How Journaling Can Improve Your Life

I’ve always been the pen-to-paper type, so when I was packing for a solo yearlong trip around the world in 2012, I brought along a blank composition book. Unlike the emailing, blogging, and nonstop Google Maps–ing I’d be doing on an iPad, that notebook would scratch a more personal itch: I’d use it as a diary, scrapbook, and Rolodex all in one, a place for unfiltered scribbling about life on the road and future skimming when my wanderlust returned. By the time I flew home, three full notebooks encapsulated the bulk of my journey.

With the benefit of hindsight, I now see those daily entries as far from frivolous. The act of mentally unpacking each day, especially when I was several time zones removed from the people I would ordinarily confide in, was as cathartic for me as my twice-a-day runs. It kept me clear-minded and present in a constantly changing world and helped me grapple with my role as a perpetual outsider. Three years after I returned to the U.S., those journals morphed into a published book.

The benefits of journaling, most extensively documented by University of Texas social psychologist James W. Pennebaker, read like the claims of the latest wellness fad: increased mindfulness, better sleep, reduced stress, strengthened memory, improved communication skills, stronger immune system, more self-confidence, and even a higher IQ.

Many theories about why journaling is good for us converge on the therapeutic effects of reflection and interpretation. When we take time to explore and label our emotions, we’re able to organize our cluttered minds and make sense of our experiences. A cascade of positive mental and physical effects—which include lowered blood pressure, increased immunity function, better digestion, and improved sleep—follow suit. The psychotherapist, journaling expert, and corporate consultant Maud Purcell also postulates that writing, which taxes the left hemisphere of the brain, essentially frees up the right hemisphere to operate creatively and intuitively, as it’s meant to.

Those well-being boosts are particularly helpful for individuals overcoming difficult experiences like trauma and depression, but there are benefits for athletes and adventurers, too. Purcell recommends that athletes keep two types of journals: a training log and a separate notebook for free-flowing thoughts, which together can offer a wealth of insight into slumps, progress, performance anxiety, trends, and much more.

So why not go old-school and give journaling a shot? Here are some tips to get you going:

Choose Your Medium 

To minimize distractions and adopt an unhurried approach, Purcell recommends starting with a physical notebook rather than a digital log. A few of my favorite brands are Moleskine and Leuchtturm1917 for classic and bullet journaling, Rite in the Rain for outdoor adventures, and the Believe Training Journal for athletic pursuits. 

Establish a Routine

Although Pennebaker argues you don’t need to write every day to reap the benefits, I’ve found that consistency is the only way for me to make a habit of it. Keep your journal in a private but easily accessible place, and try to write at the same time of day. 

Empty Your Mind

Purcell suggests aiming for stream-of-consciousness writing: no censoring, editing, or overthinking. She doesn’t like to recommend a format or structure. Just let your thoughts run wild. Well-crafted sentences and proper punctuation have their place; your notebook isn’t it. Sit down with no expectations. Nobody—not even you—has to read what you write.

Outside Magazine: Health

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