Maybe you remember keeping a journal throughout your teenage years – mainly to express your feelings about your most recent crush or the fight with your best friend. Perhaps that was the last time that you put pen to paper and expressed your dreams and thoughts.
However, even as an adult, you can benefit tremendously from journaling regularly as it is a powerful tool to reflect on daily experiences, relationships, and personal values. Thus, it can help you to better get in touch with yourself and your thoughts and feelings.
“I can shake off everything as I write; my sorrows disappear, my courage is reborn.”
1. How to Write a Journal
The first step is always the most difficult one. You may be reluctant to (re)establish such a seemingly childish routine. However, as we will see throughout this article, journaling can have various positive impacts on your mental health, cognitive performance, creativity, and resilience.
The first step is, of course, to gather some sheets of paper or buy a notebook, get a pen ready, and start writing. But let’s take a deeper look into what journaling is to get you started more easily.
1.1. What Is a Journal?
This is often the first question you may ask yourself as an aspiring journal writer. You might even seek guidance in books, blogs (you’ve come to the right place), or other resources.
The thing is: There is no right or wrong when it comes to journaling. In general, as long as you write down what’s in your head, you’re on the right path.
However, there certainly are different methods and approaches to journaling that may help you find a clearer direction when writing.
One example are the so-called morning pages. This means that you fill a certain number of pages with whatever comes to your mind first thing in the morning.
You could start with three to four pages of longhand stream-of-consciousness writing as soon as you wake up. This means that you simply write down anything that comes to mind. Don’t stop, revise, rephrase or correct your writing. Imagine your pen pulling your thoughts directly out of your head and onto the paper.
The important thing is to remember that your writings are not meant to be art and you don’t have to show them to anybody. They don’t need to be smart, funny, or particularly deep. In fact, it’s best to free yourself from any expectations as to these first pages in the morning.
Of course, you can also journal any other time of the day. Consider it a sort of brain drain and a way to let go of all the – if any – angry, sad, troublesome, and seemingly unimportant stuff in your head. It’s a great way to release everything that whirls through your subconscious and troubles you throughout the day. This will feel like a huge relief.
If you’d prefer a more conventional journaling style, set a specific topic before you start writing and pursue it. This differs from morning pages – where you do not set a topic – in that you’re not jumping from one topic to another. You rather focus on gathering insights and directions for a specific purpose.
Your journal topics can range from love and relationships, work and career to self-reflection and personal goals. You can also ask yourself a specific journal question before you start writing.
If you want to explore love and relationships, ask yourself:
- Who do I trust and why?
- What is important to me in a relationship?
- What do I value most in my relationships?
If you rather want to explore your work and career life, these questions may help you:
- Which part of my work do I enjoy the most?
- What are my strengths and abilities in my job?
- What are my professional goals?
If you want to focus on self-reflection and growth, ask yourself the following questions:
- What values do I consider most important in life and how do I act accordingly?
- What do I appreciate most about myself? Which aspects do I find hard to accept?
- What changes can I make to my life to make it 1% better today?
Of course, there are more journal prompts, topics, and questions that you can write about. There are indefinite possibilities. The important thing here is that you pick the first one that appeals to you and get started.
You can even use journaling as a tool to overcome trauma. A study by J.W. Pennebaker found that journaling about traumatic experiences or difficult situations specifically has the most significant impact on your mental well-being. They even found that writing about your problems can improve your health since long-buried trauma decreases the functionality of the immune system.
In this study, participants were randomly instructed to write about either traumatic experiences or superficial topics for a period of four days. Six weeks later, participants that wrote about traumatic experiences were able to report a more positive mood and suffered less often from illnesses than those who wrote about everyday experiences.
If you’re a very creative person, a bullet journal is perfect for you. Rather than just writing down your thoughts and filling the pages one after another, you can use drawings, symbols, mind maps, and other visualizations to bring your thoughts to life on paper. Also, you jump in between pages as you have dedicated sections for different topics such as long-term goals, watch lists, bucket lists, habit trackers, etc. The more, the merrier!
So, as you can see, a journal can be as individual as the writer. You can even write your journal in digital form, using a word processor or an app. Follow your intuition and use what feels best for you.
1.2. How Do I Set Up a Journaling Routine?
Although there are no strict rules when it comes to journaling, developing a routine – in any area of your life – has positive effects on your mental and overall health. This is because developing habits reduces stress and anxiety as it gives you more time and energy for other activities and more time to relax.
The same goes for journaling: Writing every day allows you to connect with yourself and increase your self-awareness on a daily basis. Instead of accumulating stress and negative thoughts over a longer period of time, writing them down instantly enables you to let go of these thoughts and feelings, giving you more space for happier and healthier emotions.
To set up a journaling routine, commit to writing every day for at least 21 days in a row. This period of time is generally considered to be required in order to form a new habit. For starters, you don’t need to write more than five minutes or until you’ve filled one page. Set the boundaries low so you’re more likely to achieve them. This will also motivate you to keep going.
Set a Reminder
You can even set a reminder on your smartphone at the same time every day. This way, you will feel more obliged to pursue your newly-required routine on a daily basis. I mean, who can resist the notification on a smartphone?
Buy a Notebook
To make the start even easier, you could buy a beautifully handcrafted notebook, a new pen, and ink. This will encourage you to use it more often and sets you in a positive mood as soon as you reach for your notebook.
Also, create an agreeable environment for your journaling routine. Maybe you want to sit down in your favorite spot with a hot beverage of your choice. You can even light some candles or play some soothing music to get you in the right mood. Whatever helps you to feel comfortable and secure will also boost your motivation for your writing.
Don’t Overthink It
And lastly: Don’t think about what you’re going to write or whether this will be meaningful and sophisticated output. Just write. And if you don’t know what to write, start with: “I don’t know what to write, but…”. You’ll see, after some initial difficulties, your pen will almost fly on its own over the pages.
1.3. Do I Have to Journal Daily?
All conviction about routines and habits aside: If journaling every day is not your thing, engage in this activity as regularly as it feels right for you.
Expressive writing, for example, is typically done for four consecutive days. While this is only a recommendation, there is no one-size-fits-all. Whether you want to journal several days in a row, a few times a week, or just once a week. You can write for 5 or for 20 minutes (or even longer if you’re really in a flow!). You can write about the same topic every day or change the subject even several times in one entry.
The above-mentioned research by Dr. Pennebaker even found that a one-time session of 15 to 30 minutes of journaling can already have benefits. The thing is that writing too much and too often, especially when you experience a lot of negative thoughts, can even lead you into a trap of destructive self-talk. And that certainly is not what you want to achieve with journaling.
Rather think of writing as an expressive task and a kind of course correction instead of another stressful commitment that you load on yourself for the rest of your life.
Especially if you feel highly disturbed and troubled, take a break from journaling for a couple of days. When you come back to your routine, write about what you experienced during these last days. And if you don’t find any comfort in writing or have the impression that it even makes things worse, look for another outlet. Try out a new sport, a new hobby, or talk to someone – maybe even a therapist.
Yoga can also be a great outlet for any type of feelings. Particularly in Inside Flow, the music reaches the hearts of the yogis and yoginis, but also any type of trauma-informed yoga can be very emotional. You might also want to put your thoughts and feelings into building your own unique yoga sequence with our free Yoga Sequence Builder tool.
1.4. Can Journaling Be Bad for You?
Before we look at the numerous benefits of journaling, we should not forget that there may be times and situations where this may not apply. Sometimes, writing down your thoughts can have negative effects on your emotions and feelings and, consequently, also on your behavior and overall well-being.
Yes, you read it right: Journaling can also have negative effects.
A 2002 study suggests that journaling about stressful events only bears the risk of hashing and rehashing the same problems and difficulties over and over again.
If you live too much in your head, you risk becoming a passive observer of your life rather than an active participant. If you think too much about how you’ll write down your life, you might miss actually experiencing what is happening around you and forget to live in the moment.
Journaling more often than would do you good can also make you become self-obsessed and encourage you to wallow in negative things and self-pity. This way, journaling can even become a vehicle of blame instead of a solution finder.
2. The Benefits of Journaling
Despite the concerns and obstacles you may face during journaling, it’s well worth the effort! Let’s look at the most important benefits of journaling.
2.1. Easy and Flexible
Journaling can be used to reflect on any issues in your life. It is adjustable to meet the needs, style, and processing methods of everyone and even is doable for both left and right-brained people.
As it has no set rules, there’s even room for messiness, typos, and not quite perfect writing skills. With some patience, also persons with a reading and writing weakness can engage in regular writing and may find comfort in it. This is especially true if you choose to keep a bullet journal as it also allows for drawings and other creative ways to put your thoughts on paper.
Scribbling into a journal takes as little time as you can spare or as much time as you want to spare. It’s a great opportunity to stop, pay attention and listen to yourself. Journaling is often self-starting and motivating and, thus, supplies its own energy.
2.2. Teaches You to Get to Know Yourself Better
Journaling does not only help you to build self-confidence and self-knowledge, it also helps you to feel better about yourself and to identify your core values. It’s a great possibility to learn to read your own mind.
As you shift to the observer of your own behavior, journaling is a process of self-discovery. It allows you to reveal your thinking patterns as well as your learning and creation processes. It’s a great way to clarify your own thoughts, feelings, and behavior as well as to create awareness of your inner beliefs and opinions, enabling you to proactively change them.
Your journal may even reveal different aspects of yourself and allow you to access the unconscious, subconscious, and super-conscious. As such, noting down your experiences also aids in connecting causes to effects and may even enable you to find the missing pieces and the unsaid.
2.3. Increases Creativity and Intuition
Writing into a journal increases your self-trust and helps you awaken your inner voice (or rather learn to hear it again). It provides insights into your creative and intuitive mind and gives you a clear understanding of your intentions and innermost beliefs.
Apart from that, journaling improves your sensitivity toward your own feelings and thought processes. In consequence, it can boost your creativity, increase your memory, and may even help you interpret symbols and dreams.
2.4. Facilitates Problem-Solving and Decision-Making
As you become the detective of your own thought processes, journaling helps you make decisions and offers new perspectives.
It also is a great way to get a bigger picture of certain situations as it brings things together and shows relations and connections in their entirety instead of separately.
Writing into a journal helps you to focus and identify your true desires and needs. As a result, it enables you to move towards wholeness and growth and to discover who you really are. You may even be able to explore your spirituality and integrity. This allows freedom of expression and makes it easier for you to make decisions that are in line with your true self.
You also learn to shift your focus from a problem-focused to a solution-oriented mindset.
2.5. Helps to Reduce Stress and Feel Mentally Stable
Journaling helps control your stress level and improve your mood as it helps you prioritize problems, fears, and concerns.
If you track symptoms of stress and mental or physical fatigue on a daily basis, you can recognize triggers and discover ways and possibilities to better respond to them.
If you’re willing, journaling also provides you an opportunity for positive self-talk and identifying negative thoughts and behaviors as well as any factors that cause stress or anxiety. Once you’ve identified these stressors, you can make a conscious effort to resolve these problems and reduce stress and anxiety.
This will bring you mental stability and increase your mental and emotional well-being. As a result, you become more resilient to the various challenges life may throw at you.
2.6. Fosters Personal Growth
Summarizing all the benefits mentioned above, journaling helps you to live your life to the fullest, express yourself freely, and know your inner values. As such, it is one of the most effective ways to foster personal growth and discover your true potential.
As you measure and track what’s important, you will see more results in your personal, professional, and spiritual life.
3. WRITE to Start Journaling
The Center for Journal Therapy (yes, there really is such a thing!) has developed a short guideline of 5 steps that help you get in the journaling mood. And it’s fairly easy to remember: just W-R-I-T-E.
W – What topic? What do you want to write about? What’s going on in your head? How do you feel? Name the first thing that comes into your mind. Any topic is great.
R – Reflect on it. Start writing by beginning your sentence with “I feel…” or “I want…” or “Today I want/I feel/I wish…”
I – Investigate. Explore your thoughts and feelings further. The best way to do this is to simply keep writing. Remember: There’s no right or wrong. As long as your pen moves across the page, you’re doing a great job. If you’re stuck, close your eyes for a moment. Re-read your text and resume writing.
T – Time yourself. It’s recommended to write for a specified amount of time. If you’re new to journaling, don’t set the threshold too high. Start with 5 to 15 minutes and commit to writing for at least that amount of time. You can always write longer if you feel like it.
E – Exit smart. Re-read what you’ve written and end with a short summary. Adding a final sentence that starts with something like “As I read this, I feel/think/hope…” helps you to clarify any action steps or identify take-aways.
Are you eager to start journaling right away? If you need some further guidance, check out this list of scholarly resources on the effects of journaling.
On TINT, you can find valuable and creative input on how to combine journaling and yoga from some of our amazing TINT Instructors: Join, for example, Ami Norton for her session “A New Beginning” or Alexandra Harfield for “Your Practice as a Constant“.