How Can Journaling Help You Be Successful? (Science and Examples)
Updated 21 November 2019
by Maili Tirel: School psychologist and internet counselor with a passion for educating herself and others.
You’ve most likely heard about gratitude journals and bullet journals, travel journals and mood diaries. If you can think of it, someone’s journaling about it and swearing that it’s the best thing ever. Your friends, your mom, your favorite social media star, everyone’s journaling. What’s the deal with journals?
There’s a reason why you keep hearing about journaling. Of course, journaling isn’t a magic solution to all your problems, but it has been shown to reduce stress, improve cognitive functioning and decrease symptoms of depression. And all you have to do to reap these benefits is to sit down and start writing.
If you feel your fingers itching to write, but don’t know where to start, stick around. In this article, we’ll take a look at how different types of journaling can help you succeed.
Table of contents
- What is journaling?
- The benefits of journaling for your success
- Different examples of journaling for success
- Ways how journaling can help you be successful
- Closing words
Journaling, gratitude, mindfulness, and introspection. What do all these things have in common? It's that they're all significantly correlated to your happiness. Find out more about how you can learn from this in Chapter 4 of the biggest (freely available) guide on how to be happy.
What is journaling?
Journaling is the practice of keeping a journal or diary about your thoughts and feelings. Hugo has written about the difference between a journal and a diary, but for the purposes of this article, we can consider them the same thing.
In essence, journaling is sitting down and putting your thoughts and feelings on paper. Chances are that you have already done it in some shape or form. Many people have kept a secret diary as a kid (mine even had a little lock on it!) or a blog as a teenager or young adult (mine was full of angsty poems).
Journaling is not a new practice, even though it may seem like it’s a new fad. People have been keeping written records of their lives for centuries, and for a good reason - whether it’s a memory aid or a channel of emotional release, journaling works.
The benefits of journaling for your success
So what’s the big deal about journaling? Why is it so popular?
One of the benefits of journaling is that it’s an accessible method to make sense of your thoughts and work through your experiences. You don’t need much to start journaling, just a pen, and a cheap notebook or your computer.
Example of how my students find success by journaling
One of the best things about journaling is that it helps you make sense of your thoughts and feelings. More often than not, our thoughts are a jumbled mess. Having to put them into words by talking or writing forces us to create some order into the mess.
Often, students come to me, because they are lost and confused and have no idea what to do. I offer them a seat and a chance to say what’s on their mind, and occasionally, that is all they need. They find their own solutions because suddenly, their thoughts are in words and make so much more sense. Writing down your thoughts in a journal can have the same effect, even if you can’t or don’t want to talk about it.
Success and journaling according to science
In addition to helping you sort out your thoughts, journaling is good for your mental health, and we have the evidence to prove it:
- A 2013 study conducted at the University of Michigan showed that among people with major depression, expressive journaling for 20 minutes a day lowered their depression scores significantly;
- According to another study, visual journaling can help decrease stress, anxiety and negative affect levels in medical students, a demographic known for being more prone to stress and burn-out;
- Journaling can also help with self-efficacy: according to a 2008 study, the self-efficacy of undergraduate college students was improved after weekly journal assignments.
Not all types of journaling are created equal, though. According to a 2018 paper, writing can reduce bedtime worrying and help you fall asleep faster. However, there is a catch. In the study, the participants had to either write a to-do list for the next few days or journal about the tasks they had completed in the previous few days. Only the participants who wrote the to-do lists fell asleep quicker, and the more specific the to-do list, the shorter the time it took them to fall asleep.
Despite its limitations, it’s a great finding and one that I can personally vouch for. I find that writing down my to-do list before going to sleep helps to “off-load” the thoughts and I worry less about forgetting anything important. On the other hand, it goes to show that there is a time and a place for a specific type of journaling.
Different examples of journaling for success
If you feel that writing lengthy entries about your day isn’t your cup of tea, don’t worry. There are many different ways of journaling beside the traditional diary that you can try out.
For starters, journaling can be free-form or structured. For example, structured gratitude journals may prompt you to list three things you are grateful for each day. Emotional release journals allow you to write about your day and emotions in a less structured, stream-of-consciousness manner.
Journaling can also be used to complement therapy or counseling. Something I ask my students to do is to keep a journal of their thoughts and feelings between the sessions so that they don’t forget what they wanted to discuss.
Different types of thought and behavior logs are also a popular form of journaling used in cognitive behavioral therapy.
If you’re less about emotions and more about productivity, bullet journaling is a great alternative to the basic planner.
Or, if you want to take journaling for productivity a step further, you can try a performance analysis journal. Write about how you’re doing in your chosen field (for example, your profession or a hobby) and analyze your successes and failures. Keeping a close eye on your progress can help you meet your goals.
If you’re all about emotions, keeping a mood or emotion journal is a great way to manage your emotional well-being. Mood journals or mood trackers are also some of the easiest and least time-consuming diaries to keep.
A personal favorite of mine is the “A Year in Pixels” method because it’s simple, yet visually stunning. You make a grid with all of the months and days of the year, color-code your moods and emotions, and start coloring! A simple guide on how to get started can be found here.
The "Year in pixels" idea inspired me a lot, so much that I included it in my Tracking Happiness template! The result? This is what my journal looked like at the end of 2018.
Based on this calendar, I was able to set goals that would make 2019 a successful year! And I have to say, so far it's working pretty well!
If you want to create your own successful journaling habit similar to this one, I bet you'd love my Tracking Happiness template!
You can be happier. Discover how with my free template!
- Track your happiness every day
- Learn more about what makes you happy
- Receive my custom template for free
Ways how journaling can help you be successful
The key to successful journaling is finding the method that works for you. You may have to try several methods before you find the perfect one, but I promise it’ll be worth it. Let’s take a closer look at other tips and tricks to make the most of journaling.
1. Make it convenient
Something that will definitely help you be consistent with your entries is convenience - make journaling as convenient as possible. Carry a notebook around with you everywhere you go, or if you’re not keen on any extra weight in your everyday bag, use an app on your phone.
The easier you make journaling for yourself, the easier it is to stick to it.
2. Be consistent
To reap maximum benefits from journaling, consistency is key. It’s okay to miss a day every once in a while - life happens, you know - but you should strive for regular entries, whether it’s daily or weekly.
Occasional journaling can be beneficial, too, for example when you have a lot on your mind and need to find some clarity, but like with many other things, establishing a routine is the key to success.
3. Be honest
Journals are a great place to be radically honest with yourself - this is a private space that no one else has access to, or at least that’s how it should be. To make the most of journaling, you really need to be honest; there is no use in making things look better than they are.
If you had a bad day, write it down. If you dislike a coworker, write it down. Your journal can’t judge you.
This acronym is useful on two levels. Firstly, you have to write in order to keep a journal in the first place. Secondly, it contains the recommendations for successful journaling from the Center for Journal Therapy:
- What do you want to write about? What’s going on? How do you feel? What are you thinking about? What do you want? Name it.
- Review or reflect on it. Close your eyes. Take three deep breaths. Focus. You can start with “I feel…” or “I want…” or “I think…” or “Today….” or “Right now…” or “At this moment…”
- Investigate your thoughts and feelings. Start writing and keep writing. Follow the pen/keyboard. If you get stuck, close your eyes and re-center yourself. Re-read what you’ve already written and continue writing.
- Time yourself. Write for 5-15 minutes. Write the start time and the projected end time at the top of the page. Set an alarm or timer if you need to.
- Exit smart by re-reading what you’ve written and reflect on it: “As I read this, I notice—” or “I’m aware of—” or “I feel—”. Note any action steps to take.
Journals have been popular for centuries and for a good reason - they work. Journaling is a great way of becoming more aware of yourself, as well as relieving stress and anxiety and promoting general well-being, and with so many different methods to choose from, everyone should find the journal that works for them. So what are you waiting for? Grab a pen and start writing!
Want to share your own tips and tricks for becoming successful via journaling? Let me know in the comments below, and I'd be happy to discuss strategies and helpful ways to get even more successful!
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My name is Hugo Huyer, and I'm a mental health coach that focuses on quantifying happiness. By quantifying something as abstract as our happiness, we're able to guide ourselves into a life in which happiness is fully understood.
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