Career Advice

Why Journaling the Past Can Help You Work Smarter in the Future

By Herbert Lui October 27th, 2014

Meeting deadlines can be an all-consuming whirlwind. But after completing an assignment and getting through that whirlwind, we often don’t pay enough attention to the lessons we learned along the way. Although we save mementos that highlight milestones, it turns out we might get more value from paying attention to mundane memories as well.

“What is ordinary now becomes more extraordinary in the future,” Harvard Business School researcher Ting Zhang told TIME Magazine. “People find a lot of joy in rediscovering a music playlist from three months ago or an old joke with a neighbor, even if those things did not seem particularly meaningful in the moment.”

For those who work in creative fields, keeping a journal is one easy way to make sure you have a resource when you need to review the past. And as you’ll see below, many famous artists swear by it.

Boost creativity

The brain is a great tool for connecting ideas, but often not as reliable for remembering. Not only can writing down what happens help us recall creative ideas and insights that come to us, they can also be catalysts for synthesizing new ones, which may be why many prolific writers, musicians, and painters keep journals.

Author Madeleine L’Engle advised writers to keep a journal that nobody else reads. Henry David Thoreau, Susan Sontag, Ralph Waldo Emerson kept track of what they did on paper, and as Emerson said, “The good writer seems to be writing about himself, but has his eye always on that thread of the Universe which runs through himself and all things.” And for a more contemporary example, These Days author Jack Cheng said his novel idea came “loosely related journal entries.”

It’s not just writers, either. Nirvana lead singer Kurt Cobain kept a journal, and Mexican painter Frida Kahlo kept a notebook full of text and image sketches. Since keeping concepts and ideas in our minds can be overwhelming, the uncensored, observational, style of writing in a journal or diary can stimulate creative work.

As the late Anaïs Nin wrote, “When I speak of the relationship between my diary and writing, I do not intend to generalize as to the value of keeping a diary, or to advise anyone to do so, but merely to extract from this habit certain discoveries which can be easily transposed to other kinds of writing.”

Build momentum

Identifying personal trends, good or bad, isn’t always simple. Another benefit of journaling is it gives you the ability to step back and examine your career from a distanced perspective.

As Harvard Business School Professor Teresa Amabile said in an interview with Forbes, “One of the big reasons to keep a diary is to record small wins that otherwise might slip through your memory. You can leverage the progress principle and allow yourself to get that boost from realizing you are making progress. And it’s also helpful to record major setbacks—or minor ones that recur—so you can think about how to get rid of inhibitors blocking your progress.”

In terms of tracking momentum, you don’t have to pen lengthy journal entries. Quick updates can build up into meaningful data over time. “It doesn’t have to be a big deal. Write for five or ten minutes a day,” Amabile said. “You can focus on one particular project or issue you’re dealing with, and use it to help clear your mind.”

Aid education

Not only can you learn to communicate differently through journaling, you can also document meaningful lessons that would otherwise be difficult to remember.

“Middle-aged people—like me—often look back on our teenage selves with some mixture of amusement and chagrin,” Harvard psychologist Daniel T. Gilbert said in a New York Times article. “What we never seem to realize is that our future selves will look back and think the very same thing about us. At every age we think we’re having the last laugh, and at every age we’re wrong.”

In a study conducted by Harvard Business School, a group of students were told to write down memories—such as recent photos, Facebook statuses, and final exam questions. They were also asked to write down how interested they thought they’d be reviewing these memories over time. As highlighted in Pacific Standard, two-thirds of participants followed up three months later and were more curious, more interested, and more surprised than they originally thought they would be.

In a subsequent experiment, respondents were asked to choose between writing about a recent conversation or watching a video. Afterward, respondents did both activities and were later asked whether they’d rather go over what they’d written or watch another video. Only 27 percent of respondents originally chose the writing assignment, and only 28 percent said they’d want to take a second look at it. However, a month later, the majority of respondents chose to revisit what they’d written. As the researcher said, “Underestimating the value of rediscovery is linked to people’s erroneous faith in their memory of everyday events.”

Greek shipping tycoon Aristotle Onassis didn’t just keep a journal for important details; he’s on record advocating for the benefits of writing everything down: “Always carry a notebook… When you have an idea, write it down. When you meet someone new, write down everything you know about them. That way you will know how much time they are worth. When you hear something interesting, write it down. Writing it down will make you act upon it. If you don’t write it down you will forget it. THAT is a million dollar lesson they don’t teach you in business school!”

Closing thoughts

Capturing the past is about more than just preservation. Making connections through writing allows us to stay sharp and unlock creative ideas over time. It also keeps us healthy. In a Psych Central article titled “The Health Benefits of Journaling,” research from the University of Texas at Austin showed keeping a journal strengthens immune cells (T-lymphocytes) and decreases symptoms of asthma and rheumatoid arthritis.

Or, as writer Jessamyn West once said, “People who keep journals have life twice.”

Image by Jay Mantri
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