Changing Your Mind on Purpose through Journaling

by Jim Loehr, Ed.D., Co-Founder, Human Performance Institute

The practice of journaling has been around for decades. It began as a simple method of recording in written form one’s meaningful thoughts and feelings. Several researchers such as James Pennebaker, Karen Baikie, Kay Wilhelm, Chris Woolston, Sian Bellock, and others have found journaling around worries, stressful events and traumatic experiences to have therapeutic value. It is theorized that improvement in emotional and physical health results from freeing the energy required to inhibit unwanted fears and anxieties. Writing about difficult things seems to have a cathartic effect thereby reducing on-going tension.

The Human Performance Institute corporate and sports programs have an entirely different focus and purpose in practicing journaling. From our perspective, journaling is employed to 1) Revise how the brain processes information in the creation of stories and 2) Train the tone and content of one’s private inner voice. In the mid 1980’s I began exploring the use of this type of journaling with sports clients. My intent was to get clients to develop more constructive habits of thinking and self-talk by getting them to repeatedly put their new, more adaptive thinking on paper. The journals were not to express negative thoughts or fears but to focus instead on ways of thinking that made whatever fears or anxieties they might be struggling with less likely to occur. The intent was to change the way the brain processed past and current events if their thinking and self-talk had become dysfunctional.

The most important insight from my investigations was a deep and abiding respect for the power of both writing and one’s private voice in the creation of our version of reality. I concluded from everything that I had learned that the power broker in our lives was the private voice – the voice no one hears but us. The private voice is, in fact, the master architect of our version of reality.

The data clearly pointed to the reality that our “inner voice” could be stolen through a variety of sinister forms of indoctrination. The big question for me was how to leverage the insights around writing and the private voice to empower self-initiated, self-directed personal change. Could we accelerate changes in our dysfunctional stories and beliefs through journaling? Could targeted self-prescribed journaling be used to convert dysfunctional beliefs and thinking into functional ones? Could journaling be used to train the tone and intent of our private voice? The idea that one could change his/her version of reality intentionally through writing was both exciting and promising. For more than two decades, I have used journaling with clients to enhance well-being and performance. Our work at HPI with sport clients as well as our work with thousands of corporate clients continues to build support for the power of journaling in helping people make self-directed personal change.

Recent advances in neuroscience, particularly in the plasticity of the human brain, help explain why repeating personal narratives in writing can facilitate the change process. Neural-pathways are strengthened with use and decay with disuse is one such example. How long does neurological change take and how often should one write? My experience is that significant lasting change takes more than 14 days. One can change a single habit in two to three weeks but real change requires building a network of new mental and physical habits. That is precisely why the 90-day window of change was selected.

Creating a new story around the change also takes time. Participants are instructed to rewrite their new story a minimum of six times over the 90 days of training. They are to recall the new story from memory and then, once written, compare it with the original story. Six rewrites means that approximately every two-weeks the new story is committed to writing during the 90-day period. This ensures that the neurological pathways will be regularly strengthened a minimum of every two weeks. The more repetition the better. There is nothing sacred about the 90-days or the six rewrites. They serve only as training guidelines and reflect my best advice after years of work with clients.

The idea of journaling forward is quite original. The purpose for writing as a part of the Corporate Athlete® program is to train both the tone and content of the private voice. The objective is to train the brain to work constructively in facing the endless challenges faced on a daily basis. Journaling forwarded by scripting one’s thinking and self-talk in advance is a very promising and exciting innovation that can support growth in neurological habits that influence performance levels, well-being, self-regulatory skills, personal change, and even growth in character.

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Lepore, Stephen, and Smyth, Joshua, “The Writing Cure,” American Psychological Associated Publication, 2002.
Adams, Kathleen. "A Brief History of Journal Writing." The Center for Journal Therapy, retrieved December 28, 2011.
Baikie, Karen A. and Wilhelm, Kay. "Emotional and Physical Health Benefits of Expressive Writing." Advances in Psychiatric Treatment 11 (2005), pages 338-346.
Field, Nathan. "The Therapeutic Action of Writing in Self-Disclosure and Self-Expression."
Graybeal, A., Sexton, J.D. & Pennebaker, J.W., "The Role of Story-Making in Disclosure Writing: The Psychometrics of Narrative."
Pennebaker, James W. "Writing About Emotional Experiences as a Therapeutic Process." Psychological Science 8.3 (May 1997), pages 162-166.