Some of the most influential people in history kept detailed journals of their lives, including Charles Darwin, Marie Curie, Thomas Edison and Frida Kahlo. Those journals served two purposes: a permanent record for posterity and, presumably, a cathartic release for the people writing them.
Even if you don’t think you need either, keeping a journal has some pretty great benefits you can enjoy starting today. Maybe you want to leave something behind for your children that tells your story and what you accomplished. Maybe you’re more practical, and want a way to harness your creativity. Maybe you just want the cathartic release that comes with regular writing. Whatever it is, these are all great reasons. Here’s why you might want to sit down regularly to jot down your thoughts.
Regular writing has mental health benefits
Writing can do wonders for your mental health. Beyond keeping your creative juices flowing—a separate topic we’ll get to shortly—regular writing can give you a safe, cathartic release valve for the stresses of your daily life. We’ve discussed some of those mental and emotional benefits of writing before, from the angle of creative writing—but you don’t have to write fiction to get them.
For example, we’ve mentioned that keeping an awesomeness journal can do wonders for your self-esteem. Not only does regular writing make you feel good, it helps you re-live the events you experienced in a safe environment where you can process them without fear or stress.
According to PsychCentral, keeping a journal can help you:
- Clarify your thoughts and feelings
- Get to know yourself better
- Reduce stress
- Resolve disagreements with others
- Solve problems more effectively
In fact, there’s so much data about the mental and emotional benefits of journaling that counselors, social workers and therapists often encourage their patients to do it. This study from the journal Advances in Psychiatric Treatment is a great experiment, and a solid summary of current research on the topic. The researchers noted that 15–20 minutes on three to five occasions was enough to help the study participants deal with traumatic, stressful, or otherwise emotional events.
Journaling has been specifically effective in people with severe illnesses, like cancer, for example. In fact, the practice is so well regarded, there’s a Center for Journal Therapy dedicated to the mental health benefits of regular journaling, both in therapeutic and personal settings.
It’s not just what you write about though. How you write plays a role as well. This University of Iowa study showed that journaling about stressful events helped participants deal with the events they experienced. The key, however, was to focus on what you were thinking and feeling as opposed to your emotions alone. In short, you get the best benefits of journaling when you’re telling your personal story, not just writing about your feelings on their own. It’s a great example of how telling your own personal story can make a huge difference in your well being.
Keeping a journal helps harness your creativity
The creative benefits of keeping a journal are also well documented. You’ve likely heard that the best way to get better at writing is to just keep doing it. That’s true, but the benefits go deeper than just crafting better sentences. For example, regular writing can help you learn to process and communicate complex ideas effectively. It can also help you memorize important information, and brainstorm new ideas. In other words, writing about your experiences not only helps you process them, it helps you see opportunities that may not have been apparent at first glance. It also helps you learn to break down complex experiences into relevant, useful bits of information organized coherently.
Even if you don’t think anything special has happened to you, the very act of keeping a journal can help you brainstorm. How often have you caught yourself writing about something that seems dull on the surface, but led you to a spiderweb of other thoughts, ideas, and memories as you were processing it? Regular writing opens the door to those opportunities every time you sit down.
Even if you don’t do creative work, regular writing has practical benefits
Regular writing can be functional, too, and serve as a reminder of mistakes you’ve made, accomplishments you’re proud of and great moments you want to remember. For example, keeping a work diary can serve as a track record of mistakes and successes. That written record can come in handy later when you’re feeling down, but they can also help you right your personal ship when you’re feeling lost. Pick up your work diary and look back over the things you did really well with—you may be able to pick out a pattern of things you want to follow, career-wise.
Similarly, those achievements and awesome moments don’t just boost your self-esteem, they give you great justification for a raise or promotion when it comes time to talk to the boss about an increase. You don’t have to be a creative worker to appreciate looking back over the things you did well, and the things you need to work on. Seeing your own mistakes before they’re pointed out to you is a great thing, and documenting your achievements makes sure they’re never overlooked.Keep a Work Diary to Minimize Mistakes and Document Successes
Regular writing can apply to more than just work, too. Keeping a journal is a great way to build better habits, as it forces you to be aware of your actions and behaviors. If you’re looking to watch what you eat, keeping a food diary is a great way to stay paying closer attention—one that’s been proven to help people eat more healthfully. Similarly, just writing down positive things that happened to you or tracking your mood can help you identify good patterns in your life that are repeatable that you should make time for—not to mention things that make you feel bad or throw you off your game that should be eliminated.
Which medium you should choose, and why
Once you’ve decided to keep a journal, your next decision is the medium to use for it. You have plenty of options, and what works for one person won’t work for another. You have to choose the one that works best for you. Here are a few options:
If you love the feeling of physically writing down your thoughts, a paper notebook may be the best option for you. Keeping a paper journal gives you total physical control over your writing, and it gives you the most privacy, since there’s little chance of your journal being “hacked” or “lost” when a service shuts down or is compromised. However, paper journaling means you don’t have backups in case something happens to your work—theft, fire, or just a lost backpack means your journal is gone forever.
If you don’t want just a plain empty notebook, the Bullet Journal productivity method fits in nicely if you’re already using your paper notebook for to-dos and notes, and the previously mentioned Sorta has unique notebooks with removable pages. If you’re afraid you’re too busy to journal, consider the Five-Minute Journal, a paper notebook that’s sets you up with a motivational quote, then gives you daily writing prompts to fill out like “Today I’m grateful for,” “What would make today great?” and “3 Great Things that happened today.”The Bullet Journal Productivity Method Empowers Your Paper Notebook
Journaling and diary apps
If you just can’t separate yourself from your phone or laptop, there are plenty of apps that promise privacy and security as well as a great writing environment. We’ve featured a few before, but some of the stand-outs include Penzu, an all-online private journaling app with mobile apps, and Day One, a good looking iOS/OS X app that’s location-aware, lets you add photos and more. If you prefer free and open-source, try RedNotebook. It’s a fantastic wiki-style journaling tool that’s cross-platform.
Of course, you don’t have to use apps at all. You could just keep an encrypted text file in Dropbox, use Evernote or Google Keep, or any other note-taking app you prefer. You can even roll your own custom journaling system with whatever tools you prefer, but keep in mind that the more you automate the process, the less you’re actually journaling, so you don’t get quite the same benefits.
Blogging is another great way to get the benefits of journaling, regardless of whether you get started to make a name for yourself, or to just get your thoughts and feelings out in the open. Keeping a blog opens the door to the widest possible audience, but it comes with the sacrifice of privacy. If that’s your preferred route, you have a wide array of tools and hosts to choose from, both free and paid.
There are plenty of free options, like WordPress, Tumblr and Medium. All of them offer different looks, cater to different audiences and are designed for different kinds of people. Whatever you choose, keeping a personal blog may not come with writing prompts or fancy mobile apps (although some do), but they can come with community, and option to share your story with the world.
However you choose to keep your journal, there are clear benefits to doing it. You don’t have to be a thought leader, famous artist, politician, scientist, or famous figure for your thoughts and experiences to be worthwhile—anyone can reap the benefits.
This story was originally published on 3/19/14 and was updated on 9/20/19 to provide more thorough and current information.