How to Start Journaling and Stick to It [The Ultimate Guide]

Have you ever wanted to try journaling? Or have you done it in the past but couldn’t make the habit stick? Or are you looking for a different type of journaling? If you’re asking any of these questions, this “ultimate guide” can help!

In the following article, you will discover a 7-step process on how to start a journaling habit and make it stick.  Not only will you learn how to do it, but you will also learn the tricks for making it an important part of your day. 

But first, let’s dive into the benefits of building this important habit.

What Are the Benefits of a Daily Journal?

We’ve all heard stories about famous people who keep journals.  But have you ever wondered why journaling might be beneficial to you?

In a recent article, we discuss how journaling has nine main benefits.  Journaling:

            1. Creates mindfulness in your life

            2. Reduces stress

            3. Helps you achieve your goals

            4. Improves your emotional intelligence

            5. Reduces symptoms of depression

            6. Improves your memory

            7. Helps your sleep

            8. Increases productivity

            9. Improve your physical health

If you’d like to learn more about these nine benefits, then be sure to check out this article.

Moreover, when you keep a journal, you can look back on important life events to read about how you felt at the time.

You may be able to learn from these past experiences, but it’s also just nice to have a record of your past. Our memories become less clear and vivid as they fade farther into the past. Recording our lives helps us better remember them.

During difficult times, journaling is a great way to reduce stress. A 1997 study and a 2005 study showed that writing about traumatic events resulted in physical and psychological health benefits.

2002 University of Iowa study had similar findings, indicating that journaling focused on understanding the traumatic events made people see these events with an extra level of clarity.

So, if these benefits sound compelling enough, let’s dive into the 7-step process for starting a journaling habit. 

How to Start Journaling

Step #1: Pick a Type of Journaling

One of the challenges to starting a journaling habit is to know what to write about. Specifically, there are a large assortment of options and types of journaling.  So the first step of the process is to identify what type of journaling works for you. 

In our book “Effortless Journaling,” we talk about nine types of journaling.  We encourage you to read the following and check out the links to learn more about the journaling methods that pique your curiosity. 

1. Daily Diary

Writing in a daily diary is the most popular form of journaling.  A diary tends to be more personal, focusing on writing daily about personal events and the writer’s thoughts and reactions to these experiences.

It is a place to write notes and quotes and record important milestones in your life that have some sort of significance—like birthdays, anniversaries, births, and deaths.

2. Prompt Journaling

Journals with prompts take the “what do I write about” worries out of the equation, giving you specific reflection questions or directives to focus on in your writing. Often the prompts are things you’d never consider writing about on your own, so they draw out ideas and feelings that foster increased self-awareness, confidence, and personal growth you might not otherwise experience.

If you’re looking for specific examples, then check out this list of 247 journal writing prompts.  And if you’re a teen, then here are 71 journal writing prompts for teenagers.

3. Morning Pages

One of the most well-loved and popular forms of journaling comes from Julia Cameron, an American teacher, author, artist, poet, playwright, novelist, filmmaker, composer, and journalist. With these impressive credentials attached to her name, it’s not surprising that Cameron’s international bestselling book is called, The Artist’s Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity.

On her website, she describes Morning Pages as follows: “Morning Pages are three pages of longhand, stream of consciousness writing, done first thing in the morning. *There is no wrong way to do Morning Pages*– they are not high art. They are not even “writing.” They are about anything and everything that crosses your mind– and they are for your eyes only. Morning Pages provoke, clarify, comfort, cajole, prioritize and synchronize the day at hand. Do not overthink Morning Pages: just put three pages of anything on the page … and then do three more pages tomorrow.”

Now, if the idea of Morning Pages sounds compelling, then all you need is a blank notebook (more on this later), and you simply write whatever pops into your head.  And if you’re stuck, here are 35 morning journal prompts that can inspire you.

4. Mindfulness Journaling

Like Morning Pages, mindfulness journaling helps you connect with your emotions and experience the world in the here and now rather than attaching your thoughts to the past or future, where you often find negativity and anxiety.

Mindfulness revolves around paying attention to the small details around you, which is also a powerful skill when writing. Mindfulness is likely to improve one's attention to detail because it helps people use all of their senses to absorb the world around them.

If this type of journaling sounds compelling, then here are two mindfulness journals (with prompts) that can help you get started:

Finally, here is an article that provides 10 tips for mindful and meditative writing

5. Gratitude Journaling

Gratitude journaling is another style of mindfulness journaling. By its very nature, the feeling and expression of gratitude leaves no room for regrets about the past or worries for the future.

When you are grateful, you are anchored in the reality of your blessings in the here and now. And like other mindfulness practices, the practice of gratitude has many mental and physical benefits.

If gratitude journaling appeals to you, you can find many gratitude journals with questions or prompts, like our 90-Day Gratitude Journal. Or you can use a blank page journal to record your blessings using a method you devise yourself or using one of the suggestions we outline in this chapter.

Also, here are a few other resources that can help you get started with gratitude journaling:

6. Idea Journaling

Your brain is full of great ideas that often come to you at the most inopportune times—in the shower, on a run, or just as you’re falling asleep. Before you have a chance to capture them, they evaporate into the mist of your memory, leaving you with that frustrating feeling of having missed an opportunity.

But what if you were more intentional about your ideas? What if you took the time to brainstorm and write down your ideas before they floated out of your mind?

James Altucher writes about his own system for generating ideas by brainstorming and writing down ten ideas a day to simply ” exercise your idea muscle.”

These could be ten business ideas, ten ideas for improving your marriage, ten new chapters for your book, or just ten random ideas that arise spontaneously. They don’t have to be great ideas or even actionable ideas.

Like Morning Pages writing, the point is to just brainstorm and write.

Ten ideas a day will turn into 3,650 ideas a year. There’s a good chance that at least a few of these golden idea nuggets can transform your life.

Check out our review of the best idea journals to track your great thoughts.

7. Goal Journaling

Are you working on a big goal, or do you frequently have smaller goals that you’re pursuing? If so, you might want to create the habit of goal journaling. We believe goal journaling is valuable for everyone because we all want to achieve something, and putting that something down on paper makes it more real and attainable.

Just listing your goals is good, but journaling about them takes it further. Goal journaling helps you delve deeper into yourself, your dreams, and your ambitions. The more you expound on your goals, the easier it is to brainstorm action steps and solutions to manifest them.

If you’re interested in creating goals, we recommend putting them into the SMART format. 

Here is the video that explains that concept with 21 examples:

And if you’d like to learn more about this concept, read our ultimate guide on SMART goal setting.

Finally, we recommend checking out two journals that are specifically designed to help you achieve any important goal:

8. Bullet Journaling

Bullet journaling has taken the productivity and journaling world by storm, offering a quicker and more streamlined way of journaling and setting goals. There are hundreds of bullet-type journals on Amazon replicating a concept that was the brainchild of a young emigrant from Vienna, Austria, who moved to the US to attend college.

The idea for the official Bullet Journal and the bullet journaling program was created by Ryder Carroll, a digital product designer, and author. As a child, his struggles with learning disabilities motivated and inspired him to develop his own strategies to be more focused and productive.

To get started, you can check out Ryder’s book “The Bullet Journal Method” and watch this video, which provides an overview of how this journaling strategy works:

Finally, we have a variety of blog posts related to bullet journaling.  So, feel free to check out the following articles:

9. Dream Journal

A dream journal can be used to record your dreams each morning while they are fresh in your mind. You can also purchase paper journal options for this specific journaling process. They contain specifically formatted sheets for recording each dream and also often have a journal prompt or grid you can use to easily analyze what you are writing.

A dream journal helps you reveal your dream patterns, break yourself free from a creative block, and even helps you practice lucid dreaming. You can navigate your dreams in a conscious state.

Here are a few journaling tips to keep in mind during your dream journaling journey:

  • Always write it down first thing in the morning when you wake up. So, keep your dream journal and pen close to your bed for this reason.
  • Write in the present tense as if it is happening in real-time.
  • Try to capture your emotions and not just the plot points.
  • Track your sleep cycles. You dream most deeply during a REM cycle, and this happens for approximately two hours at a time.

10. Guided Journal

A guided journal is simply a collection of writing prompts, exercises, and other activities you can do to help you dive even deeper into your feelings, goals, and ideas. A guided journal guides one through self-reflection while identifying concrete action steps that can be taken, making it even more personal than regular journaling at times.

Find ten minutes per day you can set aside to use a guided journey. Always pay close attention to and listen to your changing moods, set a year-long plan, keep track of your progress, and don't be afraid to make mistakes when choosing this journaling method.

11. Make Your Own Journal

You don’t have to limit yourself to one type of journaling approach. Instead, you can create your own journal using an inexpensive lined notebook. You can pick and choose the different aspects of each journaling technique we’ve already outlined and create a unique set of prompts that work best for your needs and emotion.

For example, you start your day and journaling session by writing down the three things you’re most grateful for, then identify the #1 goal or important thing you’d like to accomplish for the day, and then finish by journaling the biggest lessons you learned from the previous day. 

So, if you would like to customize your journaling session, then here are two articles worth checking out:

Step #2: Set Aside Time Daily

Once you’ve identified the specific type of journaling you’d like to do, the next step is to schedule time for it.  The most important aspect of journaling isn’t writing on the blank page itself; it’s trying to fit this activity into your schedule. The time of day doesn’t matter, as long as it’s a time that’s convenient for you.

If you find your mind is most active in the morning, wake up 15 to 20 minutes earlier and jot down your thoughts. If you prefer to record everything after the day is over, then make it an evening activity before you go to bed (since it helps you relax, you may also find that you get to sleep easier).

You get far more benefits as a journal writer when you write in it every day. Personally, I schedule my expressive writing sessions in my ToDoist app on my phone, so I always get a reminder when it’s time to write.

We all know that life happens occasionally, and you may miss a day. It’s no big deal but try never to miss more than two days. Once you do, it’s easy to get into the routine of skipping your journaling, and then you have to rebuild the habit all over again.

Finally, if you feel like you need a little incentive to get started, you can build this habit by taking a 30-day journaling challenge.

Step #3. Use the Right Journaling Tool and Technique

How you journal is personal preference—what’s more important is choosing a method you can do consistently. Studies have shown that blogging produces some of the same mental and physical benefits as pen-and-paper journaling.

You should try a handwritten or physical journal first and give it at least a few weeks before moving to a digital journal. Your personal journal will be more authentic because you can’t edit your words with a few clicks.

Research also shows that writing by hand stimulates the brain’s reticular activating system. Whatever you're thinking about is brought to the forefront of your mind, helping you focus on it.

Here are a few resources to help you decide on the right journaling platform to get started.

If you prefer a digital journal option, here are the 11 best journal and diary apps.  Our suggestion is to review this article and check out the top two or three apps that sound interesting. 

Test each digital journal option for a few days, and then commit to the one app that helps you build the best journaling habit.

Next, if you prefer a pen-and-paper approach, check out our article on the 20 best journal notebooks.  In this article, we provide the pros and cons of each journal and which one will be appropriate for your situation.

Related Reading: If you’re looking for a pen,  here are the 9 best no-smudge pens for journaling and note-taking.

Finally, journaling is like any other habit—you need a daily reminder to do it; otherwise, it’ll be easy to forget. We highly recommend using a reminder system to prompt you into action.

You can use the classic method of putting this habit on a calendar or Post-it Notes. You can even put alerts on your phone to remind you when to journal. But since we all now live in an increasingly digital age, we recommend using an app to track the journaling habit (and all other habits you’d like to build).

We like these four apps in particular:

Step #4: Create the Right Journaling Environment

Journaling is about you and your thoughts. The best way to record those thoughts is to minimize distractions.

There’s a reason why so many famous writers isolate themselves when writing their novels: you often need solitude to focus on writing.

This doesn’t mean you need to go to a cabin in the woods every time you want to journal, but you need a quiet part of the room away from other people.

In this day and age, separating yourself from technology is also important while you write in your journal.

Here are a few suggestions to set up your environment:

  • Turn the TV off
  • Power your computer down
  • Avoid your cell phone (or put it on silent mode)
  • Find a quiet part of your home where the family isn’t around
  • Get up early in the morning before anyone else

The key here is to ensure you won’t be distracted if you hear a notification. This will make your journaling about you and your writing and nothing else.

If you want to guarantee that you’ll follow through on your journaling efforts, we recommend making it a focal part of your morning routine. 

To learn more, here is a 7-step process on how to create a morning routine that sticks:

Step #5: Protect Your Privacy

Keeping your journal private is important, even if you don’t care whether other people read it or not. You may not mind if someone reads your personal journal, but if you don’t trust that your thoughts are private, you aren’t going to be completely honest.

You may consciously or subconsciously avoid writing about certain topics for fear of what others could think.  This fear may hold you back from writing about stuff that matters in your journal.

Anytime you start a journal, you don’t know with 100 percent certainty if someone will see it or not. That’s why you should take certain steps to protect your journal as much as possible.

The easiest way is to keep your journal with you at all times. This is also nice because you can jot down thoughts if something big occurs or if you have a sudden burst of inspiration.

You should also avoid letting anyone look at your journal—even just the cover. Tuck it away in your bag. Even people you trust will be more tempted when they see your journal, so keep it out of sight and mind.

Step #6: Start Journaling

This is where the rubber meets the road.  Once you’ve identified the type of journaling you’ll do and set up the right environment, open your journal (or app), and then start writing down your thoughts. 

So to get started, here are a few pointers on how to maximize your journaling experience:

1. Date Each Entry

When it comes to your journal entries, if it’s important enough to record, it’s important enough to date. These are your private thoughts, but you will most likely look back on them later.

Having a date above each entry can help you understand your thought process related to important life events. You can also see how you've progressed over time.

As mentioned earlier, memories fade with time. If you don’t date your journal entries, you’ll only have a general idea of when you wrote each entry.

Going one step further, let’s say you decide to leave your journal behind for other people to read. If there aren’t any dates, readers will have no idea when anything occurred.

Here’s one final reason to date all your entries: It’s easy and takes just seconds. All you have to do is write five or six numbers, depending on the month.

If you want to get creative with how you date your daily journal, you can include dated items such as receipts with certain entries.

2. Be Honest With Yourself

Remember that this is your own private, personal journal. It’s important in daily journaling that you be honest with yourself – or what's the point?

A journal reflects your thoughts and emotions, so treat it that way and don’t limit what you write. Be open and honest about how you feel because if you can’t be honest with yourself, you can’t be honest with anyone.

Record how you feel, not how you think you should feel.

Not sure what to write in your daily journal?

Share the first thought that comes to mind.  The first thing you think about is typically what’s most important to you at that moment.

Of course, if you have something, in particular, that’s been bothering you, use your journal as an opportunity to explore the topic from multiple angles.

Writing about a problem can often help you see it differently. You may see a situation from someone else’s viewpoint, or writing about an issue could help you realize it’s not a big deal.

3. Focus on Simplicity

One of the biggest problems I experienced when I started journaling was that I would spend too much time trying to find the perfect way to phrase what I wanted to write.

I wanted to say things “just the right way” to convey my thoughts simply but elegantly – like I attempt to do on this blog and in my books.

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Just get your honest thoughts down on paper as they come to you.

But journaling is not professional writing.

When you try to journal perfectly formed sentences, you don’t get nearly as many thoughts down on paper as you could have.  Your journaling will take longer.  And the whole experience will begin to feel like a chore instead of a cathartic activity.  Worst of all, you still probably won’t be completely satisfied with how you wrote your journal entry.

Perfection is unattainable, and chasing it is an exercise in futility. Just get your honest thoughts down on paper as they come to you. Remember that you’re not writing a college term paper or a novel. The quality and depth of your writing aren’t important in journaling.

4. Avoid Censoring Yourself

Would you censor thoughts in your head? Of course not! So, why would you censor what you write in your journal? This is one of the reasons why it’s good to avoid sharing your journal with anyone.

When you know your journal is for your eyes only, you have the freedom to write whatever you want without worrying about anyone else’s thoughts or judgments.

As you write, don’t worry about your grammar or spelling—no matter how good or bad they are. If you can understand what you wrote in each entry, it’s okay to misspell the occasional word or not follow the “conventional” grammar rules.

Step #7: Stick With Your New Journaling Habit

Life would be much easier if you could start any habit you wanted overnight, but it takes time and effort. It might take you a while to make journaling stick.  So that’s why it’s important to turn your journaling efforts into a habit.

First off, make sure you don’t try to start multiple habits simultaneously. Everyone has a limited amount of willpower, and dividing it among multiple new habits reduces your odds of success for all of them. That’s why so many people fail at their New Year’s resolutions.

When you start your journaling habit, make that your main priority, commit to it for at least 30 days, and tie it to another pre-existing habit of yours to get the best results.

For example, if you start your day with a cup of coffee, you could decide to journal every morning while you drink your coffee.

If writing for 20 minutes per day seems like a daunting task, start with a mini-habit of only one paragraph per day. This makes your goal easier to achieve, and in time you will naturally start to write more.

Finally, if you’re unsure about how to create habits, then watch this video that provides a 9-step process for building habits that stick:

Final Thoughts on How to Start Journaling

Hope this tutorial has helped you get started with a journaling habit. I wrote this guide because journaling is an important part of my life, and it benefits me every time I do it.

I know how hard it can be to build new habits, as I’ve gone through it myself, and that’s why I want to help others write in a personal journal every day.

Trust me when I tell you that it’s well worth the 5-, 10-, or 20-minute commitment. You’ll learn more about yourself, reduce your stress, and have a record of your life to look at in future years. Your old entries will be there to reflect on in future years.

Finally, if you want to learn more about this topic, I recommend checking out the book on Amazon that I co-authored with Barrie Davenport titled: “Effortless Journaling: How to Start a Journal, Make It a Habit, and Find Endless Writing Topics.

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