5 Ways To Use Intentional Journaling To Increase Your Wellbeing And Productivity
Updated: Oct 14, 2022
I know, I know. You've probably heard it a million times, but it's true! Journaling really can massively impact your well-being, your self-confidence, and your productivity. Let's look at some evidence first and then we'll get to the fun stuff.
Research shows that journaling:
can reduce depression and anxiety symptoms (Stice et al., 2006)
has a positive effect on handling stress, and decreasing burnout symptoms (Dimitroff et al., 2016)
is associated with increased well-being and higher perceived resilience (Symth et al., 2018)
Another study among students found that "journaling spurred four pivotal processes: understanding procrastination, making changes in the moment, motivating action, and finding direction for change." (Hensley and Munn, 2020)
Even with all that evidence AND the fact that some of the most successful people on the planet journal (Oprah Winfrey, Warren Buffet, Richard Branson, and Arianna Huffington to name a few), I'm aware that not everyone is a fan of journaling - some of us don't like writing, some aren't quite sure how to go about journaling, and others know it makes them feel better, but struggle with actually doing it.
Regardless of where you currently are, keep on reading while I put forward my case for how exactly journaling can change your life, and how you can use it as a powerful tool in your personal and professional growth (in a fun & exciting way!).
The type of journaling I'll talk about here is what I like to call intentional journaling. This isn't about keeping a diary, where we document our life events and how we felt at the time, the purpose of intentional journaling is to:
open our minds to a bigger perspective and a deeper knowing
become more self-aware and come back into our power
become intentional with our life vs letting life lead us ...
The biggest impact of intentional journaling is that it helps us take dominion over our mind and our thoughts, therefore allowing us to access a deeper inner knowing and our power. Our minds are powerful and our thoughts are very seductive (think of the classic "You don't have to work out right now, you can just do it tomorrow..."), but it's important to remember that our mind is limited and fear-based, always trying to stay in control so that it can keep us safe and in our comfort zone.
It's actually quite innocent and indearing, but we don't want it to be in charge, otherwise, we wouldn't change or evolve at all.
As a way to counter the fear-based mind, it's important to have daily practices in our life, such as intentional journaling, meditation, gratitude practice, and visualization, so that we can reconnect with ourselves, see beyond the mind, see what's already here, become self-aware, stay present, and take back our power.
The key to seeing changes with journaling though is by being consistent with it and turning it into a daily routine, which is "repeated behavior involving a momentary time commitment task that requires little conscious thought" (Arlinghaus and Johnston, 2019), so that it becomes a normal part of your day, like brushing your teeth.
Journaling truly is one of those small habits that will make a BIG difference in your life if you implement it into your daily routine. It's scientifically proven that consistent small daily habits help create long-term and sustainable change.
How to start
🥇 Lower the bar: start with just 5 minutes/day and aim to journal a few times a week. When we set our goals too high (for example, "I'll journal every day, forever!" 😀), we're much more likely to self-sabotage and then give up.
🤝 Make an agreement with yourself about journaling that you know you'll be able to fulfill and honor that agreement.
🪟 Throw any rules about journaling out the window. This is your practice and you make the rules. It's important to keep it exciting and inviting, so just start and figure out what works for you along the way. Maybe you want to draw in your journal, make notes, collect quotes, make it look like a scrapbook, or just write. Let yourself be free with your journaling practice.
📒 Get a journal without lines. Lines are restrictive and we want to be able to express ourselves without limitations. White pages without lines support our authentic expression and give us the freedom to create whatever we want.
✍️ Writing things down with our hand triggers "more robust brain activity and is associated with stronger memory retrieval" (Umejima et al. 2021). In other words, writing things down by hand helps us remember the information better.
🕯️ Turn it into a ritual. If we start thinking of journaling as our little daily ritual, our sanctuary, a time for us where we get to really listen and reconnect with our essence, it makes it much more inviting.
🌤️ The best time to journal is first thing in the morning or right before you sleep in the evening because those are both times when our mind is in a theta state (it's less active, our senses are focused inward vs outward) and this is when we can best reprogram the subconscious mind.
Morning journaling is great to set yourself up for the day with intentions and to organize your thoughts and ideas
Evening journaling is amazing for self-reflection and releasing emotions or information overflow
If at this point you're still resistant to journaling, I want you to know that I hear you. To help you get you excited about it, whooop whooop, here are 5 powerful changes intentional journaling can help you create.
1. Reducing overwhelm and increasing your productivity
When there are too many tasks on our list or when we have all the tasks in our head vs putting them on paper, we can easily feel overwhelmed, stressed, and discouraged, which strongly impacts our productivity.
A long to-do list is often demotivating and sets us up for failure: it feels like there's so much to get done (it often is A LOT, in fact, we often list way more tasks than we can realistically achieve!) and when we tick 2/10 boxes off the list, it can be discouraging to see how "little" we've achieved, even though we've spent a big part of our day on those two tasks.
A more realistic and productive approach is to set 1-3 big / important tasks a day. This is much more manageable, and it makes us feel more accomplished and motivated for another day.
👑 Here's a client story...
One of my clients, a small business owner, struggled with forgetting things, procrastinating, not getting things done in time, and feeling stressed out. As her company started to expand, she felt like she was all over the place and getting lost in all the to-dos (current and additional). We talked about a few options and she decided to write down all the tasks she could think of (a brain dump of sorts) and then pick 1 to 3 most important tasks for that day. This helped her get an overview of all the tasks, prioritize them and focus on the most important things. It also lead to actual progress vs her having everything in her head and then procrastinating because she didn't know where to start. Even though it's such a simple thing, for her this was groundbreaking and ever since she started implementing it in her daily life, she felt much more at ease, free, and in her power + her business grew as a result.
Another powerful tool is to set an intention for the day. Intentions are our superpower - when we set them we take back our power and consciously guide our life in the direction we want. They help us laser focus and streamline our energy in one particular direction, and once we've set an intention, it's much easier to hook a specific action to it. For example, if my intention for the day is to be more physically active, it's much more likely that I will make choices that support that intention, for example, taking the stairs, going for a walk with a friend, etc.
🔖 How to do it
Set an intention for the day by writing: "My intention for today is..." (for example: "My intention is to listen more. My intention is to be aware of my thoughts. My intention is to do one thing that will bring me closer to my goal despite my fear of failure")
Define 1-3 important tasks you want to complete that day
2. Processing emotions and feeling lighter
Journaling is amazing (and incredibly healing) when you're feeling upset, frustrated, or generally emotionally activated.
Most of us tend to hold on to our emotions or don't fully process them. Emotions are energy in motion (large bouts of energy that get created in our bodies when something triggers us in our inner or outer world) and it's important for that energy to move through, otherwise, it gets stuck in our bodies, which causes discomfort and emotional & physical tension.
You'll notice this as contractions or tension in your chest, belly, throat, tense shoulders, back pain, migraines, belly akes, stiffness in your hips, etc.
We can release that energy in lots of different ways (by physically moving our bodies, feeling the emotions fully, journaling...) and when we do, we feel a sense of ease, lightness, calm, and centeredness. This is our natural state that we're always aiming to come back to.
Here is how you can process and release your emotions with journaling.
🔖 There are two ways I recommend doing this:
Writing from your conscious mind: describe the situation, your reaction, how it made you feel, let yourself really put all your thoughts about the situation on paper. Let it out and let it go.
Writing from your unconscious mind: this is called free-form writing. You write for about 10 minutes without picking up your pen and without thinking. You are writing from your unconscious, if possible, speaking directly from the part that was hurt. Let it fully express without censoring, noting down everything, following the stream of thought, no matter how disconnected the information seems to be. This helps shift and integrate emotions on a deeper level. If possible, throw the paper away or burn it, so you can fully let go of that energy.
3. Remembering what you don't want to forget and collecting ideas
By now you know that writing things down (especially by hand) will help you remember them better.
This is powerful, especially if we're learning something new, have a lot of exciting ideas (new projects around the house, business ideas, content ideas), or generally want to track what we've learned.
Even though we may think we'll remember something off the top of our head, the truth is, unless we write it down, we're much more likely to forget it and not retain the information we acquired.
Scientists have discovered that we "rapidly lose our memory of learned knowledge in a matter of days or weeks unless the information is consciously reviewed. Some studies suggest that humans forget approx 50% of new information within an hour of learning it. That goes up to an average of 70% within 24 hours." (Source) 70%, isn't that crazy?
Journaling helps ground our learnings and our ideas (even if it's one short sentence or summary), therefore making it easier to put them into action and come up with the next steps or simply helps us keep track of what's coming through so we can come back to it later.
🔖 How to do it
Ask yourself "What have I learned today that I don't want to forget?"
Write down any creative ideas you've had
4. Building up your self-confidence and noticing the blessings in your life
If you're struggling with self-confidence, one of the easiest and most profound things you can do is to track your successes.
Most of us are very forward-oriented, constantly setting new goals and moving on to the next thing, but unless we take time to pause and acknowledge what we've accomplished, we can buy into the misunderstanding that we:
haven't achieved anything / achieved very little
are not enough
need to keep going to prove ourselves
have nothing to contribute...
The truth is ... 1. that that's simply not true, and 2. it's just that our mind has been hyper-focused on what we lack / don't have / haven't done vs our gifts and achievements. Trust me, your gifts, achievements, and successes are there, we just don't register them.
When we start to regularly track our successes, this can highly increase our self-confidence because we'll be aware of our successes every day and continuously notice and celebrate what we've achieved.
We tend to think of success as this BIG THING. In fact, it's lots and lots and lots of little things that compound over time. For example, think of when you graduated from university. Sure, that seemed like THE BIG THING, but you wouldn't have gotten there without the little things: countless hours of studying, homework, exams, writing your thesis...
Success is success is success is success. Life is so much more enjoyable if we allow ourselves to celebrate the small things because they are what lead to big things.
Similar to our mind "forgetting" about our successes, it's important to know that it's generally focused more on the negative vs the positive. This is something we call the negativity bias, which is "our tendency not only to register negative stimuli more readily but also to dwell on these events" (Source). and it just means that we are wired to pay more attention to potentially dangerous situations in order to survive. There's way less imminent danger today than for example, in the stone age, but our mind still functions that way.
In order to even the playing field, we have to consciously look for the positives in our life, otherwise, the mind just won't register them. Relationship research by John Gottman shows that "for every 1 negative feeling or interaction between partners, there must be 5 positive feelings or interactions." This can also be applied to other areas of our life, which is why I love the idea of writing down 5 things we are grateful for. We are already blessed in so many ways - think of all that you have that someone else would give anything for (a roof over your head, food on the table, both of your parents, money in your bank account, children, love, health...) and just notice what's already here.
🔖 How to do this:
Write down 3 successes/accomplishments from today or yesterday (big or small!) - What do you acknowledge yourself for?
Write down at least 5 things you are grateful for. Open your mind to all the blessings that are already in your life. Alternatively, you can think of all the gifts (material and immaterial) you received today (a smile, a thank you message, a call from an old friend, a book from someone, etc.)
5. Becoming more self-aware and finding clarity
The first step to change is always, always self-awareness. If we're not aware of what's not working, of our patterns or limiting beliefs, we won't be able to change them.
A good way to practice self-awareness is to track any insights/nuggets of wisdom that we receive throughout the day. This can be seeing what triggered us and why, what's important to us and what isn't, how we reacted to a particular situation and why, what felt good in our body and what didn't, what activities /which people support us and what activities / which people drain us, what works for us and what doesn't work. This information helps us understand ourselves better and course-correct as we go.
Writing all of this down also helps us become mindful of our thoughts and limiting beliefs, which allows us to question them and see whether they are really our truth or just something we innocently bought into (we always want to question any perceived limitations!).
If you are struggling to find clarity around a specific topic / the next step / or if you have a specific question, I also recommend just writing the question in your journal and opening yourself up for guidance and clarity. Then just let it go and pay attention to what information comes your way in the next few days (through different situations, people, and mediums). We are much more supported than we think.
🔖 How to do this:
Write down your insights from today / nuggets of wisdom / anything you became aware of. This can be a limiting belief, a pattern, a memory, a realization you had about yourself.
Review what worked and what didn't. Notice what you can do differently next time and be open to experimenting with different ideas.
Write down a question you are curious about and open yourself to receiving guidance.
Example: My intentional journal
In case this serves you, here is the journaling structure I've been using for the past 4 years and that I recommend to my clients. I like to try out new things and see what works for me, but these are the main themes / titles within my daily entry. I also sometimes switch between journaling in the morning and in the evening or even do both.
Here are the main topics:
🧘♀️ My intention for the day (how I want to feel, what I want to focus on)
🏁 1-3 things I want to achieve (my to-do list)
🎉 3 wins / acknowledgments
🙏 (at least) 5 things I'm grateful for
👩🔬 My insights / aha-moments from today
There you go. Experiment and see what feels good to you - maybe that's more structure, more freedom, or something in between.
I would love to know what your main takeaway was and do let me know whether you journal, and if yes, what your journaling practice looks like. Share in the comments so we can learn from each other! 👇
With all my love & gratitude
Article "Examples of Highly Successful People Who Journal" (https://www.createwritenow.com/journal-writing-blog/examples-of-highly-successful-people-who-journal, June 2022)
Stice et al., 2006, Randomized trial of a brief depression prevention program: an elusive search for a psychosocial placebo control condition, Behav Res Ther. 2007 May;45(5):863-76.
Dimitroff et al., 2016, Change your life through journaling–The benefits of journaling for registered nurses, Journal of Nursing Education and Practice, 2017, Vol. 7, No. 2, 90-98.
Smyth JM, Johnson JA, Auer BJ, Lehman E, Talamo G, Sciamanna CN, Online Positive Affect Journaling in the Improvement of Mental Distress and Well-Being in General Medical Patients With Elevated Anxiety Symptoms: A Preliminary Randomized Controlled Trial, JMIR Ment Health 2018;5(4):e11290.
Lauren C. Hensley and Karleton J. Munn, 2019, The power of writing about procrastination: journaling as a tool for change, Journal of Further and Higher Education, Volume 44, 2020 - Issue 10, 1450-1465.
Katherine R. Arlinghaus, MS, RD and Craig A. Johnston, PhD, 2018, The Importance of Creating Habits and Routine, Am J Lifestyle Med. 2019 Mar-Apr; 13(2): 142–144.
Umejima et al., Paper Notebooks vs. Mobile Devices: Brain Activation Differences During Memory Retrieval, Front. Behav. Neurosci., 19 March 2021.
Article "5 Ways to Challenge the Forgetting Curve" (https://www.learnupon.com/blog/ebbinghaus-forgetting-curve/, June 2022)
Article "What Is The Negativity Bias" (https://www.verywellmind.com/negative-bias-4589618, June 2022)