Having trouble focusing and not sure why? Feeling stressed? Can’t find the solution you’re looking for? Writing to yourself may give you exactly what you need.
Leonardo Da Vinci did it. As did Albert Einstein. And Thomas Edison, Mark Twain and General George Patton.
Bruce Lee did it. As well as Thomas Jefferson, Pablo Picasso and Ronald Reagan. Today, even Oprah and Lady Gaga do it.
“It” is Journaling – a key focusing technique of successful people for centuries. Can writing for a few minutes make such a difference? Yes, quite a lot.
The Benefits of Journaling
As Chade-Meng Tan, who was Google's "Chief Happiness Officer," described in his book, Search Inside Yourself, “Journaling is the practice of self-discovery by writing to yourself.” When thoughts swirl around your head, it’s often hard to obtain clarity. You may get stuck on certain thoughts. You may not notice inconsistencies. You may get distracted.
But when you write down your thoughts, clarity comes much more easily. You spot inconsistencies. You discover deeper reasons why some things aren’t working out, and better ways to overcome the obstacles. Regular journaling creates better perspective. And with better perspective comes better awareness and stronger focus on the things that matter.
Journaling also forces you to slow down your thoughts – it’s impossible for you to write as fast as you think. Just as in meditation, when you slow down your thoughts by writing, you become calmer and much more focused on the essential. And when you are calm and focused, you will achieve a level of clarity that is all but impossible when thoughts are traveling through your head at lightning speed. You also have a tangible record of your thought process that you can review, and from which you can gain additional clarity and insight.
The research on the benefits of journaling is extensive. A multitude of studies show that certain kinds of journaling can help reduce depression, reduce anxiety among patients with multiple sclerosis and other debilitating conditions, help students manage stress and improve classroom performance and help people achieve their goals.
How to Journal Your Way to Success
By taking a few specific steps, you can easily incorporate journaling into your day, using it to become less stressed, more focused and more productive:
1. You don’t need a lot of time. You can spend just 10-15 minutes journaling. Google's Chade-Meng Tan suggests setting a timer for a mere three minutes and then writing based on a prompt (see no. 5, below). Although you’re welcome to take an hour and write to your heart’s content, a little bit of journaling can go a long way.
2. You do need to be consistent. While you don’t need to spend a lot of time writing, you do need to write consistently. Five minutes of journaling every day is far more valuable than 45 minutes once in a while. The consistent repetition of writing in your journal, even if for only a few minutes each time, will activate your thought processes, and you’ll find you start producing clearer insights that can help you move your life forward in real time.
Date each journal entry so that you can measure your progress and place your journal entry in context if you review it at a later time. You will find it easier to journal consistently if you have a regular place and time to journal.
3. Ditch the technology. You will get more out of journaling if you leave your computer and phone behind and instead use good old-fashioned pen and paper. The tactile sensation of writing will keep you more actively engaged than if you are simply typing words onto a screen. Even better - keep a specific notebook and pen exclusively for your journaling.
By using pen and paper, you will also avoid all the distractions that come with an electronic device - and removing distractions will only increase the quality and impact of your journaling. Finally, when you write with pen and paper, you activate different parts of your brain than by typing on a laptop, and so you better remember what you wrote about and more readily act on it.
4. Specific is better than general. Although stream-of-consciousness writing can be beneficial, you will get the most mileage out of journaling by writing about something specific. Pick an issue you are dealing with, a challenge you have not yet overcome, a relationship you want to improve, or anything else in your life that is important to you.
You can also write about what you are grateful for (this is a proven strategy to reduce stress and boost your mood), or about a goal you want to work on. Whatever you write about, the key is that it is relevant to you. Of course, if you can’t think of what to write about, then try dumping thoughts on paper in a stream-of-consciousness format – you can then look at what you wrote and see what came up that’s worth exploring in your next journaling session.
5. Use prompts when you’re not sure what to write about. If you’re not sure what to write about, another effective technique is to use writing prompts. You can use Chade-Meng Tan's method of setting a timer for three minutes, and then writing whatever comes to mind based on one of the following prompts: * What I am feeling now is . . . * I am aware that . . . * What motivates me is . . . * I am inspired by . . . * Today I aspire to . . . * What hurts me is . . . * I wish . . . * Others are . . . * I made a happy mistake . . . * Things that annoy me are . . . * My weaknesses are . . . * Things that give me pleasure are . . . * My strengths are . . . Other good writing prompts: Describe an experience; write about anything that is bothering you (and/or making you feel stressed or down); analyze an aspect of your performance at work or any other aspect of your life (what went well, what didn’t, how you could improve); write about your life as it is right now.
6. Let it flow. When you journal, your goal is not to create a finished product worthy of publication. This is for your eyes only. Just write whatever comes to mind without editing or censoring your thoughts. Often, the thought that suddenly appears on paper without thinking will be the one that gives you a breakthrough.
After you’ve been journaling for a few weeks, it’s important to take a few moments and review your entries. You may notice the same issues or patterns coming up again and again. This will better help you focus on what you need to do next.
Want more ideas on journaling? I highly recommend Julia Cameron’s books, which offer a solid path for using writing for self-exploration.