How To Start Writing a Journal
The term ‘journaling’ can mean many different things to different people.
Journaling can be used to keep track of our thoughts and feelings, as well as to log events in our life and plan for our future.
It can be focused on a particular time or event in our life, or it can be a constant partner during life’s ups and downs.
In this article I will:
outline some key tips to help you get started (or re-started) with journaling
give you some examples of what to write in your journal, so you never need to stare longingly at a blank page
share with you some of the proven benefits of a regular journaling habit
introduce you to gratitude journaling and why it can be so powerful
An Introduction to Journaling
First of all I’m going to summarise some of the most popular types of journaling:
I think of free writing as downloading everything that’s in your head onto paper.
The idea is to not overthink the process, not to get caught up worrying about spelling and grammar, or even making it legible.
This is not necessarily the type of journal entry we would want to reflect back on, that would remind us what had happened on a certain day. Instead, it is a method designed to clear the mind, making space for our real priorities of the day.
A great resource for free writing is Julia Cameron. You may want to check out her resources here.
I would also highly recommend her book, The Artist’s Way.
If you like to have a project on the go, or are always working towards something, using a journal for goal setting can be extremely helpful and rewarding.
Whether it’s a food log, a pregnancy journal, a travel diary, a career planner or a home DIY plan, you can use a journal to set goals and track your progress daily, adding in what you learn along the way.
Whether it’s a few words to describe how we have felt that day, or using colour to represent those same feelings, tracking our mood on a daily basis can provide some crucial information for us to reflect back on.
For example, if we had noted that we had felt bored for 15 days out of the last month, we are then presented with a choice; to continue being bored, or to do something about it.
This is very similar to traditional diary writing. It’s a short summary of your day. However, unlike a dated diary, when we use a blank journal, we can choose the amount of space on the page we use each day.
To start with, you could simply write a line a day – a very brief overview of what you did that day. On other days, you may feel like you want to expand on that, writing a little more about what happened and how you felt about it.
What I love about journaling is the flexibility. Whilst ‘line a day’ and dated diaries are great for getting you in the habit of capturing your life on a daily basis, journaling will meet you where you are, meaning you never have to feel guilty for not filling the allotted space.
Missed a few days? Looking back on it, you won’t even notice.
I don’t think I could emphasize enough just how life-changing gratitude journaling has been for me. It has been a massively important part of my own journey of self-discovery and so helpful in improving my mindset.
All you really have to do is to be willing to look for a little bit of good in each day. What are you grateful for? What has gone well?
The simpler the better. The more ordinary the better.
Get into the habit of writing this down every day and it will, quite literally, change the way your mind works, as it begins to naturally, without prompting, log all the little things you have to be grateful for.
I can’t fully explain the science behind it, and even if I could, what you really want to know is that it works, and the only way to prove that is to try it and see it for yourself.
It’s hard not to mention bullet journaling here, as it has skyrocketed in popularity over the last few years. However, I am not going to cover it in this article because:
There are so many elements to bullet journaling that I’d like to explore in more detail, that it deserves to be a standalone topic in its own right
I’m writing a separate guide on planning systems and feel it fits better there
Journaling tips for beginners
The Journal & Pen
Starting with the very basics – get yourself a journal and pen that you like and keep them somewhere easily accessible.
I’ve tried many different notebooks and specialist journals over the years and my all-time favourite is the Leuchtturm. I have at least two on the go at the same time; different colours. One for work, one for my personal journal.
I prefer the lined version. The dotted version of popular for bullet journaling, and the plain one is useful if you want to include more art than writing. There is no right or wrong. Get the one that you will enjoy using the most. I pair it with a Parker ballpoint - simple and no smudges.
All that really matters is that you like it. Yes, you can journal in any notebook, but treating yourself to one that feels special does make a difference.
It’s likely you will fit into one of these two categories:
People who like a routine
People who like to do things when they feel like doing them
I am well and truly in the first category; I thrive on routine. I run on a schedule. I set myself deadlines. I panic at disorganisation, anything ‘last minute’ and frown at ‘let’s be impulsive’.
So, if you prefer routine, I would recommend choosing a time and place that you will journal each day. Mine is just before I go to bed, so I keep my journal and pen on my bedside table.
If, however, you don’t like to be tied to routine, and would rather journal when the mood takes you, I would suggest choosing a smaller notebook, such as an A6 one, and keeping it in your bag or pocket, using it as much or as little as you feel you want to during the day.
Of course this can also depend on what you’re using your journal for. If you’re tracking your food and exercise for example, it may make sense to keep your journal in the kitchen, or with you at work. By the time you settle down for the evening, you may have forgotten some of the details you want to capture.
Or if you are experimenting with free writing, this is usually done earlier in the day, as a way of clearing your mind before you begin your tasks for the day ahead.
So do what works for you, but have a plan, even if it’s a plan to journal when you feel like it!
Make it easy for yourself by choosing how you are going to use your journal and taking some time to think about what you want to get out of it.
Journaling is a wonderful activity – I don’t like to refer to it as a hobby because it’s so much more than that – it really can be transformative to our own self-care. But if we race ahead, trying to copy the beautiful, artistic examples of journaling we see on social media, we can very quickly be left feeling defeated.
If you are looking to start journaling for your own wellbeing, then don’t set yourself up to fail by expecting too much.
Instead, decide which method you’d like to try first, set aside a few minutes a day, and remind yourself constantly that that is enough.
All of the types of journaling I’ve talked about here work as a compound effect.
The more we use journaling, the more journaling works for us.
This follows on very neatly from my last point. You will have much more success if you start a very simple journaling routine, that only takes up a few minutes of your day, because then you are much more likely to stick to it.
And it we stick to it, it becomes a habit, and once it’s become a habit, it takes even less deliberate thought and effort from us.
My absolute minimum in my own journaling routine is to write down three good things that have happened that day each night before I go to bed. I do that whether I want to or not. I do it on good days and not-so-good days. It’s non-negotiable, like brushing my teeth.
Some days I write pages and pages of my thoughts, most days I track my food, occasionally I use free-writing to kickstart my creativity, but every day, without fail, I write down three good things that have happened.
Make it easy for yourself and be consistent, and it will become a habit that loves you back.
I have chosen five types of journaling to write about in this article (there are many, many more!) Don’t try to do them all at once!
Pick one and stick to it for a month.
Then, review how it has made you feel and how it has fitted into your life.
If you feel like you have benefitted from it, continue. If it feels more like a chore, something you dread rather than look forward to, give yourself permission to stop and try something else.
Or gradually work in other elements of journaling until you have a routine that works for you.
What should I write in my journal?
Here are some example entries for each of the types of journaling mentioned above.
Mood tracker - using words or art
The benefits of writing in a journal
There are many reasons journaling is so popular and so effective:
It can help us to process our thoughts and emotions
It can be adapted to fit in with our lifestyle and the time we have available
It can serve as a record of past events, a reminder of our achievements and a safe place to store our future dreams
In a digital age it offers respite in the simplicity of putting pen to paper
Writing down our feelings around a big (or small) decision we need to make can help us make sense of it, weigh up pros and cons, take an objective view and therefore assist us in making more informed choices
Keeping a physical journal that we can look back on can be really informative in guiding us towards changes we may wish to make. Setting aside some time at the end of each week or month to review your journal entries can give you an insight into your own life that’s easy to miss in the busyness of the day-to-day.
Any type of journaling is essentially a form of creative writing, and whether it’s the words themselves, or the act of getting thoughts out of your head to make space for new ones, journaling can free up space for our natural creativity to thrive.
On a very basic level, journaling feels like you’re doing something nice for yourself. You are dedicating time to you. That is the very essence of self-care. And rather than being purely introspective, when you do that for yourself, it positively affects the way you show up in the world and connect with others. So if you’re someone who worries about being ‘selfish’, remember that you have to put your oxygen mask on first.
What is gratitude journaling?
Gratitude journaling is not as complicated as it may first appear. All it really means is writing down the things we’re grateful for in our lives.
I think there is an expectation that these have to be big events, key changes, wow moments. They don’t.
In fact, the more ‘everyday’ these things are, the more natural the thoughts will come to us, and the faster we will get into the habit of noticing things every single day.
So instead of waiting for some big news to be grateful for, take a few moments to notice what you already have. For examples these might be:
A safe place to live
Food in the fridge
A family to love
If you’re going through a difficult time and are finding it hard to find things to note down, my suggestion is that you go outside, wherever you live, and start deliberately noticing things. What colour is the sky? Are there leaves on the trees? Can you see any animals?
Notice people saying hello to one another, someone holding the door open for you, a smile in the supermarket, a thank-you from a fellow driver.
If you’re finding it hard to find things to be grateful for by looking in, look out.
Get out in nature if you can, but there are plenty of tiny moments of kindness to spot in a big city too.
An alternative method you could use is to write down three good things that have happened that day. For example:
Someone at work made you a cup of tea
The book you had been looking forward to reading arrived in the post
You enjoyed the final episode in a drama series
Your friend sent a text to ask how you were
The more ordinary the better. After all, the small things are the big things in life.
So, in summary:
Either write down three things that you’re grateful for every day, or
Write down three good things that have happened each day.
Or, combine/switch between these two methods
The benefits of gratitude journaling
Gratitude journaling is not overly complicated. Once it’s become a habit, to write down three things at the end of every day, you will soon find that you have many more than three to write about. In addition to that, as you are going about your day, you’ll begin to notice things and think ‘Ooh I must remember to write that down later’.
The true benefit of gratitude journaling is simple yet profound: it is appreciating what we already have.
And it doesn’t stop there. Without delving too deep into the Law of Attraction, it follows that once we learn to appreciate what we have, and to be more at ease living in the present, then we attract more of the same; more to be grateful for.