Journaling for the doctorate (II): How to journal effectively

by Luis P. Prieto, - 17 minutes read - 3529 words

Journaling during your doctorate can have a host of benefits (for self-knowledge, mental and physical health). However, not everyone will benefit to the same degree, and different kinds of journaling have different advantages… if done correctly over a sustained period of time. In this post, I will go over different research-backed journaling exercises and tips to make your journaling most effective.

NB: this is the second of a two-part series on journaling (beyond the classic lab notebook) during the PhD. If you haven’t read it, you may want to know about different kinds of journaling practices and their research-backed benefits, covered in the previous post.

Keeping a journal of daily events, thoughts and feelings, has a long tradition and lots of benefits, from better psychological wellbeing (expressive writing), better quality of relationships (gratitude journaling) or less stress after a traumatic experience (Interapy). Yet, we also saw that these benefits vary a lot from one kind of exercise to another, and from one person to another. Assuming we think a journaling practice is worth trying… what exactly should we write about?

Prompt matters

Here are a few prompts taken from real scientific studies and other resources, to kickstart your journaling practice:

  • Three Good Things (gratitude journaling): “Write down three things that went well for you today. For each of them:

    1. Give the event a short title.
    2. Write down exactly what happened in as much detail as possible, including where you were, what you did or said, and, if others were involved, what they did or said.
    3. Write about how this event made you feel (at the time and later).
    4. Explain what you think caused this event—why it happened.
    5. If you find yourself focusing on negative feelings, try to refocus your mind on the good event and the positive feelings that came with it."
  • The classic expressive (expressive writing): “Write down (for at least 20 minutes) your deepest emotions and thoughts about an emotional challenge that has been affecting your life. Write only for yourself. Don’t write about a trauma too soon after it has happened if it feels too overwhelming. (Optional) After four days of writing like this, try writing from the perspectives of other people involved in the event or situation."

  • Inspired in cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT)1 (journal therapies): “Write about an example real situation in which you have caught yourself doing ‘all or nothing’ thinking (i.e., the tendency to see situations as either black or white).

    1. Describe the situation.
    2. Describe what you thought/felt about the situation, and how thinking like this impacts you and others.
    3. Write a new thought in which you consider the situation in a less binary way.
    4. Finally, write down what do you think and feel after doing the exercise."
  • Morning pages2 (creativity-oriented): “Write three pages of longhand, stream of consciousness writing, first thing in the morning. There is no wrong way to do this exercise. It is about anything and everything that crosses your mind–and it is for your eyes only. Just put three pages of anything on the page…and then do three more pages tomorrow."

    • This can be especially helpful if you find yourself with a case of “doctoral writer’s block”.
  • Reflecting on your progress (retrospective-prospective): “Please write a small paragraph narrating the main things you have done today, or which have happened to you. Focus especially on whether you have achieved your goals, whether you have progressed or not, why do you think that is, what emotions and thoughts this has prompted, or how you think you should handle similar events in the future. (Optional, but recommended) Then, please describe what are the main goals and tasks you have for tomorrow, especially those related with your doctoral thesis."

    • We have used a variant of this prompt in doctoral workshops and studies focusing on making progress in the PhD, since progress has been found to be a critical motivational factor for finishing the doctorate3.
  • The two-minute morning (prospective and gratitude): “In a card or post-it, write at the beginning of each day, three things (completing each sentence):

    1. I will let go of…
    2. I am grateful for…
    3. I want to focus on…"
  • Rose, Thorn, Bud (learning, retrospective): “Highlight three things from today:

    1. Rose = A highlight, success, small win, or something positive that happened.
    2. Thorn = A challenge you experienced or something you can use more support with.
    3. Bud = New ideas that have blossomed or something you are looking forward to knowing more about or experiencing."
    • This very short journal is, in a sense, similar to the “two-minute mornings” above, with a retrospective orientation. It is also a common exercise in teams using design thinking, to continuously learn about their work.
  • We can find many more prompts for different styles of journaling here.

We could also just describe the events of the day, in a simple matter-of-fact way (i.e., which is what I thought of when I first heard about keeping a diary). Yet, we should not expect a lot of benefits from this exercise alone, as this kind of factual writing is used in some studies as a control condition (i.e., researchers do not expect this to have any particular effect). Yet, you could still get a learning benefit from this kind of journaling, as long as you dedicate some time regularly (e.g., once a week, once a month) to review the diary entries and reflect on any patterns that appear (e.g., “Tuesdays I’m much less productive”, “When I work at the office I am interrupted all the time”, etc.).

How to journal effectively? Tips and tricks

OK, so now we know what to write about… what else does research tell us about how to keep a journaling practice that is likely to benefit us, physically and mentally?

  • Sustained over time: One of the key markers of larger benefits from a journaling practice is to actually do it, for a long period of time4,5 (we are talking at least 5-12 weeks of sustained practice). Yet, many of the research studies also had high dropout rates6,7 (i.e., people that stopped doing the practice before the end of the study). Thus, we know many people find journaling difficult, be it due to everyday busyness or because people start doubting the benefits of doing it. If you want it to have an effect, keep at it!

  • Make it easy, make it tiny… at least at the beginning. How can we make our journaling practice a habit and reap those benefits? One crucial insight in recent habit-forming literature8 is that the key to making a habit “stick” is to make it very small. The idea is to lower any barriers to do the behavior (in terms of effort and logistics) until the automaticity is developed in our brains. For instance, we could buy a paper notebook to journal in, define a moment when we will do it routinely (e.g., after another existing habit like brushing our teeth in the evening), put the notebook and the pen in a place where we will see it in that moment, and commit to doing it for just a very short time (e.g., two minutes each day). Then, do it for some weeks. Once the habit has developed, we can expand the time we take to do it. But, remember, there are documented benefits of certain journaling practices, even if we do it for as little as two minutes9

  • Be concrete. Another common feature of many kinds of research-backed journaling exercises is the emphasis on describing the events, feelings and thoughts in as much detail as possible10. We should not just write that “a colleague berated me today”. Rather, we can describe the context, who was there, what they said exactly, and what we felt (our body sensations, thoughts, emotions) back then. It seems that this vividness is key to bringing back the unprocessed emotions and processing them (or learning about the situation11). Indeed, some studies suggest that this vividness can transform a neutral event description into a beneficial intervention12.

  • Unblock yourself. Many writers (and PhD students are writers, too!) are familiar with the experience of “writer’s block”: we are just unable to write, be it because of a lack of ideas, or an inability to put our ideas into words. Although the lower stakes of writing “for your eyes only” in a journal are less likely to trigger such a block, I have found cases of doctoral students that develop such an aversion to writing that even journaling becomes unpleasant or impossible. On a day when we face such a journaling block, typical techniques to try include: just write anything, very fast13 (even if it is “I don’t know what to write” over and over), writing snippets of conversations/facts/feelings/fantasies, or doing free association mindmaps14 (in which we just write a word, and then link to it other words that this one suggests, and then other words that we associate to those, etc.). In the long term, we can try doing the “morning pages” exercise I describe above for several weeks: this should slowly train our “creative muscles” and stop our brain from associating the act of sitting to write with being blocked.

  • Mix and match… to each day’s needs. Once we have our journaling habit established, what journaling practice should we do? Given the variety of practices out there (and their benefits), maybe the best we can do is to try them all, depending on the needs of the day. If something troubling happened today, we can try a longer “expressive writing” exercise. If we have too much negative self-talk today, the CBT-inspired one could be a good choice. If we are having trouble writing that damned paper, we can do morning pages for a few days. And in any case, doing a gratitude-style exercise at least once a week is advisable.

  • Review your journal regularly and learn from it. While writing a journal may have many benefits, the act of reading the entries afterwards and reflecting on them will provide us with insights about how we work, what works for us, patterns and pitfalls of thought. Still, the rest of the tips for effective journaling apply: we may not learn much from reading three-word, vague journal entries. Since reading a whole year of journaling can be a daunting task, incorporate this reading into some other regular routine you already have established. For instance, I find it helpful to do this on a weekly basis, and then again at a higher level, I review these weekly syntheses within the reviews I do every quarter. In this way, I don’t have to wait for a whole year to reap the learning benefits of my journaling.

  • Specific tips for expressive writing. Studies on this journaling technique suggest that we are more likely to benefit if we disclose in our writing things or details we had previously held back15. Again, being specific and sustaining the exercise over a long period of time16,17 (several weeks) will also help. Some studies found that it is more effective if the writing focuses on both cognitions and emotions18 (e.g., describing what we think or how we make sense of the experience, rather than just how it made us feel). Others advice to focus on both negative and positive aspects of the experience18,9.

  • Specific tips for gratitude journaling. Experts suggest that it is important to not only describe what we are grateful for (e.g., name the event or the person), but also why this is positive and important to us19. This not only leads to greater happiness boosts, but also can help us start identifying patterns of things we value in life. For instance, by reviewing these gratitude exercises quarterly, I realized that simple things like walks in nature and sharing a meal and conversations with friends make up a disproportionate share of my happiest moments. Henceforth, I have tried to make them a more frequent part of my life, with great effect on my overall happiness. Other studies on gratitude suggest that actually doing something to support others (aside from noticing and being grateful for the support we ourselves receive, i.e., “paying it forward”) may be an important factor explaining some of the health benefits of gratitude exercises (at least, in women)20.

  • Specific tips for learning from journaling. If we want to reap the benefits of journaling for our own self-knowledge (or, as they call it in some studies, for “metacognitive awareness”), it is recommended to use semi-structured reflections21 (rather than totally free-form reflection). One could follow the complex 21-question structure used in that study… but I personally find very useful the four-question structure I describe in my post about weekly reviews. We could also use even simpler structures, like the “rose-thorn-bud” prompt I mention above.

The diagram below summarizes the main ideas and advice mentioned in this and the previous post:

Graphical summary of the ideas in these journaling posts, including types of journaling, their benefits and advice on how to journal effectively

Summary of the ideas in the journaling posts

I hope this and the previous post spurred in you the desire to try some kind of journaling practice. If it didn’t, that’s OK as well (if you’re not open to trying it, probably you would not benefit from it anyways). In any case, it is probably best if you pick and choose the practice (or practices) that best fit you as a person, and your particular circumstances. For example…

How I journal

Here’s how I have incorporated some of the practices, tips and tricks above into my own routines. This is not to say that this way is superior to others, but just to demonstrate what this “customization” may look like:

  • Every day (normally, at the end of the day before going to bed – albeit now I’m experimenting with doing it as a “shutdown routine” when the work hours end), I journal for 5-10 minutes. I write about the events of the day, prevalent feelings and thoughts (e.g., if I ruminated about particular topics), and how things worked out compared to my goals for that day. I also try to include self-regulation ideas (how I could do things differently in the future). This journaling can get longer if I had a particularly difficult day (then, it looks more like an expressive writing-style entry).

  • Every day, just after the journaling, I do a little prospective journaling (i.e., setting the goals for the next day). You can read this prior post for further details on how I structure my goals of each day.

  • Every week (often, on Sundays), I make an appointment with myself to do a “weekly retrospective”. I read the week’s journal entries, and reflect upon them using a structure of four guiding questions (what went well? what would I do differently? what lessons did I learn? and, what is still puzzling me?).

  • In the same weekly review, I also do a gratitude journaling exercise (similar to the Three Good Things), since some studies suggest that a weekly gratitude journal may be more beneficial than a daily one22. Although I don’t write for very long, I make sure to identify both the event or person for which I’m grateful, but also what aspects I value especially from it/her/him (i.e., why I’m grateful).

  • Every quarter, I revise both the weekly reflections and gratitude exercises (following the same structure outlined above). There, I synthesize the positive and less-positive aspects of that quarter, important lessons learned, things that still worry or puzzle me, and things I am frequently grateful for.

  • It is worth noting that all the practices above I have followed sustainedly for months and years23 (as they say in the studies, length of treatment matters!). I don’t see a reason to stop doing them, since these habits provide me regular benefits (especially, compared with other daily habits I’ve had, like watching Netflix before bed). I’ve enjoyed useful insights, a sense of purpose, and an overall wellbeing more stable and more positive than it has been in a long time.

I never thought much about journaling (and considered it a weird use of my time)… until about four years ago. I tried it and now it is an essential part of my everyday life. But, then again, I am me. And I am a weird, particular person (like everyone else). If you think you could like it or are willing to try, give it a go for some weeks (at least two, and six is probably better) and assess whether you find it useful – for mental, physical health, or self-knowledge.

Either way, I hope to see you around here next week.

Do you have other useful journaling prompts (be them prospective or retrospective) that you would like to share? Did I miss any other important tips and tricks for having a good journaling practice? Let us know in the comments section below!

Header image by Mary Fotinaki from Pixabay

  1. Taken from the study by Fritson, K. K. (2008). Impact of Journaling on Students’ Self-Efficacy and Locus of Control. InSight: A Journal of Scholarly Teaching, 3, 75–83. . See Appendix A for a list of other potential cognitive distortions to write about. ↩︎

  2. Taken from the work of Julia Cameron and her workshops for creative professionals. See also Cameron, J. (2020). The artist’s way. Lev. ↩︎

  3. De Clercq, M., Frenay, M., Azzi, A., Klein, O., & Galand, B. (2021). All you need is self-determination: Investigation of PhD students’ motivation profiles and their impact on the doctoral completion process. International Journal of Doctoral Studies, 16, 189–209. ↩︎

  4. Jans-Beken, L., Jacobs, N., Janssens, M., Peeters, S., Reijnders, J., Lechner, L., & Lataster, J. (2019). Gratitude and health: An updated review. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 1–40. ↩︎

  5. Smyth, J. M., Johnson, J. A., Auer, B. J., Lehman, E., Talamo, G., & Sciamanna, C. N. (2018). Online Positive Affect Journaling in the Improvement of Mental Distress and Well-Being in General Medical Patients With Elevated Anxiety Symptoms: A Preliminary Randomized Controlled Trial. JMIR Mental Health, 5(4), e11290. ↩︎

  6. Simpson, M. (2020). Gratitude journaling as intervention to combat nurse burnout in cardiac surgery intensive care nurses. MSc Thesis. Gardner-Webb University. ↩︎

  7. Pascoe, P. E. (2016). Using Patient Writings in Psychotherapy: Review of Evidence for Expressive Writing and Cognitive-Behavioral Writing Therapy. American Journal of Psychiatry Residents’ Journal, 11(3), 3–6. ↩︎

  8. Reviewed in books like: Fogg, B. J. (2019). Tiny habits: The small changes that change everything. Eamon Dolan Books. Or, Clear, J. (2018). Atomic habits: Tiny changes, remarkable results: An easy & proven way to build good habits & break bad ones. Avery. ↩︎

  9. Burton, C. M., & King, L. A. (2008). Effects of (very) brief writing on health: The two-minute miracle. British Journal of Health Psychology, 13(1), 9–14. ↩︎

  10. Parks, A. C., Schueller, S. M., & Tasimi, A. (2013). Increasing happiness in the general population: Empirically supported self-help? In Oxford Handbook of Happiness. ↩︎

  11. Amabile, T., & Kramer, S. (2011). The progress principle: Using small wins to ignite joy, engagement, and creativity at work. Harvard Business Press. ↩ ↩ ↩︎

  12. Jones, B. K., & Destin, M. (2021). Effects of positive versus negative expressive writing exercises on adolescent academic achievement. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 51(6), 549–559. ↩︎

  13. Hiemstra, R. (2001). Uses and benefits of journal writing. New Directions for Adult and Continuing Education, 2001(90), 19. ↩︎

  14. Cortright, S. M. (2000). Journaling: A Tool for the Spirit—ATPC. Retrieved August 20, 2021, from ↩︎

  15. Pennebaker, J. W., Kiecolt-Glaser, J. K., & Glaser, R. (1988). Disclosure of traumas and immune function: Health implications for psychotherapy. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 56(2), 239–245. ↩︎

  16. Reinhold, M., Bürkner, P.-C., & Holling, H. (2018). Effects of expressive writing on depressive symptoms-A meta-analysis. Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice, 25(1), e12224. ↩︎

  17. Pennebaker, J. W. (1997). Writing about emotional experiences as a therapeutic process. Psychological Science, 8(3), 162–166. ↩︎

  18. Ullrich, P. M., & Lutgendorf, S. K. (2002). Journaling about stressful events: Effects of cognitive processing and emotional expression. Annals of Behavioral Medicine, 24(3), 244–250. ↩︎

  19. Seligman, M. E. P., Steen, T. A., Park, N., & Peterson, C. (2005). Positive Psychology Progress: Empirical Validation of Interventions. American Psychologist, 60(5), 410–421. ↩︎

  20. Hazlett, L. I., Moieni, M., Irwin, M. R., Haltom, K. E. B., Jevtic, I., Meyer, M. L., Breen, E. C., Cole, S. W., & Eisenberger, N. I. (2021). Exploring neural mechanisms of the health benefits of gratitude in women: A randomized controlled trial. Brain, Behavior, and Immunity, 95, 444–453. ↩︎

  21. Alt, D., & Raichel, N. (2020). Reflective journaling and metacognitive awareness: Insights from a longitudinal study in higher education. Reflective Practice, 21(2), 145–158. ↩︎

  22. Lyubomirsky, S., Sheldon, K. M., & Schkade, D. (2005). Pursuing Happiness: The Architecture of Sustainable Change. Review of General Psychology, 9(2), 111–131. ↩︎

  23. In fact, every year there’s a few weeks when I purposefully drop the journaling, just to see how I feel (am I fooling myself with the benefits of journaling? or, maybe its benefits decrease over time!?). So far, I have always found that I feel worse and more scattered after those non-journaling weeks, and I have come back to doing it. But, who knows, maybe next year will be different… ↩︎

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Luis P. Prieto

Luis P. is a Ramón y Cajal research fellow at the University of Valladolid (Spain), investigating learning technologies, especially learning analytics. He is also an avid learner about doctoral education and supervision, and he's the main author at the A Happy PhD blog.

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