Writing in a journal is an ideal way to reflect on your feelings and plan for the future. It can also be a tool for relaxation and mindfulness, which can benefit your mental health. Even so, sticking to a journaling habit can be challenging — even for professional writers.
Let’s make this the year that we don’t abandon our fancy new notebooks after two pages of journaling. I’ve kept journals since I was nine years old (including long stretches of daily journaling and seasons of on-again, off-again writing), and these tips can help you make your journal your own and find a more joyful journaling practice you can stick to.
1. Avoid writing every day
Yes, this goes against popular writing advice from authors like Stephen King. But plenty of other professional writers don’t expect to write every single day and even warn that this level of perfectionism can interfere with your creativity and spontaneity.
Instead, choose a journaling schedule that’s realistic and in line with your goals. Are you journaling to boost creativity, write fiction, or keep a record of your life and thoughts? Building a frequent writing practice can be helpful, but you might focus on writing just four nights a week. If your journal is a way to help you keep track of your goals, a weekly session may be enough to recap last week’s accomplishments and plan the week ahead.
One study found that three to five 15-minute expressive writing sessions on consecutive days showed psychological and physical benefits months after the fact. In other words, research backs the idea that you don’t need a perfect streak. A few entries a week, or even jumping in from time to time when you need a journaling heart-to-heart, can provide real benefits.
If you really have your heart set on a daily practice, go for it. Some ways to make daily writing more achievable are to keep entries brief and use a structure to jump-start your writing.
2. Use writing prompts
The main reason why my journaling aspirations fizzle out is that my days can feel too similar to be worth recording in detail. I dressed the kids, worked, and squeezed in a yoga session before relaxing in the evening. But a good day doesn’t always translate well to the page.
Pinterest or creative writing websites can be good sources of writing prompts to add spark when you’re not feeling inspired. Prompts can be about memories or current moods:
- What would make you happier right now?
- What’s a value you’d like to live out more every day?
- When was the last time you celebrated?
- What’s your earliest childhood memory?
- What experiences have you had that made you feel truly alive?
If you’re interested in journaling to write creatively, try looking for flash fiction prompts, which kickstart ideas for short stories, or search for creative nonfiction prompts if you’re interested in memoirs.
One of the great things about using writing prompts is that they not only help you write more interesting journal entries but can also nudge you to think differently and see your life from a fresh angle.
3. Choose a one-sentence practice
Keeping a gratitude journal can be good for your mental health by helping you connect to the positive in your life. One way to stick with a gratitude journaling habit is to keep it short and sweet. One sentence to answer, “Today I’m grateful for…” can be enough to put you in a more thankful mindset. A practice that takes five minutes or less is easier to continue, and soon you’ll be able to look back over dozens of little moments you may remember better because you wrote them down.
A mood tracker can work similarly. By using a mood key, you can make frequent (even daily) mood check-ins an easy habit. You can rate your mood on a scale of 10, use colors to indicate different moods, or even use smiley or frowning stickers. Add one sentence if you like to explain the day’s rating, and you’re done.
4. Make a list
I love how lists create structure and inspire me to brainstorm more ideas. (If a list goes up to eight, can I think of enough ideas to get to an even 10?). Lists can represent actual plans and goals or be a fun way to get to know yourself better. A list of lists you might enjoy (you knew I’d go there) could include:
- Books to read
- Movies to watch
- Date night ideas
- Restaurants to try
- Dream vacation spots
- A bucket list
- Gifts (for yourself or others)
- Qualities you like best in yourself
- Friends who have your back (handy when you’re feeling down and want ideas of who to call for a pep talk)
- Skills you’d like to learn
- Professional accomplishments (helpful when polishing a resume or asking for a raise)
- Beauty products to try
- Favorite self-care activities
- Things or people that inspire you
5. Steal other people’s words
Who says you need to be the person behind every word in your private journal? Writing down quotes can be a great source of inspiration. Write a famous quote that means a lot to you, jot down a poetic caption, or note words of wisdom from your mom or favorite teacher. If you’re reading a book and want to remember a fantastic line, your journal’s got your back.
6. Think beyond writing
While many people may imagine handwriting a journal, that’s certainly not the only worthwhile way to express yourself. Doodle, paste in a postcard, press a flower or leaf, or create a vision page with magazine photos. You can even leave a physical journal behind entirely and make an online video journal. This is your time, so express yourself in whatever way makes you feel the best.
7. Let yourself be imperfect
Confession: There’s a beautiful notebook sitting on my desk beside my laptop right now — and it’s totally blank. It can be easy to look at an artistic cover and creamy pages and think, “Every word in this should be eloquent and beautiful.”
But the truth is, we’re messy, imperfect people, and that’s a good thing. It’s fine if your journal is a hodgepodge of curly-cursive “Dear Diary” moments, to-dos you jot down on the go, notes from a meeting, a poem you’re pretty sure you’ll never show anyone, a weird dream you had, and your friend’s whipped feta dip recipe. Looking back, you’ll see that even a random assortment of entries collect into a beautiful time capsule of you — in this moment of your life.