The word “journal” when used as a noun has a whiff of academic prestige to it. But as a verb, “journal” calls to mind the image of an overly emotional teen seated on the floor of his bedroom, scribbling across a tear-stained page with a slew of colored markers while Dashboard Confessional blares in the background.
It’s time we turn the page (pun intended) on that stereotype.
Far from simply being the repository of youthful angst, the personal journal is quickly becoming a mainstay of the modern enlightened lifestyle. It’s advocated by noteworthy men such as lifehacker Tim Ferriss, country singer Brett Eldredge, and actor Joseph Gordon Levitt, who said of his journaling habit, “I’ve gone through different phases in my life of writing in a journal more or less frequently, but it’s something I turn to, especially when I’m trying to work through something that’s vexing me.”
Along with helping to work out daily vexations, writing in a journal has been shown to help people set priorities, establish goals, live with more intention, and actually do the things that are important to them. But that’s not all. A 2013 study found that 76% of medical patients who spent time writing in a journal before a biopsy healed 11 days faster than their control group. Journaling is shown to help wounds heal faster, fight off chronic disease, and lower blood pressure.
Keeping a journal is much less about rigorously documenting your every action, thought or feeling, and more about registering your lived experiences while also planning for the future. There are a variety of journaling formats to suit every personality, schedule, and skill set under the sun. (Some of them don’t even involve writing.)
Five Ways to Journal
This form of journaling is being touted all across the internet right now and for good reason. Said to have been invented by the digital product designer Ryder Carroll, this option is perfect for the goal-oriented person who wants to organize a head full of ideas into concrete accomplishments.
Bullet journaling works by following a specific format that divides up your notebook into five elements: An index to easily find what you’ve jotted down; a “rapid logging” section where you jot down thoughts, tasks, ideas, lists, etc. as quickly as possible; a more focused log where you identify in more detail what you’ve done, are doing and want to do; and a “collection” section where you group content from the log into categories (e.g., books you want to read, fitness milestones, creative ideas, etc.). Dedicated bullet journaling involves learning a certain type of shorthand for keeping track of your progress, but it’s not hard. (An introductory guide can be found here.)
The beauty of the bullet journal is that it enables you, in the inventor’s words, to “track the past, organize the present, and plan for the future.”
Another format-specific type of journal, this one was created by artist Julie Cameron and popularized in her bestselling book The Artist’s Way. This mode is less rigid than bullet journaling—it simply involves sitting down with a pen and notebook, starting to write, and not stopping until you’ve filled up three pages. The idea here is to wean yourself away from the self-editing impulse that so often gets in the way of authentic self expression. Creative types aren’t the only ones who swear by the value of morning pages. Devoted practitioners say it helps clear the mind, relieve stress, manage anxiety and depression, improve everything from relationships to professional performance to fitness. If you often feel like some mysterious force is holding you back from achieving what you want in life, morning pages could be the perfect way to get it out of your system.
Popularized by Gretchin Rubin of The Happiness Project, the one-sentence journal is perfect for the person who doesn’t have time to journal (or just has a hard time maintaining a routine). This format is as simple as it gets—all it takes is jotting down one sentence that sums up whatever stands out as significant about your day. The sentence doesn’t even have to be original—it could be a line from a book, a news headline, a pithy quote from a famous thinker, or even a funny quip from a friend. An obvious advantage of this style of journaling is the easy sense of accomplishment it offers. But those who use it say that limiting themselves to one sentence influences them to focus on just on the positive (i.e., the things they want to remember) in what they write down. Over time, this practice builds into a greater sense of gratitude and well-being. They also say that when they review the journal after a few months or even a year, they’re surprised to find how many memories can be contained in just one sentence. (In case it needs to be said, you’re definitely allowed to expand as needed into two sentences or more.)
Okay, don’t scroll past this one just yet. As woo-woo as it might sound, a dream journal is actually an awesome way to delve deeper into your own psyche, learning more about what makes you tick, what holds you back, and what might improve your happiness. Dreams are, after all, shaped by your psychology as much as they are by the sketchy burrito you ate the night before.
If you don’t always remember your dreams upon awakening, start with documenting past dreams that you remember—the childhood nightmare that sent you running to your parents’ room, the unexpected person who showed up in a hormone-fueled teenage dream, and so on. And your dreams don’t have to be full-scale sleep epics in order to be recorded. Even a fragment, a fleeting image or just a feeling you had upon waking is worth noting down. Psychologists say that when patients are asked to a recount a dream, they often leave out details that they think aren’t important, but that it’s precisely those details that often prove most significant down the road. They also recommend that in addition to the content of the dream, you note its context: Where and what time you went to sleep, how well you slept, anything that might have been on your mind before you dropped off, etc. All of this will help you understand the influences that shape your unconscious. While you can certainly research the “interpretation” of your dreams as much as you’d like, the real value of a dream journal is creating your own interpretation based on the patterns you notice and the connections you draw to your real life.
Dream journaling also allows you to clear your mental deck before heading out for the day, allowing you to start fresh each morning.
Words aren’t the only way to document your thoughts and experiences. If you’re the type who can’t throw away ticket stubs, matchbooks or concert flyers, a scrapbook-style journal is probably your ideal form. You’ll want a larger sized notebook for this one, along with some very strong acid-free glue or tape, since you’ll be packing the pages with the ephemera of your wild and crazy life. No need to keep it chronological—just pencil in the date and any other identifying information next to the items as you paste them on the pages. You can also add verbal descriptions or drawings where it feels right.
Now that you’re convinced you need to journal, check out these great notebooks to help contain those to-do lists and goals.