Science-Based Journaling,

Read Your Journal

Do random thoughts swirl in your mind before you go to sleep? If suddenly awoken in the night, do you sometimes find yourself obsessing over minor things from the previous day (or things from the distant past)? Does it feel like some of your best relationships keep hitting the same speed bumps, like some type of strange deja vu of who-offended-who?

I wish I could take all this life experience that people talk about and actually make sure I'm learning from it. There are definitely some old business guys who talk about how they "were a young gun once, too", but self-flattery seems easy, and wisdom sure feels hard-won. And after a review of the scientific literature, I've found a surprising about of evidence that everyone should be keeping an emotionally expressive journal and reading it.

If you haven't seen the research – there are tons of studies, and many are of quite high quality. This isn't like mediation, where something like 90% of the studies don't even use a control group. Emotionally expressive journaling helps, and helps so much you can even detect the benefit by tying it to actual improved physical health outcomes. No need to worry if self-reports are only finding placebo effects. Imagine fewer ulcers, fewer heart attacks, etc (although the literature is way more careful about such claims), and that's the sort of benefit many studies seem to find.

If research indicates journaling helps, why use some other software that has nothing to do with those findings?

Journaling can help a variety of people. It's perhaps the best mental health activity you can do by yourself -- better than even meditation -- and is remarkably effective while being (frankly) more fun than sitting silently.

You don't need to read all the research we linked to above (which is only a small slice of the academic literature). Take this sample, for instance:

A meta-analysis of 13 studies using expressive writing with healthy participants (Smyth, 1998) found a significant overall benefit (d = 0.47, P < 0.0001) and specific benefits in objective or self-reported physical health, psychological well-being, physiological functioning and general functioning outcomes. Smyth’s review suggests that, for physically and psychologically healthy individuals, the effects produced by expressive writing are substantial and similar in magnitude to the effects of other psychological interventions, many of which are more involved, time-consuming and expensive. Karen A. Baikie & Kay Wilhelm, Emotional and physical health benefits of expressive writing, Advances in Psychiatric Treatment (2005) [emphasis added]

If you're familiar with modern psychological research standards, you're probably losing your mind. That's an unreally huge effect size and a confidence interval that you practically never see. This is a big win and a sure thing -- or as close as you'll ever see in modern psychology.

You have a variety of feelings and experiences, and journaling helps you remember them. And, if you're the type of person we truly love around here, you'll want to learn from your experiences, which means that they won't just have to be written down. You're going to be reading your journal.

To have the most useful writing experience, your journal entries should be raw. If an app has the ability to add all your cool vacation photos and lets you share entries with your friends, the creators of that app don't care about your well-being . It's just facebook with extra steps.

Without editing or even proper grammar, your journal entries can help you remember how you felt and learn from your past. But you can't constantly review everything. You could always just review your entries from a week ago, but a much, much better system would match the model of something like The Forgetting Curve, so that you'd effectively remember as much as possible. You could do reviews after every 7 entries, create a synthesis, and when you have seven syntheses, maybe do a bulk review. You could probably do that on your own, if you're quite diligent and organized.

Additionally, you might want to remember all your interactions with your grandparents, for instance, as part of one coherent whole. Or review tough days at work and great days at work together. And once you start those more focused reviews, with specific subjects you want to pay attention to, you'll want sweet mercy from your filing system. There is simply no way I am aware to make this less of a nightmare with a paper journal.

No. 3 Green Pencil can help. Your journaling sould have insight and logical connections across events -- a very strong indicator of success in the academic literature. With results like these, it's worth investing in, and just gets more valuable over time.

But it's not only about being a more fulfilled person (or being physically healthier). It's that your feelings are important, all on their own. They do not deserve to be discarded, scrawled and sealed away without a second look. Your lived experience is an inherently valuable thing, and if it just takes a couple of minutes a week, why wouldn't you give it your attention?

Every journaler pays to journal, a few bucks a few times a year for their pens and a journal, and your time is even more valuable. No. 3 Green Pencil is more convenient and much more helpful than blank sheets of paper, and the cost is essentially identical.

Start a free, 14 day trial. You'll see that this doesn't take up too much of your time, and even if it's an intense process (it's not uncommon for people to cry), you should see signs of results within a few days. If you don't, cancel any time. But we're pretty sure that, if you're looking for a private self-care regimen based on decades of research, you can't do any better than No. 3 Green Pencil.

Journals, The Unsung Heroes of Mental Health Self-Care

Journaling's not meant to be a replacement for in-person therapy or getting serious help. Which is good, in some ways – it means journaling is a better compliment for it, if you do need serious help, and it's a huge opportunity to help people who can't justify the time and expense of more involved mental healthcare.

Why does emotionally expressive writing help, though -- and why don't people talk about it more? Researchers aren't totally sure about the mechanism behind emotionally expressive journaling, but they've thought of two main groups of explanations. First, the process of evaluating and understaning your emotion in order to put them into words -- generally focused on inhibition and disclosure. For many people, a journal will be the first place they ever even address something important to them, and it helps people start actually thinking of their life, removing a harmful inhibition that stops them way before they can start solving their problems. The second group of theories is that people are actually changing and learning from the experience.

Surprisingly, you can instantly incinerate journal entries (or put them on those wipe-away boards with the magnet pens) and people still get a pretty big benefit. So we're pretty sure the act of writing helps by itself. ordering your thoughts and feelings onto paper. But that's not all. After people put machines to the task of analyzing the content of journal entries, researchers found that inference were one of the best signals people would get value from the journaling process, and understanding the cause and effect of your life contributes massively to success.

But, of course, that takes scope. When you live through something, you have all the information you need – it's intensely, inescapably vivid. You are there. If some small thing makes you frustrated with your partner, you don't need to know more, you need to have the circumspection to understand what caused the whole scenario, including your reaction. You need, to put it simply, time.

And journals let you do that. Of course, very few people actually read their journals. Even just expressing yourself honestly makes some people uncomfortable. And reading is sort of a hassle, and it's not clear what you should read or when. If you want to find all the times you spoke about a certain thing, you'll need to keep an index or have a computer to help you in some way. And if you want regular reviews so you don't forget, the physical index starts getting challenging -- so why do it yourself?

I've been noodling this for a while. And I think there are a lot of people who would benefit from this journaling system a lot, who don't want to take a few weeks to try to figure out how to make this work for themselves. I've made a program that makes it simple -- the journaling tool of choice for people who want to follow what the research indicates is the best way to understand their lives, and improve their long-term mental and physical health outcomes. And I hope you enjoy it, and of course, use it.

Instead of your next physical journal, spend the couple bucks on No. 3 Green Pencil. Hopefully, it'll add some color to your life, and leave a heavier mark than the simpler journals you might buy and throw away*.

* That's what the number in "Number 2 Pencil" means -- higher numbers leave a heavier mark.

If you're going to spend $7 every three months on a notebook, spend it on a journal that helps you out. No. 3 Green Pencil takes your feelings seriously, and so can you, with a 14-day free trial.

Self-care Is Like Brushing Your Teeth

I've heard this metaphor before, and I think it's true in the general sense: taking care of your mental health deserves time every day, in the same way basic preventative care of your body does. If you're telling me you're too busy for self-care, that's essentially the same as saying you're too busy to brush your teeth, to which I (and the person who invented this metaphor) say: "gross". I literally cannot imagine being that busy. It probably isn't possible. And if I heard anyone complain about the burden of brushing your teeth, I'd be deeply concerned, unless they were a small child.

But that doesn't really answer the question of where you might find the time for journaling. I can tell you where I found the time, though.

The default self-care practice these days, if you're willing to put in some effort (instead of, let's say, just shopping or eating -- great activities I also do, but bad self-care) is meditation. I had bought in for a long time, but that's changed recently. I've been looking into what the actual research says about meditation, and let me tell you: it's a bit disappointing.

To say outloud something people tend to ignore: many people find it unpleasant. For about a quarter of people, it isn't relaxing, it's intensely uncomfortable, and can put them in a deeply negative and scrambled emotional state. When the pitch for meditation is "it promotes mental well-being", that really stinks. It is, for many more people, only an exercise in deliberate boredom, and practice in being boring themselves. Consider what you would think of someone if you sincerely believed a lack of thought would be better than the thoughts they have. I'm not saying it's never the case, but what terrible life would that be? And why not try a more active replacement activity?

So, if you're like me, you're now wondering, is there something hyper-specific about meditation that makes it useful, and if so, why do different people describe it in such different ways? Is it just comfortable focus? Using a pogo stick seems like it'd fit those, but maybe you'd get used to it. Is the ideal therapy attempting to speedrun video games? Is the research able to say anything about how you're supposed to benefit from meditation, and if not, can we guess?

I used to meditate. Not quite every day, but most days. I'm not one of the quarter of people who experience anxiety and fear when doing so. But when Wikipedia slammed me with a "there is insufficient evidence for any effect of meditation on positive mood, attention, eating habits, sleep, or body weight", let me tell you: I started wondering if it was a massive waste of my time.

But it might not be in all cases. If you're having intensely intrusive thoughts, for instance, practice clearing your mind certainly sounds helpful. I suspect this experience is a much less intense version of OCD. Meditation ought to be good practice for taking thoughts and letting them drift out of your mind. I'm not sure, and the research quality here is terrible. That's the most optimistic case I can find and it's shockingly weak compared to the demonstrated benefits of journaling.

My life has it's ups and downs, but meditation seems like practice for something I don't have a problem with, and maybe you're the same. At any given moment, I'd prefer to have more thoughts and ideas, not fewer. And if we can't get better sleep, a better mood, or better focus from meditation, it just isn't worth it.

So now I have 15 minutes a day free in my schedule, ever since I stopped. And I bet you can guess what I've been spending that self-care effort on. I've spend it the best way I know how, and so can you, starting with a 14-day free trial.

Will this help with anxiety and depression?

If you need help, talk to a professional. This is, at the end of the day, only a journal. If you wouldn't feel comfortable relying on a moleskin from Barnes and Noble, you shouldn't rely on this product.

That being said, if you want to have a service supplement all the standard self-care you're already engaging in, there is good reason to think that, while not reducing intrusive thoughts about stressful events, emotionally expressive journaling reduces the negative reactions to those thoughts.

As referenced in the above block quote from Baikie and Wilhelm, products like No. 3 Green Pencil produces good results for healthy people. Journaling even produces some good effects for people facing various highly specific issues, like this study looking at people with Asthma and Rheumatoid Arthritis, finding a "surpringly beneficial" effect.

A different study also found that, while not reducing "reflection", it does reduce "brooding" (technical terms in the analysis, but they mean roughly what you'd guess).

One study even found web-based journaling helped people with elevated anxiety generally! I can't imagine a more clear recommendation for a product than a study specifically saying it's helpful like that.

This study found that depressed women who had suffered from intimate partner violence showed a significant drop in depression.

These are all great signs! But if you need help, build your support routine as robustly as you can -- journaling should just be the cherry on top. This is not a medical product, and doesn't replace anything. I'm sure a lot of people reading this think this caution is only to minimize liability, but truthfully, from the bottom of our hearts: just because we think something can help, doesn't mean it should be the only thing you do, and without talking to a health-care provider you shouldn't rely on anything in a highly sensitive, medical way. But if you want to supplement your existing routine, this could very well help a significant amount.

How To Use No. 3 Green Pencil

When you log in, you will see a place to write your journal entries. If you have a review to do, it'll let you choose whether to review or write a standard entry. It's that simple.

That's it, that's the core of the process. You'll get all the value you need from just that. When you write in the journal you can even click a button to see the prompt used in the research -- slight variations on it are standard when trying to research how effective it is, and it's very effective. Basically, it just asks you to open your heart to the writing process. Say something meaningful. While it might be emotionally challenging you definitely won't need to deal with any technical complications.

When you write, you'll see the editor uses something called Markdown -- it's just a way of making things you type look the way you probably intend. If you want a headline, just use # at the start. But you honestly probably shouldn't worry at all about formatting. You should express precisely what you mean to say, which means a line with a --------- in it should be a horizontal line. But this isn't a business report. The point is to make the process of writing the journal invisible.

And you should just write for a while. Once you start, you ought to keep going (as the research says). Just pour out as much as you can within the time period you set aside. Keep your hands on the keyboard for as long as you can, and if there is a specific element you want to return to, feel free to add a tag. The tag will gather posts for you to review, so once you have a batch of `boss` tagged posts, you can review them all together, so you can see all your thoughts on the tag at once. In fact, you may find the tags so helpful that you even turn off non-tag related reviews. For that you can visit the relatively straight-forward preferences page.

You can look back at your old reviews in the reviews page, but you don't need to. Remember, we'll keep track of what you need to review, prompt you when it's time, and walk through the process. All you have to do is start, and No. 3 Green Pencil offers a 14-day free trial.