Why You Should Keep A Journal (And How To Start Yours)

Some of the most influential people in history kept detailed journals of their lives. Those journals served two purposes: a permanent record for posterity, and cathartic release for the people writing them. Even if you don't think you need either, keeping a journal has benefits you can enjoy immediately. Here's why you might want to sit down regularly to jot down your thoughts.

Title photo made using Oliver Hoffman (Shutterstock). Other photos by Laurelville Mennonite Church Center, Joel Montes de Oca, loppear, JimileeK, Day One, and Chris Booth.

Even if you don't think there'll ever be a documentary that uses your journal as a source, there are plenty of reasons to keep one for yourself. Maybe you want to leave something behind for your children that tells your story and what you accomplished. Maybe you want a way to harness your creativity. Maybe you just want the cathartic release that comes with regular writing. These are all great reasons. Let's look at each one, and why they matter so much.

Regular Writing Has Mental Health Benefits

Writing can do wonders for your health. Beyond keeping your creative juices flowing — a separate topic we'll get to shortly — regular writing can give you a safe, cathartic release valve for the stresses of your daily life. We've discussed some of those mental and emotional benefits of writing before in the context of creative writing, but you don't have to write fiction to get them. For example, we've mentioned that keeping an awesomeness journal can do wonders for your self-esteem. Not only does regular writing make you feel good, it helps you re-live the events you experienced in a safe environment where you can process them without fear or stress.

In fact, there's so much data about the mental and emotional benefits of keeping a journal that counsellors and therapists often encourage their patients to do it. This study from Advances in Psychiatric Treatment is a solid summary of current research on the topic. The researchers note that 15-20 minutes of writing in a journal for 3-5 occasions was enough to help the study participants deal with traumatic or stressful events. It has been particularly effective in people with severe illnesses such as cancer. In fact, the practice is so well regarded, there's a Centre for Journal Therapy dedicated to the mental health benefits of regular journaling, both in therapeutic and personal settings.

It's not just what you write about though. How you write plays a role as well. This University of Iowa study showed that keeping a journal about stressful events helped participants deal with the events they experienced. The key, however, was to focus on what you were thinking and feeling, as opposed to your emotions alone. In short, you get the best benefits when you're telling your personal story, not just writing about your feelings on their own. It's a good example of how telling your own personal story can make a huge difference in your wellbeing.

Keeping A Journal Helps Harness Your Creativity

The creative benefits of keeping a journal are also well documented. You've probably heard that the best way to get better at writing is to just keep doing it. That's true, but the benefits go deeper than just crafting better sentences. For example, regular writing can help you learn to process and communicate complex ideas effectively. It can also help you memorise important information, and brainstorm new ideas. Writing about your experiences not only helps you process them, it helps you see opportunities that may not have been apparent at first glance. It also helps you learn to break down complex experiences into relevant, useful bits of information organised coherently.

Even if you don't think anything special has happened to you, the very act of keeping a journal can help you brainstorm. How often have you caught yourself writing about something that seems dull on the surface, but led you to a web of other thoughts, ideas, and memories as you were processing it? Regular writing opens the door to those opportunities every time you sit down.

Regular Writing Has Practical Benefits

Regular writing can be functional, too, and serve as a reminder of mistakes you've made, accomplishments you're proud of, and moments you want to remember. For example, keeping a work diary can create a track record of mistakes and successes. That written record can come in handy later when you're feeling down, and can also help you right your personal ship when you're feeling lost.

Pick up your work diary and look back over the things you did really well with — you may be able to identify a pattern you want to follow, career-wise. Similarly, those achievements and awesome moments don't just boost your self-esteem, they give you great justification for a raise or promotion when it comes time to talk to the boss about an increase. You don't have to be a creative worker to appreciate looking back over the things you did well, and the things you need to work on. Seeing your own mistakes before they're pointed out to you is a good thing, and documenting your achievements makes sure they're never overlooked.

Regular writing can apply to more than just work. Keeping a journal is a great way to build better habits, as it forces you to be aware of your actions and behaviours. If you're looking to watch what you eat, keeping a food diary is a simple way to stay paying closer attention — one that has been proven to help people eat more healthfully. Similarly, just writing down positive things that happened to you or tracking your mood can help you identify helpful patterns in your life — not to mention things that make you feel bad or throw you off your game that should be eliminated.

Which Medium You Should Choose, And Why

Once you've decided to keep a journal, your next decision is the medium to use for it. You have plenty of options, and what works for one person won't work for another. You have to choose the one that works best for you. Here are a few options:

Paper Notebooks

If you love the activity of physical writing, a paper notebook may be the best option for you. There's really nothing like setting pen to paper, and we have some paper notebook suggestions to get you started. Keeping a paper journal gives you total physical control over your writing, and it gives you the most privacy, since there's little chance of your journal being "hacked" or "lost" when a service shuts down or is compromised. However, a paper journal means you don't have backups in case something happens to your work — theft, fire or just a lost backpack means your journal is gone forever.

If you don't want a plain empty notebook, the Bullet Journal productivity method fits in nicely if you're already using your paper notebook for to-dos and notes, and the previously mentioned Sorta has unique notebooks with removable pages. If you're afraid you're too busy to journal, consider the Five-Minute Journal, a paper notebook that sets you up with a motivational quote, then gives you daily writing prompts to fill out like "Today I'm grateful for", "What would make today great?" and "3 Great Things that happened today".

Journaling And Diary Apps

If you just can't separate yourself from your phone or laptop, there are plenty of apps that offer privacy and security as well as a great writing environment. We've featured a few before. Some of the stand-outs include Penzu, an all-online private journaling webapp with mobile apps, and Day One, a good looking iOS/Mac app that's location-aware and lets you add photos. If you prefer free and open-source, try RedNotebook. It's a fantastic wiki-style journaling tool that's cross-platform.

Of course, you don't have to use apps at all. You could keep an encrypted text file in Dropbox, use Evernote or Google Keep, or any other note-taking app you prefer. You can even roll your own custom journaling system with whatever tools you prefer. Keep in mind that the more you automate the process, the less you're actually journaling, so you don't get quite the same benefits.

Blogging

Blogging is another great way to get the benefits of journaling, regardless of whether you get started to make a name for yourself, or to just get your thoughts and feelings out in the open. Keeping a blog opens the door to the widest possible audience, but it comes with the sacrifice of privacy. If that's your preferred route, you have a wide array of tools and hosts to choose from, both free and paid. We've walked you through some of the most popular blogging platforms, and examined some of the newer contenders. Each of them offer different approaches and cater to different audiences. Whatever you choose, keeping a personal blog may not come with writing prompts or fancy mobile apps (although some do), but they can make you part of a community, and option to share your story with the world.


However you choose to keep your journal, there are clear benefits to doing it. You don't have to be Kurt Cobain, Isaac Newton, Abraham Lincoln, Andy Warhol, Leonardo Da Vinci, or any other famous figure for your thoughts and experiences to be worthwhile. In every case, they can be a huge benefit to you, personally, and enlightening for anyone you choose to share them with.

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Comments

    I've kept a diary since 96-97. I switched to digital (Penzu) in 2013 because storage began to be a problem, but yeah Penzu's cool. You can put tags in entries, so I have different tags like movies I've watched, or game's I've finished, etc. You can then filter your diary using the tags to see when you did what.

    I keep what I call an idea book I'm on volume 22 and I keep them all. There mostly full of random thoughts, pictures and the odd poem. When I'm dead people will probably think I'm insane but as long as I'm not killed assassinating the prime minister or something that is probably OK.

    Not much good for a multitude of young Australians, illegible writing, incorrect spelling, punctuation, descriptive words instead of 'cool' and the F word. The writing instrument is now generally held with the thumb tightly wrapped around as though it was anattempt to break it!

    I can't think of a worse idea than putting all of your private thoughts onto someone else's servers located god knows where.

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