Journalling: aims and methods

Journaling

Ordering your thoughts, word by word. Reflecting on yourself and what you have experienced. Developing perspectives, learning new things, and creating personal growth. Putting down an item – concluding – moving on. In a word: journalling.
 

“I can shake off everything as I write; my sorrows disappear, my courage is reborn.”
(Anne Frank)


If you once used to confide your secrets, worries and deepest feelings to the blank pages of your diary, or report your daily experiences, you are probably asking yourself right now:

“What’s the difference between keeping a diary and journalling?”

The differences are small, but significant.
When keeping a diary, you usually make an entry every day and focus on what you have learned and experienced externally. When journalling, you don’t necessary write something every day. The focus of writing when journalling lies on your inner life, on analysing yourself, your thoughts and feelings. Turning your gaze inwards results in honest reflection and personal growth. Personal development is consequently an important element.
By putting your thoughts and feelings into words and writing them down, you can offload them and clear your head. More important in journalling than “writing from the heart” are the new knowledge and experience that we gain, knowledge and experience that change us and allow us to move on differently.


“If you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change.”
(Dr. Wayne Dyer)


Journalling methods

There are many different journalling methods and you need as much time and patience as possible until you find the best one for you. Don’t put yourself under any pressure. Journalling is something you do solely for yourself. What you write down won’t be assessed and is not intended for public consumption. It is for you and your personal development only. You don’t need to pay attention to style, grammar or spelling, but simply permit the words to flow freely as your write and let your subconscious guide your pen.

Whatever variant you decide on, always write by hand. This has nothing to do with the nostalgia that pen and paper evokes for many, but is important for your brain. Capturing thoughts and feelings by hand promotes understanding. When writing by hand, the two halves of the brain interact and synergise motor and cognitive processes. Your hand movements activate the analytical left hemisphere of the brain, the rational part of us that is tasked with motor skills. This happens while our intuitive, creative side – the right hemisphere – has free rein. As a result, thoughts, feelings and words flow more easily from your hand. Neuroscience has leaned that, when writing by hand, we think much more about what to write down and what not, so the element of selection is stronger than when typing on a keyboard. As a result, when we write by hand we automatically concentrate more on the nitty-gritty and are more focused.
The combination of feeling, thinking and writing often results in new knowledge, perspectives and ideas.

Journalling doesn’t just sound like work, it sometimes is work. Analysing yourself – your feelings, your behaviour, your thoughts – and asking yourself critical questions can sometimes be very uncomfortable. So why should you still try journalling?
According to current research, journalling and intensive writing are demonstrably beneficial for our mental health. There are many positive effects. Journalling is good for your mood and emotional state and improves general wellbeing. It is an effective stress management tool and efficacious when used to treat mental illnesses such as depression, anxiety or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

As already mentioned, journalling is versatile and there are very different methods. So you don’t get confused by the variety, you should figure out in advance what you want to achieve by journalling. Would you like to get to know yourself better, use it as a stress management tool, do something to boost your mental health or achieve a specific aim? Once you know what you want to gain from journalling, you will definitely find a suitable technique. Here are five different methods.

Stream of Consciousness

The “stream of consciousness” method is probably the freest form of writing. There are no specifications, you just write and write. You can either set yourself a time limit of five to 15 minutes, or decide to fill three sides of A4. Give your thoughts free rein and put down on paper what is currently whirling around in your head. As the name “stream of consciousness” implies, it’s about making space for your own flow of thoughts or stream of consciousness and putting down on paper everything that is currently there. You shouldn’t evaluate or analyse your thoughts, feelings and ideas as you write them down. Your fears, worries, doubts and other negative feelings may also rise to the surface while you write. Give space to whatever is preoccupying you right now.

Do you have times when you feel out of your depth and can no longer see the wood for the trees? That’s exactly when this method is appropriate. Because even if no inspiration or solutions are found when you write, putting things down onto paper is unbelievably liberating. It is entirely possible that you will be able to order your thoughts a little by writing and thus quickly feel somewhat better.
Furthermore, it is important to know that, whatever you produce on your three sheets of A4, or within your chosen time, neither you nor anybody else ever has to read it. It’s just about making space for your thoughts to flow and being entirely in the here and now as they do.

Regular writing is also an effective method of helping you to understand yourself better. Journalling will enable you to recognise and to scrutinise recurring thoughts, feelings and behaviour patterns, which will give you greater clarity about your needs and wants.

The 6-minute journal

The name “6-minute diary” stands for all forms of journalling in which you always ask yourself the same questions every day. This can be every evening as a way of ending the day with gratitude and relaxation, or every morning, to give the day a positive start. You can find various books on sale with ready-made questions that you could buy. However, it is absolutely worth creating your own book with personalised questions. To do so, just take a pretty notebook, decide on two to six questions, and write them on the first page.

Some ideas for daily questions include...
  • What was/am I grateful for today?
  • What would make today a good day?
  • My most important task today is...
  • What can I be proud of today?
  • What gave me pleasure today?
  • What did me good today?

At the beginning, it’s best if you make a mental note so that you don’t forget to take a few minutes for writing every day as part of your routine. As soon as you have formed the habit, it will be easier and writing will become a fixed part of your day.
Start small with a few questions and don’t overtax yourself. Substitute new questions if you get bored or want to redirect your focus onto something new.

Journalling with prompts

Does the sight of your notebook’s empty pages inhibit rather than inspire you, meaning you struggle to start writing anything? Is writer’s block more likely than the flow of writing that you actually want? Then free writing according to the “stream of consciousness” method may not be for you and it would be better for you to try the “journalling with prompts” method instead. These “prompts” are suggestions or stimuli to help guide your thoughts in a specific direction and to encourage you to think. Prompts mostly consist of questions or the start of a sentence for you to complete, and they function by inviting you to become aware of your own perspectives, convictions and attitudes.
The aim is to read a question or the beginning of a sentence and give your thoughts free rein, then to put down on paper everything that comes into your mind. There is no evaluation, no right or wrong.

Setting a specific time frame is also initially recommended with this method. It is suitable in many areas of life and for many different topics. For example, are you looking for a new professional perspective but can’t yet see a clear goal? Or are you preoccupied by worries, expectations, or fears that you want to confront? Find a suitable suggestion or stimulus in the form of a question or beginning of a sentence and then write down any spontaneous thoughts or feelings.

We have put together a few sample prompts here as inspiration:
  • What gives me joy?
  • What most inspires me?
  • When do I experience moments of happiness?
  • What things would I like to get rid of?
  • I become contemplative when...
  • Something that I would like to do for myself today is...
  • I am grateful for...
  • When my work is going well...
  • If I could wish for one thing...

Periodic reflection

You can take time to reflect weekly, monthly or annually, entirely depending on your own needs.
Unlike daily journalling, periodic reflection gives you a longer time to reflect, and thus the opportunity to gain even more self-knowledge. Reviewing the past with the “periodic reflection” method gives you the opportunity to recognise recurrent patterns of behaviour and learn more about yourself. A question chosen by you forms the basis of your reflections.

A few examples:
  • What have I learned?
  • What has gone particularly well for me / what have I achieved?
  • What were the particularly beautiful moments?
  • What would I like to focus on next week/month/year?
  • Is there anything in the past that I would like to let go of now?
  • Were there any changes, and if so, how did they affect me?

Regularity is very important for this method of journalling. Therefore, you need to choose a period of time that is realistic for you personally and adjust it if you notice you are struggling with it.

Success journalling

Journalling isn’t just helpful for reflecting on the past, but also for helping you to achieve your goals.
Writing down your goal and action plan will assist you to tackle things and follow them through. It is scientifically proven that you are more likely to achieve goals when you put them in writing than when you only think or talk about them. Again, this is to do with how the brain works. By imaging a goal and then achieving it – the actual thinking process – we activate the right brain hemisphere only. If, in addition, you commit to the goal and the path to achieving it by writing it down, this also makes use of the left hemisphere, thus the vision is made clear.
By using both brain hemispheres, a duty is created from the mere thought construct, the idea, once it is written down. This is sending a signal to your subconscious: I want to achieve XY, and I’m serious.

The key to success journalling is not just writing your main goal down on paper, but also the steps you need to take to reach it. This means dividing a big goal into individual stages and noting down every success along the way, however small it is. You record your achievements on a daily or weekly basis. This will boost your motivation and your self-confidence, and this will make you more successful in the long run.

 

References:
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Flinchbaugh, C. L., Moore, E. W. G., Chang, Y. K. & May, D. R. (2012). Student well-being interventions: The effects of stress management techniques and gratitude journaling in the management education classroom. Journal of Management Education, 36, 191-219.
Fritson. K. K. (2008). Impact of journaling on students’ self-efficacy and locus of control. InSight: A Journal of Scholarly Teaching, 3, 75-83.
Hasanzadeh, P., Khoshknab, M. F. & Norozi, K. (2012). Impacts of journaling on anxiety and stress in Multiple Sclerosis patients. Complementary Medicine Journal of Faculty of Nursing & Midwifery, 2, 183-193.
Koch, J. (2020). Drei Journaling-Methoden und ihre Ziele. Blogbeitrag auf urbanrise.ch. Letzter Zugriff am 09.09.2020
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Koopman, C., Ismailji, T., Holmes, D., Classen, C. C., Palesh, O. & Wales, T. (2005). The effects of expressive writing on pain, depression and posttraumatic stress disorder symptoms in survivors of intimate partner violence. Journal of Health Psychology, 10, 211-221.
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