17 Journaling Tips For Beginners (And How To Start)
When you’re struggling to journal daily, sometimes it’s best to forget the usual advice. Here are my top journaling tips.
Sometimes I write how-to stories and the tips really work in my daily life. Then a few weeks later all my good habits fall apart.
And sometimes it feels hypocritical to write about journaling tips when I don’t always maintain a perfect daily writing streak. I get distracted and I deal with depression and anxiety like many others.
But here’s the thing: journaling is a habit. It’s not a hobby for when you’re feeling great or have the luxury of time.
It’s a habit we develop that we actually need most when we’re feeling anxious, hurried or just not in the mood. And we don’t have to beat ourselves up whenever we fall short of writing daily.
Journaling can also be a check-in tool. There are seasons in our lives when we feel balanced and motivated, and we’ve got our priorities straight. And other times we’re stressed and wonder what it’s all for.
But the value of journaling comes through when we stick with it despite the ups and downs.
Except I don’t always keep a daily journal. I haven’t since my teens.
Though maybe it’s not achieving perfection that makes someone qualified to speak. Maybe it’s the belief in the value of journaling and the persistent desire to make it work.
I’m figuring it out as I go along. Because the journaling tips I’ve read haven’t always helped in my real life.
So I thought I’d experiment and find whatever works for me. Because the joys and benefits of journaling outweigh the necessity of writing on paper or journaling in the morning. Something – even a few sentences in your note app when you’re on the subway – is much better than nothing.
Are you struggling with journaling every day, or maybe you just hate to write or don’t have the time for it?
My advice is to experiment and find whatever works for you – even if it goes against the common journaling tips out there.
Here are my top journaling tips:
1. You don’t have to keep a paper journal.
The usual advice is to write on paper because writing in cursive forces you to slow down and relieves stress. And though I still love writing a rough draft for a story on paper, I sometimes get on my laptop for everyday journaling.
The speed and ease of the keyboard sometimes works better. I type faster, I feel more productive and I’m less likely to censor myself and more likely to write stream of consciousness. Because it’s not much effort to type something out versus getting hand cramps from paper journaling.
The trick is to be self-aware. Try a few ways of keeping a journal and observe how it makes you feel. Do you obsess over your handwriting when you’re writing in a paper journal? Try downloading an app for gratitude journaling that will give you daily prompts you can simply type in. Are you more of a visual person who struggles with words? Start an art journal and express your emotions with daily sketches and doodles that incorporate some writing.
Experiment with writing on paper, on a laptop or on your smartphone and find whatever works best for you.
2. You don’t have to write first thing in the morning.
There’s been a lot of talk lately about Morning Pages – the practice of filling 3 sheets of A4 paper each morning with your stream of consciousness thoughts when your mind is still fresh.
Except my mind needs two cups of coffee before it wakes up – and even longer to formulate a decent thought. So I’ve been journaling at night, when the house is quiet and when no delivery man will interrupt my flow. And my writing flows better.
I do love Morning Pages, but there’s a myriad of ways to journal. The only way that’s right is whatever works best for you. Writing in the morning lets you plan out your day, reflect on how you’ll deal with any anticipated challenges or even jot down whatever you’re grateful for. Evenings, for their part, are great for reflecting back on your day, what you’d do differently and what’s on your to-do list for tomorrow.
The only question is: what do you want to get out of journaling? And what time and technique would work best for you?
Try writing at different times of the day and notice the difference. When are you at your best, and when does it feel most valuable to journal?
3. Get some accountability.
There’s something very motivating about being in a group of like-minded people pursuing the same goal – even if you don’t consider yourself competative.
Every November, I do NaNoWriMo – an annual writing challenge where people worldwide sign up and pledge to complete an entire novel in one month. I don’t write a novel every year (the rules are flexible) but I do use the challenge to pound out the recommended 1.6k words daily to hit that monthly goal. And I use that word count to write blog posts, short stories or daily rants.
And it works like a miracle.
There’s the sentimental factor when you do NaNoWriMo every year, but most importantly there’s the community. Strangers around the world and those soon to be friends who cheer you on. Famous and brilliant authors sending out pep talks on the NaNo website and talking about how much their first drafts always suck. There’s so much energy that you can’t help feeding on.
Last year, I met with a few women at a cafe in Cairo to write together and it inspired me to keep going, even though I’d been travelling and fell way behind on my target word count. It was so encouraging to log in and update my word count and see that line rise on the graph and know my new NaNo friends were cheering me on.
And there are so many ways to get that accountability even when it’s not November.
Form a local writer’s circle or find an existing one on Facebook. Google some online writing communities or just find a few like-minded friends to support each other on WhatsApp.
Get accountability. It’s a powerful tool. Whether that’s a writer’s group in real life, a challenge online or an app to keep track of your writing progress.
4. Start small and keep your expectations realistic.
Do you imagine yourself with a beautiful Moleskine, a Mona Lisa smile on your face as you fill up pages and pages of insightful prose that your grandchildren will treasure?
Whenever I fail to take my own advice, I narrow down my goals into a single snippet that I can manage even on my worst days. When 10 minutes of meditation felt like too much and I had problems keeping still, I cut it down to 5 minutes. I also have short guided meditations for the days I’m too tired to go alone.
It doesn’t matter whether you write a single line or three pages – what matters in the beginning is that you form a habit. Make journaling a part of your daily life and anchor it to another habit – like your morning coffee or your evening washing up. And get that journaling in there until it becomes routine and automatic and until you’re no longer fighting with yourself about how badly or well you’re doing it.
Just do it, and then refine the how you do it later.
5. If you’ve got writer’s block, write about gratitude.
Writing about gratitude will lift your spirits and get your thoughts flowing again on the days you’re tired or filled with self-doubt.
This positive energy is downright invigorating.
And it doesn’t have to be complicated. Start with what’s in front of you – your laptop or journal, the balcony or the desk with your morning coffee. Then describe your emotions in detail. Instead of trying to fill up a page with all the things you’re grateful for, try focusing on a few and really let yourself feel the emotion of gratitude.
Gratitude journaling can be life-changing when it’s used in difficult situations or downright irritating relationships. Ask yourself, despite all the bad, what can you learn from a difficult day? What qualities do you admire in your partner – even if you don’t want to be around them right now?
6. Try a new environment.
Sitting out on the terrace at a cafe gives me something to write about and lets me forget the daily grind of my desk and laptop. A different setting gets my senses going and inspires thoughts.
If you’re feeling uninspired, then change your surroundings. Step out onto your balcony or grab a chair in your garden and journal from there. Take your journal to work and jot down a few lines on your lunch break. Pick it up in the evening and doodle as you watch TV.
There’s no right time and place for journaling – it’s about finding whatever works for you.
7. Schedule your journaling into your day.
Otherwise you might never make the time for it – and journaling whenever you’re in the mood and inspired is bound to fail.
Journaling lifts you when you’re not feeling in the mood and that means sometimes you just have to get on with it even when you’re feeling uninspired. And when you schedule journaling into your day, you’ll be less likely to make excuses or rely on sheer willpower alone.
Inspiration will find you – but only when you’re writing.
To make journaling a part of your daily routine, set aside a time for it. Anchor it to another habit you’re already great at maintaining.
If you drink coffee religiously in the morning, make it a habit to write a few lines when you get halfway through your cup. Or if you unwind with a Netflix series at night, make it a point to scribble down a few lines before you hit play.
8. Track your journaling habit.
We humans love to make a chain of habits and we hate to see it break.
I use a habit tracking app to mark off each day when I’ve journaled, even it if was just for 5 minutes. It’s so satisfying psychologically to see those marks add up to a streak. And on the days when I’m not in the mood to journal, I open it up just for 5 minutes for the sake of keeping that habit streak going.
Very often once I’m past those 5 minutes, I find myself wanting to keep going.
And that’s the beauty of journaling. It’s not about willpower but about forming a small daily habit that you’ll eventually think less about. Journaling becomes as routine as brushing your teeth.
9. Use different journaling techniques.
Keep your journaling interesting and spicy by using different journaling techniques. It doesn’t have to be the same old every day.
If you’re feeling overwhelmed at work, brainstorm some solutions to problems you’re facing and make a streamlined to-do list that puts your real priorities at the top.
If you’re just in the mood for some TV, make a list of your favourite Netflix series and ones to watch.
Make your journal work for you. Let it be there in whatever capacity you need.
There are dozens of journaling techniques for almost any purpose and occasion. From writing an angry unsent letter when you need to vent to sketching out ideas for your next quilting project, a journal is your space for whatever you need.
A journal can help you plan your day or track your projects or hobbies. Fill it in with your favorite movie quotes, notes on recipes you’ve tried or reflections on how your children are growing up.
If you find yourself bored with journaling then shake things up and try something new.
Does the thought of writing in a spiralbound notebook bring back memories of dull work meetings that should have been emails? Or maybe a beautiful notebook seems like a shame to fill with your illegible cursive?
Your journal should feel like it’s yours and it should fit your personality. Maybe that’s a leather-bound notebook that you can whip out comfortably on a business flight. Or maybe that’s a worn cloth-bound notebook filled with painted daisies. Your journal should make you look forward to writing.
If you’re cracking open a new notebook and looking for an ice breaker, then fill that first, intimidating blank page with a favorite song lyric or inspirational quote.
And don’t obsess about your handwriting. You’re probably out of practice and it will look messy in the beginning. Handwriting gets better – and more legible – with practice and plenty of patience. So don’t let an un-Instagrammable cursive stop you.
Make some messy doodles or scrawl some quotes into the margins to further break that ice and smash those high expectations. Your journal is your tool – not an Instagram flatlay waiting to happen.
11. Keep a journal handy in your bag.
When you’re stuck on the bus in traffic, just pull out your journal and jot down your thoughts or vent your anxieties.
An additional journal kept in your bag is useful whenever you’re in a waiting room, a traffic jam or any situation with time on your hands.
A journal can also be a great substitute for smart phone scrolling. Whenever you find yourself restless and reaching for your smartphone, pull out your journal instead. Sure it may be awkward during a dinner party, but a dentist’s office or bank are perfect settings for a journaling session.
When you’re on vacation, a travel journal can be an incredible tool to write down your sensations when they’re still fresh in your mind. Use a journal to plan your trip and keep track of any great restaurants you’ve tried or museums you’d love to revisit.
If you’re intimidated to write in your journal in public, then don’t worry. It gets easier with time and it’s helpful to remember that people may shoot you the odd glance, but they actually have no idea whether you’re drafting up a business plan or complaining about your ex.
So let your thoughts flow freely.
12. Make journaling a pleasure.
Journaling should be a pleasure and a treat – not a chore you knock off your daily list.
Invest in a fountain pen to make your writing flow like silk. Dab on some perfume before you start writing. Brew your favorite herbal tea infusion and settle back in a comfortable corner or turn on your favorite playlist.
You’ll begin to associate these little indulgences with journaling and they’ll make your writing time a real pleasure.
But don’t overthink it. Expecting the journaling process to be impossibly hygge will only disappoint when reality hits.
13. Analyze what isn’t working.
What do you hope to get from journaling? Do you want to manage your anger? Become a better sales manager? Get inspired for your child’s next birthday party?
Identify your goals and then look back at your journal to evaluate if you achieved what you wanted. Or try journaling about your journaling. Do you feel bored and dread that 15 minutes of writing, or do you look forward to it?
Be mindful of your emotions and how journaling is making you feel. Do you feel energized at the end of a journaling session, or just relief that it’s over?
If journaling is not working for you and bringing you results, then it won’t be easy to maintain your daily journaling habit. Make time to look at what isn’t working and experiment to find what journaling technique works best.
Is it time to try a new technique or to switch from laptop to paper? Does journaling in the morning or evening work better for you? Be candid with yourself and make journaling work for your real life.
14. Use your journal for stress management.
Journaling has been called the most effective form of therapy – and it’s absolutely free, too.
Whenever you’re feeling frazzled, overwhelmed or just anxious, there’s nothing like pouring your frustrations out into a journal for some catharsis.
Once you fill up a page or two, you’ll gain some much-needed distance from your troubles. You’ll probably realize things aren’t as bad as they seem and you might even see that silver lining.
And once you’re done, let your entry sit for a few days and read it back later. You’ll begin to realize that your daily frustrations are rarely worth stressing over.
Journaling is wonderful therapy but it’s difficult to write honestly unless your journal is absolutely private.
When you write in hope (or fear) that others will read your words, it becomes harder to write truthfully and express your real emotions. You won’t write for self-awareness but to impress others or to prove a point.
Keep your journal in a secure place. And if you’re still worried that others will stumble upon it, then find a hiding space or use a laptop protected with a password.
16. Keep a list of journaling prompts for a speechless day.
Writing about a variety of topics and prompts keeps your journaling fresh and interesting. Keep a list of journaling prompts ready to go in your notebook or in a word doc for the days you’re at a loss for words.
Pinterest is a gold mine for journaling prompts for any mood and occasion. Create a board for your journaling and gather some prompts – or if you’re not on Pinterest then take some screenshots to have handy.
17. Don’t wallow or self-blame.
Journaling can be anything from a fun hobby to a form of meaningful therapy. But you won’t get much benefit if you only wallow in problems or constantly blame yourself.
It’s great to release those pent-up emotions in a journal and it’s helpful to have a rant. But eventually you’ll want to brainstorm about solutions or jot down some things you’re grateful for.
If your journaling gets dark and stays there, chances are it won’t help you grow.