Write it down (3 ways writing can improve health)

By Kiley Owen, PA-C

Did you know that something as simple as a pen and paper has the power to yield some great health benefits? 

Pen and paper? You might ask. Listen, I'm not a writer, nor do I have any interest in becoming one.

This post is not about becoming a better writer (although that could result). It's about using writing to:

  • Enhance your focus, organization, and productivity
  • Improve your clarity, mental well-being, and creativity
  • Achieve your most important goals

Enhanced Focus, Organization, & Productivity

In his classic book, Getting Things Done, author and productivity expert David Allen explains that "it's possible for a person to have an overwhelming number of things to do and still function productively with a clear head and a positive sense of relaxed control."

Seriously? Sign me up!

The book explains his renowned productivity system, which is based on two key objectives:

  1. Capturing all the things that need to get done into a logical and trusted system outside of your head and off your mind, and
  2. Disciplining yourself to make front-end decisions about these "inputs" so that you will always have a plan for "next actions" that can be implemented or renegotiated at any moment.

David Allen explains, "The short-term memory part of your mind—the part that tends to hold all of the incomplete, undecided, and unorganized 'stuff'vfunctions much like RAM on a personal computer. Your conscious mind, like the computer screen, is a focusing tool, not a storage place... And as with RAM, there's limited capacity; there's only so much 'stuff' you can store in there and still have that part of your brain function at a high level. Most people walk around with their RAM bursting at the seams.

"They're constantly distracted, their focus disturbed by their own internal mental overload."

How can we dump some of that mental overload, decrease distraction, and improve our focus? By getting the information out of our heads and onto paper... or a computer... or a phone... or wherever you prefer to keep written information.

As David Allen explains, "If it's on your mind, your mind isn't clear." 

For this reason I tend to take a lot of notes. I jot notes regarding patient encounters, random "to do" items that pop up in my head, items I need to pick up at the store, appointments and events, blog post ideas, awesome quotes in books or articles, etc.

This may sound obvious, but it's incredibly useful to write down even the simplest things as soon as you think about them, in order to get them out of your head and into a reliable storage place that won't clutter your mind.

I used to think of writing things down as a sign of weakness. But I now consider it a smart habit.

I also used to think that multitasking as a productivity trick. But I now realize that multitasking is more likely to hinder performance than enhance it. In fact, a study done by researchers at the Institute of Psychiatry at the University of London found that multitasking lead to a greater decrease in IQ than smoking marijuana or losing a night's sleep!

If you aren't much of a note-taker, I encourage you to give it a try. It can make a huge difference, by decreasing mental overload and distraction, allowing for sharper focus and improved efficiency on individual tasks throughout the day. 

Improved Clarity, Mental Well-Being, & Creativity

I enjoy writing (which you probably guessed :).  But blogging isn't the only kind of writing I like to do.

I love to journal, which is very different from blogging, in that (for me, anyway) it's messy, unpolished, and raw. There are no limitations, no rules, and complete freedom to express anything I want. Since I'm not writing it for anyone except myself, I don't have to worry about how someone else might interpret it. 

Of note, journaling doesn't have to take a lot of time, and it doesn't have to document everything you've done (personally, I find that kind of writing to be boring). You can simply take 5-10 minutes to jot down your most interesting thoughts, feelings, events, lessons learned, etc. 

Journaling is a great opportunity to momentarily step back, see the big picture, and reflect on how your life is going. I find this process to be therapeutic.

Similar to how meditation can bring awareness to various thought patterns (in a detached kind of way), writing can help you to "see" your thoughts in a different light, which can bring a great deal of clarity to a situation. In other words, writing can be a great way to process life's events.  

Of course, there's the creative side of writing, too, which can also be therapeutic. This doesn't have to involve writing a novel. It might simply be brainstorming ideas and dreams.

As written by Julia Cameron in The Artist's Way, "as we are creative beings, our lives become our work of art." She notes, "No matter what your age or your life path, whether making art is your career or your hobby or your dream, it is not too late or too egotistical or too selfish or too silly to work on your creativity."

Achieving Your Most Important Goals

I could spend all day in creative, idealistic, right-brained dream world (which is why I have to be very careful with Pinterest). But it's time to return to the left side of the brain, talk about taking action, and point out the usefulness that writing has in this area too.

I like fitness author Bill Phillips's explanation of the difference between dreams and goals.

"Dreams are things we wish for—things you enjoy thinking about but don't really know when they'll happen. Goals, on the other hand, are specific things you have decided you need to accomplish within a clearly defined period of time."

Dr. Gail Matthews, a psychology professor at the Dominican University in California, studied goal setting. Her research showed that those who simply wrote down their goals were 42% more likely to achieve them!

This is because thinking about your dreams activates the imaginative right hemisphere of your brain, while writing down actionable goals activates the logic-based left hemisphere of your brain.

As it turns out, this left hemisphere plays an important role in turning dreams into reality. So don't forget the important step of writing down your goals

A well-known approach for doing this is the SMART system, which encourages setting goals that are Specific, Measurable, Actionable, Realistic, and Time-bound.

How About You?

How might the simple act of writing help you to enhance your performance, improve your sense of well-being, and reach your goals?

Kiley Owen is a physician assistant, blogger and preventive health enthusiast. This post—along with helpful links to other resources—originally appeared on her blog, makinghealthapriority.com.