The benefits of writing a journal
I never travel without my diary. One should always have something sensational to read on the train.
So said Oscar Wilde.
But the reasons to write regularly far outweigh amusement value. It’s proven to be good for us — in life and also, of course, for our writing.
And if it’s good enough for Maya Angelou, Stephen King, Susan Sontag, Richard Branson, Warren Buffet, and the productivity-obsessed Benjamin Franklin… then it should be good enough for you.
You are a writer
While you may not be a full-time ‘writer’, you definitely ‘write’. Whether that’s for business, your blog, or even a book project. And for some part of the process at least, you enjoy it.
Let me ask, though, do you ever just write?
Do you just let the words flow without having an endpoint in mind?
Without a purpose, without need of replying to an email, or writing a blog post or some sales copy? (or your book!).
Because, if you’re not writing just to write, then you’re missing out on the most fulfilling part of the process: personal growth.
The benefits of writing go far beyond the outcome and, whether you write in a journal by hand, or you complete a word count on an internet app, then you are doing good for your brain, your body, and your soul.
Let’s have a look at the tried and tested benefits of a daily writing habit (or at least as close to daily as feels achievable):
1. Blast through writers’ block
The number one reason most people who write regularly spend time building the habit is to prevent writer’s block.
Whether real or imagined, writers’ block is the result of one of two things: it’s either an internal conflict between the writers’ expectations and reality, or the writer has become a chronic procrastinator, relying on (dare I say addicted to?) the last minute adrenaline rush that boosts creativity right before the deadline.
Either way, personal writing or journaling can help you overcome these conflicts.
Try simply keeping a personal journal, because without the external expectation of writing for an audience, you can release any of the worry and fear. This will boost your own confidence in your skill as a writer. Your ideas will flow on topics as simple as the weather or as complex as a recent relationship challenge.
As you do this on a regular basis, you’ll soon realise that you have many more creative ideas than when you are restricted to ‘writing because it’s part of a job’ (and I use the term ‘job’ widely).
And maybe those ideas will find their way into your business or career. A personal vent on some aspect of a process that isn’t working might lead to a system improvement.
More importantly, it will help resolve any internal conflict you have about your writing by proving to you that ideas and creativity can grow, they just need a bit of nurturing.
And regular writing with no purpose can re-condition those of us who ‘think’ we are only able to write under the pressure of deadlines. Personal writing can train your brain to be productive even when there is no target in front of you — a very important skill for an entrepreneur or solopreneur.
You might have used ‘fake’ or self-imposed deadlines in the past to generate that feeling of urgency, but a regular writing habit works better because it stimulates your creativity and leaves you with a sense of calm fulfilment — better for your health and your productivity than the panic of a looming deadline!
2. Improve your writing
Free-flowing writing, such as journaling, helps you kick that age-old habit of editing as you write.
If you’ve taken any formal writing training, or read any writing books, one of the first rules you usually come across is to not edit as you write. This is because when you stop to edit a sentence, your brain’s creative flow is interrupted, causing you to switch gears from idea-generation to editing, and back again.
Not only can this make each project much more time consuming, (you can lose up to 40% of your productivity by switching like this), but it can also lead to a sensation similar to writers’ block, as an internal conflict begins to build regarding whether or not the sentence you just write was good enough.
It helps, even if you don’t fully believe it, to think of your writing as a creative process and an art form. You can take a section and appreciate them but, it is when the entire piece is seen as a whole that you can can really appreciate the art you have created (yes, even a blog post!).
If we edit as we write, however, we lose sight of the bigger picture. It’s like looking at a tiny detail of a painting. We need to step back and appreciate the whole. We need to focus in on the detail as we create, but it’s only when we see the complete work, that we can make a judgement about what needs to be changed.
Whether you write in a personal journal, whether you write random work or business related thoughts, or whether you are creating a fiction piece on the side, practicing this essential habit will lead to higher quality content, faster writing times, more open flow of ideas, and, when the time comes, better editing.
When you save the editing for last, you are more efficient, you see the flow of the full piece, and you can ‘batch’ your simple or routine editing tasks against a checklist.
Writing without any purpose or publication can help you create this habit — one of the best habits a writer can form: writing first, and editing later.
3.Frees your mind; good for your health
A regular writing habit can be immensely freeing. Especially if you’ve suffered from writing blocks, which some writers report to bring on symptoms similar to those experienced by people with Attention Deficit Disorder. If the creativity isn’t flowing then random thoughts bounce around your head — like an insomniac wondering if he remembered to pay the mortgage, lock the doors or feed the dog.
But writing your journal, or your short-form random words daily, can create the opposite — a feeling of freedom.
If you find that you’re doing ‘too much thinking’ before you write — personal conflicts, financial worries, that overwhelming to-do list — then do what the Japanese were doing as early as the 10th century — and ‘write it out.’
A Royal College of Psychiatrists study by Karen A. Baike and Kay Wilhelm in 2005 demonstrated that writing about your deeper challenges can be good for you. Even outside of clinical settings, the study showed that writing about stressful events for 15-20 minutes for just a few days a week led to “significantly better physical and psychological outcomes compared with those who write about neutral topics.”
And more studies quoted in the article found the same results — a lesser incidence of mental and physical illness in both the long term and the short term. All with a simple daily writing habit. And other studies show that journal writing can even boost memory and reduce symptoms of some illnesses.
Put simply, writing about your problems is good for your health.
4. Tap into your emotional intelligence
When we write, we reflect; and when we reflect, we are able to analyse our emotional impact on other people.
Many of us don’t realise the power that lies in our own words. But just think back to a card or a letter you wrote to a loved one during a difficult time. You’ll probably be flooded with emotions as you recount the words you said. Whether good or bad, happy or sad, writing about special moments in your life provides you with the opportunity to look back at how you expressed those difficult times in words.
And our emotional intelligence is all about how we manage our emotions and how we manage our impact on others.
Practicing your writing will improve your emotional impact, and your ability to influence others through your words.
5. Become a better writer
The most obvious, but perhaps the most often overlooked benefit of writing is, of course, that we become better at it. Instead of scouring the self-help sites, or buying books or programmes to improve our writing, why not simply write?
In the book, Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell dissects the 10,000 hour rule. Immersion and practice on your subject leads to excellence; which is why (he proposes) people like Bill Gates, who started coding as a teenager, and the Beatles, who were forced to play lengthy eight hour sets in Germany before America even knew of their talents, reached the levels of success they did. They achieved mastery through the age old ‘practice makes perfect’ approach.
The quantity of hours spent in practice, investing in their talent, and developing an unconscious competence, led to massive rewards, even when, in the case of Bill Gates, he was added complex skills on top of each other.
When you write for yourself, whether a journal or a side project, you are steadily practicing your art and your craft. You are maintaining, or improving, your vocabulary, speed and creativity.
While 10,000 hours may seem daunting, if you add up the hours you’ve spent writing over your career, you might find you’ve come closer to Gladwell’s magic number than you think.
Your personal writing may about your passion, or your challenges. And journals, because they can provide both self-growth and professional growth, are the easiest and most helpful way to get started.
And remember — although the point is to write without an expectation of an audience, it doesn’t mean that your material will never see an audience. It just may not see an audience in the form you write it.
Your uninhibited journal writings may be raw and beautiful episodes in the process of bringing your story to a reader.
Your side projects may require a re-write and an edit (later!), but you may find your best work lies beneath the pen with the least restriction.