Yes, You Should Be Journaling! Plus 3 Powerful Techniques
Journaling is not what you grew up thinking it was. And if you're committed to self-development, you MUST be journaling.
I'm usually very agnostic and open-minded about tools and practices when it comes to personal growth, but not when it comes to journaling. There's simply no substitute.
But I talk to my therapist or friends a lot about my issues, does that count? No.
But I draw pictures or make collages, does that count? No.
But I sit and reflect and meditate a lot, does that count? NO!
Seriously, there is no substitute for expressing yourself in writing, by hand.
The most common objections I hear from clients about why they don’t journal:
I don’t have time.
I don’t know what to write about.
I don’t get the point.
I don’t like it. It’s not fun.
By the end of this article you’ll see why you should make time to journal, what the point of journaling is, and tons of ideas for what to do when you sit down with pen and paper.
Journaling isn’t supposed to be fun. It’s supposed to be exploratory, affirming, juicy, frustrating, relieving, intimate, scary, hard, fluid, creative, intriguing, loving, tender, rational, gentle - as many dimensions and qualities you can experience, so can your journaling be (yes, including fun sometimes).
Below are 5 reasons you should be journaling. There are several journal prompts peppered throughout.
Below that are 3 of my favorite journaling techniques I use 90% of the time I sit down to journal that consistently help me get unstuck and gain insights. Use them separately or in combination. I encourage you to play around with them and see what works for you.
Let’s dive in.
1. Journaling makes you physically healthier and more emotionally resilient.
Researchers have done over 300 studies over 30 years studying the effects of writing on patients with HIV, cancer, Lupus, liver disease, IBS, rheumatoid arthritis. All show that expressive writing help diminish symptoms and/or accelerate healing in the majority of cases.
Poke around those studies to learn more. Are these benefits worth you sitting down and writing for 5-10 minutes a day? What do you have to lose?
2. Journaling makes you a more creative problem solver.
Your mind naturally asks questions as way to understand the world. The unknown is infinite, so you will always have more questions than answers.
Unfortunately, we live in a solution-obsessed culture. If we don’t know how to do to something, we Google it immediately. Not knowing the answers in class or at work makes us feel stupid or incompetent. Not knowing stuff is stressful, so we avoid it.
Thing is, the most important problems in your life are full of unknowns. You can’t just Google it. You need a deep understanding of the problem, and that requires deep questioning.
Find better solutions by asking better questions. Use your journal as a place to ask questions no one has ever asked you before. Hell, questions no one has ever asked period.
Practice brainstorming questions about the problem you are facing, and I guarantee one of them will spark new ideas.
3. Journaling helps you find your voice.
The more you practice something, the better at it you get. This goes for communication, too. Having the ability to accurately and precisely articulate your thoughts, emotions, and experience makes you a better teammate, leader, friend and partner.
When we experience stuff persistently that we can’t put into words, we can start to feel unhinged.
Mansplaining and microaggressions have been going on forever, but now we have words that legitimize those experiences and ground them in reality. We can also catch those experiences when they happen better now, too.
Writing forces you to form words and sentences that try to articulate the complexity of what’s going on inside - it pushes you to get clear and direct.
Sound challenging? Good. The moment it becomes difficult and frustrating is the moment you begin to grow.
Grappling with ways to express your authenticity is what every artist and writer does when they contend with their medium.
Use your journal as a sandbox to play with different words and phrases that attempt to describe the indescribable.
Try these prompts:
What’s the temperature and texture of your heart right now?
What’s the weather pattern inside your mind?
What’s a metaphor that perfectly illustrates your experience?
How would you speak to a child about what you’re experiencing?
4. Journaling helps you take action.
Each day, you receive hundreds of subtle and overt messages asking you to take action. Buy this, click that, swipe up, follow me - most of those actions benefit others. Everyone wants to pull you into their agenda.
And it works. Because you’re more suggestible than you think.
A study published in the Journal of Applied Psychology showed that simply asking people whether they would vote in an upcoming election increased their voting rate by 25%.
Another study showed that simply asking people if they were planning to purchase a new car in the next six months increased their purchase rates by 35%.
Use the power of suggestion on yourself, for your agenda, to benefit you by using your journal to contemplate actions and behaviors you want to do.
Have you been putting off doing something important but not urgent? Create your own tipping point. Brainstorm every step and detail for how to achieve it in your journal. Then schedule the first step into your calendar.
5. Journaling helps you catch yourself in unhelpful patterns as they happen.
Nailing the practice of journaling isn’t just about being good at journaling. It’s about applying better thinking and reflecting skills in your daily life, in real time.
If you get triggered one day and don’t understand why or what happened, journaling about it can help you piece together the events and gain clarity on the true source of your reaction.
The next time it happens, you’ll be able to catch it in action and make a choice about how to respond versus repeatedly being at the whim of your automatic reactions.
Use your journal to analyze a situation where someone upset you or you felt a sudden, intense emotional experience.
Why did you react the way you did?
What were you believing at the time?
What was really going on for you?
Are you convinced that journaling is a worthwhile activity that can help you in a multitude of ways over the course of your entire life?
3 techniques to try next time you sit down to journal:
Technique #1: Inner Dialogue
Use this technique when you have many conflict voices, desires, fears, ideas, urges, etc. Give each voice “the floor” to really be heard. Speak to each side of the conflict separately. It helps you understand the full picture of what you’re grappling with, so you can make a better decision.
This technique is great for understanding different parts of you: Inner Critic, Wounded Child, Inner Manager, Inner Firefighter, etc. And for understanding which voices are internalized worldviews downloaded from your parents, society and culture.
Identify an inner conflict or a part of you you’d like to understand more about.
Acknowledge and personify the parts. Give them names (i.e. My Critic, The Adventurous One, The Fearful One, etc).
Assume your position as a neutral, curious interviewer - this is key.
Turn your attention to one of the parts and ask neutral, curious questions like…
What are your concerns?
What do you need?
How old are you?
Huh, that’s interesting. How come?
Tell me what you think about _____ (topic in question).
What do you think I should I do about _____? Why?
Where did you come from? Where did you learn that?
What are your greatest fears / dreams for me?
It might feel funny at first, but after you ask each question, listen for the answer. Free-write anything that comes up. Base your next question on what they say - just like a real conversation.
Be playful. Appreciate and thank each part for speaking with you.
After speaking with all voices or sides of the conflict, make a decision about how best to move forward that will best satisfy all the needs and concerns of your parts.
Then take a stance and move forward with intention.
Technique #2: Field of Experience
Use this whenever you’re feeling intense emotions, unsure what you’re feeling, or generally feeling ungrounded or disconnected from yourself. You become aware of everything you’re experiencing - thoughts, intuition, sensations, emotions, flutters, images, smells, temperature.
This is a mindfulness-based technique that brings you into the present moment and slows you down. It connects you to your body, your senses, and the world around you. Describing your experience helps you articulate nuance and complexity, and builds your muscles in authentic expression.
Take a breath and enter a meditative stance. Turn your attention inwards.
One by one, observe your various sense “doors” and try to describe in as much detail an nuance as possible what you’re experiencing.
What are you feeling in your body?
What do you hear?
What do you see?
What do you smell?
What do you taste?
What thoughts are you having?
What images are you seeing?
What emotions are you feeling?
Look back at what you wrote. Can you get even more precise? What kinds of experiences seem easier or harder for you to articulate? Why?
I often start my journaling with this technique, especially if I don’t have a top-of-mind topic or challenge. Almost always, something bubbles to the surface worth exploring.
Technique #3: Exhaustive List-Making
Use this technique whenever you want to do a deep dive into understanding your mental model — beliefs, assumptions, worldviews. Or simply whenever you want to fully explore a question.
Simply select a topic or question and start brainstorming a list of responses. Keep going until you’ve exhausted every possible answer.
I think of this technique like taking inventory of a cluttered room and clearing some out to create more space in your home. Empty your mind out onto the page, so that you can sort through it and make sense of it.
Think of a question you often wonder about yourself. Or an important personal mystery you feel unclear on.
Here are some prompts:
Why do I avoid certain people?
What am I great at?
What do I love about myself? (Or someone else?)
What does “a good life” mean to me?
What do I think is the “right” or “wrong” way to go about _____?
What does a “healthy relationship” mean to me?
How am I prejudiced against _____ (group of people)?
Why am I afraid to speak up in meetings?
Why do I always fall into the same relationship traps?
What have I been tolerating lately?
What are my deepest, darkest fears?
What parts of me do I never show others?
How do I pretend or perform for the sake of others?
Why do I care so much about what other people think?
What are all the ways I’m afraid to fail?
Now simply list out as many answers as you can to the question you posed to yourself. Be exhaustive! Give yourself a quota or a time limit (i.e. at least 20, until I fill up 2 pages, until 20 minutes is up).
When you’re done, look at your list. Can you see any patterns? Use a highlighter to mark or categorize important items. Create new questions from your themes and continue making lists!
If you try some of these techniques, let me know how it went for you! Write me at email@example.com. I love getting your comments and feedback.