How to start and benefit from writing a personal journal

The path to a clear mind, and the enjoyment of tasting life twice

“Writing serves to heighten our own awareness of life…to taste life twice, in the moment, and in retrospection.”

Anaïs Nin

The quote above nicely captures why writing is important in the lives of so many people, myself included. Like any art form, the creative possibilities through writing are nearly limitless. You’re free to go wherever your mind takes you, and to explore as deeply and as long as you like. This post is specifically about how to begin writing a personal journal, and how to realize the many benefits that you can gain from it.

I’ve wanted to write about journaling for a long time, but I didn’t get around to it until something pushed it to the front of my mind recently. Maybe it was the New Year marking the end of the terrible year that 2020 was, combined with all of the hope about how 2021 will bring us to the light at the end of the pandemic tunnel. Maybe it was also because I was off from work around the end of the year and I had some peaceful time to just sit and think about personal things. Whatever the reason, here are my thoughts about journaling and developing the habit of keeping up with it for the long term. If you decide to try it, you’ll likely be glad that you did…

Physical or digital, that is the question

In order to journal, you first need to decide where to journal. Many people like the process of writing with a good quality pen in a nice leather bound journal, or some other type of notebook. If that sounds like you, then you can shop on any number of online sites or local stationary and craft stores to find one. For example, Barnes & Noble has a large selection to choose from.

Physical journaling has many benefits, one of them being that it’s tangible. You can touch, feel, and even smell your journal (if yours happens to be leather bound). It’s there. It’s sensory. You can hear the pages flipping and feel the weight and quality of the paper. You can use different color pens, sketch drawings, tape mementos like ticket stubs, pictures, or travel guide pamphlets into the journal. Some people even do things like pressing small flowers in their journal so they become flat and dried over time. Journals can be small and in the range of 4×6″ or 5×7″ which can be tucked in a pocket or purse, and others can be the size of a photo album for large format journaling with room for adding additional pages when needed. There are all different sizes and styles to suite varying tastes.

The other option is to go digital. I personally prefer using a digital journaling app because I don’t want to carry around a book and pen. More importantly though, I want the option to journal at any time, anywhere, on any of the devices that I always have with me. That freedom helps me to keep up with my writing habit. It’s also nice to have the liberty of attaching a digital photo, video, or audio file to a journal entry to enhance it. Plus, journaling apps can automatically add other valuable information to your entries if you choose. The additions could include using GPS information from your phone to note where you made an entry, what the weather was in that location, or even what music you were listening to at the time you were writing. All of these features can be turned off if you prefer, but including them is a great way to capture your thoughts while adding additional information to your entries for a richer contextual writing experience.

Whatever format you choose, remember that it’s not cast in stone. If one approach doesn’t work for you and it becomes an obstacle to actually doing your writing, then try something else. Eventually you’ll hit your sweet spot of physical or digital (or both), convenience, and features that click for you.

You just have to start…..and then keep going

“The way to get started is to quit talking and begin doing.”

Walt Disney

One of the difficult things about writing anything is that you have to…start. For some people, that might be easier said than done because a blank page can be intimidating. If writing comes easily to you then the words will quickly start flowing onto the pages when you sit down to write. However, for those of you for which writing is a struggle, you might understandably need some tips to encourage and guide you to grab a pen and paper (or download a journaling app) to write your first entries and get yourself out of the starting gate.

I’ve been journaling since 2012 and have learned some key things along the way that might help you. Here are my tips for putting pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard) and also benefiting from the writing process:

Privacy: One of my most important suggestions is to remember that a journal is your private space. It doesn’t matter what you write or how you write it. Nobody is going to judge it, edit it, or even see it if you don’t want them to. It’s your space, your thoughts. Keeping that in mind should help free you from self-editing when you write. Self-editing, and thereby blunting your thoughts and ideas before you can express them, is the biggest barrier to writing of any kind because it stops your thoughts before they even get out of your head. Journaling is all about your mind flowing to page, and if you know that people won’t see what you write unless you want them to, then there’s no worry. Be free with it!

Honesty: Be honest with your writing. The primary benefits of journaling are getting to know yourself better and getting a deeper understanding of how you think and react to the world around you. If you’re not being honest with yourself about what you really think and feel about a topic, then it’s impossible to achieve these benefits. If you feel good about something, then write about it and explain why. If you’re angry or disappointed with someone/something, you’ve failed at a goal, or you’re harboring some other type of unpleasant feelings, just let your emotions pour out honestly. No sugarcoating or self-editing. With the aforementioned privacy, be comfortable that your truth is secured, and the more honest you are then the more insightful your journal will be for you. I’ve humorously dropped more than one f-bomb in my journal when writing about something that made me very angry. I can’t help but laugh when I read those entries back to myself…

Prompts and templates: If you’re new to journaling and you’re having difficulty choosing what to write about, then try starting with some writing prompts here or here, or Google for some other prompts and journal templates that appeal to you. Journaling videos on YouTube and pins on Pinterest can help here as well. There are endless possible prompts to choose from, or you can create your own to suit your needs. Journal templates take the idea of prompts one step further, and are usually a blank page that’s divided into sections with headings that also act as prompts. For example, a template might have sections for “What happened today”, “How did it make me feel”, and “What will I do tomorrow”. Whatever the specific prompts are in a template, the goal is that they provide a way for you to frame your thinking and let the thoughts start flowing. If you’re using a journaling app, they often have built-in templates that you can select for an entry to get you started.

Simplicity: Especially in the beginning, approach your journaling by keeping it simple and low-pressure. If you start easy by writing your most basic thoughts about whatever you choose, you’ll get into the swing of journaling without pressuring yourself to write a novel every time you sit down. Get some basic entries under your belt, maybe writing just a few sentences about what you did this weekend, who you were with, and how it made you feel. Was it fun? Boring? Adventurous? If so, why? Did you have a bad weekend? Write about why, and maybe what you’ll do next time to enjoy yourself more. Using the prompt approach mentioned above is also a way to keep things simple in the beginning and jump-start yourself until you determine what you want your journaling approach to be.

No rules: Your journal entries can be as short or long as you like. You can choose to write once per day, once per week, or just whenever the inspiration hits. Some of my journal entries are just a few sentences to capture a thought, and others go on for pages. I’ve gone through periods when I’ve written more than once per day, and also times when I’ve skipped a few weeks due to other priorities happening in my life that took away my time. (Interestingly, I’ve always felt odd during those skipping periods, like something was missing. Then I realized that it was the process of journaling that was missing!) The main rule is that there are no rules. Journaling should be a pleasurable experience that you enjoy and learn from, not a chore that you feel you have to do. Of course, if you want to journal consistently then developing some good habits around it to provide regular inspiration and output never hurts, but steer clear of hard and fast rules.

Review: Re-read your entries. At some time interval of your choice, review your older entries to see the things you’ve thought about, places you’ve been, and things you’ve done. See how your journaling has changed and grown over time. Some people use the end of the month as a checkpoint to go back and review what they wrote that month, and also set themselves up mentally for how they want to approach the next month. Think about how the process of re-reading makes you feel and see which thoughts and benefits come to you. Your writing will eventually start to feed off itself when you do these reviews and realize what you’ve done and the changes in how you’re expressing yourself. Before you know it, you’ll probably be surprised at how much you’re writing!

Time and persistence: I don’t have a specific time during the day when I journal, but I do specifically find the time for it. I carve out a little slice of alone time to jot down my main thoughts, which sometimes morph into a much longer writing session. I’ve found that if I don’t specifically do that then I get engulfed with other activities and journaling falls by the wayside for a few days. Use your own approach to finding your time, but try to do it and stick with it. I regret the periods where I let my journaling lapse, they seem like holes in my memories.

One for all: You might see recommendations to pick a subject for your journal, but I don’t recommend that in the beginning. For example, some people have different journals for travel, life topics, work, general ideas, etc. When you’re just beginning, it’s easiest to just have one journal for everything so that you don’t have to segment your thinking into “Oh, this should go in my travel journal” or “This should go in my journal for work”. Remember the tips from above…keep it simple and barrier-free so that your ideas will flow easily. You can always transition to using multiple journals in the future if you decide to go that route.

Making the choice of using a physical or digital journal, using my tips above, and maybe trying a few prompts should give you enough foundational ideas to get started with your journaling. Now let’s take a look at some of the benefits of journaling…

Benefits, you say?

There are many mental and physical health benefits of journaling, far more than I ever imagined or were apparent to me at first. This article from Mindful.org or this one from Huffington Post mention some of them that have been researched over time, but if you want to dig deep on the topic then review this article from PositivePsychology.com. It’s a thorough look at how you can transform yourself through the expressive writing of journaling.

Below are some of the specific benefits that I’ve personally experienced from journaling. You might experience these and many others as well, because each person reacts to the process differently. Some benefits came immediately to me and others were realized over time, but no matter how they surfaced the impact of all of them has been undeniably positive on my life.

Stillness: You hear it repeated every day and probably by many people you know, “life moves too fast”. Think about your average day. You have work or school, chores, exercise, friends, and maybe a house, cars and kids to take care of as well. When do you get time to just…think? This is exactly what journaling provides for me, the time to do nothing but sit, think, and express my thoughts. Journaling is “my time” that I carve out for myself with all other activities and distractions eliminated. It is peace and stillness, and I strongly believe that everyone needs this private time in their daily life for optimal health. (Hint: Put your devices on Do Not Disturb when you’re writing…there’s nothing worse than having your “me time” interrupted by a buzzing phone)

Reflection: I’m a thinker. I enjoy learning about and experiencing new things, and afterward I like reflecting on them to expand and deepen those experiences further into my thoughts. I also like to think back about the things I’ve done and places I’ve been to remember and reflect on them as well. This type of reflection , which also involves nostalgia, is a great way to build memories and cement them firmly in my mind. On so many occasions, I’ve thought about a random memory of some time, place or thing and quickly grabbed my journal to write about it. Sometimes I laugh out loud while I’m writing about a funny memory. A perfect example is the time my family walked in on an already occupied hotel room in the middle of the night that was also accidentally assigned to us. We were so stunned when we opened the door, stepped inside, and then realized what was going on that the only thing we could think to do was slam the door shut in the darkness and…run! I don’t know why we ran, but we were laughing so hard that we could hardly breathe as we made our way back to the front desk to tell them their mistake. We still laugh (almost to the point of crying!) when describing each of our panicked reactions when we re-tell this story years later. I enjoy those moments of recollection and like to write about them, especially when they’re funny. Understanding and feeling what you’ve experienced in the past also helps to pave the way for your future.

Consolidation: My head spins with thoughts, and sometimes I can’t dedicate the time to them in their moment to fully resolve what I think or feel about something. Journaling provides me with an opportunity to jot down a quick thought at some point during the day and then return to it later to consolidate and solidify my thoughts. Journaling drives me to organize, articulate, and get my thoughts written down, transcribing them from my swirling mind into text on a page. It gives me an opportunity to debrief with myself.

Closure and healing: For a variety of reasons, sometimes life leaves topics open that really need to be closed for you to heal and move on from them. It could be a disappointing experience, an argument, a death, etc. Sometimes in those circumstances we just don’t say and do the things that should be said and done, and you can be left with hanging threads in your life that can drag you down. Writing about it and getting it off your mind can help to either resolve it within yourself, or lead you to a path to resolve it with others. Resolution leads to healing.

Privacy: I do occasionally write about some things that I don’t discuss with other people. I don’t have difficulty expressing myself or my ideas, so that’s not the reason I keep them to myself. It’s just because some things are…private, and everyone has some thoughts sometimes that fall into that category and you prefer to keep to yourself. Using my journal to get these private thoughts out of my head and more solidly formed in writing is like a long exhale of relief. It feels good.

Stress reduction: If you’ve read the points above and connected them together then you can easily conclude that they lead to a reduction in my stress level. I’m writing an article series about my experience with stress overload, and journaling is one of the ways I worked my way out of being buried by it, so that was a direct benefit to me. There’s nothing like a cleared mind combined with a relaxed body and soul to reduce your stress level.

Self-awareness: Through the process of surfacing thoughts and emotions about my experiences, writing them down in my journal, and re-reading them in the future to see where I’ve been in life, I create a pathway to self-awareness. I know myself very well. I understand what I like and don’t like. The experiences that have been successful, and those that have failed. This knowledge comes from the cycle of processing thoughts and emotions, and then taking the time to write and absorb them. I apply what I learn to help understand my past and also guide my future.

History, memories, and tasting life twice: I’ve saved the biggest benefit for me personally until last, which is the ongoing and rewarding experience of recording your journeys, history and memories in a way that does indeed allow you to “taste life twice”, as mentioned in the quote above from Anaïs Nin. Sometimes I journal as something is happening, and other times I return to do it when I have time at the end of the day. There are so many things both large and small that happen every day to enrich life in some way, and you simply won’t remember them all. I enjoy capturing these thoughts and occurrences so that I can look back and re-live them through my writing. It’s my breadcrumb trail through life.

How do I journal?

With the above being said, what’s my approach for journaling? I chose to go with a total digital approach on both my iPhone and MacBook computer using the excellent Day One application. It has won design awards from Apple and others over the years, and I’ve always found it to be one of the consistently best journaling apps available. Others have come close using approaches similar to Day One, but they never quite hit the same high mark of features and usability that I prefer.

I started using Day One when it was first released and have stuck with it ever since. The developer’s support for the app is strong, and they’ve made constant updates to it over the years to refine and polish it. It has grown into a seamless all-encompassing writing environment. Nearly any type of information you’ll likely want to add to a journal entry is possible with Day One. You can simply type your entries and be done with just your typed words, or you can have the app automatically add other types of ancillary information to your entries to give them more context.

For me, the digital approach strikes the perfect balance of flexibility, portability, usability, and features. If you’re interested in potentially going digital, then please take the time to read this excellent review of the Day One app on The Sweet Setup website. It’s a complete look at all of the features the app has to offer, how to use them, and how they can help you have a better journaling experience. The review also describes several other good options to pick from other than Day One.

Some of my favorite features of Day One, which many other digital journaling apps have as well, include the following:

  • Adding photos, videos, and audio files. It’s great to augment my entries with additional media to make a “complete entry” of the moment I’m writing about.
  • Using hashtags to categorize, organize, and search my entries (e.g., #travel, #movies, #kids, #books, #memory, etc). This is handy when I want to find and re-read entries about a particular topic.
  • Automatic extra data added to my posts, including weather and location. Having location appended to my entries allows me to pull up a map to see where and when I’ve written.
  • Full text search. This is huge. Having my journal entries full text indexed means I can find anything I’ve written over the years by simply searching on a word or phrase that might have been in the text of the entry, its tags, or its title. Very powerful, and not possible with hand written journals. This one feature alone would be enough to push me in the direction of digital journaling.
  • Writing prompts. The prompts included in Day One are thought provoking, and although I don’t use them often because I typically have a lot to write about, it’s interesting to try to tackle one of their prompts when the mood hits me.
  • Exporting/archiving. When I made the decision to use a journaling app, I was conscious of not tying my content up in a proprietary platform from which I could not easily get it out if I ever decided to stop using the app. Day One has good exporting features so your content is definitely yours, and there are no worries about it getting stuck somewhere against your wishes.
  • Exporting entries to print books. I haven’t used this feature yet, but it’s a great idea. The Day One service has a book formatting feature that allows you to select the entries that you would like to export (including photos) for printing into a keepsake book. If you journal about your next family vacation, include some photos about it, etc, then you can export that into a travel book for yourself or as a gift for someone else. I plan to try this on our next family trip.
  • “On This Day”. Day One has a feature called On This Day that will automatically show you the posts you’ve made on a particular day in the past. It’s fun to see what pops up on a given day, and it’s given me a lot of “Oh, I remember that…” moments to enjoy.
  • Encryption and security. Last but not least, security and encryption are fully embedded in the Day One apps and their synchronization service used across your devices (if you subscribe to that option). This is a must for any digital journaling tool. Not only is the content encrypted, but you can password protect the app itself to keep anyone else who might be using your devices out of your journal.

Take the first step

The information in this article provided a glimpse into journaling, how to get started, the benefits, and the route I chose based on my preferences. Journaling is a great private hobby that can span your entire life and provide much positive benefit to you. I encourage you to take the first step and give it a try, and if you like it then you’ll likely find that it will open your mind to new ways of looking at yourself and the world around you. It has the extra benefit of allowing you to taste life twice, and how can you turn that down when life is so short? Enjoy the journey!

P.S. – If you found this article helpful, please forward the link along to others you know who might enjoy it. Thanks!

3 thoughts on “How to start and benefit from writing a personal journal

  1. Stuart Danker February 9, 2021 / 7:38 pm

    I myself prefer a physical journal, only because I’m inspired by the greats, and the little snippets of life they’ve left behind. It’s such a wonderful medium, and I kinda stumbled onto this practice, but will never stop.

    Like

    • John February 9, 2021 / 9:49 pm

      I read a great article long ago (but the link is now broken) about famous people who journaled and the fascinating things they found in their journals long after the people were gone. Neat stuff. They had photos of some of the books, dog-eared and faded. Indeed a part of history. It’s not the same as hand writing a journal, but Day One does allow you to print books from within the app. So you can just select a year (or some other selection of entries) and click ‘create book’ and off you go. I’ve not used that feature yet, but I’ll try it with my next trip journal.

      Like

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