By Franz Wiesbauer, MD MPH - 7th Feb 2018 - The Medmastery show

Geniuses journal daily. Here’s why doctors should too.

laying in the grass readying a journal

Richard Branson is something of a dynamo.

The billionaire businessman is one of the most well-known and admired public figures in the modern world of entrepreneurship and has a lifestyle to match. From wild parties to hot air-ballooning around the world, Branson’s interests don’t exactly paint him as someone who’d be into the whole self-reflection thing.

Yet, despite being labelled the “lazy and stupid student” by his childhood teachers and living with dyslexia, Branson has repeatedly and consistently attributed his success to his “secret little weapon”: journaling.

And he’s not the only one. You’d be hard-pressed to find a luminous mind throughout history that has not been associated with the habit of journaling. From prodigies of yesteryear such as Newton, Darwin, Leonardo Da Vinci & Einstein to modern luminaries like Oprah, Warren Buffett and Elon Musk, the habit of keeping a daily record of personal observations and insights has been consistently credited by the brightest minds as instrumental to their success.

Many people associate journaling with teenage angst and mid-life crises (thanks, Bridget Jones). The truth is though, humans are naturally geared towards recording things. We’ve been doing it since the caveman days. We can’t help it. “I think, therefore I am”, as Descartes so eloquently puts it, describes our inherent sentience and the subsequent urge to express that sentience through the written word. Self-reflection is therefore as fundamental to our daily life as eating and breathing.

But why should this matter to you, as a physician?

There’s a good chance that at some point during your medical education years, you were asked to do some reflective practice writing, a strategy which was supposed to help you analyze the impact you have on your practice of medicine. That wasn’t just included in your curriculum for the fun of it. Self-reflection is vital to helping us understand how the practice of medicine impacts us not only professionally, but personally as well. Medicine is a semi-exact science laced with the art of uncertainty. William Osler understood this and once told his students that “ a distressing feature in the life which you are to enter...is the uncertainty which pertains...to the very hopes and fears which make us men. In seeking absolute truth we aim at the unattainable, and must be content with finding broken portions” (inspirations ref). The unpredictability that comes with the practise of medicine can be emotionally exhausting and an emotionally exhausted doctor is far likelier to make bad decisions.

Being a doctor involves making daily decisions that directly affect the lives of your patients. All the work and expectations from colleagues and patients can take a toll on your mental health which will ultimately affect your productivity and performance.

So how will journaling help?

Think Better

Recording things strengthens your ability to create relevant connections between disparate and seemingly unrelated thoughts to help you build a more complete picture about any particular issue. All those thoughts, worries, and dreams locked in your head could be holding you back from realizing your potential as a physician. Journaling can help you channel those distractions and get a better handle on whatever problems are plaguing you. Use this time to also reflect on your practise as a physician and learn about your own style. William Osler was fanatical about recording things because he understood that allocating a portion of time everyday for dedicated reflection was crucial to his development as a physician.

Work Better

Sometimes we make mistakes which leave us feeling inadequate. Journaling can help you make sense of your slip-ups and give you the objectivity you need to see it as a blip rather than an indictment of your ability to practise medicine.

Journaling also strengthens your communication skills. Communicating effectively is an art form and journaling is your opportunity to practise. Next to clinical skills, the ability to communicate effectively is perhaps one of the most important skills a doctor can perfect. Writing down your thoughts everyday helps you hone your ability to gather your thoughts and express them concisely. You may not see the benefits immediately, but you will notice a significant improvement after several weeks and months of consistent practise. You’ll  eventually realize that you can articulate thoughts and ideas far more confidently than you did before.

Feel Better

Saving lives is a demanding job. Losing lives can be devastating. We often don’t like to talk about this part of our jobs but it does have an impact. Recording your thoughts can be a pretty effective way to deal with the daily stresses of medicine so it doesn’t start to seep into your “outside” life. Journaling is often described as a meditative practice (and I probably don’t need to tell you that there’s plenty of research about the psychological benefits of meditation). It helps you make sense of your thoughts and gives you an outlet for those pesky anxieties that keep you up at night.

We’ve interviewed a bunch of rockstar physicians on the Medmastery Show and many of them have some form of a journaling practise too.

Check out the interviews here!