5 Tips to Create a Successful Journaling Habit

You’ve probably heard how beneficial keeping a journal can be. How it can be the best form of self-care, the cheapest therapy, the most effective creative outlet, etc. But hearing that you should journal is a whole ‘nother thing from actually finding a comfortable journaling routine.

One of the beauties of journaling is that it can be whatever you want it to be. There’s no formula to follow and no rules to adhere to, no right or wrong way to do it. Super vague, right? But what that really means is that in order to find a journaling style that works for you, it can take some trial and error. Here are some tips to get you started:

5 Tips to Create a Successful Journaling Habit

1. Choose the right notebook and pen

I know what you’re thinking — didn’t I just say there are no rules, and no right or wrong way to do it? So what do I mean by “right” then? Well, that depends on you. Be it a cheap college spiralbound you found in a drawer, or an expensive notebook handmade in Italy… the notebook and writing instrument you choose can make a big impact on how you feel when you sit down to journal. When I was a teenager I had plenty of fancy journals I just couldn't bring myself to write in for fear of 'messing them up'. I preferred composition notebooks, which helped quiet my inner critic and allow my thoughts to flow freely. Now a’days I lean the other way: I take comfort in the little luxuries of smooth paper and a nice pen, which make the act of sitting down to write feels cozy, intentional, and sacred. If you go this route, treating yourself to a nice notebook or new pen can be motivation in and of itself, like buying workout clothes that make you feel pumped to go to the gym. Choose your materials by what makes you feel motivated.

2. Set a time and place for journaling

The more steps involved in doing something, the less likely we are to actually do it. If your journal is tucked away on a shelf or buried under a stack of papers, let’s face it — you are far less likely to dig it out when you want to write. Eliminate those barriers and make your life easy by giving your notebook a home in the place you know you’ll use it: beside your bed, or on your desk, or near where you meditate. Make a plan to go to bed a little earlier, or take ten minutes before opening your laptop, for writing in your journal. If it isn’t part of your schedule, it probably won’t happen.

3. Know your “why” and write it down

Get clear about why you want to journal. In fact, make this step number one — because if you don’t have a solid reason for journaling, chances are you won’t stick with it very long. Is your goal to record precious memories? Work through challenging emotions? Understand yourself better? Ask yourself how keeping a journal will benefit you. My notebooks almost always begin with a kind of ‘intro’ page which includes my “why”, as well as my thoughts as I start a new journal. I find this helps in a few ways. It gives you a place to begin and get past the dreaded 'first page'. Writing down your ‘why’ anchors it in your mind. And when looking back years later, it provides immediate context and can remind you exactly who and where you were in your life when you wrote it.. You can find a sample of one of my cover pages HERE.

4. Explore different styles of journaling

If you’ve used journaling in the past to write down what you did each day and found it boring — don’t write about what you do each day. If you tried venting about frustrating situations and found it didn’t really make you feel better — try writing about the positive aspects of your life. The most common advice about journaling is that it can be “whatever you want it to be” which sounds vague and cliche, but what it really means is that in order to make your journal work for you, you may have to try a few things.

“What sort of diary should I like mine to be? Something loose knit and yet not slovenly, so elastic that it will embrace any thing, solemn, slight or beautiful that comes into my mind. I should like it to resemble some deep old desk, a capacious hold-all, in which one flings a mass of odds and ends without looking. I should like to come back, after a year or two, and find that the collection had sorted itself… into a mould, transparent enough to reflect the light of our life.”
- Virginia Wolff, in one of her diaries

However you choose to do it, here’s a helpful tip: be mindful of how you feel when you’re writing. It took me years to learn that a journal could be more than just a place to vent anger and frustration, and those early notebooks were quickly abandoned because writing in them was such a negative experience. Now I prefer to cultivate gratitude and positivity in my journal, and when I need a healthy outlet to vent I reach for scrap paper where I spill everything out, pick out the pieces worth keeping, and discard the rest. If your journaling style isn’t working for you, try to identify where it falls short and don’t be afraid to mix it up mid-notebook. On a related note, taking inspiration from others is great, but be careful not to compare your journal too closely to those you see online. The “imperfections” of your handwriting, your doodles, and your ideas are what make your journal beautiful and unique.

5. Journaling isn't homework

As Alexandra Johnson wrote in her book, Leaving A Trace “More diaries have been killed by the idea that a diary must be written in daily than by any other single thing. Why? It feels like homework… Both words (diary and journal) come from the Latin root for day. A fancy fact, but here’s its simpler truth: a diary or journal isn’t necessarily something that should be done daily so much as it is a clue to how to see the daily world around oneself differently.”

She also said “Today, sitting for even five minutes with a journal offers a rare cease-fire in the battle of daily life, a time when we’re not graded, not performing. It’s a time when one attempts some truth, silencing those carping inner voices.”

Whatever your journal is, let it be a place to practice a bit of kindness towards yourself. If you miss a few days, or weeks, try to give yourself grace. And if you are feeling stuck with nothing to write about, try using a prompt for inspiration. (I have a series of them HERE, or you can check out my Pinterest for more ideas).

Which of these tips did you find most helpful? Let me know in the comments below.

To finish out, here is a recent entry in my journal, so you can see how messy and real it is. Adding photos is one of my favorite ways to keep my journal interesting, and flipping through, these pictures stand out and make it easy to find certain entries. If you have any tips for keeping your journaling habit alive and well, feel free to share them in the comments below!