The thought of starting a new journal or planner at the first of the year brings to mind the same excitement we had as a kids picking out school supplies. There’s something so satisfying about brand new, pristine pages to signal all the unknown promise of the year ahead.
But using a physical (or digital) journal or planner is so much more than that. It actually benefits your mental and physical health far more than you may realize.
“A blank page and the feeling of a fresh start is great for the mind,” says Dr. Sumera Shahaney, Head of Clinical Operations for the Thriva app. “As a starting point, it helps you draw a line under things that have happened before, and makes you feel in control of a new destiny and path.”
But how exactly does the simple act of writing things down actually benefit us?
They Can Help Us Process Our Emotions
According to a 2007 UCLA study, putting pen to paper and recording our thoughts and emotions can actually aid in reducing activity in the amygdala, or emotional center of our brains. This in turn helps to lower anxiety, anger, and sadness.
And while digital calendars and planners are amazing, the actual act of writing longhand also helps the brain process emotions, according to a 2017 Frontiers for Psychology study. They found that physically writing or drawing can “activate larger networks in the brain […] resulting in neural activity that governs all higher levels of cognitive processing and learning.”
In addition, according to psychologist Dr. Sanam Hafeez, observing things in throughout your day and jotting them down “allows you to vent and process the many thoughts swirling in your head that eventually leads you to a greater understanding” of yourself. He explains that those notes can help to release “the pent up emotions that [can] cause anxiety, depression, anger, and distress.”
They Can Lower Our Anxiety
When we have too much stuff swirling around in our brains, we can start to feel out of control. We’ve been told time and time again that multi-tasking is ineffective, but many of us still feel like it’s something we need to excel at. The more you try to tackle at once, the less your brain is able to focus. Which is why having things written out, and prioritizing our most urgent tasks, is so important to our mental states.
Especially for those of us suffering from anxiety, ADHD, or other mental disorders, “planners, online or email calendars, reminders or task apps, can make a huge difference. It can act as a place of accountability and keep you anchored during the day when we can drift off,” says Dr. Hafeez.
They Can Help Keep Our Health on Track
Beyond keeping things organized and helping to process thoughts and emotions, keeping up with a journal or planner can help track our mental and physical health too. Keeping tabs on things like our moods, energy levels, physical activity, food and water intake, and menstrual cycles can provide invaluable insight into the state of our physical and mental wellbeing.
You could simply write all of these things down in a dedicated journal, or find one of the many planners on the market that include habit trackers. Or, do what I do, and find the printables you like online, print them out, and use a three-ring binder as your own customized planner.
They Can Help Us Tackle Our To-do Lists
Anxiety is, in essence, feeling like you have no control over an outcome. And I know that when I’m feeling panicked or overwhelmed, one of the simplest ways I can come back into my body and into the moment is to write a to-do list.
Once I see that list down on paper, even if it’s overwhelmingly long, I can form a plan of attack. It gives me a sense of having control over my own destiny.
The thing is, when you’re mid-panic attack, logical thoughts like “write it all down” aren’t what is rushing through your brain. So having a planner where you can start your day with a to-do list can be a game changer.
“If you love being organised, finding all your tasks in one place and crossing them off” will “help you feel more efficient and productive, but also less anxious,” Dr. Hafeez says.
So starting a brand new planner is more than picking out something with a fun cover (and some cute pens) and writing down your resolutions or word of the year. If we can actually keep up with them as a daily habit – and I know from experience that’s easier said than done – they can go a long way in helping us to live our best lives.