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Read this if you want to know how to journal but don’t know where to start

A white woman with hair in a messy bun on her head imagines how to journal as she sits on a windowsill overlooking a city and writes in her journal.
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Whether as a self-improvement or self-care tool, journal writing is on everyone’s radar. So what is it about journaling? Here’s an overview on the purpose of journaling, a ton of options for how to journal, and the power of words.

What is journaling?

The term journaling broadly refers to a daily writing practice that goes beyond keeping the average diary. What journaling is exactly depends on the kind of method you choose to use. From answering specific questions to free-writing to elaborate to-do lists, there are many options when it comes to keeping a journal.

They’re all forms of mindfulness training, a valuable tool for personal development and self-improvement, that can help you reach your personal or professional goals and are sometimes used as a therapeutic method in psychotherapy1. Journaling takes about 5-20 minutes a day and is time well invested in yourself.

As early as the beginning of the 19th century, the writer Heinrich von Kleist wrote his world-renowned essay: “On the Gradual Production of Thoughts While Speaking”. His key thesis: if you want to understand your thoughts and ideas, you have to express them. This way, you’ll gain insight into the true nature of your idea, be able to complete it, and develop the foundation of your thinking.

With this in mind, you can think of journaling as a way of speaking to yourself: writing helps you make sense of your thoughts, gain some distance from them, and see everything more clearly. What ‘everything’ means depends on the type of journaling you do and the personal themes that are important to you.

Your journal is, primarily, a place for your personal thoughts, and (like a diary) is nobody’s business but your own.

A Black woman wearing cat-eye glasses with teal-dyed close-cropped hair sits in overalls and a bra on a gray couch, holding a journal and pen, staring into the distance, wondering how to journal
©LaylaBird

Why start journal writing? 5 good reasons to write

The effects journaling mainly has for you depends on what method you decide to keep and why. These 5 reasons are only a few to get started. Let’s talk about why it’s worth your while to keep a journal.

#1 Create structure

The lowest common denominator of all journals: They bring clarity and order to your thoughts and feelings. When you write things down on a blank page, you automatically structure what’s going on inside. Techniques like bullet journaling are a great way to get clearer about yourself and your goals.

#2 Learn to understand yourself

Writing forces you to identify and articulate your feelings. After all, you can’t put anything down on paper without words. This self-reflection, word by word, opens the door for you to better access your emotional world and your soul. Behind this door lies enormous potential for your personal development and well-being (and health benefits) in many ways.

Studies of professional tennis players showed that players who used journal entries to confront their emotions tended to have better athletic performance2.

#3 Set your focus

Recognizing your thoughts and feelings is a prerequisite for shifting your focus to where you want it to be. Journaling can teach you to control your mind instead of letting it control you. For example, keep a gratitude journal to incorporate more self awareness and appreciation into your daily life.

#4 Come into the here and now

Journaling forces you to focus on what’s going on internally right now. What are you feeling, thinking, wishing for right now? Journaling questions in ready-made journaling books that invite you to review the past or visualize the future are also a way to come into the themes of the present moment.

#5 Write your way to health

Let’s make it clear up front: journaling on your own is not a substitute for therapy for serious psychological problems. When in doubt, always talk to a doctor. Nevertheless, numerous studies point to journaling’s health-promoting potential.

These studies found that while subjects had measurably more stress and negative feelings in the short term when faced with their thoughts and feelings, they actually benefited physically in the long term. This was shown by measurable variables, such as lower blood pressure3.

Side fact for bookworms: Probably one of the first and best known journals is Daniel Paul Schreber’s Memoirs of My Nervous Illness. Schreber, a German judge, recorded his thoughts in writing, virtually unfiltered, over several years spent in a psychiatric hospital. Doctors even used his journals as evidence for eventually releasing him from the hospital. It’s important to note, though, that while it offered support, journaling alone did not heal him.

Ein aufgeklapptes Journal
©Sherlene Naipaul EyeEm

Journal or diary? What’s the difference?

Keeping a journal is often passed off as a kind of diary writing for adults, which is a bit too simplistic. This is a bit too short-sighted. Keeping a journal also encourages more mindfulness and self-reflection into your life. That being said, it often directs your focus to external events: What happened today? What did I do and how did my day go?

Journaling is less event-oriented and instead focuses on mental self-care and mental hygiene. It directs the focus inward, rather than outward. Any reference to external events doesn’t happen for its own sake, but aims to bridge the gap between the inner and outer worlds.

What did today’s events do to me? What reactions, feelings, and thoughts have they triggered and how does that affect me? How have my thoughts, feelings and goals developed over the past few weeks? Are these things evolving in the direction I want my life to go?

Journaling offers more opportunities for personal development, but also exceeds the traditional experience of writing in a diary.

Journaling Methods at a Glance

There are ready-made journaling books that prompt you with the same questions every day and periodically ask for retrospection and insight. Conversely, there are free-writing techniques without any structure or guidelines. There are also hybrid methods.

Basically, there’s no right or wrong way to keep a journal. The methods, questions, and overall themes just have to work for you, which is why journaling looks different for everyone. You don’t have to know what to write. Just start writing.

We’ll give you some tips for finding the right kind of journal for you in the next section, but first let’s take a look at the range of techniques you can choose from.

5-minute or 6-minute journal

You can create your own 5-minute journal or buy a pre-made one. In this journal, you answer 5 questions – it can also be 4 questions and a small reflection. The name “5-minute journal” goes to show that you don’t have to invest more than 5 minutes per day  into your writing practice. You can do it on your lunch break!

Gratitude and success journal

A popular variation of the 5-minute journal is the 6-minute one. In this version, you focus for 3 minutes each morning and evening on something you are grateful for during the day. There are 3 ready-made questions for each, and special pages for weekly reviews and monthly reflections.

These journal formats are available as a success or gratitude journal.

Free writing: stream of consciousness

The opposite of ready-made journals with specific questions is free writing or stream of consciousness. All you need to do to get started is grab your notebook and write down everything that crosses your mind, unfiltered.

How much you write in your journal is up to you: Either you set yourself a specific length of time to write (like 5 or 20 minutes) or you set a (minimum) number of pages you want to write.

One of the best ways to free write is Morning Pages. With this journaling habit, you keep writing all the things that are on your mind immediately (!) after you get up – for at least three pages.

Morning Pages are also a great reason to just stay in bed a few extra minutes: Just grab a pen and paper right after waking up and start writing in your journal while you’re still snuggled up under the covers.

Journaling with Prompts: Give your mind a direction

A nice option between ready-made journal formats and complete freedom is writing with prompts. Prompts are suggestions or small questions about any topic you can think of. You can buy journals with ready-made journal writing prompts or make up your own prompts.

For example, you can cover topics such as relationships, goals, or work: What does your ideal relationship look like? When was the last time you felt real clarity about your future? What feelings come up when you think about your job?

Bullet Journal: A different kind of to-do list

A bullet journal is a great way to bring more clarity and structure to your daily routine and life, or to move towards a goal. It helps you navigate your most important to-dos and combines the characters of a diary, calendar, project plan, and mood barometer. That’s why it’s also perfect for organizing important dates.

There are many different bullet journal designs and formats. As always with journaling, you get to choose what it looks like. Most of the time, a bullet journal includes a Future Log, where you keep track of the big picture: This can be a yearly planner of important events, or a timeline you commit to for one of your projects.

The bullet journal also provides space for events that you would normally write in a calendar, on a to-do list, or in a diary. To help you stay on track, you create an index in a bullet journal by coding the type of entries you make with icons.

Many first-timers use a ready-made journal. Once you’ve experienced the strengths and weaknesses of the different designs, we recommend that you create your own bullet journal that suits your needs.

Ready-made journals vs. free journaling: pros and cons

Pre-structured books make it a little easier to get started and keep a journal as a regular part of your routine. They are clearly laid out and have usually been developed by experts.

The questions guide you step-by-step through your chosen topic and are a perfect exercise in focusing your attention. The short formats make it easy to answer and filling in the pre-made fields is motivating.

Free writing using journaling prompts, Morning Pages, or stream of consciousness gives you more flexibility to make your journal your own. This is a great option if you are already comfortable with journaling or have some practice.

A white man with short, dark-brown hair wearing a short-sleeved gray-and-white-striped shirt sits at a table and writes by hand in a journal. There is a brick wall behind him and a cappuccino at his elbow.
©PeopleImages

5 Journaling Tips for beginners who want to write

#1 Think about what you want

Why do you want to start journaling? How much do you want to write? What’s your goal? What topics do you want to focus on? What area in life do you want to put more effort into? Jot down all of these factors and consider what form of journaling best fits them.

#2 Buy a notebook

Writing is a creative process, whether you’re writing a sentence or a book. Buy yourself a notebook and grab a pen and some paper. Studies suggest that handwriting helps you concentrate better than typing4. Plus, thanks to the combination of thought and movement, both sides of your brain are activated and fully engaged.

#3 Make writing a habit

You can’t build healthy habits overnight. To keep your journal a permanent part of your life, you need to make writing a routine. If you like to write in the morning, store your notebooks on the nightstand so it’s the first thing you see in the morning. Schedule a fixed time for journaling that you know you can keep (almost) all the time. If you need help figuring out where to start, our article on 12 tips for a digital detox is just the right place.

Healthy habits – here’s how they work.

#4 Make a progress report

What has changed since you started writing? Is it helping you? Has it made a difference in your life? What feeling do you associate with journaling? Has your perspective on things changed? Is it time to adjust something? If so, think about when you want to implement those changes. If everything feels good, that’s the perfect motivation to keep going.

#5 Relax

No one reads your journal. That’s why journaling is the perfect exercise to ask every question unfiltered and write down all the things that pop into your head. Can’t think of anything at all? It’s rare for our minds to be truly blank; it might be that we’ve got something on our mind we don’t actually want to write about. Get started, if you can, and use your journal to process whatever is on your mind.

And: If you don’t manage to write, keep at it anyway. Just continue the next day or – if it isn’t working at all anymore – take a week off. Then try starting again with fresh energy.

Summary

  • Journaling is a valuable tool for self-reflection, creates a better connection to yourself, and offers potential for personal development.
  • Before you start writing, define your expectations and find the right journaling method for you.
  • When you journal, you write by hand – with pen and paper.
  • Journaling takes only 5 to 20 minutes a day and is easy to incorporate into your routine.
  • Journaling is a way to determine the focus of your thoughts instead of letting them determine you.
Article sources
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  • 1Francis ME, Pennebaker JW. Putting stress into words: the impact of writing on physiological, absentee, and self-reported emotional well-being measures. Am J Health Promot. 1992 Mar-Apr;6(4):280-7. doi: 10.4278/0890-1171-6.4.280. PMID: 10146806.

  • 2Scott, V. B., Jr., Robare, R. D., Raines, D. B., Konwinski, S. J. M., Chanin, J. A., & Tolley, R. S. (2003). Emotive writing moderates the relationship between mood awareness and athletic performance in collegiate tennis players. North American Journal of Psychology, 5(2), 311–324.

  • 3Baikie, K., & Wilhelm, K. (2005). Emotional and physical health benefits of expressive writing. Advances in Psychiatric Treatment, 11(5), 338-346. doi:10.1192/apt.11.5.338

  • 4The University of Stavanger. “Better learning through handwriting.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 24 January 2011.

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