How To Start Journaling (Great Advice From 10 Experts)

Martin Caparrotta
By Martin Caparrotta
Updated on 5 December 2020
Expert Content

Journaling can be a very powerful tool on your personal development journey.

But why is it so beneficial and how do you start if you’ve never done it before?

We asked 10 experts to share their best advice when it comes to making journaling a regular practice. Here’s what they said.

Journaling Helps You Set (And Keep) Your Daily Intentions

Melissa Lyons, Author of ‘I Will Always Love You’ and Life Coach

My first book, ‘I Will Always Love You’ was literally born out of my journaling process. It was a miracle then for me and continues to be today for thousands of people who read it.

Ironically, I was very reluctant to begin a practice of journaling. It’s true. Although it had been strongly recommended to me to journal, it was years before I began.

Looking back, I know that the block that kept me from journaling was the fact that I didn’t see the purpose or any clear benefits; when I thought about journaling, I related it to being an artsy, scrapbooking type of hobby. I couldn’t have been more incorrect.

What I dismissed as a casual and light-hearted story telling exercise of recording activities became a transformational healing tool that gave me insight into aspects of myself that I never knew existed.

There are many benefits to creating a journaling ritual.

Regular journaling can connect you to your higher wisdom and insight.

Helping to relieve stress and provide clarity during times of worry and overwhelm, journaling also allows you to press pause and reflect with a fresh perspective, giving rise to better decision making and choosing more deliberate reactions.

Making the practice a regular part of your day creates an opportunity to use journaling as part of an overall strategy to set and keep daily intentions.

For example, a journaling routine can keep you aligned with goals and commitments and as a result help to keep you showing up for yourself and others. This alone makes life so much more fun and fulfilling.

The most important thing to know about journaling is that there are no rules. It is a personal journey and is a process of self-discovery.

There is no need to check spelling or grammar. Feel free to swear. Write sentences, bullet points or random words. Just write, write, write anywhere on your paper, lines or no lines, just let your words flow.

In order to unleash your creativity, approach the practice without judgement or attachment to a specific outcome.

Don’t hold back either. If you need to unload some really private and intimate details, do so knowing that you can burn after writing. There is value in letting yourself freely flow from your heart without fear of consequence, knowing that you do not need to keep your output unless you choose to keep it.

It’s helpful to start with a three-to-five minute breathing exercise or quiet meditation before beginning, if you are interested in increased access to your gifts.

Taking time to connect before writing can provide you with greater insights and can lead to more creativity.

There are also some fun exercises that you can try. I like starting with any word and then writing for at least three minutes without taking my pen off the paper for any reason.

It’s not as easy as you might think. We tend to need to dot our I’s, cross our T’s, and correct our spelling mistakes. In this exercise, you must just keep writing without ever lifting your pen, finding a way to flow without a break.

Another fun thing to do is start with any random word and then write the next, next, next…. words that come to mind. This can be done in a list style or line style. Just write for three to five minutes.

Both exercises are like limbering up before a workout or a run. It just gets you ready to take your thoughts from your head and heart and lead them to your paper.

You will begin find that you look forward to the messages that come to you and through you.

Answers to troubling questions will find their way to your journal. Ideas and insights will show up. Clarity will pop in to guide you when you need it.

Trust the process. Enjoy the time as you write. Allow yourself to sit without expectation when your thoughts don’t flow freely.

And please remember it’s a journey, not a destination, so consciously release any attachment to outcome.

My journaling journey helped me heal lifelong traumas, find my purpose and ultimately created a pathway for my personal growth and transformation.

You Can Start By Writing Just One Sentence A Day

Christa Fairbrother, Certified Aqua Yoga Specialist

The biggest benefit you’ll get out a journaling practice is it will help you learn about yourself.

A journal is a space to work out ideas. Your journal is a great listener that will consider a subject from every angle. You can vent safely. Blow off steam and rant about anything driving your crazy. You can’t say anything you’re going to regret later in your journal.

You can watch your thoughts over time. You are not the same person now as you were last year.

Your journal becomes a record of your growth and journey that helps you celebrate your success.

Starting is simple. Try to write at least one sentence a day. You can even write one sentence on your phone.

Write a sentence describing your day, a feeling you want to record, something you’re grateful for.

Anything that rises to the top for you. When you have time, maybe once a week, collect all your day’s notes in one place to record them.

If you want to dive a little deeper, buy a journal with prompts to help get you started. That will help you progress to a blank journal that holds limitless possibilities but can feel intimidating with so much white space. There is no wrong way to journal.

It is your journey; your journal is a reflection of that. It will turn out exactly as it was meant to be.

There Are No Rules For Journaling

Mary Potter Kenyon, Certified Grief Counselor and Author of ‘Expressive Writing for Healing

I instinctively turned to journaling after my husband’s death in 2012. After some months or working through my grief, I wondered how anyone could get through difficult times without writing.

That’s when I began studying the science behind expressive writing as a form of therapy.

I took online classes to become a certified grief counselor in 2017 and have since begun doing Expressive Writing for Healing workshops.

Journaling has been proven to be a healing tool, an inexpensive method of working our way through a tough time.

Dr. James Pennebaker is lauded as the pioneer in studying expressive writing as a route to healing. Pennebaker, Regents Centennial Chair of Psychology at the University of Texas in Austin, discusses his findings in his book, Opening Up: The Healing Power of Expressive Emotions, revealing how short-term, focused writing can have a beneficial effect for anyone dealing with stress or trauma.

Subsequent research had demonstrated that writing about emotionally charged topics has been shown to improve mental health, reducing symptoms of depression or anxiety.

For those new to the practice, these are suggestions I share in my books and workshops.

Choose a notebook or journal that fits your personality, that you can comfortably write in. A beautiful leather-bound journal might be too intimidating to begin with.

Perhaps it will be one with a cover design that has special meaning to you; a butterfly, dragonfly, or a Bible verse.

Or maybe you’d prefer a simple notebook with pages that can easily be torn out. Choose whatever works for you and your lifestyle.

How To Journal

(Photo: Adobe Stock)

There are no rules in journal writing. Cross out sentences, scribble on the sides of the paper, doodle or draw on the pages. Don’t worry about sentence structure or grammar.

This writing is for you and not an audience. You can’t help yourself if you’re holding back, afraid to be honest about what you’re feeling.

Feelings and emotions can be messy, so it’s perfectly fine if your journal is, too.

Write down your dreams, both literal and figurative. Do you have dreams and desires for your future? Write them down. In a couple of years, you may look back and see some have become reality.

Our subconscious also works hard at processing significant changes in our life. Have you had any particularly vivid nighttime dreams? Write those down, too.

I’ve solved daytime dilemmas and come up with wonderful ideas in my dreams so I like to keep a notebook by the bed to jot them down. I know better than to think I’ll remember in the morning.

If you are reading inspirational books or articles, copy passages or quotes that speak to you. When I read something particularly inspiring or uplifting that resonates with me, I transcribe pertinent passages or quotes in my journal.

I often refer to those past journals and continue to find inspiration and encouragement from the words I copied down.

Date your journal entries and end them on a positive note. Gratitude is an attitude that can be cultivated. Strive to find one thing to be grateful for each time you journal.

By ending your journal entry on a positive note – with words of thanks or perhaps a prayer – you are training yourself to consciously choose joy and gratitude.

This practice works because it forces you to intentionally focus your attention on grateful thinking, eliminating unwanted, ungrateful thoughts and guarding against taking things or people for granted.

You want gratitude to become a habit, so practicing it in your journal helps that happen.

Journaling Can Be A Tool For Powerful Breakthroughs

Darren Pierre, Author of ‘The Invitation to Love

When thinking about love and relationships, the one (I believe) that holds the greatest importance is the one we have with ourselves.

Journaling invites us to develop a self-constructed window in our hearts and minds – it’s a powerful practice, but with mitigating priorities can be at times hard to maintain.

I have found that when you make the commitment to yourself to do it as the first ritual in your daily routine, the act itself becomes easier.

Remembering, if you cannot keep your word to yourself, how can you ever effectively keep your word with others? Many of us get upset with ourselves when we break promises with others – we need to keep that same energy when we are thinking of ourselves.

So, start with five minutes in the morning, and as you are able and as you find it beneficial, add five to 10 more minutes – make this part of your life exactly what you need it to be.

Let your journal be the time-capsule of your life, let it be a window to your soul, let it be a tool for powerful breakthroughs – especially in a season like the one we are currently living in.

Journaling Can Help You Process Your Thoughts And Feelings

Dr. Rebecca Leslie, Licensed Clinical Psychologist

I have seen journaling be incredibly helpful for so many of my patients. It is something I tend to recommend.

It is a way of getting what is spinning in your head outside of your body. The act of putting it down on paper can be cathartic.

It helps you process what you are thinking and feeling. It can also help you better understand yourself.

It also can be relaxing and a great mindfulness practice of checking in with how you are doing.

Here are my top journaling tips:

• Pick set days and/or times to journal.

• Set a reminder to journal on your phone. Keep this up until it becomes a habit.

• Some prompts: what am I feeling? What am I thinking? What am I needing?

• It doesn’t need to be perfect. Just write what is on your mind.

• Some of my patients say they are afraid someone will read it. If so, you can write it and rip it up and throw it away.

Don’t Feel Guilty If You Don’t Journal Every Day

Sandra Glavan, Anxiety Expert and Founder of Amosuir

I suffered from chronic anxiety for nearly two decades and during that time I tried anything that I thought would help.

My persistence to feel better eventually led me to changes in lifestyle and mindset, which helped me to overcome anxiety altogether.

Journaling has helped me tremendously with my anxiety. Writing down my daily thoughts and concerns helped me to identify negative thought patterns and anxiety triggers, which I then worked on to change. I highly recommend journaling to all my readers.

Journaling is a highly effective tool for self-improvement, personal growth, and dealing with mental health issues such as anxiety and depression. Here are some of my top tips:

Get the Right Equipment. To make journaling a habit, it’s important to have a notepad that you like. If it is cheap and ugly, you’re probably not going to use it.

Decide on the Journal Type. There are many different types of journals that you can keep. The type of journaling technique that you choose to adopt will very much depend on what you want to achieve with journaling.

• Food Journal – A food diary or journal is a log of what you consume each day.

• Fitness Journal – can help you plan ahead to achieve your goals, look back to see what’s working and what’s not, and have a clear idea of what you’re going to do today when you head to the gym.

• Mental health / Anxiety Journal – can help you manage and make more sense of your thoughts, worries, fears, and concerns.

• Gratitude Journal – is an amazing journaling technique. It is a way to keep track of the good things in your life that you can refer back to anytime you need to pick yourself up.

• Dream Journal – is dedicated to your dreams. You can either log your dreams that you have while you sleep or the dreams you have for your life. Or both.

• Morning Pages – involves writing by hand at least two pages each morning where you allow your stream of consciousness to flow freely onto a piece of paper.

• Bullet Journal – is currently one of the most popular ways to stay organized. The aim of a bullet journal is to put all your to-do lists, reminders, scheduling, brainstorming, and other tasks into one notebook. This kind of journaling technique is ideal for someone who writes a lot of lists, and would like to keep them all in one place!

• ‘Dear Diary’ Journal – is the most classical form of journaling. In each entry, write the date and talk about your day. You can think of this as writing to someone that you trust 100 per cent. If the label “Dear Diary” puts you off, you can address it to “Dear Me”.

Other journal types include the pocket journal, garden journal, project journal, reading journal, writing journal, pregnancy journal, art journal, scrapbook, travel journal, idea journal, poetry journal, amongst others.

Schedule Your Journal Writing. Schedule a time in your daily calendar when you plan to write in your journal. Be realistic and choose a time slot that you’ll easily fulfil.

Although there is no set time limit for journaling, allocate at least 10 to 15 minutes for each journal entry, to make your journaling effective.

Start Writing. Once you’ve done all the above, now it is time to start writing. If you are not sure what to write, you can begin your with “I feel,” or “I think,” or “I wonder. Or use journal prompts which you can find online for free.

Some common journaling mistakes to avoid are:

• Feeling guilty if you don’t journal every day. Tip: Do your best and journal as often as you can.

• Journaling on your phone or computer. Tip: It is far more effective to write things down on paper.

• Waiting for the perfect moment to journal. Tip: Find a 10-minute slot in your day and just write something down.

• Only using your journal for writing. Tip: Journaling doesn’t all have to be just about writing words. You can also use colorings pens, stickers, photographs, and whatever else you wish.

• Leaving your journal at home. Tip: Keep your journal with you wherever you go, so that you have it at hand to write whenever you feel up to it.

• Not reviewing your journal entries. Tip: Instead regularly review your journal to track progress.

Journaling Guide

(Photo: Adobe Stock)

Try Writing For Five Minutes Without Stopping

Nita Sweeney, Writing Teacher and Author of ‘You Should Be Writing’

Journaling is a way to download from the mind, unclogging thoughts and emotions and connecting to a deep creativity and truth.

People who want to journal, but don’t know where to start might begin with a guided journal, something with quotations or prompts to get them going.

Setting a timer for just five minutes and committing to keeping your pen moving the whole time also helps. I suggest they write nonsense or repeat the prompt over and over until the brain kicks in. Just get the ink flowing.

Another trick is to write what’s around you. Look to your left and simply make a list of what you see. Then pick one thing and write more deeply about that.

Or, if you’re writing feels flat, throw in some grounding details. What was the weather? What did the air smell like? What did you hear? Sensory details evoke memory and soon the pen will be flying.

Journaling by hand with pen and notebook processes information and feelings more deeply. The mind is more stimulated when a person writes by hand, since writing by hand utilizes not only the part of the brain that controls movement, but also those in charge of calibration, artistic ability, and creativity.

For added effectiveness, reread your journals at regular intervals. This does a few things. First, you discover things you didn’t even realize you wrote. Second, you find pieces you might want to type up and use.

But most importantly, if you’re whining in your journal and you regularly reread it, that thought will come to you while you’re writing and you’ll drop into some concrete details or deep emotion so you won’t have to later reread your whiny pages.

Avoid Journaling About Your Problems Just Before Bed

Bianca Riemer, Certified Life Coach

Journaling slows down our thinking and is very good to calm a racing mind. It can also help to see our thoughts on paper, because that allows us to reflect on them, and to potentially come up with a different perspective on how we see things.

A great practice to do before even sitting down to journal is to spend a few minutes moving your body vigorously, for example, via air-boxing, running, rebounding or dancing like crazy. That releases stuck energy.

Another great exercise that I do in my journaling workshops is to invite people to stand up, close their eyes, and to go back to a moment in their life that they are grateful for and to re-live that moment with all senses: to feel what they were feeling then, to see, hear, smell and experience everything hat they were experiencing then.

In the feedback forms after the workshop, it’s most often that exercise that participants enjoyed most.

When you’re starting off with journaling, it’s best to start with a set of journaling questions. The one question that my journaling workshop participants like most is: ‘describe your perfect day’.

This question is best answered after the dancing and gratitude exercises, because it frees up our creative flow and opens our mind up to what’s possible.

Another great question is: ‘what energy do you want to leave behind when you leave the room?’ Rather than asking about roles or jobs or other worldly things, it opens up your mind towards that which is bigger than you, and that is often very freeing for people.

Avoid journaling about your problems just before bed time. Adding a few items to your to-do list for the next day is OK, but if bedtime is the first time during the day that you take time out to think, it may mean a sleepless night for you, especially if you’re stressed.

It’s much better to allocate some time during the day to journal about what’s top of mind for you, so that your subconscious mind can process it behind the scenes during the rest of the day and doesn’t have to bother you with it when you want to sleep.

Use Your Journal For A ‘Brain Drain’

• Tracy Hollinshead, Travel Blogger at Sunshine and Vine

I have been journaling, on and off, for over 30 years and have settled into a hybrid form of journaling that incorporates list-making, brainstorming, ranting, and self-reflection.

I use to write in pretty journal books filling the pages with inspiring quotes and thoughts. Often, I was left feeling that journaling was yet another task that had to be completed at the end of each day.

Today, I use a simple yellow legal pad. Each night I write the next day’s date at the top of a page and record from my calendar and notes apps only the tasks I want most to accomplish the next day.

I place the legal pad on the bathroom counter. This allows me to begin my morning with fresh attainable goals in mind before picking up my phone and being drawn into new emails, direct messages, or social media.

Throughout the day as I have thoughts, feelings, ideas, or tasks that are too in-depth to type into my calendar or notes app, I grab the legal pad and scribble.

Currently, I am tracking my fitness, and the first thing written in the morning, next to the date, is my weight. Some days this is all that is written. And some days, I write three or four pages.

My journal writings can include information about sites I pass by for inclusion in my travel blog, inspiring quotes from podcasts or audible books, networking contacts, paragraphs to process professional or family conversations, or memories from childhood.

Why a legal pad? Because it is thin and lightweight, the cardboard back is ridged making it easy to write while walking, sitting in the sun, or while sitting in traffic. It is the same size as my laptop and both easily slip together into my tote. I never leave home without both.

I order legal pads pre-hole-punched so the pages can be stored in a large three-ring binder that I call my ‘master journal’. The beauty of this three-ring master journal is that I can choose to keep or destroy any single page or even add pages if I want to expound on a thought or subject.

Remembering that the journal is there for me, not me for my journal, has been a profitable mental shift. It has been freeing to learn to love and appreciate messy and disjointed journal writings.

Often, I will do what I call a ‘brain drain’. I write out angry thoughts and feelings, personal secrets, or expletives, all to free my mind. Then shred those pages.

Not all journal writings are meant to be preserved. As a travel blogger, my journal pages have been gold-mines for writing blog content.

Reviewing old journal notes helps me remember what I was thinking and feeling while visiting specific places. Remembering feelings helps me find words to better describe to readers what I was seeing, tasting, touching, and experiencing.

My top tip for those new to journaling is to just do it. Just start writing. A common mistake is to worry about doing it wrong. There is no wrong way.

Create A Ritual Around Your Journaling

Tanya J Peterson, National Certified Counselor and writer for Choosing Therapy

Know your purpose, your reason for wanting to journal. When you have a goal for your practice, it’s easier to stay motivated to do it because it becomes something meaningful to you.

Your goal doesn’t have to be elaborate or complex. It can be something as simple as, “I want to focus my thoughts,” or “I want to start my day with intention and gratitude.” In fact, the simpler your goal, the better.

A simple reason for journaling will keep you motivated to return to your journal again and again without overwhelming you with what might come to feel like a heavy burden.

Choose a journal that fits you and your personality, one that makes you smile when you see it rather than frown with a heavy, burdened feeling.

It can be as simple as an attractive notebook or as complex as a guided journal with prompts to keep you focused on a theme.

Establish your “where” and your “when.” Where do you want to engage in this ritual, and when do you want to do it. Perhaps you want to journal in a sunny chair first thing in the morning or in your cozy bed before you drift off to sleep.

Maybe you want to carry your journal with you so you can jot things down throughout the day as inspiration strikes. Your specific time and place will be as personal as your journal itself. There’s no wrong here—the key is just to establish a place and time to help it become routine so you stick to your practice.

Create a ritual around your practice to make it meaningful and pleasant. Do something to signal your brain and body that it’s time to settle in and enjoy your journal.

If you’re journaling after work, you might change into comfortable clothes before you begin. Perhaps you want to brew a cup of coffee or tea or have a healthy snack first to fuel your brain so you can think clearly. Maybe you want to set the mood with music.

A blank page can be daunting. A guided journal can feel less intimidating, but if a plain notebook or journal is more your style, simply put pen to paper and mark it up.

Doodle or write random words related to your journaling goal to start. Don’t worry if it doesn’t make sense. This isn’t an assignment for a strict teacher. It’s your own journal that will evolve with you over time.

One of the biggest pitfalls that new (and seasoned) journalers alike fall into is being too rigid with the practice. Many people mistakenly believe that there are right and wrong ways to journal.

Naturally, people want to do it “right,” so they seek strategies for structuring their practice. While it’s good to have a plan and gather some general ideas, remember that this is your journal and your practice.

Let go of the notion that you have to do what others are doing, and make this process a gift to yourself. Another mistake is distracted journaling. While not exactly as dangerous as distracted driving, it is still something to avoid because it takes away from your experience.

Trying to journal when other people or tasks are vying for your attention takes the joy out of your practice and also inhibits your growth.

Be mindful when you journal, devoting time and attention to the process. Use your senses to focus on the experience: pause to appreciate the design of the journal and the appearance of your handwriting on the pages; tune in to the sounds and scents around you as your journal; notice the feel of the pen in your hand and the smoothness of the paper on your fingers.

Even if you only have a few minutes each day to journal, your practice will be rich when you do it mindfully.

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