This week we’re exploring how to stop picking up your phone so often. It’s a modern-day problem, but many of us can’t leave the room—let alone the house—without our phones in our pockets. We even have new gadgets to wear on our wrists to help us keep our phones in our pockets more—but without missing out on anything.
Having a computer in your pocket is amazing. There’s no denying that we’re incredibly lucky to be able to afford these powerful machines and to take advantage of how fast technology is advancing.
But I’m sure I’m not the only one who wants to spend a little less time with my phone and a little more time with people, nature, food, and anything else not involving screens.
Keep your phone out of reach
If your phone is always nearby, it’s easy to pick it up more often than you’d like to. Making it harder to give in to that temptation will help you break the habit of picking up your phone anytime you can.
If your phone is always nearby, it’s easy to pick it up more often than you’d like to.
Adam Alter, professor of marketing at NYU and author of Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked , says to think about designing your environment to help you avoid your phone:
So if there’s something that you keep doing obsessively, make sure that it’s not in your environment and you’re less likely to do it. That’s a much more effective way of preventing yourself from using it than say keeping it nearby but trying to just suppress the desire to use it.
Turn off notifications
We’ve all heard this one before, but turning off your notifications is a classic way to ease your reliance on that little box in your pocket that’s always vying for your attention.
Alter says turning off notifications is a way to take back control :
Turn off the “ding” sound when you get a text message so that instead of your phone saying, “Hey, check me now,” you decide when it’s time to check. You’re removing the control from the phone and you’re bringing it back to yourself. You can also take the apps that are most addictive for you, and bury them in a folder on the fourth page.
Replace your phone with something else
It sounds easy to keep your phone further away so it’s hard to get to, but in practice that’s quite difficult. The trick, according to Alter , is to replace your phone with something else:
What you want to do is you want to find a behavior that is a stand-in for the behavior that you don’t want to be doing. You replace the bad thing that you shouldn’t be doing with something good that you should be doing.
So you start leaving your phone in your home office or in your entrance hall. When you’re in bed or chilling on the couch, what do you do? Here are some ideas to get you thinking:
- Leave a book on your bedside table
- Leave another book or a stack of magazines next to your couch
- Keep a bag of knitting or crochet, a coloring book, or a sketchbook and pencil next to the couch
- Leave a deck of cards or a puzzle toy on the table by your couch
- Get out that musical instrument you keep meaning to play and store it next to your couch
- Keep a journal and pen by your bed
- Keep a set of small weights by the couch
- Keep a yo-yo or a set of juggling balls by the couch and learn a few party tricks
- Put reading apps on the main screen of your phone or tablet and move all other apps into hard-to-reach places
- Keep a letter-writing pad and a pen by your bed and catch up on some old-fashioned correspondence
What techniques have you tried to cut down how much time you spend looking at your phone? Let us know what worked and what didn’t in the comments.
Big goals are exciting. At the start of each year I love setting a few big, audacious goals to aim for over the following 12 months.
But big goals have downsides, too. They can set us up for failure if we set goals that are too big to achieve, or if we don’t break them down and work towards them systematically.
Sonia Thompson, founder of TRY Business School, says big goals and high standards are a recipe for failure:
Setting the bar too high can serve to de-motivate and discourage you from ever getting started.
Lots of us set exciting goals, says Thompson, but struggle to reach them because they’re too big to be achievable. She says the way people set goals is the problem:
They set their standards too high. And when they have trouble keeping up with the level of activity required to meet their standard, their confidence takes a hit.
So let’s look at an alternative: small goals.
Small goals, more often
Small goals tend to be easier to achieve than big goals. Saving for a new computer, for instance, is easier than saving for a house deposit. Giving talks at 3 conferences is easier than earning half your income from speaking engagements.
Because small goals are easier to achieve, we can also set them more often.
Author and professional speaker Dorie Clark says setting smaller goals for shorter time periods makes you more flexible and quicker to adapt to new information or changing circumstances. Setting a year-long goal, for instance, can leave you doing something that doesn’t make sense six months later, after your circumstances or priorities have changed. Or you might give up on your year-long goal when it stops making sense, but be left goal-less until the new year rolls around.
Clark, for example, set a goal to get fit by playing racquetball with a friend, but soon found the early-morning games left her sleep-deprived and unproductive. If that was a year-long goal, Clark might have been left without any fitness plan for the rest of her year when she gave up the morning racquetball games.
Clark’s current approach is to set goals every six months, rather than annually, and to limit herself to just two goals. “The point of goals,” she says, “isn’t to successfully complete tasks we blindly set ourselves to years ago.”
… what counts is our ability to master the right kind of big goals—the ones that can change your life… You can only accomplish those kinds of goals when you’re willing to question assumptions regularly and re-evaluate as necessary.
Small wins beget confidence
Researchers Teresa Amabile and Steven J. Kramer have found that “Of all the things that can boost emotions, motivation, and perceptions during a workday, the single most important is making progress in meaningful work.”
The great thing about this research is that it shows regular small wins can boost our motivation and happiness at work. So we don’t necessarily need to set and achieve big goals to enjoy our work.
Consultant and author John Brubaker says this comes back to self-efficacy, or our confidence in our own abilities. Our confidence increases or decreases, says Brubaker, based on our ability to make progress.
So each small win gives us a feeling of progress, which makes us more confident in our own abilities, and thus more happy and motivated.
So how can you achieve lots of small wins? Small goals, of course!
Or, as Brubaker puts it, “baby steps”:
The one primary motivation that leads us to persevere is baby steps.
Lots of small goals that lead to overall progress will keep us motivated and happy along the way. They also play into something called “goal gradient,” which essentially means that the closer you get to achieving something, the harder you’re willing to work to make it happen.
With small goals, you get close to your aim more often, so you’re more likely to work hard to achieve those goals. Big goals take longer, and you won’t feel that goal gradient as often.
A great example of how the goal gradient works with baby steps was borne out in a study using coffee reward cards. Participants were given cards that entitled them to one free coffee after they bought 10. When participants got closer to earning the free coffee, researchers noticed they bought coffees more often to get to their goal faster.
Another group of participants was given a card that offered one free coffee after they bought 12. These participants were given cards that already had two coffee purchases counted, so they had 10 to buy before earning a free coffee—the same as participants with the “buy 10, get 1 free” cards. But the group with 12-coffee cards actually filled up their cards faster, because a card with two coffees already counted gave them a feeling of progress that brought the goal gradient into play. Even though they needed to buy the same number of coffees as the first group, this group felt they had already made progress and their goal was close, so they bought coffees faster in order to achieve their goal.
You probably don’t want to trick yourself into buying more coffee, but you can use the benefits of the goal gradient on yourself by setting smaller goals more often. Make your goals faster and easier to achieve and you’ll be able to chain a lot of small wins together to make more progress overall.
Start tiny. Really tiny
If you’re not sure how small your small goals should be, Sonia Thompson has a useful suggestion: try setting tiny goals. Embarrassingly tiny, in fact.
Thompson says tiny goals help us build the momentum we need to chase slightly bigger goals later. An embarrassingly small goal is so small it feels silly not to do it. But even a goal that small can still feel good when you achieve it. You’ll still feel like you’re making progress.
Embarrassingly small goals give you a solid way to start making progress and achieving small wins immediately. They’re not six-month or even quarterly goals. They’re tiny, five-minute, one-hour, one-day goals. And they’ll give you the momentum and confidence to work up to quarterly or bi-annual goals, says Thompson.
It may sound counterintuitive, but the key to getting extraordinary results is to go small rather than big. Take the pressure off of yourself to accomplish heroic feats each day.
Whether you already like to set big, annual goals and struggle to reach them, or you don’t yet have a regular goal-setting approach, try starting small. Set one embarrassingly tiny goal and start working towards it. Take notice of how your motivation increases as you get closer to your goal.
Then, use that momentum to set a slightly bigger goal. Each goal you achieve will reinforce your self-efficacy, so your belief in your ability to reach your goals will increase as the size of your goals does. Just remember not to go too big—small goals more often and lots of small wins along the way are key.
We’ve been publishing research-based articles every week about meaningful work, being productive, and finding work/life balance for the past few months.
Today we’re started an experiment. Every week, alongside our longer, research-based articles, we’ll also publish a short roundup of tips relating to one theme.
For our first roundup we’re looking at tips to help you read more.
1. Stop trying to speed-read
It turns out, speed reading doesn’t actually work. It might seem like you’re reading faster, but the only way to do so is to not absorb the information as well. So you can “read” more quickly, but you won’t remember much of what you’ve read, so there’s not much point in doing so.
The truth is, speed reading isn’t much better than skimming:
You can flash as many words as you like in front of your eyes, and though you may be able to understand each word on its own, they won’t mean much as a collective whole. Language processing just doesn’t work that way.
2. Improve your vocabulary
Though speed reading doesn’t work, some people can read faster than others. But researchers say the reason isn’t that they can take in more at once or silence the voice in their heads (which doesn’t actually slow you down, anyway).
No, faster readers simply have a bigger vocabulary:
As Treiman and her co-authors write in their Psychological Science paper, “the factor that most strongly determined reading speed was word-identification ability,” which means that an individual’s reading speed is more about their language skills than where or how quickly they move their eyes.
Knowing more words means you can more quickly understand what you’re reading. And of course, the way to increase your vocabulary is simply to read more.
3. Make it easy to read a lot
When reading is difficult or uncomfortable, you’re more likely to avoid it, as writer Patrick Allan recently found:
I realized I wasn’t buying into reading because I had made it difficult to access it. My reading light was in a bad position where I couldn’t comfortably reach the switch from my bed. I would have to get up out of bed to turn it on or off. Also, my bed was too tall and against a window sill so I couldn’t prop myself up when I didn’t feel like holding a book above my head. And worst of all, I had a giant TV in my room. Why read when I can fall asleep to Bob’s Burgers every night instead?
Allan’s solution was to adjust his bedroom to be a perfect reading environment. When reading was one of few things he could do in bed, and it was easy to get started and stay focused on his book, he started reading more:
I moved my reading light to a better spot and got a Kindle Paperwhite with a decent backlight. I fixed my bed so it was more comfortable for laying upright and holding a book without worrying about dropping it on my face. And I moved my TV out of my room. The TV removal alone was a huge game-changer for me. I also moved my handheld gaming systems and stopped keeping my phone near my bed so there weren’t any other temptations around when it was reading time. Now there are only a few things I can do in my room: I can read, listen to music, or sleep—that’s it. The perfect reading environment makes picking up a book your easiest choice.
4. Race two books against each other
Productivity expert Mark Forster recently shared a tip for getting through your existing stack of books. The trick is to read two (and only two) books at once.
Choose two books that are close to the same ease of reading and length, and make sure they’re either both digital or both paper books.
Then, you race them:
If you are reading with a Kindle or similar device, it will tell you what percentage of the book you have read. On each reading session, read the book which has the least amount read. So if one book is 35% read and the other 38% read, you read the one which is 35% read.
It doesn’t matter whether the book you are reading catches up with the other one or not. Just read for as long as you want and then apply the rule again the next time you read.
If you’re using paper books, each time you read, choose the book with fewest number of pages read, rather than working out a percentage. “This is why the books need to be reasonably compatible in length,” says Forster. “When the shorter book gets finished, you’ll still be in sight of the end with the longer book.”
If you find sticking with one book at a time too boring, or you’re constantly worrying about the huge pile of books on your nightstand waiting to be read, try racing two books at once to give yourself variety and get through that stack.
What’s your best tip for reading more? Let us know in the comments.
Can you tell us what you do, and what your typical workday looks like?
I’m an English teacher and Human-Computer Interaction researcher, so half the time I’m planning and delivering lessons and marking work; the other half of the time I’m reading articles and writing up my PhD thesis.
Do you have a morning routine as part of waking up or starting your workday? What does your routine consist of?
I’m not sure if this is safe or even legal but I always listen to an audiobook as I cycle into work.
What’s the first thing you normally do when you start work/arrive at your office/desk?
I set a focus for the day on the Momentum Chrome extension. This is the one thing I will be unhappy if I go to bed without doing.
What’s your favorite thing about your daily workspace?
That I have several work spaces (my room, my classroom, my university desk) which I can assign different types of work.
Editors note: moving between workspaces could boost your productivity by “location boxing” different activities.
What does a successful workday look like for you? How do you measure success on a day-to-day basis?
I’m very susceptible to the Zeigarnik effect: unfinished tasks wear away at my self-esteem, so I prefer to do long stints on one task at a time. This is in contrast to the days on which I get caught up in small tasks that don’t relate to my bigger aims or fall down a social media hole.
Do you have any go-to approaches for resetting a bad day and getting back on track?
Changing my physical state: going to the gym. I used to rely on stimulants but when I measured their impact, they didn’t actually add up to more productivity overall. Now I prefer to try to keep things flat through a low carb diet etc.
Stimulants and external punishments are fine for one-off tasks like end-of-unit essays, but for longer projects it isn’t sustainable. As my RescueTime dashboard would show, stimulants got me revved up to send a load of emails and sort through my materials but they also prevented me from settling into the kind of contemplation I need to write. It’s like the Hemingway thing: write drunk; edit sober. The monthly report on RescueTime helped me to reflect on what was worthwhile in the long-term.
What’s your biggest productivity struggle? How do you deal with that?
Procrastination. I have to juggle so many things that juggling many bits of information at the same time and reading random things feels important and it’s hard to recognise when I’m time wasting.
Can you tell us about how you’ve been using RescueTime in your classroom, and what you’ve discovered from this process?
It’s interesting to see the lengths students will go to to lie to themselves. I would never look at a students’ data but many students are reluctant to even look at their own data because of the unpleasant feelings associated with realising the extent of their intention-behaviour gap. RescueTime works like a meditation mantra for the wandering mind: notice that you’re wandering and refocus on the task at hand. You had 17% productive time today? OK, just start again tomorrow.
You mentioned you’re working on a MOOC about RescueTime—can you share more about that?
Quantified Self tools assume that data is significant and intuitive to the user – this is often not the case. My MOOC is about setting goals and reshaping them as a result of reflection on the reality. RescueTime provides the reality.
How do you maintain work/life balance? What do you do to recharge when you’re not working?
I use IFTTT with RescueTime to block Facebook and Twitter when I’m not at my desk at home. I have two separate Chrome accounts: one for work, one for leisure. I have a daily meditation practice using the Muse band. I used to fine myself for not meditating through Beeminder and RescueTime but this did not prove a useful strategy. I also read a lot of fiction, naturally.
What’s the best improvement you’ve made to how you work, or a change you’ve made that you wish you’d done earlier?
Having my week visually laid out on Trello so that I’m not constantly running through which lessons I haven’t planned.
Are there any workday habits you admire in others but haven’t been able to adopt yourself?
Digital Sabbaths. I’ve tried not using technology on a Saturday and it really does feel like a cleansing process but I always slip.
At RescueTime, our mission is to increase the amount of meaningful work that happens in the world.
As part of that mission, I’ve been diving into research on what makes work meaningful, and ways to use this research in your own job.
Before we dive deeper, it’s important to decide what we mean when we’re talking about meaningfulness. When psychologists talk about feelings of meaningfulness, they tend to separate these feelings from happiness, though the two can go together.
Happiness and meaning aren’t the same
There’s a clear difference between feeling happiness and feeling meaningfulness in your life. And the difference is important, because they each produce different results long-term.
So what is the difference? A happy life is about seeking pleasure and enjoyment, avoiding discomfort, and doing what’s best for you as often as possible, whereas a meaningful life is about connecting with and helping others, and contributing to something beyond yourself—such as family, nature, or your work.
Because meaningful lives are characterized by contributing and connection, rather than pure enjoyment, they often include more stress, effort, and struggle than happy lives. But research shows meaningful lives tend to produce more positive feelings long-term than happiness alone, so the effort may be worth it.
Feelings of meaningfulness and a sense of purpose can even lead to more wealth. But to create a sense of meaningfulness at work we first have to understand what makes work meaningful.
What does meaningful work look like?
Interviews with 135 people in 10 different fields and reviews of existing research into meaningful work can give us an idea of what meaningful work looks like, and how we can achieve this ourselves.
Existing research has shown that meaningfulness in our work can improve our performance, commitment, and job satisfaction, and that employees find meaningful work more important than salary, working conditions, or opportunities for promotion.
Finding meaning in our work, however, is “intensely personal and individual.” There’s no one-size-fits-all approach to meaningful work.
According to the researchers behind the interviews mentioned above, meaningful work arises when “an individual perceives an authentic connection between work and a broader transcendent life purpose beyond the self.”
The interviewees who did find their work meaningful often talked about their work in relation to significant family members, bridging the gap between work and their personal lives. Meaningfulness was also associated often with a sense of pride and achievement, a feeling of fulfilling one’s potential, and finding one’s work creative, absorbing, and interesting.
Even for those of us lucky enough to find all these aspects in our work, we don’t tend to feel meaningfulness as a consistent feeling. It’s more likely to be episodic, arising out of particularly challenging situations in which our skills and experience enable us to help others.
And we don’t even feel meaningfulness in the moment, usually, but rather when we reflect on those challenges after the fact. Here are the interviewers again:
Meaningfulness was rarely experienced in the moment, but rather in retrospect and on reflection when people were able to see their completed work and make connections between their achievements and a wider sense of life meaning.
What increases feelings of meaning in our work and what can kill those same feelings are quite different. Our leaders and managers, for instance, have very little influence on increasing our feelings of meaningfulness, but the way we’re treated by our leaders is the most common cause of decreasing meaning at work.
Through these interviews, the researchers found seven particular acts that managers most commonly take which increase feelings of futility and meaninglessness in their employees:
- Creating a disconnect between personal and company values
- Failing to recognize and appreciate employee contributions
- Giving employees work they see as pointless (e.g. bureaucratic work or filling out forms)
- Treating employees unfairly
- Overriding employees’ judgement, leading to feelings of disempowerment
- Ostracizing employees or creating a disconnect between colleagues
- Creating unnecessary risk of harm to employees (e.g. putting them in situations where they feel unsafe)
While all these actions by management were associated with lower feelings of meaningfulness at work, a disconnect between personal and company values was the most common cause for feelings of futility and meaninglessness at work.
Managers pushing their employees to cut corners or focus on profits over quality of work or customer service, for instance, eroded feelings of meaningfulness in those employees.
To sum up the interviewers’ findings, managers can’t help us increase how meaningful our work is, but they can all-too-easily undermine those same feelings:
… our research showed that quality of leadership received virtually no mention when people described meaningful moments at work… but poor management was the top destroyer of meaningfulness.
So your boss can bring you down, but you’re the only person who can build yourself back up.
How to make your work more meaningful
Since your boss isn’t going to be much help, what can you do to increase your feelings of meaningfulness at work?
You could simply look for a new job that offers more meaning for you, but you can also work on adjusting your current job. This approach is called “job crafting,” a term coined by psychologists Amy Wrzesniewski and Jane E. Dutton in 2001.
Job crafting is the strategy of turning the job you already have into the job you love. It’s a process of adjusting your job description to create a role that provides more meaning in your life, and those who do it tend to be more satisfied and engaged in their work.
Job crafting comes in three parts, but any one will help with improving your enjoyment and sense of meaning at work.
The first part is task crafting, which is the process of picking up or dropping particular tasks to adjust the day-to-day of your role. Though this isn’t feasible for everyone, in many roles you’ll be able to do this more once you’ve proven yourself and been granted some leeway from your boss.
You might offer to pick up a task not in your job description, for instance, in order to learn a new skill and expand your abilities.
The second part is relational crafting. This is the process of purposely creating or deepening relationships at work, and changing who you spend time with. For instance, you might take some time to teach new team members, or get to know colleagues in different departments whom you normally wouldn’t interact with.
Finally, cognitive crafting. This is essentially changing the way you think about your job. Thinking differently about what you do and why it’s important can imbue your existing role with more meaning, due to a simply cognitive shift.
For instance, changing your title to reflect the most meaningful aspects of your role can help you think differently about how your work has an impact and why it’s important.
Job crafting has been shown to create a greater sense of autonomy, which in turn tends to correlate with greater job satisfaction.
Since many of us spend the majority of our time at work, it pays to think about how we can improve the way our work makes us feel. With a little effort to craft our current jobs, and a little luck to find a boss who won’t undermine those efforts, we can increase how meaningful our work feels—and in the process, become more engaged in our work and improve our output.
Whether you’re a student, you’re taking down notes during meetings, or you’re a regular at industry lectures and conferences, effective note-taking is a skill you could probably benefit from.
Although we tend to take notes for years when we’re in school, most of us don’t ever learn how to take effective notes, and how much time we’re wasting on approaches that don’t work.
And unfortunately, the most common approaches to taking notes really don’t work well.
What doesn’t work
Do you ever highlight books or your own notes? Do you underline important points? Do you sometimes re-read your notes to refresh your memory?
Here’s the bad news: those techniques are all pretty much useless.
In fact, highlighting is such a bad study technique it may even harm your recall ability, since it highlights particular notes and takes them out of their original context, which makes it harder to form connections in your mind—and thus, harder to remember the material.
Studies have found the most effective note-taking techniques are active, whereas re-reading, highlighting, and underlining are passive techniques. We need to interact heavily with our notes and the material we’re trying to learn if we’re to remember it.
Taking notes that will improve your retention
So what active techniques can you use to make your note-taking efforts worthwhile?
Handwrite your notes
For starters, don’t use a laptop to take notes, no matter where you are. A series of studies pitted laptop note-takers against students taking longhand notes and found the laptop approach faired worst in terms of information recall.
In the first study students watched a video of a lecture or TED talk, then completed 30 minutes of hard cognitive tasks before taking a quiz on the material from the video.
Students who wrote longhand notes outperformed laptop note-takers in recalling information to pass the quiz. And when the researchers examined the students’ notes, they found a clue as to why: the laptop notes tended to include a lot of verbatim transcription of the video, whereas handwritten notes couldn’t be written fast enough to do the same. If we can type fast enough to transcribe information verbatim, we can get away with writing notes without engaging our minds too much—we don’t have to think critically or even pay too much attention to simply write down exactly what someone’s saying.
So for the second study, the researchers specifically asked laptop note-takers to not write notes verbatim.
In this experiment, not only did the longhand note-takers still perform best on the quiz, the laptop note-takers still wrote verbatim transcriptions of the videos. The explicit warning to not do so made no difference at all.
For a third study, the researchers gave the students a full week before the quiz, rather than 30 minutes, and gave some students 10 minutes to review their notes before taking the quiz. Once again, longhand note-takers performed best, but those who took handwritten notes and reviewed them for 10 minutes before the quiz came out on top.
So while handwriting your notes is a better approach than using a computer, this approach works even better if paired with time to review your notes before testing yourself.
And if handwriting your notes seems too slow, you might look into learning shorthand to speed things up. While older shorthand techniques are based on hours upon hours of learning squiggles that correspond to various sounds and words, more recent shorthand approaches are more closely based on the existing English alphabet, but make it a lot faster to write down.
Use a Bullet Journal
To keep your handwritten notes organized, it helps to index them by page number and topic, as well as using a key of symbols to categorise ideas, notes, tasks, and other pieces of information quickly and clearly.
Luckily there’s no need to figure this out by yourself. The Bullet Journal system is designed to work with any notebook, and gives you a way to keep all your notes organized in one place.
Check out the Bullet Journal website for more details, but the basic organizational sections work like this:
- Set aside a few pages in the front of your notebook for your index and number every page after that (or buy a notebook with numbered pages).
- Turn to the next available page and put a heading to match what you’re writing. It could be a meeting name and date, the name of the person you’re meeting with, or the book you’re taking notes on.
- Go back to your index and mark down the heading and page number of your notes so you can find them again later.
The Bullet Journal system uses a set of symbols to mark notes, events, and tasks. You can also add your own to cover different categories if you need to. You might add an icon to denote an idea or something you need to follow up with a colleague, for instance.
The system also includes some simple setup to keep track of appointments or major events during the month and a daily to-do list. If you like keeping everything in one notebook, the Bullet Journal system and its handy indexing can help you keep track of your notes and find them easily later, even if they’re in-between tasks and agenda planning.
Draw your notes
Now this one might sound silly, but hear me out. Research shows if you draw something you’re more likely to remember it later.
A series of studies tested drawing against writing and other approaches for memorizing words, and found drawing came out on top.
In the first study, participants were given a series of words that were easy to draw (for example, “apple”) and were either asked to draw the word or write it down. To ensure participants spent the same amount of time either writing or drawing, they were given 40 seconds for each word and asked to fill the entire period. So they could write or draw the item over and over, or do it just once and spend the rest of the time adding flourishes and detail.
When participants were later tested on how many words they remembered, drawing helped them to remember twice as many as writing.
Follow-up studies compared drawing to other approaches such as writing down attributes of the object (e.g. its color, shape, size, varieties), focusing on a mental image of the object, and looking at a picture of it.
Drawing came out on top every time when participants’ memories were tested.
The researchers believe drawing works best because it combines various skills. When we draw an object we have to consider its physical properties, visualize it in our minds, and use our motor skills to render it on paper. Combining these skills, say the researchers, gives us a richer memory of each of the items we draw than if we simply copy down the word or look at a picture of the object.
Drawing your notes isn’t anything new. In fact, it has a name: sketchnotes. Designer Mike Rohde popularized “sketchnotes” with his books The Sketchnote Handbook and The Sketchnote Workbook. Rohde uses the term sketchnotes to describe the way he draws shapes and pictures amongst his notes to help him better take in the main ideas from conference talks, rather than trying to note down every little point.
Rohde advocates using signs and shapes such as boxes and arrows, different sized writing, and doodles to illustrate notes. You don’t need to be an amazing artist to use sketchnotes, he says. You only need to practice using simple shapes and images to illustrate your points.
While many of us are lucky to have left our lecture-listening days behind, opportunities for taking notes abound in almost any job. Whether it’s a quick note to remember something later or detailed notes on a book or research topic, there are plenty of opportunities for improving your note-taking approach.
And you can even combine these strategies. Italian graphic designer Serena uses a Bullet Journal to organize her handwritten notes and tasks, but also added drawings to her notebook:
… flipping through my bullet journal, I noticed that the daily logs with no drawings did give me all the ifnormation about what I did, but those days with drawings were totally impressed in my mind. For this reason, last month I decided to combine my daily logs with real comic pages, in order to track what I do, what happens and how I feel everyday.
Whether you combine drawing and handwriting your notes with a Bullet Journal or similar symbol categorization system, or simply choose one technique to try today, remember one thing: throw out your highlighters and stop wasting your time transcribing notes on your laptop.
I’ve been journaling on and off for years, but I’ve never been too good at sticking with the practice. It can easily begin to feel like a chore, and fall off until I get another burst of enthusiasm to pick it up again.
But recently I’ve come across a plethora of evidence that I could derive some serious benefits from instilling a regular journaling habit. From physical and mental health benefits to stronger feelings of belonging and better grades, journaling is proving its benefits in studies all over the world.
The benefits of journaling
Researchers generally use the term “expressive writing” to describe the kind of journaling used in studies. Most often study participants doing expressive writing are asked to write about thier feelings related to an event, though sometimes they’re also asked to write more thoughtfully about the facts related to the event. As we’ll see, this distinction is important.
Expressive writing studies have found that the practice may improve working memory and sport performance, lower blood pressure, and even improve lung and liver function It’s also been linked to improved immune function in people with HIV/AIDS, asthma, and rheumatoid arthritis.
A study of cancer patients found expressive writing correlated with better sleep quality, and another study of patients undergoing a biopsy found those who spent 20 minutes on expressive writing for three days in a row before the biopsy healed faster.
The benefits of expressive writing go beyond physical health, though. Journaling has also been shown to improve learning and performance in various settings. One study found people working a stressful fundraising job increased their hourly effort by 29% over the following two weeks after journaling for a few days about how their work made a difference.
A different study focused on the performance of new employees. In this case researchers found the employees who spent 15 minutes at the end of the day writing and reflecting performed 22.8% better than those who didn’t.
According to Harvard Business School psychologist Francesca Gino, this is because reflecting on our work reminds us we’re good at it.
When people have the opportunity to reflect, they experience a boost in self-efficacy. They feel more confident that they can achieve things. As a result, they put more effort into what they’re doing.
Other research has focused on the benefits of journaling exercises for students. In one study seventh graders were given assignments to reflect on and write about the things that were most important in their lives. The writing exercises were handed out during the most stressful times of the year: the start of a new school year, before tests, and around the holiday season, when home life can be particularly stressful.
While white students in the study didn’t benefit in any meaningful way, students in racial minorities did, and the worst-performing students benefited most. For the worst-performing kids, grade repetition and remediation rates dropped from 18% to 5%, and overall the racial achievement gap among the students was reduced by 30%.
How to get the most from your journal
There’s no right or wrong way to journal. It’s an entirely subjective experience and your approach should suit your preferences and needs.
But if you care about reaping the benefits research has found, there are some things you’ll need to keep in mind.
Use your journal to process emotions and events
There is emerging agreement… that the key to writing’s effectiveness is in the way people use it to interpret their experiences, right down to the words they choose. — Bridget Murray, American Psychological Association
Just writing how you feel about events, rather than thinking about the meaning or lessons learned in those events—and vice versa—won’t provide you with the benefits seen in all this journaling research. The benefits arise when we use journaling to express our emotions and to work through them by thinking through things that happen and why they make us feel a particular way.
Traumatic or stressful experiences are often used in expressive writing studies, as they involve a lot of strong emotion.
According to health psychology researcher Susan Lutgendorf, “an individual needs to find meaning in a traumatic memory as well as to feel the related emotions to reap positive benefits from the writing exercise.”
While it might be easier to simply write about your emotions related to an event and move on, researchers say it’s important to process those emotions as well. By writing about your emotions and your rational thoughts related to a stressful event, studies have found you’ll be able to distance yourself from it and become less emotionally reactive.
We think the process of creating a coherent story out of disorganised emotional memories facilitates self-distancing because this process requires people to adopt other people’s perspectives and focus on broader contexts. — Jiyoung Park, assistant professor of psychological and brain sciences at the University of Massachusetts—Amherst.
Taking this idea of different perspectives even further, one study found writing about stressful events in third person can help us distance ourselves and process our emotions.
Taking an observer’s vantage may be vital to maintaining composure and making progress when trying to sort through a distressing or angering event or moment in life. — Matthew Andersson, assistant professor of sociology at Baylor University
Write about your best self
While many of the studies mentioned here asked participants to write expressively about traumatic or stressful events in their lives, one study asked some participants to write about their best possible future selves.
Unsurprisingly, writing about future life goals was significantly less upsetting than writing about traumatic events. But it was also associated with a significant increase in subjective well-being right after the study.
And when the researchers checked in with participants five months later, both writing about stressful experiences and writing about life goals were associated with a lower rate of illness during that five-month period.
This is just one study among many, but it points to the possibility that we could reap the benefits of expressive writing without having to write about events and memories that upset us.
You could also pair this journaling approach with writing regular reviews to keep you on track toward your goals.
Write a weekly gratitude journal
Keeping a journal of the things you’re grateful for has shown similar benefits to expressive writing. It can improve your sleep, make you feel happier, and and decrease your chance of getting sick.
But gratitude journals don’t always work. Like expressive journaling, there are a few things to keep in mind if you want to reap the health benefits of writing down what you’re grateful for.
Robert Emmons, professor at the University of California and “arguably the world’s leading expert on the science of gratitude“, suggests focusing on the people you’re grateful for more than material things, and taking notice of unexpected events, as they tend to elicit stronger feelings of gratitude.
Emmons also suggests going into detail about a particular thing you’re grateful for, rather than focusing on a long-but-superficial list of items. The more detail you go into, the more you’ll savor the feelings of gratitude.
Finally, Emmons says not to write in your gratitude journal too often. One study found writing in a gratitude journal once a week for six weeks boosted participants’ happiness, but writing about gratitude three times every week didn’t. Humans are highly adaptable, and Emmons suggests writing about gratitude too often causes us to adapt and get used to the feeling. It means less to us when we experience it more often, so spreading out your gratitude journaling will be more effective.
If you’re new to journaling and don’t know where to start, here are some tools to get you going.
Day One is a popular journaling app for Mac and iOS that lets you create separate journals. You could have a gratitude journal, a daily journal, and even a work journal. You can also use IFTTT to automate storing your Instagram photos, tweets, and RescueTime stats in a Day One journal.
Another iOS and Mac option is the notes app, Bear. Though it’s not necessarily designed to be used as a journal, Bear lets you link to other notes within the app, add images, and use tags to organise your notes.
If you’re not an iOS and Mac user, or you’re already using Evernote for your daily note-taking needs, it’s an obvious choice for your journal. You can create as many new notebooks as you want for various journals, add photos, and take your journal with you on every device.
For those who like the feel of analogue tools, Hobonichi planners are a great way to start a daily journaling habit. These Japanese planners are used for everything from planning daily to-do lists to art journals and diaries. They’re made with Tomoe River paper, one of the best options available if you use fountain pens, and surprisingly tough, considering how thin it is (imagine something like Bible paper). The Hobonichi comes in A6 and A5 sizes, both with one page per day to keep you writing regularly.
Another popular analogue option is the Bullet Journal system, which can be used in any notebook. Or, you can purchase the official Bullet Journal notebook made by Leuchtturm1917. Whether you purchase the official book with pre-printed sections or write up the system in whichever notebook you happen to have handy, you’ll get the benefits of both organization and flexibility for your entries. The system includes an indexing method to help you find your entries later, as well as ways to keep track of your tasks and events alongside your journal entries. The great thing about this system is that it offers structure to help you get past the panic-inducing blank page, but it’s flexible enough that you can adjust it to suit your needs.
Whether you dash out a few lines into your phone’s notes app, or spend an hour writing in a leather-bound book, try finding some time to journal. Write about your best possible future self and how you might get there, or take note of the things you’re most grateful for. Writing a journal might seem simple, but it can have powerful benefits if you have the patience to stick with it.
Writing helps to organize thoughts, facilitate integration, and helps you accept your own experiences and put them in context. In essence, it allows you to see the meaning of events going on around you and create meaning in your own life.