The Power of Journaling for Positive Self-Change: Self-Monitoring Makes All the Difference

January 2, 2016 in Categories: , , , by

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Recently, I proudly launched my new online program, Go to Bed: 14 Easy Steps to Healthier Sleep. This sleep guide is the most comprehensive resource for the real science of sleep and health that is available anywhere (seriously). But, I wanted to do a lot more than just distill research into bite-sized sections for my readers—I also wanted to create a new challenge that was straightforward, comprehensive, and effective. So, the Go to Bed contains not only every single scientifically-validated tip and trip for improving sleep, but also a 14-Day Sleep Challenge that focuses on the 14 most effective steps that you can make to recharge your life with better sleep.

The people who’ve already purchased the book will have noticed that one of the unique (and, in my opinion, super cool!) things about Go to Bed is that the experience includes a series of surveys and journal pages (you can even check out the “Do You Need Go to Bed?” survey here and get your Sleep Score for free here). The experience is both awesomely interactive and importantly introspective: I’m going to challenge you to think about how you’re doing in that moment and how you could do better. Why? Well, in part because I want to know how the program is doing (there’s some potential academic research implications that I’m interested in) but also because reflective journaling is extremely well supported in the scientific literature as an effective strategy to improve self-change!

dreamstime_m_47713254Journaling has been thought of as a therapeutic practice for a long time, specifically in the world of psychotherapy. Journaling has been studied in the context of mental health and in the context of overall stress reduction (which we all know is SO important for overall physical AND mental health!). Specifically, we know that journaling about both your thoughts (cognitions) and emotive processes are great for stress reduction, which has actually been linked to reporting fewer symptoms of illness (hello, my autoimmune peeps! Are you journaling yet? Because the science tells us that we all should be!).

With Go to Bed, I’m not just talking about improving mental health (though I do go into some science behind the relationship between sleep and mental health); my goal is to instigate habit formation (of arguably one of the most essential healthy habits you can have!) and positive self-change.

As I’ve discussed here, habit formation is actually something that takes a heck of a lot longer than 14 days or even the more stereotypically quoted 21 days (the average is actually 66 days, but it varies between 3 weeks and 8 months!!!). But, we also need to learn new behaviors and be exposed to new tools if we’re going to forget old habits. Journaling is one of the tools that I hope to give you that will become a habit, because it’s a powerful way to help yourself change!

The concept of “self-change” is just what you’d think: it’s the idea that someone changes habits for themselves. Commonly used in the mental health world for problems like addiction, we also see self-change in the realms of other forms of self-help. I’m using it here, because I believe that the only person who can instigate the necessary changes to your sleep life is you. I can write tens of thousands of words about the importance of sleep for your health and wellbeing (actually, I did in Go to Bed!), but YOU are the one who needs to actually put action to them! And, you know, go (literally and physically) to bed!

Some people think of journaling as an accountability tool, but that’s not really it. And if you do approach journaling that way, it can trigger those same rebellious behaviors than strict nutritional challenges and crash diets can trigger (I’ve heard stories of people lying to their journals the same way some people will try to bend all the rules in nutritional challenges–note, if you’re lying to your journal, you really are missing the point). Your journal isn’t there to nag you or make you feel guilty. It’s there to encourage awareness, reflection, and intention. Instead of being the nagging family member, it’s the supportive friend, the confidante, and the therapist.

Researchers have shown that repeated attempts at self-change, deemed “false hope syndrome”, tend to be rough on people’s psyches. For anyone who’s been on a cycle of weight loss and gain, for example, you’ve probably experienced this phenomenon before… And it totally sticks. It should go without saying that feeling defeated before you even attempt some new positive change, isn’t helpful! That is just one more reason why I’m trying to give you all the tools you need to succeed the first time. That includes some thorough science, a huge bag of tricks when it comes to improving sleep quantity and quality, checklists, and detailed summaries of sleep pathologies where extra troubleshooting is needed, gadgets with sciency street cred, and of course, the most effective strategies distilled into a 14-Day challenge with iterative implementation of easily achievable steps. And how will you know that you’ve succeeded? Journaling and monitoring your Sleep Score over time.

The-Art-Of-JournalingThe journaling and the surveys in Go to Bed could be combined to be called “self-monitoring behaviors”. Self-monitoring behaviors have been studied in relation to other behavioral changes, like weight loss. There are a lot of mechanisms by which self-monitoring behaviors help you make changes that actually stick. As I mentioned, journaling allows for self-reflection, which can act as a form of mild self-therapy. You’ll see in Go to Bed that mental illness and inadequate sleep are highly related, so improvements in your sleep may lead to improvements in your mood. Tracking your daily habits will make these small changes more noticeable and provides you with powerful positive reinforcement! Journaling also helps people make decisions—it gives us time in our days to concentrate and organize our thoughts, which can be a challenge amidst the chaos of family life or our otherwise busy lives. So, we know that self-monitoring behaviors like journaling are an awesome idea for anyone trying to make changes or meet goals.

Journaling is a great tool for achieving your New Year’s resolutions whether you plan to put sleep on the top of your priority list, as emphasized in Go to Bed, or are tackling other health goals. And, it doesn’t need to take much time. A journal entry need only contain information pertinent to the habit you’re working on, and really should only take up to a few minutes per day. For example, if you’re trying to eat more veggies with every meal, your journal entry could simply be the number of servings you had at breakfast, lunch and dinner each day.  Depending on your goals, there’s also a variety of apps available to make journaling even easier!  If you’re tracking your food intake, you might enjoy using Cronometer (very versatile, easy-to-use, and tracks micronutrients in additions to macronutrients).  And if you’re tracking sleep, an app like Sleep Better or device like a FitBit can be a great additional tool too!

But, here’s some crazy cool news for those of you who are totally excited to see what health improvements more and better sleep can make for you: There is brand-new research about the potency of self-monitoring behaviors and interventions for improving sleep.

Writing in bedResearchers examined the sleep behavior of college students by measuring four sleep hygiene behaviors (restful sleep environment, going to bed hungry/thirsty, avoiding stressful activities lose to bedtime, and avoiding caffeine in the evening). They also measured participants’ sleep quality and insomnia symptoms. From there, participants were instructed to either journal their sleep behaviors or make some specific changes. After two weeks, researchers found that both groups improved their sleep environment before sleep, got better at avoiding going to bed thirsty or hungry, and both improved their insomnia and sleep quality scores. The intervention implementation group was better at avoiding stressful events before sleep after two weeks, but the self-monitoring behavior group was more likely to complete the entire study. Basically, self-monitoring is about as important as learning about the necessary changes when it comes to improving your sleep lifestyle. Seriously!

This larger trial is supported by other studies that have tried to investigate how to improve sleep habits in at-risk populations like adolescents. The results are very clear: daily journaling helps to improve sleep behaviors, likely for the exact reasons I described above. So, the combination of surveys and journaling included in the Go to Bed: 14 Easy Steps to Healthier Sleep should make a statistically significant difference in your adherence to the program AND to your actual results. I am so excited to watch all of you succeed in this new adventure toward the best sleep of your life!

Go-to-Bed-cover-232x300Learn more about the Go to Bed program here.



Ullrich PM, Lutgendorf SK. Journaling about stressful events: effects of cognitive processing and emotional expression. Ann Behav Med. 2002;24(3):244-50.

Dreisbach G, Bäuml KH. Don’t do it again! Directed forgetting of habits. Psychol Sci. 2014;25(6):1242-8.

Polivy J, Herman CP. If at first you don’t succeed. False hopes of self-change. Am Psychol. 2002;57(9):677-89.

Kong A, Beresford SA, Imayama I, et al. Adoption of diet-related self-monitoring behaviors varies by race/ethnicity, education, and baseline binge eating score among overweight-to-obese postmenopausal women in a 12-month dietary weight loss intervention. Nutr Res. 2012;32(4):260-5.

How Journaling Can Change Your Life. PsychologyMatters website. Published March 5, 2014.

Mairs L, Mullan B. Self-Monitoring vs. Implementation Intentions: a Comparison of Behaviour Change Techniques to Improve Sleep Hygiene and Sleep Outcomes in Students. Int J Behav Med. 2015;22(5):635-44.

Kor K, Mullan BA. Sleep hygiene behaviours: an application of the theory of planned behaviour and the investigation of perceived autonomy support, past behaviour and response inhibition. Psychol Health. 2011;26(9):1208-24.


Can these things be adapted into the lives of those who work nights and also those who do transportation jobs such as truck drivers or railroad engineers?

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