Have you ever kept a journal of any kind?

Many of us will have kept diaries at some point in our lives and we might cringe at the thought of the drama of a teenage diary. But keeping a journal, or a to-do list can be a very positive part of daily life.

Call it journalling, keeping a diary or a to-do-list, I’m not sure it matters. But developing a habit of recording our experiences and thoughts, in whatever format works, can help us to set goals, notice positive or negative thoughts and gain a sense of control over these processes; in much the same way that recording your daily 10,000 steps or logging food on an app can help to achieve a healthcare goal.

We are nearing a year into a global pandemic with all the challenges and opportunities it is bringing. Recording our experiences during this unprecedented time will be something to look back on and, potentially help to manage the feelings and experiences we might be having.

So whether it’s setting our career goals, or managing thoughts and feelings, there are many different approaches to keeping a journal and happily no right or wrong way - whatever works best for you.

Why it’s good for you

Numerous studies have shown the physiological and psychological benefits of journalling; from lowering blood pressure to better sleep and social connection. There are a range of short and long term benefits from keeping a journal including reducing stress, improving immune function, increasing working memory capacity and comprehension, boosts in mood and strengthening of emotional functions. Sounds pretty good!

The G.I.Joe fallacy suggests that merely knowing something is not enough to put it into practice. Our brain doesn’t necessarily help us out and so we have to do all kinds of other things in order to change our behaviour, and wrestle with our biases. Creating new habits for change is a challenge and involves hard work, but the habit is part of the goal! One of the annoying features of our human brains is that our minds' strongest intuitions are often wrong and we are not very good at affective forecasting. We tend to make incorrect and often negative predictions about things in our lives which can lead to unhappiness or anxiety. Making note of what has “actually” happened and what we predict may happen, can help with this perspective challenge.

There is plenty to read about different types of journaling and the ways of doing it, whether it’s SMART goal orientated, a to-do list, or expressive stream of consciousness.

Digital diaries

Keeping an electronic journal, a snapshot of something learned, a to do list and a connection made, for example, is a way of being intentional about your learning and ‘closing the door’ at the end of the day. Particularly helpful if you’re having a career change and learning fast as Faith Ege, a software developer talks about. If you’ve managed a particular goal set, there will be a sense of achievement - as satisfying as ticking off things on the to-do list. So many of us now spend much of our days on a screen, it may be the most user friendly way to record things and there are hundreds of writing and journaling apps available.

Digital journals can have huge benefits. To create a sustainable habit, we generally require the motivation, the ability and the nudge to do things. The automated reminders, structure and searchable tags that come with digital journals are useful tools to make it easier to both start and maintain the habit of writing stuff down.

Good old pen and paper

Then there’s the old fashioned way, hand writing with pen and paper. Studies have shown that the specific act of writing, with pen and paper, stimulates the RAS (reticular activating system) a bundle of nerves at the top of our brain stem, which filters out unnecessary information, allowing us to focus on what is in the forefront of our minds. The RAS works best when the incoming sensorimotor stimuli involves physical actions that are complex and varied enough to nudge our brains into full alertness.

A pioneer of writing therapy, James Pennebaker's research has shown that the simple act of writing a few lines each day in a diary by hand can strengthen our immune system, and some researchers in his team have found positive results in the reduction of asthma and arthritis. Pennebaker suggests that writing about events, particularly if they are stressful or traumatic, can help us to process our thoughts and as a result, reduce stressors on health.

Writing about his twelve years of journaling Michael Grothaus describes his experience as “an amalgamation of personal, rational fact-based reporting along with an exploration of a sometimes irrational, always important inner feelings”.

For one Unboxeder, “Writing stuff down is really quite releasing. I’m not very good at writing regularly, although I would like to be! But when I do find that things are building up, just writing and getting things down on paper and out of my head is really helpful.”

How to make it work - in and out of work

A retrospective at the end of a project or a company quarter, offers an important opportunity for people to reflect on, and record things that have gone well, not gone so well and learnings for the future. It’s an integral and valuable part of the way we work.

Our in house peer-to-peer mentoring process and progression framework encourages goal setting and reflection to support our growth and development, and regular recording in our progression frameworks can help us to keep track of learnings, development and needs.

And when the working day is done, it can be really beneficial to find that 15 minutes in the day or week to take time for ourselves, brain dump, plan, or help close the door.

Tips for making it work for you:

  • Set a time limit - 15 minutes a day/week
  • Choose your weapon, digital, or paper, and find the method that works best for you
  • Choose the format that works for what you need e.g a to-do list, or stream of consciousness
  • Find a spot where you like to write
  • Leave space for a table of contents - digitally or handwritten, this gives the opportunity to go back to find themes

The psychological benefits of journalling every day

  • Propels you towards your goals
  • Offers an opportunity to recover from daily stressors
  • Identify things that would otherwise go unnoticed, such as patterns of thinking and behaviour
  • Facilitates learning by creating a record of experiences and learning
  • Boosts your overall sense of gratitude
  • Invites you to slow down and watch your mind
  • Tracks progress

A burst of thought before work may help to start the day with a clear head and some goals set. At the end of the day the journal can provide a post-work reflection time, supporting the transition between the work day and home life (which at the moment are very much merged into one). Small steps can make a difference to sustainable positive change.