There are countless different ways to journal, but in this post, I’m going to share the basics of how to journal for personal growth, including principles of journaling, templates you can steal, and resources to help you start journaling today and stay consistent for years to come.
Journaling is a powerful practice of self-reflection. It allows us to intentionally review the past, embrace the present, and plan for the future. Journaling lets us examine our thoughts and take control of them, but it can be challenging to know where to start.
Countless distractions and priorities pull us in different directions all day long. Journaling serves as a shelter from the constant stream of inputs, so we can make sense of what’s going on in our lives.
When we capture our thoughts on the page, we discover things just below the surface. These thoughts are otherwise impossible to notice but have a huge impact on how we think and feel.
These discoveries let us understand where we are right now and what truly going on in our heads. Intentionally organizing and understanding our true thoughts lets us become a bit better each day and fuels our personal growth.
We all journal for different reasons, but if you’re reading this, it’s likely you want to learn how to journal to try and become a better version of yourself.
Journaling is the practice of capturing and examining our thoughts. Although simple, it has a number of benefits that encourage growth.
The biggest benefit that comes from learning how to journal is developing clarity of thought. When thoughts and ideas are bouncing in our heads, it’s hard to make sense of them. We’re subject to our assumptions, and we can only think of one thing at a time. This means we tend to spiral out of control from one thought to the next.
However, when we write these ideas down, we translate them into concrete words on the page. Once the words are captured, we can consider multiple ideas at one time. Shifting from fuzzy thoughts to thorough writing generates clarity in our thinking that can’t be achieved with ideas floating in our heads.
Whenever we’re faced with a big decision, thousands of thoughts are swirling around in our heads. Different scenarios are playing out, and several complex factors must be considered equally.
It’s difficult to think through nuanced problems and organize thoughts in our heads. We can try to talk things through with someone else, but ultimately the thoughts will still be abstract and hard to capture.
When we write things down, ideas become tangible, and different scenarios take shape. We can see potential benefits or drawbacks we weren’t able to identify previously. With new information captured, we can evaluate all the relevant factors to make the right choice.
Learning how to journal and making it a habit creates a detailed record of our lives. Looking back at specific periods of time, we can recreate the good and avoid the bad.
One of the best parts about journaling is looking back at previous journal entries to see what and how we were thinking at a certain point in time. We can see what was important to us, what was troubling us, and we’re instantly transported back in time.
This makes for a fun trip down memory lane but also provides a window into our performance. We can look back on good times and bad and see what actions and patterns of thinking led us to different points in our life.
Journaling let’s test our ideas quickly and identify gaps in our thinking.
When our thoughts are trapped in our heads, we become victims of our own biases. We craft narratives about the past and make assumptions about the future. As we live our lives, these flawed ideas become the foundation of our thinking.
However, when we write these ideas down, the narratives become clear. We can see through the assumptions and identify the missing pieces in our thinking. When all of our ideas have to be examined on paper, we can easily see what holds up against scrutiny.
I’ve always been fond of saying self-awareness is a superpower. It’s one of the most desirable traits to develop and one of the hardest to cultivate.
Recognizing something we’re about to say or do is something we’ll regret is a difficult task on its own. Stopping ourselves before we do or say that thing is even harder. Self-awareness is identifying and controlling our thoughts before they turn into actions.
The practice of consistent journaling helps us build the muscle of examining ourselves and our thinking. The more we review how we think and investigate ourselves with a pen on the page, the better we can understand ourselves. The better we understand our thinking, the more awareness we have of our thoughts and actions.
Journaling is different for everyone. While I’ll provide some specific frameworks and prompts to get started below, it’s important to recognize that journaling takes many different forms.
It can be answering prompts, it can be writing stories, it can be writing nonsense, it can be reviewing the day, or it can be talking into a voice recorder. It can even be me making lists, drawing pictures, venting, or expressing gratitude.
There is no best way to journal, and plenty of other ways to do it besides the ones listed above.
The method doesn’t matter. The most important part of learning how to journal is consistently capturing thoughts on the page. That’s where the benefit comes from. We just need to focus on writing.
The hardest part of journaling is starting. Staring at a blank page with the pressure to write meaningful and insightful thoughts is overwhelming.
When we’re starting, we’re not sure when to write, what to write, or how to write. It’s like having an assignment to write an essay about anything we want. We freeze. We’re not sure what it should be about, how long it should be, or what type of essay to write. There are too many options.
We need constraints to be effective. Journaling is no different.
Structured journaling gives us an easy on-ramp because it tells us exactly what to write down. Instead of creating an idea and writing about it, we just have to write.
Take 30 seconds and write down three things you’re grateful for.
Congratulations, you just journaled.
A productive framework for journaling makes it easier to get started and ensures our journaling is valuable.
Here’s the journal structure I use every morning to kickstart my day:
Monday, January 1st
What’s on your mind?
3 things I’m grateful for, what’s on my mind that morning, and my projects for before and after work. That’s it.
Instead of having to come up with eloquent thoughts every morning, I let the structure do the work. I journal almost every morning because I’ve made it easy for myself.
Once we’re more familiar with writing our thoughts down in a structured format, we can start to experiment with open-ended prompts.
This provides us an opportunity to expand our thoughts. Instead of functional responses to fill in a structured format, we can write in longer sentences and paragraphs. Responding to prompts lets us jump into the deep end and examine our thoughts on a new level.
As we continue writing, new ideas or patterns of thinking emerge. This is where the true benefits of journaling begin to surface. As we expand and examine our thoughts, we discover ideas we weren’t previously aware of. This helps us recognize shortcomings we need to improve and strengths we can take advantage of.
A quick google search for “journal prompts” reveals there’s no shortage of prompts online. They’re a great way to start a journaling practice, and there are a huge variety of prompts out there.
I share prompts online with the hope of helping new journalers become a bit better each day. There are also prompts for creative writers, entrepreneurs, and parents. We’re always a google search away from tons of prompts to help us get started.
Once we get past the first few sentences, words begin to flow much easier onto the page. Journal prompts are an awesome way to open up our minds and get the pen moving. Unfortunately, they aren’t always relevant to our own lives or personal growth.
Exploring ideas through journaling is a great practice, but if the ideas and context aren’t relevant, then it’s hard to discover practical takeaways.
Asking questions is the best way to keep journaling relevant. At the end of the day, a prompt is just a question. If we can take something we’re struggling with and turn it into a question, we can journal about it.
It can be simple. “Why am I feeling X”? Or “Why does y bother me so much”? Even something like “How can I create a better life”? is great.
From there, we can let our brains take over. The questions we have about our own thoughts and feelings become prompts that help us journal about important themes in our lives. All we have to do is remember to write them down.
Another great thing to journal about is big events in life. We love to make new years resolutions, set goals, and look back at old photos on our phones when an anniversary comes up. We can also leverage these instincts to capture transitions and important chapters of our lives with journaling.
At the end of the year, we can do a year-end review and write about the things that went well, things we enjoyed, and the things that didn’t turn out the way we’d hoped or wish we did less of. We can use this information to journal about the future and plan out the year ahead as well.
We can do this type of journaling for any big event. Moving, changing jobs, entering or exiting a relationship, the loss of a loved one, or the beginning of a new friendship all provide a great trigger to journal.
This type of journaling is useful for learning about ourselves, but it also serves as a cool time capsule. We can look back at every big moment and remember what things were like before a “new normal” sets in.
We can also journal about ideas and concepts we come across in podcasts, books, and articles. It’s one thing to be exposed to a new idea, but sitting down to write about it helps us remember, understand, and apply new ideas.
Just as we did before, we can ask ourselves questions about the new insights we’ve been exposed to so we can trick our brain into starting the writing process.
The common theme throughout all of these journaling practices is just getting the pen moving on the page so we can explore thoughts that are deeper than our typical surface-level thinking.
Using these techniques, we can easily start writing once we sit down to journal. Remembering to journal regularly is a whole new challenge.
Any time I journal, I feel amazing, and often discover something new about myself. Even with all the benefits, it’s tough to stay consistent.
I always found newsletters were a good trigger for me to journal. I would discover a new idea or quote and use that as a reminder to write some thoughts down. After months of doing this with other newsletters, I decided to create my own. I wanted to deliver ideas about personal growth and journal prompts in one package as a starter kit for new journalers.
If you’re looking for a helpful resource to get started, you can check out the archive for Prompted to see all the previous prompts.
Now on to some additional strategies for staying consistent with a journal practice.
Knowing how to journal is one thing, but actually doing it is another. Like exercise, meditation, and many other worthwhile pursuits, journaling’s benefits come from consistent practice over time.
There are plenty of books and resources dedicated to building habits, but here I’ll share a few specific suggestions, examples, and resources specific to creating a consistent journaling practice.
As mentioned above, using a structured approach to journaling lowers the barrier to entry. It makes it easy to get words down on the page. I shared the structure I use every morning to get my juices flowing, but you should create a daily journaling structure that fits into your life.
I do this type of everyday journaling on my computer because I can easily reuse the template and organize all of my daily journals going back to 2019.
Another trick for daily journals is creating a heuristic time parameter for ourselves (i.e. journal before breakfast). Otherwise, we keep pushing it off to later in the day, and as the day goes on, our willpower declines.
This means the morning is the best time for our daily journaling. We can win the day by getting our thoughts down on paper early, and the clarity will stay with us throughout the rest of the day.
Daily journaling is great for a quick gut check and planning the day ahead, but it’s often not enough for a deeper examination of what’s going on in our lives.
It’s hard to see the picture when we’re in the frame, so leveraging bigger picture prompts that we come back to at regular intervals is a great way to zoom out and see the entire landscape of our lives. Through the lens of personal growth, these journals typically compare what we said we were going to do with what we actually ended up doing.
We can investigate the discrepancies and see where we’re excelling and where we need to bring more intention or energy. This type of journaling helps us consistently look at the big picture and creates another reason to pull out our journals.
The same way we put our keys next to the door so we don’t forget them on our way out, we should put our journal in strategic locations so it always stays accessible and top of mind.
For a physical journal, we can leave it on the top of our desk with a pen at the ready. Some of the world’s best writers and thinkers have a notebook or a journal they can keep in their back pocket and bring everywhere. It’d be wise of us to do the same.
These concepts also apply in the digital world. Before we close our computers at the end of the day, we can close all of the tabs except the one we use for journaling. When we wake up the next day, our journal will be right there waiting for us.
Similarly, on our phones, we can make sure the app we use for journaling is on our home screen. Or better yet, we can use widgets to make our journals take up half the screen. That way, every time we open our phone, we’re reminded of our journal, and we can easily open it up and start writing when we need to.
Writing on a piece of scrap paper with a bic pen is not very satisfying or fulfilling. We all like different types of pens and paper, but the more enjoyable the physical process of writing is, the more we’ll want to pick up our pen and journal.
Intentionally choosing a journal and a pen creates an aura of importance that helps focus our writing and elevates the experience of the writing. The same way buying new sneakers or new workout clothes helps us get to the gym, quality pens and paper can help us journal more consistently.
Accountability is one of the most impactful ways to stay consistent with anything. We can set an alarm in the morning, but unless we have to meet a friend or make a flight, odds are we’ll end up hitting the snooze button more often than not.
We can set reminders for ourselves to journal, and they’ll work for a few days. Once we get used to them, we gloss over the notifications, and soon we get so used to ignoring them that we don’t even realize they’re still there. Our individual willpower is easy to thwart, but external accountability makes it easy to stay consistent.
Journaling is a private affair, so creating a group with friends to stay accountable can be difficult. I’ve always wanted to create a sense of community surrounding the individual practice of journaling, and through my journaling newsletter, I’ve been able to kill two birds with one stone.
Not only is there a community of hundreds of journalers who subscribe, but every Sunday we all journal about the same idea. Some like to share their thoughts with everyone, and others like to keep theirs private, but the knowledge that we’re all journaling together provides an awesome sense of accountability and community that makes Sunday afternoon journaling a consistent habit.
Journaling is highly personal. Everyone does it a bit differently, but it can benefit all of us. It’s one of the most power tools we have to fuel our own growth, but just like most worthwhile pursuits, it takes a little work to see the results.
We have to keep writing when it feels strange or useless and trust that the more we keep writing, the more we’ll uncover. And the more we uncover, the more we come back day after day, and the easier it will get.
In the spirit of jumping right in, I’ve included some thoughts about the idea of giving others “the benefit of the doubt” and related prompts below. Give it a read, find a blank page, and get to writing.
Every time we interact with someone we are interacting with a lifetime of their experience. Every moment of our lives shapes the person we are, the knowledge we have, the opinions we hold, and what we believe to be the truth.
As such, the truth is relative. Each person has their own version of the truth informed by their experience of life.
Some people believe humans are inherently evil and they have a lifetime of experience to prove that claim. Others believe that humans are inherently good and have just as much evidence to back it up.
Who’s to say either of these people is wrong?
Even if there is one overarching truth that transcends individual experience, it’s difficult to believe anything that doesn’t align with our lifetime of opinions, learnings, and unique versions of the truth.
Imagine discovering the world is round through an obscure calculation and trying to convince your friends, who walk around on flat ground all day, that the earth is actually round. You’d be labeled a crazy person immediately.
You could show them all your observations and calculations, but since they don’t align with anyone’s lifetime of experience, they probably wouldn’t believe you.
In each interaction between two people, two versions of the truth are coming together and commingling.
Every time we sit down to have a conversation we should remember each person has a lifetime of unique experiences that have built their worldview. Odds are that a huge portion of those experiences have been very different from our own.
Whatever opinions or ideas we have are evidence-backed by the life we’ve lived. If we disagree with someone else or notice something they say is “wrong” in our own view of what the “truth” is, it’s helpful to remember two things:
It’s my belief (and feel free to disagree with me here) that most people have good intentions and are simply acting on what they believe to be the best course of action for themselves and those they care about based on their experience of the world.
Whether you agree with my view of people or not, we can all benefit from giving others the benefit of the doubt. If we investigate what shaped someone’s current mindset instead of trying to prove that our way of thinking is better, we could better understand others and connect with them on a deeper level.
(See the original post here)
I like connecting with new people just as much as I love journaling. If you have questions about journaling or ideas surrounding personal growth, reach out! (firstname.lastname@example.org)
I’d love to chat with ya and hear your perspective on anything and everything.
I hope this was a helpful guide to kick off your journaling practice, and maybe I’ll see you in your inbox sometime soon.
Thanks for reading!
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