The humble notebook gets its moment
Already on the rise before the pandemic, journaling and guided notebooks are helping stressed-out millennials be more mindful.
In 2020, we baked bread, purchased Pelotons, wore sweatpants, and started journaling. People who bought notebooks and journals last year may have done so to document life during the pandemic, access a dedicated space for their thoughts, or simply escape their screens. Journaling is credited as a way to help manage anxiety, reduce stress, and cope with depression, so it’s no wonder that so many people turned to writing as a reprieve.
Interest in journaling was already on the rise before the pandemic. Three times as many guided journals were sold during the first four months of 2019 as were sold in all of 2012, when bestseller “Wreck This Journal” helped kick off the trend, according to data from business insights provider The NPD Group.
During a normal year, searches for journaling typically peak in January as people set their New Year’s resolutions. In 2020, journaling search terms spiked during lockdown, particularly in March and April. In the months after stay-at-home orders took effect, headlines explained “why you should start a Coronavirus diary,” ran down “everything you need to know if you want to start journaling,” and shared expert picks for “the best wellness, gratitude, and happiness journals.”
Field Notes, Papier and Appointed are just a few notebook brands offering a modern aesthetic and point-of-view on old-fashioned pen and paper products. Guided notebooks, or those that include prompts and design features, are a more recent trend. Today, a new crop of notebook and journaling brands are targeting specific niches in nature, productivity, wellness, and even therapy, with the goal of helping stressed-out millennials be more mindful.
The idea for the The Green Conspiracy, a journal for gardeners, sprouted from a messy notebook cofounders Leticia Rita and Fernando Ifran used while taking care of a new garden in their Berlin apartment. The two-year-old company, a side project for the couple who both work in advertising technology, aims to take the stress out of growing your own food through calendars, diagrams, tips and other information in a guided journal (that is entirely compostable, of course).
“When you’re alone in a garden, you’re forced to be there, be present, observe,” says Rita, who draws a comparison between gardening and journaling. “In the beginning, it’s hard, but then inevitably it becomes a habit.”
Habit-forming behavior is exactly what Intelligent Change, maker of The Five Minute Journal, has tackled since it got its start in 2012. Its most famous journal, which focuses on helping people express gratitude, has now sold more than 1 million physical copies; more than 360,000 people have downloaded the paid app. “Blank journaling can be very overwhelming,” says cofounder Alex Ikonn. “For me the idea of doing 750 words a day, I’ve tried it – it’s hard.”
The company, which has added a structured productivity planner, an illustrated journal for living in the moment, and one for year-long goal setting to its assortment, saw 20% year-over-year growth from 2019 to 2020. “Last year made it more normal,” Ikonn says, with people starting to talk more about their mental wellbeing practices. “That’s been the most incredible thing, because that not only helps our business, but most importantly, it helps other people.”
If journaling can really help millennials become more mindful, how far can the humble notebook go to help us work towards a better state of wellbeing?
Cofounders and best friends Varshil Patel and Wesley Zhao quit their jobs at health tech company Flatiron Health and asset management firm Bridgewater in 2019 to build something new in the mental health space. Forty million people in the U.S. struggle with anxiety disorders, yet only a small fraction actually see a therapist. Noticing this problem at large, as well as among their peer group, they decided to focus their efforts there.
“For us, the thesis has been that there are so many tools out there that work, and they’ve been proven by researchers and clinicians to be effective, but there’s a big accessibility gap between the things that we know work [for therapy], and the things that people have access to,” says Patel. “Accessibility is not just ‘are you affordable and are you available?’ but, ‘are you really easy to use, and are you enjoyable?’”
After exploring ideas for apps, virtual reality-based digital therapeutics and even tech-enabled mental health clinics, the duo landed on a notebook as a way to bridge the divide for consumers. To build their version during the early months of lockdown, they teamed up with a team of psychologists and a writer to put Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) exercises into book form. Six months later, in June 2020, Therapy Notebooks went live. Patel reports that around 60,000 people have purchased its first product, “The Anti-Anxiety Notebook,” that, unlike others, is not intended to serve as a daily ritual. Therapy Notebooks is currently the fifth ranked product that Thingtesting users want to test site wide.
“We found that a lot of people really appreciated that it wasn’t a notebook that you had to use everyday,” he says of customer feedback during the first few months. “We went with our gut instinct that was: ‘Let’s not add more to the commitments that people already have in their lives.’ A lot of people described that as relieving.”
Flip to a random page of The Anti-Anxiety Notebook and you'll find neat, light blue lines asking, “What emotions are you feeling?” and “How can you think about the situation differently?” to help you get started sharing. The opposite page offers more space to write and ends with a “Note from a therapist” in the footer. Tips and other check-in pages are dispersed throughout.
“We’re not trying to help you ‘do therapy,’” says Patel. “We’re trying to arm you with evidenced-based tools that you can use or incorporate into your daily life.” He adds that notebooks geared towards young adults and kids, coping with depression, and processing trauma are the most commonly requested themes.
Whether it’s designed to address a specific need or simply serve as a healthy ritual, notebooks are offering a low-tech, creative outlet for people spending more of their lives on screens. That’s something an online journal (and social sites) can’t replicate. “Putting pen to paper has a different therapeutic feel to it than if you’re typing,” Patel says.
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