How to Journal in 10 Simple Steps
If you don’t have time to read this whole guide, stick with #1 and you’ll do just fine!
1. Keep it Simple
Journal writing at its core is simple. You get some paper and a pen, you write a few pages about what’s going on. You do it again tomorrow. And the next day.
We humans are a curious bunch — we make things needlessly complicated. So if you feel yourself getting mired in whether or not you’re doing it right, what kind of journal to use, when you “should” write, or if the color of your pen will affect the outcome, take a breath and get back to basics.
Words, on a page. It’s really that simple.
2. Keep it Private
Don’t share your journal and shelve it out of reach. Your journaling privacy is essential to the process. Your journal is a safe place for you to explore whatever is on your mind without worrying about how it will affect anyone else. If you fear it will be read, you’ll censor yourself and the benefits of journaling will be lost.
Also, sharing your journal opens it up for debate and criticism, neither of which are appropriate for this medium. It’s nobody’s business but yours.
When you’re not writing, keep your journal out of sight. It’ll at least keep the honest people out.
3. Do it Frequently
Writing frequently supports the habit part of journaling. It allows you to witness the ebb and flow of your life. It gives you perspective that you won’t always feel this way — after all, you didn’t feel this way yesterday.
Daily journaling provides the most benefits and the best results. If you only write when you “need to,” you will forever be in crisis management. Your journal will be filled with dire consequences and high stakes. And you’ll continue to live in reactionary mode.
The beauty of frequent journaling is that it helps you grow as a person, helps you recognize patterns in your life, and helps you gain perspective and control over your environment.
On the other hand, just do your best. If you can’t make time for journaling every day, do it as often as you can. A couple times a week is better than not at all. And if you miss some time, just get back to it without beating yourself up.
Journaling should support you and make you feel good. It’s not another Task to be checked off your Action Item List or fodder for self-flagellation when you “fail.”
Feeling strapped for time? I hear ya! Even a short journaling session is beneficial if you do it regularly. Free up some time and then try one of these 20 ways to find 20 minutes for journaling. If 20 minutes is beyond you, check out The Lazy Guide to Journaling in 10 Minutes or Less or just stick to one line a day.
4. Banish the Grammar Police
Surprisingly, one of the top reasons people cite for not journaling is that they can’t spell or their grammar ain’t perfect. Since you’re journaling for you (see #2 above), it doesn’t really matter if you dangle your participles or misspell “conjunctivitis.” Journaling is not grade school and nobody’s going to hit your knuckles with a ruler.
If you’re especially concerned about this, don’t re-read your entries for awhile. You’ll have less opportunity to judge what you’ve written.
5. Write What You Know
Facing the blank page can be overwhelming at first. Listen to this podcast for a fun pep talk from me: Podcast #1: Get Started Journaling
When starting your journal, just date the entry and note your location. Start by describing your surroundings if you need to get warmed up. Write a little bit about your day. What’s on your mind? Think of your journal like an old friend you’re sitting down to coffee with. Just answer, “What’s up? What’s new? What’s going on?”
And if you’re afraid you’re doing it wrong, I assure you: You are already fabulous!
6. Find the Best Time and Place
You may instinctively know the best time to journal (hint: it’s when you’ll actually do it!). Look for a natural lull in your day that you can finagle into journaling time. Experiment with morning journaling vs. writing just before bed and see which works best for you.
Find a comfy place to journal where you won’t be interrupted. When journal writing at home, it’s essential that the few minutes you designate be honored by family, friends, housemates and pets. Lock the dog in the bathroom or get out of the house if you need to and write at a café or the library.
This is your time, and you may need to defend it protectively!
7. Write for quantity, not quality
Don’t get caught up in how “good” your journal writing is. Nobody cares. Just get it done.
Set goals based on effort — say, 3 pages or 20 minutes of journaling. Then even if you’re convinced your journaling is terrible, you’re still successful because you got it done.
Writing quickly for a set period of time is also a way to keep your inner critic at bay, and to banish any negative voices telling you that what you’re doing is stupid or that you can’t write. Just get the words down and don’t worry about how good they are.
The power and beauty of journaling lies in the process, not the product.
8. Try writing by hand
Journaling by hand in a paper notebook moves a different part of your brain than typing does. And before you argue that you can write faster on the computer, journaling is not about speed, efficiency, or volume. It’s about dedicating a few minutes each day to honor yourself, your thoughts and your feelings. Writing by hand helps you get in touch with all of that better than a keyboard.
So slow down and savor the process. It builds your brain synapses to hold thoughts in your head long enough to write them down. Journaling by hand will make you smarter. (Did I mention it will also make you better looking?)
9. Keep the stakes low
Don’t make any grand announcements before you start journaling. Set yourself up for success by keeping the stakes low. You don’t need to proclaim to everyone in your life that you’re now a Writer. Don’t promise yourself you’ll write for one hour every day for rest of your life. Don’t expect yourself to churn out the Deepest and Moist Poignant Journal Ever.
Just get a $1 composition book at the drug store and write 3 pages, as many days this week as you have time for. End of story.
The higher we make the stakes, the more intimidating the process becomes. And the less likely we are to do it, or feel satisfied with the results.
Are there words on that page? Yes? Then bam! — instant success.
Wasn’t that easy?
10. Enjoy yourself!
Remember that journaling should be enjoyable (most of the time). If you take the task too seriously or put too much pressure on yourself, journaling will become a burden instead of a gift. Keep a spirit of play, and infuse your journal with a little humor. Adding art, creativity, color or heart to your journal keeps the process fresh and inviting.
You’ll likely feel awkward and self-conscious when you first start journaling. That’s totally fine — you’re allowed. Most people are a little awkward and self-conscious when they begin something new, unless they’re a freak of nature. It’s okay to poke fun at yourself, or to keep the prose light-hearted.
Banish the image of the Diarist hunched over the table with furrowed brow, contemplating the existential dilemma du jour. Instead, feel free to detail your dinner experiment that made Julia Child roll over in her grave.
Follow these tips and you’ll be on your way to life as a dedicated journaler in no time!