Ok, so there may not be a wrong way to journal, but whether you are thinking about journaling, have recently started or have been doing it for many years, chances are there’s ways you can improve.
Journaling has been proved to have numerous benefits, ranging from productivity and efficiency to mindfulness and improved sleep. In the words of Anne Lister,
‘I tell myself to myself and throw the burden on my book and feel relieved.’Anne Lister
Who doesn’t want that?!
Below is my top guide for getting the most out of your journal. Take each step and consider how you might use it going forward. Plus a bonus top tip at the bottom!
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1. The Most Important Question
Before you start your journal, be sure to ask yourself the question ‘why?’. Why are you writing this entry? Why have you started a journal? These questions are integral to your journal’s success. In fact, the power of ‘why’ is so important, we have a whole article on tackling it in interviews here.
Here are some different reasons you may consider:
- To help me be less forgetful
- To help me be less anxious
- To record the important moments and feelings in my life
- To help me plan my day
- To help me reflect on my day
Not the common thread in nearly all these answers: ‘help’. A journal is there to help you in your life, not simply be another chore to complete at the start and/or end of everyday. When you approach your next entry, remember your reason for why you are taking this task and enjoy the sense of purpose that this brings.
2. Remember Who You Are Writing For
‘It’s not my job to entertain anyone in my diary.’David Sedaris
While we have different reasons for starting a journal, who we are writing for should remain constant for us all. We are each writing for ourselves. There may come a time where we want to share our entries with loved ones or a professional, such as a psychiatrist. But this should be on your terms.
Your journal is for you and so it is not your job to write flowing prose that captivates and entertains. It should be a release from the chores of every day life.
If you are anxious about your diary being discovered or mocked, you can always use a temporary method, such as typing an entry digitally and then deleting it, or writing a page and then tearing it up for the recycling. But it must be noted that part of the joy of journaling is the reflective aspect. You are able to look back on how you felt in certain moments and learn from these insights. While it’s best to keep entries around, for a short while at least, you must ultimately do what makes you comfortable.
3. How to Journal Well
This is important, as there are various ways to structure and format your journal, so let’s break it down into sections.
i. Digital vs Physical
First of all, you have a choice of whether to write your journal digitally or physically, i.e. with a pen and paper. Each has its own pros and cons. These days, most people feel more comfortable typing than writing, and if you use an app or a virtual host, you can likely access your journal from anywhere on any device.
However, writing your thoughts down in a physical book gives you time away from the blue light of a screen. There is also something to be said for the physical connection of scrawling out each letter, rather than tapping a series of keys.
My personal recommendation is a paper copy, but do what makes you comfortable and what you are most likely to stick to.
ii. Morning or Evening
Of course you can journal whenever you like, but most people tend to opt for journaling either first thing in the morning, last thing at night. If facing this choice, which is right for you?
Similarly to the format of your journal, there are pros and cons to each. Your entry could, and maybe should, be the highlight of your day so it’s up to you whether you want to start or finish your day with this.
Of course it is also possible to write in your journal at botht he start and end of each day, meaning you stand to benefit from the pros of each. If this is not doable, then hopefully the advice below will help.
Writing a journal entry first thing in the morning helps to set up your intentions and goals for the day. What are you hoping to accomplish? What are the challenges you might face? How will you got about tackling them? You can ask and answer these questions for yourself, which will help you map out the course of the day ahead. This is great for maximising productivity.
With regards to writing a journal entry before bed, this has a reflective purpose. You can review the highs and lows of what you achieved, and identify areas for improvement, by asking similar questions. What did you accomplish? What worked? What didn’t? What would you do differently? The danger is that, if you are overly critical of yourself, this could lead to troubles sleeping as you do not allow yourself the time to switch off, so be wary of this.
‘It is like whispering to one’s self and listening at the same time.’Mina Murray
This is the big decision. There are many different ways of formatting a journal and I’ve listed some below. While you’re welcome to find a format you like and stick with it, remember this list is not exhaustive and you can always use different formats for different entries to mix things up a little.
If you are already journaling, this is likely to be the style you have chosen: simply jot down whatever thoughts and feelings spring to mind in order to record and sort them. This is a perfect mindfulness practice, as it helps give you perspective on the inner workings of your mind.
If writing whatever springs to mind is a daunting prospect, you can give yourself structure through a Q&A format.
Take, for example, Dr Rangan Chatterjee’s ‘Gratitude Game’ in his book, Feel Better in 5: Your Daily Plan to Feel Better in Life. This, to me, seems perfectly suited to a journal.
- What have you done today to make someone else happy?
- What has someone else done today to make you happy?
- What have you learned today?
- What have you done today to make yourself happy?
- How did you feel when you made someone else happy?
If you take these questions, or your own versions, and answe them at the end of each day, this would be a perfect reflective journaling practice.
The Q&A style is suited to reflecting at the end of your day. If writing in the morning is more for you, then an alternative set of questions at the start of your day could be as follows:
- What are you hoping to accomplish today?
- What is one good deed you hope to do today?
- What’s something you will do for your health?
- Today will be a good day if I…?
- I did [FILL IN THE BLANK] yesterday, so today I will [FILL IN THE BLANK].
This will help you align your thinking for the day ahead and prepare for the challenges it may bring.
Of course you can always mix these techniques, or make up your own. These examples are designed as a starting point to help you begin.