The author Will Self is uncompromising on the subject: "Always carry a notebook. And I mean always. The short-term memory only retains information for three minutes; unless it is committed to paper, you can lose an idea for ever."
I've lost countless ideas after thinking, "Oh, I'll definitely remember that later," so I couldn't agree with Self more. And there's something magical about getting things down on paper in an increasingly digital world. In fact, paper journal sales are up, even as more of life is conducted online, and for good reason. Journaling — whether in a formal "Dear Diary" sense, or more of a jotting-things-down way — has myriad benefits for both organization and mental health.
Serious, in-depth journal therapy was pioneered in the 1960s by psychologist Dr. Ira Progoff in New York City and his Intensive Journaling method. His system included a special binder with different colored tabs to organize writers' thoughts and bring up prompts for them to write about. By the 1970s, several others had published journals that assisted with self-help and by the 1980s, journal writing was being taught in public schools as a way for students and teachers to communicate with each other one-on-one about assignments, and also about more personal issues.
The physical and mental health benefits of journaling are well-documented. Especially for those who have suffered from a traumatic episode in life, 15 to 20 minutes a day of reflective writing has measurable benefit. "[W]riting about earlier traumatic experience was associated with both short-term increases in physiological arousal and long-term decreases in health problems," according to a well-known 1986 study by psychologists James W. Pennebaker and Sandra Klihr Beall.
The physical health benefits are linked to lower overall stress levels (which may spike as you first write about difficult things, but drop later): lower blood pressure, better immune function, better lung function, less illness and fewer days in a hospital.
More research has backed up this idea in recent years, including a 2017 study that revealed neural evidence for the benefits of expressive writing. "Worrying takes up cognitive resources; it's kind of like people who struggle with worry are constantly multitasking — they are doing one task and trying to monitor and suppress their worries at the same time," lead author and Michigan State University researcher Hans Schroder said in a statement. "Our findings show that if you get these worries out of your head through expressive writing, those cognitive resources are freed up to work toward the task you're completing and you become more efficient."
Journaling is now used by psychologists and counselors in both short- and long-term settings because it can help with common issues like severe anxiety and depression. A journal can be a good place to get thoughts out of your head.
"I definitely prefer handwriting, and have a habit of 'brain dumping' morning pages every morning before sunrise, while drinking my first cup of coffee," novel writer Liza Kane told me. She said writing by hand helps her process information better and that, "as I write, I feel more in control over my life."
Change in perspective
Many journal writers will say one reason they do it is that their feelings change as they get their feelings down. After a writing session, their emotions are lessened or transformed, due to a change in perspective. One of the reasons mindfulness meditation works is that it forces you to step back out of yourself a bit, and puts some space between you and your feelings. Writing in a journal works in a similar way and can be a form of meditation, too.
Neiva Sukmawati, a Seattle-based natural health advocate and mom, says: "I journal by describing myself in the third person. Then I go back and read it, and [ask] myself if I like who I am." Sukmawati thinks that looking at herself from outside her day-to-day perspective helps her understand her life more objectively.
For Kane, the process of writing is both an emotional relief and a practical solution to a mind that — like many writers' — swirls with ideas, observations and perspectives. Those are wonderful qualities for someone who crafts entire worlds, but those same traits can present challenges of their own. Journaling also has benefits beyond the psychological, and into the practical.
Kane learned over time how to best use journaling to her benefit. She's been doing it since she was a kid, but unlike when she was younger — when she meticulously detailed all the actions and feelings during her day — today her journal is a tool: "[I keep a] notebook with me at all times so that I can process and prioritize the incoming stuff. This technique (Capture, Clarify, Organize, Reflect, Engage) is from David Allen's 'Getting Things Done': I write down all the stuff that I need to do, whether it's preparing for a conference call or buying groceries and then I process through all the data and prioritize them on separate to-do lists. If a task can be done in 5 minutes or less, I'll do it immediately; otherwise, it'll be listed!" Kane explains.
If you decide to start journaling, here are some suggestions from the University of Rochester to keep in mind:
- Write daily: This will help you reap the benefits of consistently reflecting on and organizing your thoughts. Set aside some specific time (right before bed, or first thing in the morning; on your lunch break) that's dedicated to your journaling practice — and don't give up if you miss a day or two!
- Write however you like: On the computer, in a special notebook, on pieces of loose notepaper that you keep in a shoebox — write on whatever, wherever it works for you.
- Just write: Don't worry about format, spelling or grammar. Don't worry about if your words are ugly or weird, or if you are just feeling something temporarily — just get it down. Don't limit yourself. Your journal is a place to be your open, honest self, which can absolutely include negative, unkind, angry or odd stuff.
- Or, don't write: If you really hate writing, consider doing a video journal, or audio recordings on your phone.
Editor's note: This story has been updated since it was first published in November 2015.