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Put it in writing: How journaling can help you achieve your health goals

Colin By Colin Groundwater

woman writing in journal

In 2016, Nikki Flowers of Amarillo, TX, began keeping a health journal as a way to deal with her chronic knee issues. Her ultimate goal was to be a more active mom for her two young kids. But first, she needed to gain insight into how stress and anxiety magnified her pain. “I’d never told my health history to anyone from beginning to end,” Nikki says. So she started to write it all down.

“Writing my story and my goals definitely led to some ‘a-ha’ moments," she says. "I tried to make connections between daily activities, rest and diet. And I realized that I had suppressed a lot of feelings. Through writing, I was able to deal with those feelings and learn how to let go of the negative ones.” To learn more about Nikki’s story, watch “Learning to Fly”  from the My Health Story video series.

Research  suggests that writing down goals leads people to accomplish significantly more than just thinking about them. Why? Experts believe that writing pushes us to get real about what we want to accomplish and how we’ll get there. And reviewing our progress leads us to recognize patterns and make adjustments based on what has worked well (or not) in the past.

"Writing can be used to think through goals, clarify why we feel what we are feeling, and process experiences,” says Summer Sage-Sorley, the Aetna counselor who encouraged Nikki to start journaling. “It’s a powerful tool because you can spend as much time as you want with your journal, whereas talking to a counselor or even a friend might be more time-restrictive. And you can write whenever is convenient for you.”

Depending on your time commitment, you can write a simple letter to yourself – or dive in to journaling on a regular basis. “When I first started journaling, I wrote every day,” Nikki says. “Sometimes several times a day. Now it's usually once a day, but I always try to make time for it.” Here’s how you can get started.

1. Develop specific and meaningful health goals.

How you say things can be just as important as what you say. Vague, overambitious or unrealistic goals can lead to disappointment. “Exercise more” sounds pretty good – but “run a mile every other day” is crystal clear. “Eat healthier” is admirable, but how will you know if you’ve succeeded? “Eat vegetables at every dinner this week” allows you to check something off your to-do list each day – and then think about next steps.

2. Stay positive.

When describing your progress, focus on the positive and don't dwell on your shortcomings. According to Mary Pritchard, PhD, a psychologist at Boise State University, we all tend to be self-critical, but that impulse will actually get in the way of achieving our potential. “Journaling is a learning tool,” she says. “Don’t beat yourself up.”

On particularly tough days, try starting with an expression of gratitude. For example, if your objective is to reduce stress, write down one small thing that made you happy, like a neighbor’s garden coming into bloom.

3. Use “because” to explore motivations.

For someone working hard in physical therapy after a shoulder injury, the goal might be “get my strength and mobility back.” But why is that so important? One reason may be because you want to be able to lift your grandchildren again. Reminding yourself what’s driving your goals will give you an emotional boost to succeed.

4. Tell your story.

While many people use their journal to set goals for the future, you can reflect on the past as well – which sometimes can be just as helpful. “Nikki started by describing her childhood injury, when her knees were first considered a problem,” explains Summer. “She explored how her child mind had concluded that she has a ‘bad knee’ and all the things people said about it. Writing gave her a safe space to process things that were too much to address at the time.”

5. Find a way to journal that works for you.

Recent studies show that writing in longhand engages our memory and creativity better than using a keyboard . But the best journal is one you keep on using over the long term – and there are plenty of options to choose from.

  • Calendars: Jot notes on a desktop agenda or even a wall calendar. Don’t worry about complete sentences; just get down the basics: “Drank 3 btls of H20!” “Meditated 15 mins.” Or give yourself a gold-star sticker for going one day without a cigarette. As you see daily accomplishments add up, you’ll be more likely to keep your streak going.
  • Digital journals: If using a pen isn't second nature anymore, a number of apps let you create and organize journal posts on your desktop or mobile device. Many of these tools have advantages over pen-and-paper: You can add photos, videos and hyperlinks, and search previous entries by keyword.
  • Goal planner books: Even best-selling authors will confess to a fear of the blank page. A fill-in-the-blank goal journal like Commit30 or Dailygreatness gets you over that hurdle. Dedicated spaces prompt you to record and organize information relevant to your goal, such as pain level or blood-pressure reading. Some journals are designed to track your progress over a set period of time, like 30 days or 13 weeks.
  • Bullet journals: The latest trend in tracking and achieving your goals is the bullet journal. The simplest use different symbols (asterisks, circles) to prioritize tasks in a to-do list. But the concept has evolved to emphasize more graphic elements, like hand-drawn grids, flow charts, calligraphy and sketches. For inspiration, search “bullet journals” on Instagram or Pinterest. Visual journals like the Passion Planner can get help you get started.

Whatever format you land on, start small and give it time. Good habits tend to snowball. Before long, your simple log may grow to become something much more meaningful.

About the author

Colin Groundwater is a writer from New Jersey living in Brooklyn. He’s training to run a half-marathon.