Journaling is a very personal activity. And there are many different purposes and means of keeping a journal.
It can be a memoir of your travel, year or life.
It can be a means of self-help, record-keeping or tracking personal goals.
Or it may just be a new hobby to try.
I have been journaling for ten years. And I have used many journals for various reasons.
In this post, I aspired to include everything you may want to know about starting a journal. It may be an information overload. Just take what you want and leave the rest. Please use the links to jump ahead to the section you need.
One of the purposes of this blog is to share my mental health journey. So I have focused a lot on journaling for mental health. However, I hope the information I provide is still useful for anyone interested in journaling.
Why Do People Journal?
The most basic use of a journal is to keep track of events and experiences. But the benefit is beyond the simple act of writing. Reading over those events later gives us a unique view of ourselves.
Every entry includes snippets of our personality, mindset and emotions.
Our mindset in a moment can shape how we view and remember an event. But our memories make it very difficult to separate fact from emotion. A journal entry gives more detail than our memory ever will. And once we have multiple entries to review, we can get a richer portrait of ourselves.
The self-reflective element of journaling makes it useful for practicing self-care, emotional intelligence, and improving therapy.
Journaling for Self-Care
Self-care is exactly as the name suggests: caring for yourself. It is the activities that you do to take care of your health.
Proper self-care requires working on yourself every day, both mentally and physically.
A good self-care routine includes activities that are physical, mental and emotional.
- Physical activities are things like walking, dancing or taking a bath.
- Mental activities like reading, drawing or learning a new skill.
- Emotional activities like meditation, talking with friends or journaling.
Keeping a journal eases your thoughts and feelings.
It also can help you understand your mind, especially when it starts to feel jumbled and overwhelmed.
And reading past entries will also remind you of good days filled with happy memories. And you can trust the bad days will pass.
Journaling for Emotional Intelligence
Emotional intelligence (EQ) is all about recognizing, understanding and using our emotions. And as I said above, one of the benefits of journaling is self-reflection.
Reading through past journal entries allows us to identify our feelings and the source of those feelings.
I’ll give you a very personal example of using a journal for EQ:
I started to find my journal entries to have common themes of feeling sad, small, and stupid. The common event was any form of contact with my partner. Once I realized this, I began to use my journal to encourage myself to end the relationship.
I identified my feelings, understood their cause and used them to create positive change in my life.
While this is an oversimplified explanation of EQ, keeping a journal is one practice to grow your emotional intelligence.
Journaling for Therapy
Journaling has been described as a cheap form of therapy. But I would never say that it replaces a therapist. I have been in therapy during my mental health journey, and nothing can fully replace the help it provides.
Keeping a journal for therapy will add to your growth.
My experience is that a therapist will expect you to do homework between sessions. This homework could be reflecting on your session or practicing some form of self-help. Your therapist may even provide you with resources, such as worksheets or tasks. But if not, a journal is a great tool.
Regular entries will reveal your mindset and help you understand why you are struggling. Through these breakthroughs, you can narrow down what you need to work on in your sessions. Therefore, a journal can help you talk to your therapist.
You can also use a journal to track your progress in therapy. Re-read your entries over the past year to see where you started and how it’s going.
We take from therapy as much as we put into it. It takes time, emotion and honesty. And writing a journal entry gives us this outlet while only requiring a few minutes of our day.
How I Started Journaling (And Almost Quit)
When I was in high school, a teacher told everyone to keep a pad of paper and a pen next to their bed.
It was easy to start. I bought a cheap notebook and searched online for journal prompts.
And I wrote every day to form the habit.
But it quickly felt like a chore for two reasons:
First, I have very messy handwriting.
My hand simply cannot keep up with my thoughts. And when I first started, I hated that. I wanted to have pretty journals and didn’t want to wreck a new one with my writing.
I started writing slowly and focused hard on my penmanship. Until I realized I wasn’t writing as much as I needed to express myself fully.
Eventually, I came to accept how much better it feels to mark the page than to have pristine paper. Working the pen lightens my load when I write freely.
Second, I was trying to follow prompts and 30-day writing challenges.
Prompts are great for beginners. They will give you ideas of what to write about.
But I only connected with a few prompts I found online. So I’d be bored using the same topic again. Or I’d force myself to write one I’m not interested in. It wasn’t fun or beneficial.
Therefore, once I understood the journaling basics, I stopped using prompts.
My tactic is now to start with a statement or create a question, similar to the examples I provide below.
Ultimately, I got the idea and basics of journaling from other people. But I’ve been able to keep journaling for over ten years because I adjusted the pastime to suit my needs.
I try to update my journal three times a week. I allow my pages to be messy. And I rarely use prompts unless they’re interesting.
How to Write In a Journal
The rules are there ain’t no rules.– “Grease” (1978)
A journal is incredibly personal. And there is no one right way to do it.
So let’s start by breaking whatever misconceptions you may have about journaling:
It is not a school assignment. You don’t have to be a good writer, use proper grammar or tell a story. There is no minimum number of words and no maximum number of pages. You are writing for yourself. You won’t need to explain your thoughts to other people or seek their approval. And please don’t feel like you have to write pages-long prose about the woes of the day.
Now let’s give you some motivation to start writing:
Write about what you want as often as you need. You can write once a day, four times a day, once a week, three times a month—it’s in your hands. A few sentences are fine. It’s understandable if you don’t have the energy to write every day.
Write when you are happy as well as when you are sad.
Choose a writing style that suits you:
- Jot notes
- Write in a notebook
- Type on a computer or phone
Use one pen or multi-coloured pens and highlighters to develop your own technique.
Using different pens really helped me in therapy.
When I journal, I will often start wherever my mind is focused. For example, it could be in the middle of a story. Then as I write through the event, I will go on tangents to cover different angles.
Before my next therapy session, I will read over my journal entries and mark up the pages with a different coloured pen. In other words, I study my journal entries to prepare my notes.
Bottom line: You have total freedom to do whatever you want in your journal.
Start Your Journal
Before buying your first journal, notebook or diary, start writing.
On the one hand, waiting until you find the perfect journal is a great excuse not to start journaling. (You’ll have to trust me on this as I am a master procrastinator.)
On the other hand, you need to figure out your journaling style.
I don’t want you to find writing as a task. So, let’s keep it simple.
Experiment to find the best writing style for you, using whatever you have on hand:
- Add notes on your phone.
- Start typing on your computer.
- Make a list on post-its.
- Answer prompts on a notepad.
- Draw on blank paper.
Think of this as an audition.
Try writing every day, but do something a little different. If on Monday, you write a list of your favourite songs. On Tuesday, try drawing your emotions. And on Wednesday, free write on your computer.
You can narrow down the proper journal when you know what feels most comfortable for you.
Getting The Right Journal
Once you know how you want to journal, you can start looking at the available options.
Again, journaling does not have to be expensive.
To give you an idea of the variety of journals, I will describe my journals and how I use them.
I currently have 5 personal journals and use them for various reasons:
- Mental health
My mental health journal is a big honker. It has three sections separated as lined, unlined, and dotted pages. It is spiral-bound and has 480 pages. It cost less than $20.00.
I really hop around and use whichever section fits my current mood. I write on all the pages but also use the unlined and dotted pages to draw.
I also use the unlined pages during my therapy sessions. My sessions are over messenger, so I jot down what we discuss and any advice I receive. After the session, I review everything and use a different coloured pen to write notes.
My brainstorming journal has 120 lined pages. It is a soft-bound notebook and had cost about $14.00.
I use this journal for writing my blog posts. To be blunt, this is my most chaotic journal.
My quotes journal has 100 lined pages. It is a soft-bound notebook. The cover was custom-designed and cost around $50.00 in total. The cover is also removable. Once the notebook is full, I can get a new one and re-use the cover.
I use this journal to keep track of the first sentence of every book that I read. I got the idea from a writing class. This is my favourite way of keeping track of the books I’ve read. When I re-read the sentence, I instantly remember the book I got it from.
My doodling journal has 500 unlined pages. It is a hard-bound art book. The pages are designed to absorb ink without bleeding through to the next. For this reason, it also cost $40.00.
I am not good at drawing, but that doesn’t stop me. I draw multiple images on every page. And I date each of my pictures. I’ve noticed some improvement as I keep practicing, so seeing the dates is also encouraging.
My note-taking journal is really a catch-all. It has four sections and 400 pages. It is a spiral-bound notebook and cost $20.00.
I use it to learn new programs, self-care strategies, hobbies, etc.
Some things to consider
Your best journal is whatever suits your writing style and feels most comfortable. And every option has strengths and weaknesses.
A soft-bound will need to be held open. But you will get full use of the paper. I also like how they look on the shelf.
A spiral-bound will fold around, so you have less to hold. I also like how easy it is to pull a page from a spiral-bound notebook. But the coil may be uncomfortable to rest your wrist on. And sometimes, the coil wrecks the covers of other books, so I don’t want them on my bookshelves.
Some notebooks include writing prompts. These are good if you really want a writing challenge or need the motivation. But they will cost more money. And the possibilities for these journals are limited to the subject of the prompts.
If you want a journal just because you love the cover, go for it! I have bought many journals for that exact reason. In time, I always find a use for them.
And I fully encourage you to keep multiple journals at once. You can separate them by theme or goal.
Again, there are no rules so choose the options that serve you best.
What to Write In Your Journal
It can be challenging to sit down and start writing. You may question where or how you should start.
Just remember that there are no rules to writing in a journal.
If you have something sitting heavy in your mind, write it out.
And it’s okay to start in the middle of a story. You are journaling for yourself, not for other people to read. You already know the situation/feeling/problem you are writing about. Let it out; the paper can take it.
If you need some help to get started, please use my list of journal prompts.
Choose the prompts that connect with you. Don’t force yourself to write every prompt.
- What did I do today?
- How do I feel today? Why?
- Look out the window. What do I see? (Be detailed.)
- What is something new I learned this week?
- What are my goals for today? This week? This year?
- The things that bring me the most joy are…
- I want/need to forgive…
- I wish…
- I am excited to…
- I am focused on…
- 10 of my favourite inspirational quotes.
- 5 emotions. Try to answer: what does [emotion] mean to me?
- Things to let go of.
- My favourite song lyrics. (Can you explain why?)
- Daily affirmations.
For Mental Health
- What am I grateful for today?
- What makes me feel safe? (These could be people, objects, places or actions.)
- How do I want to feel today?
- What do I love about myself?
- (After meditation) What passed through my mind?
I hope you feel motivated to get that journal started! Have you started a journal? Share your tips or questions in the comments below!