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Personal Journals: A Cheaper (and More Effective) Alternative to Psychotherapy


Albert Einstein, Mark Twain, Marie Curie, Nelson Mandela, Thomas Edison, Virginia Woolf, "Che" Guevara, Anne Frank, Leonardo da Vinci: a list of famous people with a diverse range of interests. What did they all have in common? They maintained personal journals through their lifetimes.

Who's Got the Time to Write Daily?

First, a popular myth has to be dispelled. Journal writing need not be an unremitting, daily effort. The association of journaling with conventional diaries, segmented by days, is, most likely, the reason for this misconception. Daily journaling quickly becomes a chore that is easy to give up.

Instead, only record what you want to remember. Make it an exercise in capturing and archiving thoughts, emotions and ideas coming from within you. Write about interesting people, conversations, meetings, books, lectures, places — anything that captures your attention. Over time, the collection will become a resource that will act as a secure helmsman to steer you through the turbulence of life.

It's best to keep it as a private record although, we are so much richer for many of them having been published. Anne Frank’s The Diary of a Young Girl is the most well known example of the power of a journal. There are many more.

Why Should You Keep a Journal?

Journaling should be a collection of ideas rather than a chronological log of quotidian events. Putting your thoughts down on paper (or as digital bits if you prefer) unburdens your memory, a notoriously fallible storehouse. Journal writing is a powerful productivity and self-improvement tool.

There are numerous benefits to keeping a journal.

  • Problem solving: Writing is a tool for thinking clearly. The effort of transforming what's in our heads as disjointed notions into words clarifies ideas and concepts. Spending fifteen to thirty minutes in this effort allows you to see the problem in distinct, easily grasped pieces. Organising them and making sense out of the puzzle becomes an easier task.
  • Decision diary: Get into the habit of making entries for the more significant decisions you make in your life. Put down brief statements about the following items:

    — The nature of the situation that needs a resolution.       

        — A list of the possible routes of action.

        — The pros and cons of each of them.

        — Your choice and why you did so.

        — What tradeoffs did you have to make?

        — What do you expect from this selection?

As the diary grows, review your entries now and then. You will get a good insight into your decision-making process.

  • Stress reduction: Studies have shown that regular writing reduces stress. Anxiety and depression can be alleviated to remarkable degrees by expressive writing and pouring out deep emotions.
  • Physical ailments: The benefits are not limited to behavioural problems. Many common disorders manifesting with pain and limitation of daily activities can respond to a simple recording of symptoms and feelings. Recognising pain and discomfort as something distinct and reportable goes a long way to augment healing processes within yourself.
  • Gratitude journal: Regardless of how bad things look, there are still so many others which are going right for you. You don't have to be a Pollyanna;there is much to be grateful for. Write them down in your journal. The effects on your overall wellbeing can be substantial.
  • Self-discipline: Regularity in writing is an act of self-discipline and will power. It builds up resilience in all other aspects of your daily life.

Despite its popularity, there's ample evidence that undergoing therapy with a trained analyst may be no more beneficial than talking to someone, even a friendly bartender. A well-nurtured personal journal is all you need. The list of winners at the head of this article, and many more, is proof.

How Do I Go About It?

The straight answer: Use whichever method or tool works for you.

It's best to keep the process as simple and handy as you can: from just a notebook (a Moleskin, if you wish) to drawing, sketching, mind-mapping, visual thinking, photos, voice recording or any of the dozens of digital tools that are available for the purpose.

Apps like Evernote or Bear are fantastic for the ways and means by which you can organise and manipulate your entries. There are apps like Journal One which are specifically designed for the purpose.

The trick is consistency. Stick with whatever gives you the most value for the effort.

How Often Should I Review My Journal?

Once again, there is no hard and fast rule. Whenever you do look back, chose a time when you are calm, rested and still. Although there is a huge temptation to look when times are turbulent, you may not get the most out of your writing at these moments. Nevertheless, let your intuition direct you.

You must let your journal be a guiding lamp in your progress through life. No one can know and understand you better than yourself. It's not unusual to be taken by surprise at the profound nature of your observations.

Stephen King Says

"Writing isn't about making money, getting famous, getting dates, getting laid, or making friends. In the end, it's about enriching ... your own life, as well. It's about getting up, getting well, and getting over. Getting happy, okay? Getting happy." ― Stephen King, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft


Dr Arjun Rajagopalan

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