Writing for Insight and Behavior Change — Nathaniel Branden on the Joys of Sentence Completion

Sentence completion is a practice that can supercharge your journal writing. Use this tool to prompt reflections that surprise you and support positive change in your life.

Begin with an incomplete sentence (stem) that begs for completion. Consider these examples from psychotherapist Nathaniel Branden:

  • To me, self-responsibility means…
  • When I look at what I do to impress people…
  • Sometimes I keep myself passive when I…
  • Sometimes I make myself helpless when I…
  • If I want to grow in independence, I will need to…
  • It is slowly and reluctantly dawning on me that…

When done well, sentence completion encourages you to bypass your internal censors and express pre-conscious thoughts and feelings. Sentence completion can also help you turn vague intentions into concrete plans.

Ideas for sentence stems

Branden offers two 30-week sets of sentence completion exercises. Part one is here, and part two is here.

Of course, you have many other options.

One is to create sentence stems based on the theory of implementation intentions. These intentions pair an environmental cue with a specific future behavior. For example: “When I get my paycheck, I will deposit 10 percent of it in my savings account.”

Use the following sentence structure — which includes two stems — to create implementation intentions:

When… I will….

Another option is to create sentences that prompt Tiny Habits. This is a strategy for behavior change based on the work of BJ Fogg at Stanford University.

A Tiny Habit links a specific cue with a “baby step” — a new behavior that requires:

  • No more than 30 seconds
  • No new ability
  • No motivation.

For example: “After I walk in the door from work, I will hug my wife.”

So, the stem sentence structure for a Tiny Habit is:

After I… I will….

Getting the most benefit

Branden suggests the following ways to create more value from sentence completion:

Focus on a small number of stems each week. Complete the same sentence stems each day, Monday through Friday. Keep the number of stems limited.

Copy the stems to a personal journal. The goal is to build a written record of your responses so that you can review them at the end of the week. Every day, copy the sentence stems into your paper-based journal or a document on your computer. Leave space beneath each stem for writing. Then write 6 to 10 endings directly below each sentence stem.

Write your sentence completions early in the day. Whenever possible, do them in the morning before you start the day’s business.

Complete sentence stems quickly — without stopping to revise. If the day’s writing takes more than 10 minutes, Branden notes, then you are censoring yourself or overthinking it. Remember that sentences don’t have to be profound. Your aim is simply to expand each stem into grammatically complete sentence. If your mind goes blank, just invent any ending.

Fresh start each day’s writing. Do not read the sentences you wrote on a previous day. Repetitions from day to day are no problem.

Observe the effects of writing. After your 10 minutes or so of writing each day, go ahead with your planned activities. Notice any changes in your thinking, emotions, or behavior that seem to follow from sentence completion.

During the weekend, sum up the week’s writing. Review your sentence completions, looking for themes and major insights. Then write at least 6 endings for this stem: If any of what I wrote this week is true, it might be helpful if I…

See for yourself

Branden makes big claims for this form of writing practice:

Doing sentence completion on a daily basis as described here is a kind of psychological discipline, a spiritual practice, even, that over time achieves insight, integration, and spontaneous behavior change. People sometimes ask, “How do I integrate the things I am learning in sentence completion?” The answer is that practice itself, done repetitively, brings about the integration.

I invite you to test these statements by doing sentence completion for yourself. At the very least, you’ll gain a way to get unblocked when you open your journal to a fresh page.