The benefits of using a thought journal

Regular journal writing is a proven way to better understand your thoughts, feelings and behaviours.

Psychologically, it helps you move from self-awareness (where you know the information) to self-regulation (where you act and apply the information to your life).

On paper you often see how irrational a train of thought has become.

All of which brings us to the concept of a 'thought journal'.

It's not a diary, as such – you don't write "Dear Diary, today I ate ham. Mmmm, I like ham …".  Many people confuse journaling with the diary entries we made at school. A Thought Journal is not about recording what you ate, which bus you caught and what TV show you are watching.

It is about processing the thoughts bubbling inside your head, and connecting these to the learning and reflections you are making, the changes you are making to your health, relationships, performance, productivity, etc.

Journaling helps with memory recall, and focuses your attention on the recurring events in your life.  Reflective writing is also a proven way to deal with challenges in our hectic lives, and helps to make sense of thoughts, feelings and behaviours. It anchors your values and helps you define your overall purpose in life.

Writing about learnings and experiences helps to deal with challenges in a more observant and less frantic way. It also captures your thoughts, and on paper you often see how irrational a train of thought has become.

Journal writing has a long recorded history, with well-known people including Leonardo Di Vinci, Anne Frank and Victor Frankl all advocates of regular journal entries to help them process their thoughts and to gain a better understanding of the world around them.


Tips for effective journal writing

  • Aim to make two to three entries a week when you first start. This may drop down to only one or two entries a week once you've adapted the new behaviour.
  • Write anytime. A lot of people find a good time is just before they go to bed each night or after you wake up refreshed.
  • Use the act of writing as self-reflection; think about conversations, events and situations that occurred during the day.
  • Be honest. It's easy to record impressive information only. When I first started journaling, I wrote as though other people were going to read my entries. I was writing with a 'public voice'.  Tap into your 'inner voice'.
  • It is your journal – you don't have to share this information with anyone else.
  • Get into the habit. The longer you leave it, the less likely it will happen.
  • There are no rules. While I have supplied guidelines to get you started, do what works for you.

Get started

Grab a pen and blank notebook - it doesn't have to be an expensive moleskin or leather clad folder, just a simple pen and notebook you can write in, or start a file on your computer. Here are two examples to get you on your way…

Example 1: Journal Entry

"Today I found myself reacting in a stressful manner when Tom asked me to come and see him in his office @ 11am. I thought 'Oh no, here we go again. What have I stuffed up this time?'

"After letting my thoughts run wild for 15 minutes I pulled it together and started looking at other scenarios. I used the ANT Worksheet to help manage my Automatic Negative Thoughts and it really did work. I realised that I always think the worst when a senior manager asks me to see them. I automatically switch to asking 'Oh, there has to be something wrong…' This stems back from when I was a junior recruit and I had that manager who only ever drew attention to our mistakes. I realise that just because I've thought like this in the past, I don't have to think like this for the rest of my life!

"I walked into Tom's office feeling very proud of the way I had managed my thoughts. And I the end, he wanted to comment on what a great job I was doing leading the team right now, and he wanted my ideas about how we can engage the team a lot more at our upcoming off-site."

Example 2: Gratitude Exercise

This is a great activity to do at the end of the week. Sit down with a cup of coffee and reflect on the previous week's activities.  Make a list of five positive activities or exchanges you had in the week. Even if you are going through distress and chaos in your life, make a list of five things of which you are appreciative.

1. Had a great meeting with my manager this week. She said she is really impressed with my increased productivity.

2. Felt like I really connected with my children this week – taking the time to talk to them every day after work (without the TV on or mobile ringing) really is making a difference.

3. Feeling much better about my ability to manage stress – even though I blew up a few times this week, relaxation strategies and deep breathing are helping me to relax.

4. Proud that I exercised four mornings this week and feeling much more energised at work, too.

5. Had breakfast with my partner overlooking the ocean this morning – the beach looked amazing.

Do you use reflective writing or gratitude exercises to help you in your life?

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