A complete guide to journaling – and how to start a journal today

A complete guide to journaling – and how to start a journal today

Lately, journaling has been gaining a lot of popularity as a tool for personal development. And there are very good reasons for that! 

Learn everything you always wanted to know about journaling, including its health benefits and how it helps you understand yourself better, increases self awareness and promotes emotional balance.  


In this article we will discuss some of the main aspects related to journaling, including its benefits and the science behind it. We’ll also teach you, step by step, how to write a journal with focus on self development and how to overcome the most common difficulties of the process. The main topics we are going to cover are:

What is a journal

According to wikipedia,  a journal (also called a diary), is a record of events and impressions associated to a certain period. The word “journal” comes from the latin diurnus “of the day”, which suggests the entries were traditionally made daily. But of course, this frequency can vary quite a lot.

Journaling throughout history

You might be surprised to find out that diaries have actually been with us for a very long time! The work known today as “Meditations” written by the roman emperor Marcus Aurelius in the 2nd century AD already had several characteristic of journal writing.

Throughout history, journals have been used for different purposes, including recording governmental affairs, business and trading deals, registering extraordinary events, daily happenings and spiritual impressions. It was only around the Renaissance period, though, that people started adding their own opinions, hopes and fears to their diaries, making them more similar to what we think of as a journal today.

Journaling also offer us an incredible window into the lives of people who lived in other moments of history. Through their records we can learn a lot about how they lived, what they experienced and what they felt. Some of well known journals include the  diaries of Anne Frank, Nelson Mandela and Kurt Kobain.

To sum up:

A journal is a dated record of facts, events and experiences, usually including opinions and thoughts of the writer about what has happened.

Before we go into how writing a journal can help you develop yourself and into exactly how to write one, let’s have a quick look at some of the most popular types of journals nowadays.

Types of journal

There are many different reasons why one might want to start writing a journal, but all of them usually involve keeping track of events and/ or impressions related to a particular subject. The themes can vary from something specific, like a particular project at work or a certain trip, to very general records about life. Some of the most common types of journals are:

Work  journal

Used to keep track of activities at work, often focused on a particular project. Given its professional use, work journals are usually more strictly structured than personal diaries. This ensures that all the information relevant for the project has been properly documented.

Diet journal

Writing a journal about your diet helps you keep track of what you eat and drink. It’s a very useful tool for controlling calorie intake, for those who want to either lose or gain weight, and it also allows monitoring of eating habits for various health-related reasons.

Travel journal

Journaling while traveling allows you to register events that happen during a trip as well as your impressions about them. You can attach photos or other objects that represent the trip and include thoughts and feelings about what happened. It is very rewarding to read such a journal a few years after a great trip!

Pregnancy journal

Pregnancy is another favorite moment for journal writing! As the name suggests, this is a record of what happens during pregnancy, including how the baby is developing, how both the mother and child are feeling, and any other information the parents consider relevant.

Sleep or dream diary

Writing a journal is a great way to keep track of your sleeping habits! You can register what time you go to bed, when you wake up, the quality of your sleep, and so on. It is also useful for monitoring sleeping problems and for registering dreams.

Gratitude journal

This is a list of things you are grateful for, possibly including comments about them. Gratitude journals are so important for self development and for promoting positive transformations in our lives that we have a separate guide dedicated to them.

Here you can read about the positive impacts of gratitude in our lives (including links to scientific studies), discover why a gratitude list is a great self development tool, and of course learn how to write your gratitude journal.

Personal journal

A personal (or reflective) journal is where you write events that happen in your life as well as thoughts, feelings, wishes, problems… Actually, you can write pretty much anything you want! Writing a personal journal is a very free practice: this is your diary, and you make the rules!

The personal journal will be a reflection of what is happening in your mind and body at that moment you write. It doesn’t have a specific format or content. Since everyday we feel a little bit different, the journal will reflect that and be a little bit different every time you write on it, too. It’s a journal full of personality!

Personal journals are amazing when it comes to self development, facing crisis and dealing with problems, and that’s why we will be focusing on them during the rest of this article. We will discuss how to write a journal that promotes self development, improves self-awareness, helps you develop emotional intelligence and empowers you to deal with difficulties that life brings your way.

So let’s have a look into that!

Benefits of journaling

How writing a journal affects your health

Writing is a simple yet surprisingly powerful habit.  Studies show that keeping a journal helps you deal with your thoughts and emotions, promoting a general feeling of happiness. There is also evidence that writing about difficult experiences helps people who went through them, specially if  journal writing becomes a way for them to put things under perspective and find meaning in what has happened. Some studies even claim that journaling can accelerate the healing of wounds.

In a simplified way, writing a journal is a process similar to a therapy session. When you write about a problem, you “get it out of your chest” and break it down into comprehensible bits, making it easier for your mind to understand it and find ways to cope with it.

Here it’s important to remember: whenever facing serious problems, seek professional help as soon as possible!

Journal writing and self development

Science is still working on figuring out exactly how and in which circumstances journaling can influence various aspects of our lives. However, there are certain things which are experienced by most people who are engaged in journaling, and many of those contribute to personal development. As an example, writing allows you to:

  • Organize your thoughts
  • Remember events and experiences that happen in your life
  • Keep track of feelings and ideas
  • Find connections between experiences, emotions and thoughts
  • Analyze your behavior, actions and thinking process

All of these will teach you a lot about yourself and lead to increased self awareness and emotional intelligence.

Benefits of reading your journal

If writing a journal already has several benefits, reading it can add a couple more! One day, when you open your diary to reads what you wrote a couple of weeks, months or even years ago, I promise that  you’ll be amazed by what you read!

You’ll see how much you have been through, how much you have felt and experienced, how many people you have met… You’ll remember things that happened to you that you had completely forgotten about!

Reading a journal opens a window to your past and gives you an idea of how you have been changing through time. It reminds you of how much you have experienced. It’s almost as if it slowed time a bit, making you feel like you are really living your life!

And the best part is you write a diary nearly anywhere, with almost no cost at all. All you need is something to write on. It can be a computer, tablet, a smartphone or good old paper and pen!

Talking about that, let’s have a look at some of the differences between keeping a digital versus a paper journal.

Digital x paper journals

When it comes to written journals (you could also have an audio or video journal, for example) , the main options are using either paper and pen or a computer.  And since computers and smartphones are so common in our lives, it would only seem natural to use them to write a journal as well, right?

Well, sort of. Sure, using a computer is definitely a good option for writing a diary, but don’t be so fast in discarding the other option! Good old paper and pen can offer certain benefits that a computer usually can’t, so it makes sense to compare these two possibilities a little more carefully.

To help you pick your favorite method, we are going to list some of the main pros of each, and then it’s up to you to decide (or you can even choose to do both!)

Digital journaling

One of the main appeals a digital journal is practicality:

  • We already carry our smartphones and notebooks with us nearly everywhere
  • You could write down an entry to your journal pretty much anywhere, anytime
  • Writing on the computer is usually faster than using a pen
  • Digital documents have many interesting functionalities, such as: tags and other organizational features, ease of recording metadata, search functions, etc.

All of this does sound pretty good, right?

Paper journal

With all the practicality of digital journals, are there still any pros of writing a paper and pen document? Well, it turns out that there are! Here are some of them:

  • Less distractions: no email to check, no messages arriving
  • Handwriting is a skill we don’t use so often these days, and practicing it will be good exercise for your brain
  • Writing on paper won’t increase your daily screen time
  • It forces you to slow down
  • A handwritten journal becomes more concrete. You can touch it, you can feel it
  • It makes journaling more personal, after all, it’s your handwriting on the paper.

I can almost hear you saying:

But my handwriting is terrible!!!

That’s completely fine. It’s yours, you’re writing for yourself, and having your handwriting on your journal will make it even more personal and special.

Which one is better?

That’s really up to you. A very personal choice.

I, personally, like paper and pen. A digital document might be more convenient, but in my opinion the main focus of writing a journal for personal development shouldn’t be convenience, but rather the positive effect it has on you. And at least for me, paper and pen are better at that since they create a journal which is more tangible and in certain ways more intimate. I also think that there is something about reading an actual book that you can’t really get with a digital file.

But that is a personal opinion, and for many people, digital might feel better. Digital journaling is certainly also very powerful for self improvement and if you feel that you want to go for one, then by all means do it!

If you are like me and enjoy reading paper books, you can also write a journal on you computer and then print it every 6 months or one year. You can have it printed with a nice cover and that way you combine the practicality of digital writing with the pleasure of reading a book.

And of course, you can always have both! A digital journal you carry around everywhere and use for taking faster notes, and a paper journal that you keep at home for when you have more time to dedicate.

Whatever you choose, it’s going to be a great choice! So let’s go on to the best part: how to write a journal!

Step-by-step – How to write a personal journal

Writing a personal journal is actually very simple, and that makes the practice even more rewarding. Just follow these easy steps:

  1. Choose between digital or a paper journal, and get hold of the material you need – either a computer or notebook and a pen.
  2. Find a quiet place where you can write without being disturbed.
  3. Start by writing the date.
    • The date is essential to help you connect what you are writing to this moment of your life. Imagine that five years from now you find this journal and decide to read it. There’s no way you will remember when you wrote each of the entries if you don’t have dates written down. Always date your entries!
  4. Write!
    • “But write what?” You may ask – Write whatever comes to your mind! Really, do it freely, without thinking too much. The important thing here is to practice getting your thoughts and emotions from your head to the paper.
     
    • As an example, you can write about what you did during the day, how you are feeling right now, or what you are thinking about. You can write a song that is stuck in your head, you can even write that you don’t know what to write. Don’t worry about style, language, or whether you know how to write a journal or not. Just write.
     
    • If you are really, really stuck, write at least one word – any single word is good. Or just write: “I don’t know what to write today”.
  5. Don’t censor yourself. Write everything that comes to your mind, without judging if it’s good, bad, or if you “should be saying this” or not. Just write.
  6. When you feel that you’re done, you’re done. Doesn’t matter if you wrote 10 pages or a single word (but write at least one word!). Close your notebook or file.
  7. Repeat tomorrow!

Tips:

No self-censorship

We said it before but we’ll say it again: Don’t censor yourself. Your journal should be a space in which you can say whatever you want, without judgement. No one is going to read it except for yourself.

Make it a routine

It’s much easier to develop the habit of writing a journal if you make it a routine. A good way of doing that is to connect writing to other regular activities that you already do. For example, you can work on your journal:

  • First thing in the morning, right after waking up
  • In the evening, just before going to bed
  • Every day just before (or after) lunch,

In this way, the activities you already do will serve as a mental and behavioral anchor to help you build your new habit.

Another possibility is to define a time for it:

  • Every morning at 8am,
  • Evenings at 9pm.

And the idea here is to make your brain understand that those particular times are dedicated to journal writing

Read your diary

We recommend that once a month you go back and read what you wrote during that period. You will be surprised at all the things you have done, all the experiences you’ve had, the people you have met, the problems you have solved, the crises you have survived.

Another great idea is to have a general read of what you wrote during the year on the 31st of December or January 1st. It will be an amazing recap, and it will give you ideals for defining your goals for the coming year.

What to write in your journal?

The answer is simple: write anything you like! And we mean it! If you just write, without thinking much, the journal will be a beautiful reflection of different moments of your life. A natural mirror of it. And that’s what personal journaling should be. For example, if you met someone interesting, you can write about it; f you’re trying to solve a problem, write about it; If there’s something you can’t get out of your head, write it down, and so on!

If, on the other hand, you start planning too much what you want to say, you’ll automatically censor and edit your ideas, taking away the essence of the practice.

Don’t think about how much you have to write, either! Simply write whatever comes to your mind and for as long as you think you should. Some days you’ll naturally write more, some days less, and that is perfect.

So, simply write down whatever crosses you mind, no matter how simple or messy it is. In the end, what is on the paper will be a natural reflection of that particular moment in your life. And that’s exactly what you want to capture!

How often to write in a journal

You can write as often and for as long as you want. The longer you do it, the clearer the benefits are likely to be. You will see that your style will change with time, as will the subjects you write about. The journal will grow and change together with you.

Note that, at least in the beginning, while you’re still figuring out how to write a journal, doing it everyday can help you get into the habit. As a practice, we suggest you write a journal for at least 30 consecutive days.  This period will give you enough time to get a feeling for what it’s all about and will allow you to experience some of the benefits. Once you get more used to it, it will be easier to switch to writing less often but still regularly (i.e: once a week) without losing the habit.

We also suggest you do this practice at least once a year, so that you have something registered for every year that passes. And of course, feel free to add extra journal entries whenever you feel like it, or when you are going through a problem or crisis, as writing can help you deal with them.

Common difficulties

We are all masters in procrastinating, aren’t we? Here are common causes for procrastination when it comes to writing a journal, and a couple of simple ways to end them right now:

I can’t find the right words, I have no inspiration

It can be very hard to express thoughts and feelings if you’re not used to doing it. That’s ok, remember that you are writing for yourself, so you can write anything you want. No judgment or censorship here, please. Don’t think too much about how to write a journal, just do it. The process will become easier as you develop self awareness and familiarity with your thoughts and feelings.

If you are really stuck, write just one word per day. Any word! The first one that comes to your mind. That single word will tell your brain two things:

  • The first is that you are keeping the habit going.
  • And the second is that when you sit in front of the journal, it’s time to put your thoughts down on paper.

After a few days, you’ll see that writing will become easier, and it will be more and more natural for you to express yourself.

I can’t find a quiet place to sit and write

If you can’t find a quiet place, make the best of what you can find. Write wherever you are. It doesn’t have to be perfect everyday. And if you think about it, the fact that you can’t find a quiet place to write is also a reflection of this moment of your life! Rest assured that whatever you write is good and enough.

My hand-writing is bad, or I can’t write properly

That shouldn’t be a concern at all. You’re writing for yourself. Remember, no judgements here. With time, the habit of journaling will actually help you develop your writing skills.

What to expect from journaling

When it comes to journaling and self development, try not to create too many expectations. Not because it won’t help you – I’m sure it will! – but because expectations put unnecessary pressure on yourself and limit a bit your possibilities of development to what you have already planned.

Instead, be open to discover where the practice will take you and what it will teach you. The experience of writing a journal will be distinct for every person, and also slightly different every time you write.

Learning about yourself is not a linear process and you might not notice progress immediately. That is completely normal. Someday, when you stop and look back, when you read what you have written in the past month, you’ll see that you’ve actually come a long way. Your journaling mileage may vary, but with time you might experience improvement in self awareness, emotional balance, reduced anxiety, support in dealing with the hardships of life, and a growing sense that you are actually living your life, instead of just passing through it. You’ll start understanding your your thinking process better and better, and continuously develop.

Journaling is also a very powerful tool when it comes to dealing with problems and difficult situations. Writing about things that are stressing you or making you anxious has an almost immediate calming effect on your mind. Putting your thoughts on paper helps you process what has happened and allows you to better understand how you feel about it. Writing a journal will help you clear your mind, organize your ideas, and put things under perspective.

We promise it will be a very rewarding and fulfilling journey!

A final note about privacy

Journals can be very personal, as you will write about your experiences, emotions and thoughts. It’s important that you feel you have a safe environment to do it. Here are some tips for keeping your journal private:

If you’re making a digital journal

  • Write to an email account to which only you have access to
  • Use a password protected file
  • Try one of several apps and websites that are designed for digital journaling and which offer safe accounts.

If you’re journaling using paper and pen

  • Keep the notebook somewhere you consider safe
  • Either keep it secret and not tell other people about it, or
  • Explain to your family and friends, people who live with you or visit your house, that this is a personal project and that you don’t want anyone else to read it.

If you are concerned that you can’t get enough privacy, our suggestion is that you write your journal entries and then immediately destroy or delete them afterwards.

Sounds weird to write something and then erase it, but remember that just the process of writing things down already gives you several of the benefits of writing a journal. Sure, it’s not optimal because you will miss the opportunity of reading the journal afterwards and comparing entries from different moments of your life, but it will guarantee your privacy.  You’ll still benefit from writing down your thoughts, even if you destroy the document afterwards.

Further resources

  • Don’t forget to check our selection of notebooks for journal writing. You’ll find all different styles, from classical to rustic.
  • Our selection of famous and historical journals can serve as inspiration while at the same time giving you a privileged view into the life of several truly amazing people
  • In our store you also find interactive and guided journals that will help you develop your journaling skills and explore different aspects of your routine. 

Summary

To conclude our article, let’s make a quick summary of the main points we discussed:

  • A journal is a record of facts, experiences, thoughts, feelings and pretty much anything else you want to add to it. Organized by date.
  • The practice of writing journals has been with us for centuries. Many famous figures in history left one and we can learn about their lives through them.
  • There are different types of journals for different purposes. Here we discuss personal journals with focus on personal development.
  • Journaling is a powerful tool for self development. It promotes increased awareness of our own thoughts, feelings and behaviors.
  • Learning how to write a journal can bring you health benefits and help deal with difficult and stressful situations.
  • The choice between writing a digital or a paper journal is personal, depending on what is more important for you. Both have their own characteristics and advantages.
  • When it comes to how to write your personal journal, don’t think too much, just go for it! A personal journal should be a reflections of what is going on in your mind and your life, without much editing or censorship. Write about anything and everything you think you should.
  • If you’re worried about privacy, writing a journal entry and then immediately destroying it can be a solution. This way you still get several of the benefits of putting on paper what’s on your mind (even though you’ll miss the pleasure of reading it later)
  • Writing a journal is a journey. You’ll learn, adapt, develop and grow in the process. Do it in your own way, and most importantly, enjoy it!!

We wish you an exciting and rewarding personal journey. Don’t forget to share your opinions and experiences with us!

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