13 Powerful Journaling Techniques (And How To Use Them)
Whether you want to manage stress, get organised or boost your creativity, use these journaling techniques for any situation.
There isn’t just one way to journal. Our teenage diaries were a great outlet for angst, but journaling techniques are way more versatile.
Journaling has been used for centuries by some of humanity’s greatest minds – and the journaling techniques you use depend on what you want to get out of your writing.
Here are some of the most powerful and effective journaling techniques:
1. Free writing
Free writing means setting a timer and letting your thoughts flow, unedited and unscripted, onto the page. Or you can set a goal to write continuously for a specified amount of pages.
Free writing is all about keeping your hand moving and not pausing to go back and edit or construct a perfect phrase. If you run out of ideas, you just keep writing whatever comes to mind.
Whether that’s describing your surroundings, thinking about your grocery list or brainstorming a brilliant new idea, free writing is a journaling technique that’s all about letting whatever emerges in your head flow onto the page without letting your inner critic silence you.
What’s the point? Won’t it all turn into an inconsequential ramble? Some of it will.
The power of free writing
But free writing is incredibly powerful to unpack a confusing dilemma or make sense of your mixed emotions. It also helps you unlock suppressed emotions you’d otherwise abashedly skip quickly over. But when you’re just looking to fill those pages, you’ll grab on to anything – including those pesky feelings you’d normally try to stash away.
Getting things down on paper puts you in touch with your honest, uncensored self.
It also helps with self-acceptance. The more you free write, the more accepting you’ll become of your own thoughts and let them spill out without judgement.
Free writing is all about getting things out – not about making yourself sound acceptable or polished.
Free writing helps writers find your voice because it’s allowed expression without censure.
And free writing is often used in academia to collect initial thoughts and brainstorm on a topic before more formal research begins. Students in writing courses are sometimes assigned daily writing exercises as a way to brain dump and clear their mind in the mornings. Free writing can serve as a warm-up session to more “serious” writing during the day.
Free writing assumes we all have something to say but we’re often hampered by self-criticism, anxiety or fear.
When you’re free writing, the momentum of the ticking clock or page number pushes you past those blocks. Who cares how ridiculous you sound when your only goal is to just fill up those pages? Getting it done trumps doing it perfectly.
Dorothea Brande, one of free writing’s earliest proponents, advises writers to sit and write for a half hour every morning as rapidly as possible. The technique has been incredibly influential on writers like Jack Keroac and his concept of spontaneous prose.
TIPS FOR FREE WRITING:
start small and aim for a page a day, or 10 minutes of continuous writing, in the beginning.
start with writing about how you’re feeling. Do a brief check-in and write about what’s bothering you and what’s going well. Jot down any worries or anxieties currently on your mind.
Use free writing in the morning to gather your thoughts, during the day to re-energize or at night to reflect. How and when you write matters less than if you write at all.
2. Morning Pages
That being said, there are good reasons to write in the morning. You’ve got a limited amount of willpower to work with during the day, and writing first thing lets you take advantage of it before it shrivels up as you perform demanding tasks throughout the day.
There’s evidence that the prefrontal cortex is most active in the morning. This means you’re more creative and your ego is still laying low. You’re likely in a better mood because the world hasn’t yet had any opportunities to vex you.
So what exactly is Morning Pages?
Morning Pages is a free writing practice made popular by Julie Cameron in her 1992 book The Artist’s Way, a perennial cult favourite about unleashing your creativity. It was originally meant to help artists break through their blocks to unleash their creativity.
“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,'” Cameron writes on her website about this bedrock writing tool. “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 over-think Morning Pages: just put three pages of anything on the page…and then do three more pages tomorrow.”
If you’re a night owl, you’re likely thinking it’s impossible to write so much that early. But Morning Pages might surprise you. They’re great for clearing early morning brain fog and gaining some clarity over your cups of coffee.
And although it takes about a half hour for most people to fill up three pages, Morning Pages actually makes your day more productive. In the end, that means you’re saving time.
TIPS FOR MORNING PAGES:
don’t look back on what you’ve written to edit or second-guess yourself
clarifying your thoughts as you go along
write by hand: the slowness of the writing process makes Morning Pages more effectiveness
the recommended page size is 8.5″ x 11″ (or A4 paper)
get a separate notebook for Morning Pages for easy and organised access
experiment and shift your morning routing to make extra time for writing
Lists are great to write when you find free writing too daunting. They’re also an incredible journaling technique to organise, track and record anything related to your career, personal life, relationships, hobbies and more.
Lists can be written as a one-time session or maintained regularly like a log.
Lists are quicker to write than long-form journal entries, but they’re still a great record of your life.
Whether you’re listing quilting patterns or start-up funding ideas, lists challenge you to dive deeper into a topic and let you to focus your attention on a particular area.
IDEAS FOR WRITING LISTS:
your favourite books and your current reads, reviews and list of recommendations
favourite films and Netflix series, what you’re watching now and your to-watch list
favourite meals, recipes, foods you’d like to try, reviews of restaurants you’ve visited
your favourite affirmations
clothes you love, a log of daily outfits, what feels comfortable and what you’re thinking of donating
ways to relax each day and a self-care log
newsworthy items or thought-provoking stories that sparked your interest
a log of your children’s daily life: what they did that day, funny things they’ve said, first words, their interests, friends they’re making, what they’re reading
fitness routine and tracker
a budget tracker, where you’re spending money and ways to increase your savings
home improvement log, what needs to be done, supplies to buy
vacation planner of places to visit, restaurants to try, museums to visit, what to pack
4. Art journal
If your thoughts flow easier in a visual format, then why not try an art journal for sketches, collages, doodles, inspirations and experiments?
There aren’t many rules to art journaling and no single way to “do it right.” Your art journal can be a mix of images and sketches along with writing, or it can be purely visual. Or it can depend on the day.
Your art journal is your platform to explore your creativity, keep track of your ideas and work through challenges. It’s a ground to plan and explore new ideas, whether that’s settings for your next dinner party or visual branding for your company.
An art journal helps you get in touch with your creativity (and we’re all creative) especially if you’ve always loved art but never considered yourself an “artist.”
If the idea of a high-end sketchbook is too intimidating, then start with some doodles in an old notebook and take it from there.
An art journal can be a great place to express your feelings, whether you had a terrible day or want to celebrate happy moments.
This artsy journaling technique boosts your creativity and gives you a judgement-free space to create without worrying about public reception or Instagram likes.
5. Unsent letter
An unsent letter is written for catharsis and never meant to be mailed. It’s an incredible journaling technique to help you get closure or foster forgiveness and peace of mind.
Whether it’s an ex-boyfriend that you’re still fuming over or a loved one who’s passed away, writing an unsent letter can give voice to everything you’ve left unsaid.
Unsent letters can also help you manage anger if you write everything you appreciate about that person.
Unsent letters written to people currently in your life can help you clarify your emotions and make it easier to express yourself to that person in real life.
An unsent letter can also be a powerful tool if you’re recovering from addiction and writing to people you’ve wronged.
For an incredible boost of confidence, try writing a letter from your future and wiser self to your current self. This lets you tap into stores of wisdom that you didn’t know you had and gets you in touch with your intuition especially when you’re facing tough decisions.
Thank you letters can be a great way to express gratitude to those who’d made a difference in your life, past and present.
6. Dream journaling
Keeping a dream journal may sound outlandish and mystical, but there’s plenty of evidence on how this journaling technique helps you understand your emotions.
Start by writing down whatever you remember from your dream. The more your journal, the better your memory will get.
And when you become aware of your dreams, you understand how a good dream or a nightmare can subconsciously impact your day.
It helps you with new ideas or solutions – Einstein used his dreams to develop some of his formulas and theories.
Write about your dream as soon as you wake up because dreams become more difficult to remember as the day goes on. Write in detail and make illustrations if needed for those strange, indescribable images that often occur in dreams.
Once you pick out patterns or reoccuring dreams, you can reflect on their interpretation and meaning.
Recording your dreams also improves your overall memory and exercises your brain.
It helps you explore your subconscious and boosts your creativity. Many incredible ideas reportedly came from dreams, from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein’s monster to the Beatles song Yesterday.
7. Bullet journaling
Fondly known as BuJo, bullet journaling is an organisation tool developed by a digital designer Ryder Carroll who first used it at university to manage his ADD. It’s exploded in popularity since then and is even credited with boosting sales of stationary supplies.
A bullet journal includes brainstorming, to-do lists, reminders and schedules all in one convenient place. It’s a relatively new journaling technique premiered in 2013 that took off in millions of Instagram flatlays.
It’s brilliant for students to keep notes and stay organized. For work, it keeps track of multiple streams of tasks whether that’s upcoming meetings and daily tasks to quarterly goals.
Any blank notebook will do to start, though there’s a slew of bullet journals available with templates and supplies like washi tape and markers made for BuJos. A bullet journal can be minimal and practical or wildly colorful and creative – or anywhere in between.
It’s used to plan and reflect, and has its own set of shorthand symbols to indicate notes, events and tasks, and symbols for tasks that have either been completed, scheduled, moved or marked irrelevant. Complete sentences are traded in for short phrases, keywords and notations that are easily understood by the owner.
Whether you use it as a fertility tracker or a gratitude log, a bullet journal keeps track of whatever’s important in your life.
Carroll’s method typically includes a log of future and long-term goals, along with a monthly log and a more detailed daily log that’s basically a to-do list. Tasks get a bullet point, while priorities get an asterisk and completed tasks get an x.
Whether you stick to Carroll’s method or concoct your own shorthand, a bullet journal is great to track habits, reflect on what’s working and plan for the future.
8. Plan your day
A journal can help you plan your day, whether that’s a detailed to-do list or reflections on upcoming challenges.
What’s getting in the way, and what are you making good progress with?
Here’s how to gain perspective on your day:
write down 3 goals that you’re working toward
list 3 things you’re letting go of
name 3 things you’re grateful for
This short exercise gives you focus on your priorities, infuses some positivity into your day and releases any negative emotions or anxieties.
This journaling technique can help you divide lofty goals into smaller tasks. You can also reflect back on the previous day and identify what went well and what you’d do better.
Ask yourself if you’re feeling stressed during your day or calm and inspired? Are you taking too much on, or spending too much time on tasks that don’t make much impact?
9. Reflection journal
A reflection journal can be a safe place to look back on your day. It can help you process complex events and analyse why things happened a certain way.
You can look back on previous entries and see how you’ve grown. Or write about your relationships and how communication can be improved. This journaling technique lets you track your goals or any healthy habits you’re trying to establish.
Being honest with yourself can lead to powerful insights that move you towards change.
To reflect back on events, describe the event in detail then reflect and interpret what happened. Conclude with any learning experiences that can be applied in the future.
Lists are a great way for quicker reflection: you can list the best and worst things that happened, or what you’ll improve tomorrow.
Writing out a to-do list before bed is a great way to declutter your mind and is proven to help you sleep better.
There are dozens of beautiful ready-made journals full of prompts. Here’s a couple of my favorites:
The Daily Stoic Journal is packed with quotes from the great Stoics and includes a daily question to focus on. It’s a great tool to manage bad habits like procrastination or anger, and an inspiring source for a more courageous life.
And a reading journal can be your record of inspiring quotes, insights and more technical info that you come across in your reading.
You can track your reading if you hope to read more books, or record quotes, tips, or beautiful passages from literary novels. Or use it for lists of books you’d like to read, books to re-read, books to buy as gifts, etc.
If you’re studying a subject, like art history, a reading journal can be a great place to record your observations.
But don’t just jot down quotes and notes. Interact with the information – respond, reflect and analyse – and this will help you learn better.
11. One line a day journaling
Writing just a single line a day helps preserve your memory, makes you a wittier writer and lets you notice patterns. It’s especially sweet for parents to track their children’s growth and remember everyday moments in those baby years when time flies so quickly.
Don’t try to capture everything. Just capture the key moments and record even the mundane. What seems ordinary now will soon be a memory you’ll love to reminisce about.
One line a day journaling can help you get into the habit of writing everyday. It’s not too overwhelming to jot down a sentence, so you’ll be more likely to keep at it.
“The primary advantage of journaling one sentence each day is that it makes journaling fun,” writes James Clear, author of Atomic Habits, on the power of writing a single sentence daily. “It’s easy to do. It’s easy to feel successful. And if you feel good each time you finish journaling, then you’ll keep coming back to it … A habit does not have to be impressive for it to be useful.”
Prompts for one line a day journaling:
what’s the best thing that happened to you today?
what are you thankful for today?
what lesson did you learn today?
name your biggest task/greatest challenge for tomorrow
One Line A Day: A Five-Year Memory Book is an accessible intro to journaling that also lets you store memories from the past 5 years. There are five spaces for each day of the year, and if you write for years you can also see what you wrote on that same day in previous years.
12. Gratitude journal
From fighting depression to improving relationships and boosting your self-confidence, there are numerous benefits to writing down everything you’re thankful for.
This is one of the most powerful journaling techniques with life-changing possibilities that’s proven in studies to make you a happier and more productive person. It also lowers your stress and calms you at night.
A gratitude journal reminds us to stop always striving for more and just appreciate the present.
But don’t rush through it. Write in detail about what you’re thankful for and let yourself feel those emotions and experience the sensation. Diving deep into a few things you’re grateful for is more beneficial than listing off all the blessings you can think of.
Write in depth about the people (past and present) that you’re grateful to have in your life.
Don’t make your gratitude journal another thing to tick off your to-do list. Savour the experience and take your time. Studies suggest that writing a gratitude journal once or twice a week makes a bigger impact than hurried everyday journaling.
Mark Twain once said: “I am an old man and have known a great many troubles, but most of them never happened.”
We all have fears, worries and anxieties that seldom transpire in real life. Although that doesn’t stop us from anxiously replaying the worst-case scenarios in our heads.
Journaling about the worst case scenario helps you come to grips with your fears and realise that many anxieties are irrational.
Write about the worst that could happen, how likely that scenario actually is, and how you’d react and handle that worst case scenario. This practice will reassure you that things aren’t as bad as you imagine.
You can also look back on previous entries and compare your worst fears to what actually happened. How often do your fears actually come true?
As you keep writing, you’ll understand the consequences aren’t as bad as you imagine even if some of your worst imaginings come true.
Worst case scenario journaling also helps you identify sabotaging thought patterns like catastrophic thinking (ruminating about irrational worst-case outcomes) or overgeneralization (“things never work out for me”) Writing about your strengths and coping strategies for your worst fears empowers you to face them.
Ask yourself what you’re worried about. Then write down your fears. Follow that up with the question: If that happens then what? Keep asking yourself that question until your anxieties allay.