Many of us know someone who journals. Maybe we pride ourselves on our own journaling habits. And I’ll bet if you read enough biographies, you’ll find everyone from artists to scientists to executives who prioritize this simple practice.
One reason might be that journaling provides a crucial tool for learning. It might also be because journaling offers surprising health benefits. Let’s take a look at both and then consider how to journal, along with some journaling ideas.
While journaling is arguably an ancient practice whose benefits appeared obvious to many intellectuals and sages of yore, quite a few recent studies have cemented these suspicions. As it turns out, there are loads of correlations between journaling and a noticeable improvement in mental health and even physical wellbeing.
The science behind it all has to do with a combination of intentional reflection, emotional vulnerability, and the therapeutic experience the two co-create, both cognitively and physiologically. As a psychologist from the University of Texas at Austin put it:
[T]he key to writing’s effectiveness is in the way people use it to interpret their experiences, right down to the words they choose. Venting emotions alone—whether through writing or talking—is not enough to relieve stress, and thereby improve health… To tap writing’s healing power, people must use it to better understand and learn from their emotions.
By putting this process into practice, studies have found clear linkages to long-term health outcomes of improved immune function, reduced blood pressure, improved liver function, and improved lung function.
Even more radical than this, though, are findings from researchers in New Zealand confirming that “expressive writing” can cause the body to heal faster.
By following a group of adults who, over the course of several weeks, journaled about traumatic or emotionally stirring experiences for 20 minutes a day, the researchers were able to isolate a drop in cortisol levels that enabled a higher level of immune functioning, which then noticeably cut down the healing timeline of a small incision. In addition to curbing stress, the researchers also speculated that the journaling might have improved sleep quality, another factor in speeding up the recovery process.
One of the largest implications of studies like these is how deeply our mental and physical health overlap. As one might guess, a decrease in stress isn’t just a favorable outcome for our body, it also has a tremendous influence on our happiness.
As one study found, journaling benefits far exceed physiological performance by transforming experiences of self-doubt, worry, anxiety, and depression. When a group of adolescents were asked to journal about their feelings prior to a test, they not only felt better afterwards, but also outperformed their peers. “[F]or those students who are most anxious about success,” the researchers wrote, “one short writing intervention that brings testing pressures to the forefront enhances the likelihood of excelling, rather than failing, under pressure.”
While it might be easy to bracket off the test-taking anxieties of adolescents as developmental, many of us struggle with our own issues of self-esteem, motivation, anxiety, and depression, and thus can all learn from the internal relief journaling can provide.
No wonder journaling is one of the go-to recommendations by most counselors and therapists.
To zero in on how to journal for self-improvement or meet learning goals, Iet’s clarify something important: When I talk about journaling here, I mean physically journaling.
The reason for this is that a physical journal you hold in your hand is partially where the magic happens, neurologically speaking. When we write on paper it activates a part of our brain that is far more idle when typing. This specific neural activity has been correlated with working memory and the encoding of new information in a way that typing and other digital documentation just can’t reproduce.
As a result, when we sit down to physically grasp a pen or pencil to etch out the words, there’s a vital process going on that has to do with long-term and short-term memory, as well as a higher comprehension of the information at hand.
Bottom line: if you want to get the biggest bang for your buck when it comes to a learning journal, consider doing it offline.
Next, let’s focus on why a lifelong learner should consider journaling. If made into a habit, the practice can provide the space to engage in a variety of learning exercises that it’s hard to access any other way.
For example, the ability to sit down and scribble out reflections about the way we learn is a unique opportunity to track progress. From here we can step back and revisit the thoughts, goals, and feelings surrounding our process. Maybe we find our approach to learning in need of some tweaking. Or maybe it provides that dose of motivation needed to get back up on the horse.
As it turns out, researchers have found that journaling is a perfect exercise for boosting self-confidence. In the words of one mental health expert:
Journaling about a positive experience allows your brain to relive it. And reaffirms your abilities when the ugly head of self-doubt appears. The release of endorphins and dopamine will boost your self-esteem and mood. These reflections can [therefore] become a catalog of personal achievements that you can continue to go back to.
And finally, if it isn’t obvious, journaling allows us to visualize our goals in ways that enable strategic decision-making. When we see everything laid out on the page, it can easily usher in some re-evaluation about what’s worth prioritizing first.
While this kind visualization might sound easy or even unnecessary for some of us, it’s important to keep in mind the structure and complexity of our learning goals. If we’re building a birdhouse, the steps involve will be very different than building a business. Far more complex tasks might warrant some serious thought about the process before going forward, and journaling is the perfect medium to test our ideas, play with timelines, and step back to see the bigger picture.
When it comes journaling ideas and journaling prompts, the list is endless. But for the sake of digestibility, I’m going to focus on a few I find most valuable.
The first journaling prompt is very basic and comes from the Free Management Library, an online database full of business and organizational development tools. To get you oriented and pinpoint a journaling strategy that’s best for your needs, they recommend you start by asking yourself a few different questions, such as:
From here, ask the same set of question about your learning goals for the future. Consider what experiences might spawn the kind of learning you’re looking to do.
Now, if you’re scratching your head at how generic this framework sounds, don’t worry. Another strategy, courtesy of the Writing Mindset, is to sit down and get your gears turning in a way that’s specific to you. To do so, try finishing these sentences:
Still too bland and open-ended for your taste? Let’s up the ante. Here a few detailed, high-impact journal prompts from Terry Heick at TeachThought to direct your journaling and meet specific learning goals.
The Metacognitive Journal
This one is focused on thinking about thinking and is best for learners interested in mapping their cognitive tendencies. To use some of Heick’s examples, this could include journaling entries reflecting on cognitive blind spots or the evolution of our thinking over time.
The Change Journal
Similar to the Metacognitive Journal is the Change Kournal, which follows the same idea of self-reflection coupled with a specific topic. Ask yourself: how has my knowledge around this specific idea or set of ideas changed over the course of my learning process?
The Transfer Journal
This is a technique for applying newly learned information to disparate contexts or environments so as to strengthen one’s grasp of the material. In Heick’s words:
“If a student learns about migration in social studies, a Transfer Journal would allow them to consider how that knowledge might be used, or how it might transfer to current events… It could also focus on transfer from within the classroom to outside the classroom, making explicit the learner’s application of academic and context knowledge in their own lives.”
The Visualization Journal is a helpful way to write and fine-tune visual metaphors, such as a memory palace <embed link to forthcoming article>. Come back to this exercise again and again if you’re trying to plot out mnemonics for retaining information.
Another way of strengthening comprehension is through the Concept/Example Journal, which pushes you to draw connections between abstract concepts and concrete examples. Heick writes:
“Learning about gravity in science class? Learners can write about gravity as a kind of concept, especially in relation to other concepts–momentum or centrifugal force, for example… But they can also simply write about examples of gravity, which is more visible, immediate, and ‘easier’ for learners with emerging knowledge.”
5 W’s Journal
This is a journal method that prompts you to unpack the who, what, where, why, and when of subject matter. Consider the example of the Vietnam War: Who were the most important people involved? What was the context of the war? Where did the most important events of the war take place? Why was the war being fought? When did it begin and end?
This technique is perfect for those of us who are committed to physical journals. To start, divide your journal entry into two sections (or two pages, whatever is easier). Spend the first section writing on key issues or topics from the subject matter you’re learning. Then for the next section, reflection on your experiences and reactions during the learning process. From here, you can annotate and draw connections between your own reflections and the content at hand. It’s a perfect tool for building that self-awareness and refining your goals.
“Journaling” and “journey” both derive from the same French word – “jour,” meaning day – and thinking of your journaling as a journey – something you build upon day by day – can be useful. Like so much of lifelong learning, journaling is much less about reaching a destination than being mindful of and benefiting from the experience along the way.
If you miss a day or two along the way, don’t sweat. Even very sporadic journaling over time can be very rewarding. And, of course, if you are ever stuck, you can refer back to this article for the journaling ideas above.
As with any journey, though, it all begins with the first step. Ready to take yours?
By Gabe Kahan for Mission to Learn