The 10 Best Reasons You Should Journal

Journaling has been a common practice amongst writers, scientists, artists and other creatives for centuries. While the form your journal takes may be very different from Leonardo da Vinci’s (1452-1519) notebooks, you will be continuing a time tested tradition of writing down your thoughts, feelings, and ideas. Mental health experts today widely recommend journaling as a self-care practice. Although the main focus of this blog is songwriting, before we talk about why you want to journal by songwriting, let’s talk about the benefits of journaling in general.

Humans cannot multitask

It is a fact that the human brain does not multitask well. Multitasking causes our brains to switch back and forth between topics and prevents us from getting into a focused or flow state. Many people are adept at quickly switching contexts, such as watching TV while filling out wedding thank you cards, but your brain often makes mistakes in these situations. For instance, if you are watching the 90’s sitcom Suddenly Susan while signing Sumiko on a Thank You card, you may end up writing “Thank you for the lovely gift! Best wishes, Susan”. In that case, if you are my husband, you may just cross out Susan, fill in Sumiko and send it anyway. True story!

Since the brain does not multitask well, it will keep interrupting your focus with nagging thoughts. You truly cannot write a detailed project plan and simultaneously worry about whether you accidentally offended your husband when you said you didn’t want a second helping of dinner. You can keep trying to focus on the project plan, but the worry hamster is there in the background, ruminating on the potential offense over and over until you get frustrated by the endless thought loop.

Worry Hamster

There are three drug-free, calorie-free ways I know to get the worry hamster off his wheel: meditation, exercise and journaling. Each of these techniques require time and practice. None of them are a quick fix, but that’s ok. We’re in this life for the long haul, right? You’ll find lots of resources for meditation and exercise elsewhere on the internet. In this blog, I’ll discuss journaling.

Using Harry Potter’s pensieve

Journaling works like Harry Potter’s pensieve. For those not familiar with the Harry Potter world, the pensieve is a device that can be used to store memories so they can be looked at later or even shared with other people. In the Harry Potter movies, the pensieve looked like a birdbath filled with a shimmery liquid. A wizard with an embarrassing or incriminating memory could touch their wand to their head, draw out the silver thread of a memory, and then float it on the surface of the pensieve. To view the memory, the wizard could plunge their face into the pensieve and re-live the experience as an observer instead of the first person point of view.

Dumbledore demonstrates the Pensieve

“One simply siphons the excess thoughts from one’s mind, pours them into the basin, and examines them at one’s leisure. It becomes easier to spot patterns and links, you understand, when they are in this form.”

Albus Dumbledore

Dumbledore’s quote above explains what journaling is like for me. Although people journal for many reasons, this examination of thoughts is the main reason I personally practice written journaling. I wrote my first journal entry after reading Brene Brown’s book Rising Strong in which she describes the “SFD”. Brown calls the SFD a Stormy First Draft or Sh*tty First Draft, depending on her audience. Brene’s technique is that when something happens that triggers you, you write down your perception of what happened and why. You need to actually write it down with pen and paper, or at least electronically. It will not work if you just think about it. Thinking will only feed the worry hamster. This initial writing is your “first draft”. It is probably very stormy because you are triggered, and it is sh*tty because you have only a partial grasp on the situation. You have only your own perspective and are therefore making all kinds of assumptions and drawing conclusions based on fear, hurt, anger or embarrassment. Brene counsels you to examine your SFD and ask yourself, “What about this story is true?”, “How do I know which parts are true for sure?”, “What do I need to learn to discover the truth?”

How I write Stormy First Drafts

In reading about Brown’s SFD, I imagined myself calmly writing down my story and then re-reading it to discover the gaps in my thinking. In practice, the way I journal is not eloquent. I rant and rave in a stream of consciousness littered with curses and frustrations and lacking in punctuation and grammar and spellcheck is going crazy because I’m typing so fast my fingers can’t keep up with my fever pitched mind spewing half truths and past hurts like projectile vomit. I’ve taken to calling my journal my “hate book”. I might make entries in the middle of the day when I’m working on a project and my brain starts trying to multi-task with nagging thoughts. However, frequently entries are written in the middle of the night when I wake up and the hamster starts running on the worry/resentment/anger wheel, keeping me awake. During the first writing phase of the SFD, I’ve learned not to self-edit. I just let the anger and hurt run its course. I write horrible things I would never say to someone I loved. I write horrible things I would never say to someone I hated. Like Dumbledore, I am just touching the wand to my head, pulling out the thoughts, and letting them swirl around in the pensieve.

Amazingly to me, through the process of writing, after my initial rant sometimes I just feel better. I get calmer. I can think straight. Like my browser complaining about all the open tabs, my brain says, “Whew! I’m glad you unloaded that thought because it was consuming too much energy.” Often, that bit of writing is enough of a relief I can go back to sleep.

Sometimes, for more gnarly problems, after the initial rant I find I still have the desire to continue to wrestle with my thoughts. At this point, I find another change occurs. Once I stop raving, I no longer want to continue to write partial facts, unsupported assumptions and blatantly slanted or self-serving thoughts. I naturally switch to problem solving mode and start trying to make sense out of the jumble of thoughts and feelings. I gain some perspective. Once the edge is off the emotion, the worry loop turns into a problem solving session. This is my brain saying “OK, I heard your tantrum, I know you’re upset, if you’ve got it all out on the table, let’s get to work.” By the time I finish writing, I’ve often distilled my thoughts into a few action items. Usually these items are questions to ask about someone’s motivations, the next step to solve a problem, or maybe an apology to offer.

What do I do with these SFD journal entries, you ask? Are the journals in the picture in the header of this blog post full venom and bile? No, those are my visual journals which largely contain sketches, photos and descriptions of travel. In the Harry Potter universe, pensieves are usually buried with the wizard to prevent the extracted memories from falling into the wrong hands. If you write on paper, go ahead and destroy the evidence, if you like. Celebrate removing those feelings from your head by crumpling the paper and throwing them in the trash, or letting them rot in the compost pile. As for me, I don’t worry about it. I never read past entries. My hate book lives on my phone, probably duplicated in a million backups, and therefore will live forever in the cloud. Perhaps someone will find it and write a memoir called Sumiko Unfiltered some day. Woe to the reader who opens that spiteful piece of work!

The 10 best reasons you should journal

I talked above about my personal motivations for journaling. Here’s a summary of what I deem as the 10 best benefits of a journaling practice. Writing in a journal can help you to:

  1. Reduce stress and anxiety – Our brains are wired to look for issues and problems. Simple gratitude journals can actually re-train the brain to look for positivity, crowding out stress and anxiety.
  2. Boost health and well-being – Reduced stress and increased happiness have a boatload of health benefits including better health and fewer symptoms of depression.
  3. Respond to problems instead of react – It is better to have an unfiltered rant in your hate book than to have an unfiltered rant to your boss. Process your thoughts and take a step back to get perspective before you have any difficult conversations.
  4. Remind yourself that you don’t choose your feelings or your thoughts – Your brain raises thoughts on its own. Your body creates emotions without conscious involvement. By writing down your thoughts and feelings, you can process them in an objective way.
  5. Clear your head – Write down those nagging thoughts to make room for other ideas in your head. Once your brain knows you’ve written these ideas somewhere safe, it can devote cycles to other things.
  6. Spark your creativity – Write down, capture pictures, or record audio snippets of things you find beautiful or inspiring. Taking notes help you look for the happy things in life and looking back through these saved items can inspire new creative thoughts.
  7. Remember your ideas– Record your to-do lists, twists of phrase that catch your ear, nonsense words, jokes, ideas for blog posts or anything else you want to remember in your journal.
  8. Improve your writing – The practice of writing will improve your writing. The next time someone offends you, see if you can craft a convincing argument in your hate book as you explain to yourself that you are right and the offender is a know-nothing loser.
  9. Track your goals / Note your progress / Hold yourself accountable – Write down where you want to be in 3 months, 6 months, 12 months, 5 years. Check in on it periodically. Do you still want those things? Is it time to pivot? Be sure to note your wins. Look back on them and celebrate the progress you’ve made!
  10. Write your memoirs – In 500 years when the world regards you as the modern day Leonardo da Vinci, someone will find your journal and publish it as 21st century Leonardo Unfiltered. Give them some meaty stuff to work with!

Getting started in journaling is very simple. The only equipment you need is somewhere to write. In upcoming blog posts I’ll discuss more about how to get started and I’ll suggest some journaling tools. I’ll also encourage you to add songwriting to the mix of how you journal.

Questions for you, dear readers

I’d like to learn from you readers. What are your thoughts on journaling? Why do you currently keep a journal or why do you want to keep a journal? What tips and tricks do you have to break out of an endless thought loop?

8 responses to “The 10 Best Reasons You Should Journal”

  1. Great post! I am an avid journaller, and I have a hybrid system going on, both analogue and digital. Comparing it to a pensieve is a great way of looking at it. It helps me clear my mind for sure. Anyway, thanks for this post!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I love this post and as a Harry Potter fan, am obsessed with the comparison of journaling to a pensieve. This is exactly how my journaling practice functions for me. I also do not read my past entries, as the medicine of it for me is the in-the-moment purging of my racing thoughts and feelings.

    Liked by 1 person

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