The No-BS Guide to Journaling
I consider myself a hippie at heart but even I get burnt out on seeing journaling touted as some sort of miracle elixir for stress, life planning, and personal development. Within self-improvement circles, it seems like journaling and meditation are the two silver bullets for solving all of your woes. Unfortunately, a lot of the advice out there around journaling is… well, it’s not great.
For starters, I’m not sure if people writing about having a journaling practice actually enjoy journaling or if they just like being able to take ~*~aesthetic~*~ photos of their multi-colored pens and bullet journals for Instagram. On top of that, a lot of what I’ve seen written about journaling seems to promote journaling for the sake of having a journal.
We’re busy people with a lot going on in our lives. There’s no room for busy work in our personal lives.
That’s why my approach to journaling has been to cut the crap and integrate it into my day as an exercise for:
- Boosting my productivity
- Reducing my stress levels
- Keeping focused on long-term goals
My journal is not pretty. I don’t use multi-colored pens. I don’t give a damn about having something attractive that I can post to Instagram.
But it works for me, and it has become an insanely helpful tool in my personal and professional lives. Here’s how.
The Science Behind Keeping a Journal
The truncated summary of this section is this: you’ll be less stressed and may find it easier to focus.
But, if you’re still not convinced, let’s expand upon that a bit more.
A 2002 study by Ullrich and Lutgendorf at the University of Iowa found that “journaling about a personally experienced stressful or traumatic event may facilitate positive growth from the event” and that “journaling that highlights emotional expression and cognitive processing, that is, efforts to understand and make sense of a traumatic event, may offer greater benefits [in mood and physical symptoms] than journaling focused on the expression of negative emotion.”
This indicates that when dealing with stress– especially with the byproducts of stress such as difficulty concentrating– journaling about your experience with stress can help to facilitate “positive growth” from what you’re feeling. This is particularly effective when you focus on “cognitive processing,” or making sense of why you’re currently feeling the stress that you’re feeling in the way that you’re feeling it (more on this in a moment). The positive growth that we’re referring to as a byproduct of this type of journaling is like an inoculation against the stress that you’re experiencing. In the same way that vaccines introduce your body to modified versions of pathogens so that it can safely learn to protect itself against it, journaling in this way introduces stress to your psyche in a way that lets you break it down and learn from it without being hurt by it.
On top of that, a 2009 Study by Williams, Gerardi, et al in the International Journal for Human Caring looked at a sample of graduate nursing students who were tasked with journaling regularly as a means of reflecting on their work and patient interactions. Over the course of the study, they found that reflectively journaling about their work experiences led to a significant increase in having an empathetic outlook toward the folks that they worked with and a greater sense of personal growth that was characterized by feeling more competent and confident in their own knowledge and skills.
Below, I’ll include some links to more research and resources about the science behind journaling in case you’d like to explore it further. For now, let’s pivot and look at what this means for us outside of a research context.
Key Takeaways from the Research
- Taking a cognitive processing approach to journaling can lead to a significant reduction in stress.
- Journaling in a reflective way helps to solidify our own learning and can help us feel more competent and confident.
- Combining reflection with cognitive processing creates a blueprint for figuring out how to take the knowledge we have and apply it to future issues.
How to Get Started Journaling
When you’re getting started with journaling. I definitely do not recommend just sitting down with a journal and a pen and hoping that something comes to you to write. The freeflow, mind dump method of journaling can be a fun creative exercise from time to time, but in my experience, it’s a sure-fire way to make sure that journaling doesn’t become a habit, and certainly not a habit that benefits you.
Instead, I recommend that you approach journaling with a plan of action.
Step 1: Determine Your Purpose for Journaling
It may seem obvious, but as a first step, but to get started, figure out why you want to sit down and make an entry in your journal. If you’re like me, it may seem like keeping a journal is a romantic idea and something that you want to do– but wanting to do something because it seems nice does not contribute to consistency.
Instead, what I have found to be helpful is to use my journal as a testing ground for exploring what I’m struggling with, what my goals are, and what my motivations are behind the goals.
As an example of this, when I sat down to do my journaling today, I did so with a clear purpose: I have writer's block and want to explore why I feel so distracted.
By coming into my journaling practice with this mentality, I had a clear end goal. I wanted to feel less distracted and overcome my sense of writer’s block that I’ve been experiencing this morning.
Step 2: Start Where You Are… But then Go Deeper
Once I have a goal and focus in mind, I start journaling by just describing what I’m experiencing. For example, today’s journal entry started as follows:
“Today I wanted to pull out my journal because I’m having a hard time focusing. I sat down to write (fittingly about journaling) and just couldn’t collect my thoughts.”
In these opening two sentences, I briefly describe what I’m working on (focusing) and why I’m working on it (couldn’t collect my thoughts). With keeping a journal, I think it’s important to let yourself be a little messy and not worry about trying to make your writing pretty, either visually or in terms of your voice. Just be honest with yourself. Nobody has to see what you jot down but you.
Once you’ve set the stage for where you are at emotionally, go deeper. The easiest way to do that is to ask yourself one powerful question– why?
In my case, when I asked myself why I was feeling so distracted and what it was that kept cluttering my thoughts when I sat down to write, I realized that when I sat down to try to write an article about journaling, I kept thinking about all the ways in which I could implement a better marketing strategy on my website. I’m going to be working on becoming a certified life coach soon, and when I sat down to write, I felt a sense of worry about needing to start designing and creating marketing funnels for attracting potential clients as a life coach.
On the surface, I didn’t realize this. As I asked myself “okay, why do I feel this sense of stress? What is distracting me?” I was gradually able to unearth that my distractedness came from a sense of urgency that I was experiencing elsewhere in my creative life.
If you’re interested in tech, this process of asking yourself “why” and peeling back the layers of what you’re experiencing is a lot like troubleshooting a software issue or fixing faulty website behavior. You start with behavior that you can observe and then you explore possible causes, working backward until you arrive at the source of an issue.
Sometimes it’s enough to only ask yourself “why” one or two times; on these occasions, recognizing the motives behind your actions is pretty straightforward. Other times, you may realize that there are a lot of layers to peel back. The other day I was journaling about my long-term goals of building multiple streams of income. Four handwritten pages later and I’m divulging things onto the page about how miserable I was in high school and the ways in which chronic anxiety and depression shaped my teenage years. Knowing how many layers to peel back will come with practice, but as a general rule of thumb, the more complex the issue you’re writing about, the more likely you are to realize that your motivations and underlying mental space are multifaceted, complicated, and beautifully messy.
Step 3: Engage in HIIT (High-Intensity INSIGHT Training)
Insight is the ability to understand why we do the things that we do. Developing insight is a lot like training your muscles. With weight training, when you first start a weight lifting routine, you’re going to find that it feels awkward and that you get quite sore afterward. When you stick with it, however, the movements become second nature and your body gets stronger, adapting and growing to match the level to which you’re engaging it.
Insight functions the same way. At first, it may feel quite awkward to essentially talk to yourself on the page and flesh out the ways in which your mind works. And yet it is getting progressively more comfortable with this skill that makes journaling have the opportunity to be so impactful. Over time, you’ll find that it’s easier to understand your motivations. This can even extend to when you’re not journaling. By strengthening this muscle, insight can eventually make the leap into mindfulness. When I’ve been journaling consistently, it’s easier for me to notice my actions and say to myself “ah, at this moment, I feel X because of Y”.
As you journal and think about your motivations, you’ll likely start to notice patterns in the way that you operate. These patterns can make us or break us in our day-to-day routines since they have a powerful tendency to create feedback cycles.
For example, during one of my deep dive days in my journal, I started to realize that a lot of what motivates me and drives me subconsciously is a desire for acceptance and a fear of being unwanted. This motivation can go one of two ways.
Without a strong sense of insight, I may feel this fear of being unwanted, assume it’s because I’m not wanted, and internalize that as a part of my identity– I am someone who is unaccepted and unwanted.
With insight, I am able to control that narrative. Rather than internalizing a harmful self-image, I’m able to break it down in a much healthier way. I can use insight to say I have a craving for acceptance because of these events in my past; those events do not define me and those fears are unfounded– I am projecting them onto others, not the other way around; I have a wealth of experience and growth that is meaningful and impactful; I can use those fears and experiences to act with more empathy. Following this chain of insight intervention, what gets internalized as a part of my identity is that I am someone who is able to heal and grow through personal experiences and then use those experiences to help others.
The only way to step in and rewrite the story you’re telling yourself is to consistently practice developing insight.
Step 4: Give Yourself Next Steps, Targets, or Follow-Up Action
I recommend concluding each journaling session by asking yourself what you can take away from the insight you’ve gained in your journaling that day.
This can be as simple as saying “I’ve got that out of my system so I’m not going to devote any more mental energy to it today.” Or, it can be as complex as saying “I recognize that I have certain internalized ideas about myself, so I am going to focus on identifying this thought pattern throughout the rest of my day.”
The next steps that you set for yourself will likely correspond directly to the goal that you had in mind when you initially sat down to do your journaling, but don’t be afraid to go off-script if you have some mental and emotional momentum. In my journaling session today, I sat down with the focus of deconstructing the mental roadblocks that were giving me writer’s block. Had my reflective process led me down a different path, perhaps I would have realized that my space wasn’t conducive to creativity and the best next step would have been to clean my house and open the windows to let fresh air in. Maybe I would have realized that, in fact, the topic I wanted to write about wasn’t the topic that I needed to write about, and I would have had to change directions.
Use your initial goal as a guidepost, but as you focus on developing your sense of insight, don’t be afraid to let that guide you in how you follow-up.
Also, don’t feel like you need to have something complex or tangible as your follow-up action. Sometimes I sit down to journal because I’m pissed off or unmotivated and just want to vent. In those cases, my follow-up is simply to say “well, I got that off my chests. This particular thing sucks, but I’m going to muscle through it because it’s a part of my job and it’s blocking me from doing the things I want.”
In the case of my journaling today, my “next steps” were to simply recognize that I was getting ahead of myself and that the sense of urgency I felt was misplaced. This freed me up the mental space to come back to my computer and do what I need to do.
How to Stick With Journaling
One of the main pitfalls of starting to journal is that it’s incredibly difficult to stick to it. As helpful as an exercise as it is, it can feel like a chore at times. When something starts to feel like a chore rather than a want, it’s easy for it to lose its appeal.
Since journaling’s benefits unfold over time, sticking with it is pretty necessary if you want it to be meaningful. To make it easier to stick with it, here are a few of the principles I’ve learned over the years that help integrate journaling into your daily routine.
Buy a nice pen.
As lame as it sounds, having a pen that you enjoy using is helpful. And yes, I do say pen intentionally. Writing on paper by hand is the best way to approach journaling. If you try to do it on a computer or on your phone, you’re going to be distracted by the infinite number of things you can do on your electronic devices. The purpose of journaling is to be focused and reflective for a short period of time, which you can’t do if you’re being distracted by dozens of notifications, alerts, and reminders of other things you could be doing. So, get a pen that you like writing with (I’m a fan of G2 pens myself– they write well, don’t drag on the page, and they’re not too expensive).
Don’t buy a fancy journal.
It may seem contradictory to the above advice, but I stand by it. Do not buy a fancy leather-bound, artisan notebook for your journal. As pretty and aesthetically satisfying as they are, I’ve found that they actually make it harder to journal on a regular basis! In an informal poll with several of my friends, I reached a pretty consistent conclusion: the fancier the journal, the more pressure you have to write something “important.” Journaling is about processing and reflecting on what you’re experiencing. It can be raw, gritty, ugly, and hard to follow. When your journal looks like some magical tome, it’s hard to let yourself just let go and put yourself into it with honesty and transparency. I use college-ruled composition books that you can buy at your local office supply store for $1 to $2 apiece.
Tack it on to an established part of your routine.
Identify something in your schedule that you’re already doing that lends itself to journaling. For me, it’s my lunch break. I very rarely need a full hour to eat my lunch, so I eat and then grab my journal for a few minutes of self-reflection. Adding on to something that is already second-nature to you is much easier than trying to start a brand new habit from scratch. I’d recommend reading James Clear’s Atomic Habits to learn more about integrating habits and small changes into your day.
Further Reading and Resources
Want to know more about why I love journaling so much and endorse it as a powerful tool for self-improvement? These resources are why.
More Science Behind Journaling:
- Ullrich, P.M., Lutgendorf, S.K. Journaling about stressful events: Effects of cognitive processing and emotional expression. ann. behav. med. 24, 244–250 (2002). (cited in this article)
- Williams, Gerardi, et al. Reflective Journaling: Innovative Strategy for Self-Awareness for Graduate Nursing Students. International Journal of Human Caring Vol 13 Issue 3, DOI: 10.20467/1091-5710.13.3.36 (cited in this article)
- Proctor, Steven L., et al. “The Effectiveness of Interactive Journaling in Reducing Recidivism Among Substance-Dependent Jail Inmates.” International Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology, vol. 56, no. 2, Apr. 2012, pp. 317–332, doi:10.1177/0306624X11399274.
- Corrine R. Sackett, Alyssa McKeeman. (2017) Using Visual Journaling in Individual Counseling: A Case Example. Journal of Creativity in Mental Health 12:2, pages 242-248. (PDF here)
Books About Habits and Personal Development:
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He/ Him/ His pronouns. Blake is a writer, gym addict, dog dad, researcher, and general life enthusiast. He's passionate about helping others reach their goals and live happier, more fulfilling lives.