Write for 20 minutes a day, three days in a row
I challenge you to write about your life for 20 minutes a day, three days in a row.
Don’t worry about grammar and punctuation. Just write. Then put the piece of writing aside or throw it away. It doesn’t matter if you never read it again.
I did this exercise a couple of months ago and found it a fascinating experience. I started with no preconceived ideas about what I would write and was surprised what words hit the page. I haven’t re-read what I wrote and probably never will. As I was not in the middle of an emotional funk at the time, I am not sure how, or if, it changed my life, but I’ll do a stock-take at the end of the year.
Writing can help heal your life
The original version of this exercise was developed by James Pennebaker, professor or psychology at the University of Texas, who has written numerous books on this topic, including Writing to Heal: A Guided Journal for Recovering from Trauma and Emotional Upheaval. I confess I haven’t read this book, but I do own his book, The Secret Life of Pronouns.
I came across this writing challenge listening to a James Altucher podcast with Susan David, Harvard professor and author of Emotional Agility. James Pennebaker has done thousands of studies that show that people who write about their experiences have improved physical and emotional outcomes. Raving on paper allows you to get your feelings out so you can process them and move on. Bottlers and brooders stay stuck for longer.
Susan David gives the following Pennebaker example in her book: a Dallas computer company laid off a hundred senior engineers, most of whom had never worked anywhere else. Four months later none had found work. James Pennebaker set up three groups. One group wrote about how they felt about being laid off, the second about time management, and the third didn’t write at all. The two groups who wrote, wrote for 20 minutes a day, three days in a row.
Months after the writing sessions, the men who had written about how they felt were three times more likely to have been re-employed.
In a BBC article, Claudia Hammond cites another study by James Pennebaker where six months after writing for four days, students who had written about their feelings had fewer visits to the doctor than students in the control group, who had written about neutral topics.
Pennebaker is not suggesting that writing is a magic cure-all, but it does appear to give us some perspective on our lives and hasten the healing of emotional and physical wounds.
The way we write about ourselves is also interesting. Claudia Hammond says:
‘He [Pennebaker] found that the types of words people used changed over the course of the four sessions. Those whose wounds healed the fastest began by using the word “I” a lot, but in later sessions moved on to saying “he” or “she” more often, suggesting they were looking at the event from other perspectives. They also used words like “because”, implying they were making sense of the events and putting them into a narrative. So Pennebaker believes that the simple act of labelling your feelings and putting them into a story is somehow affecting the immune system.’
Give it go: 20 minutes a day for three days in a row.
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