tap into greater creativity, work through issues that seem overwhelming, and quiet your mind before starting your day. They can also be a great source of general inspiration.
Here are some morning journal prompts, questions, and ideas to get you started:
What's one thing you'd like to do well today?
What do you want to remember about this time in your life?
How would your life today amaze your childhood self?
Reflect on a time you were supportive of a friend. Consider how you could show self-compassion in the same way.
Write down an entire list of what you are worried about. Put a star next to the items that you know are 100% true and not solely a feeling.
The values journal: Connecting daily events back to your values can be a powerful way to manage stress, improve relationships, and feel more confident and in control.
Author James Clear writes an annual "Integrity Report" on what he's done to live out his values over the years. In his report, he covers three main questions:
What are the core values that drive my life and work?
How am I living and working with integrity right now?
How can I set a higher standard in the future?
You can answer Clear’s big questions annually as well, but, on a daily basis, you could answer some of the following:
What did you love doing as a kid but don't really do anymore? What is stopping you from doing it now, and what would happen if you did?
What would you tell your five-year-old self?
Assuming your life is a story, and you are the author, what does your happy ending look like?
What are you best at, what do you love doing most, and how could you spend more time doing both?
What is the first thing you’d save in a disaster that required you to evacuate?
The curiosity journal: Writing about what makes you feel curious can deepen feelings of curiosity
Curiosity is often associated with intelligence and problem-solving ability. Although researchers have not identified the precise pathway by which curiosity leads to cognitive growth, a likely explanation concerns the rich environment curious people create for themselves as they seek new experiences and explore new ideas.
It's possible to cultivate curiosity. Much like how writing what you're thankful for can help you feel more gratitude, writing about what makes you feel curious can deepen feelings of curiosity.
Challenge yourself to write about one thing every day that made you stop and ask a question. Write a page about it. Why does it make you feel curious? What questions do you have about it? It doesn't matter if you look into it further or not; it's the act of noticing and asking questions that's important.
Through daily writing, you'll discover that your journal is like an all-accepting, nonjudgmental friend. It may help you put things in perspective, but it may also clear your mind and propel you towards your goals. It enables you to bring your vision to life!
To make the most of daily journaling, try some of these techniques:
Use pen and paper. Handwriting may help you retain the information you are writing.
Make keeping a journal a habit by using the two-minute rule.
Take your time. Try to resist the instinct to rush through, especially when you're busy, because journaling may save you both time and stress by clearing your mind and clarifying your thoughts.
Choose the best approach. Get inspired by a list of journal prompts and structures.
Remember that how you go about your journaling practice is much less important than why you are doing it. There's no right way or wrong way. The point is to do it.
So, don't worry about the quality of your expressive writing. Your journal doesn't need to make good reading for you or anyone else—the point is to put your thoughts on paper, not to create a masterpiece. Don't edit; just write. And always remember that time you spend journaling is an investment in your overall wellness. Happy writing!
Train for a Better Brain: Multiple Myndlift users report monthly about changes in their behavior and lifestyle. Get matched with a Myndlift Provider, either by finding one in your area or by enrolling in our Total Remote program.
Dr. Doniger is a cognitive neuroscientist with two decades of experience in the neurotech industry. He holds a PhD from New York University and has been involved in studies of visual perception, cognitive training, neurofeedback, and neurostimulation using behavioral and neuroimaging techniques in a variety of research and clinical settings.