Journaling 101: How To Journal, What To Write, Why It’s Important

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Journaling is a topic that is popular among self-help and personal development spaces.

And for good reason…

Keeping a journal is an incredibly effective way to improve one’s mental health, emotional health, and life.

Just about anyone, no matter their walk of life or how they perceive the world, can benefit from journaling.

Many great thinkers and philosophers used journaling as a means to process their perceptions of the world, develop themselves, and their ideas.

Improving yourself and building the kind of life that makes sense for you is a long journey.

And like most long journeys, you need a map to help you reach your destination.

Journaling can be that map if you do it well.

That’s not to say that there are totally right and totally wrong things to do when it comes to writing in a journal, but there are things that are more effective than others.

Not everyone will need the exact same things or use the exact same processes to get to where they want to be.

One must choose their direction and construct their map as they make their journey.

And to better understand how to journal, we need to examine the reasons why we should journal.

Why Should I Journal?

Every day is new and different.

It brings with it new situations, lessons, and experiences that help to shape who we will become tomorrow.

Journaling is an effective way to identify, categorize, and analyze these experiences and use them to facilitate personal growth.

By taking the time to write down your experiences, you are able to reflect on the lessons they offer.

Journaling is an effective way to process emotions, both good and bad.

There are times when we feel things that we don’t necessarily understand. That can be anything from trying to figure out why you’re sad and having a hard time or why you love a person that you love.

Answering the question, “why?” is the single most important part of any self-improvement.

The answer to “why” helps you figure out why you are making the decisions that you are, feeling the emotions that you have, and taking the actions that you do.

Writing in a journal also helps to clear clutter from your mind.

A person experiencing difficulties or trying to navigate positive improvements tends to have emotional clutter in their mind that may or may not be related.

Journaling helps you get those things out of your mind and organized so that you don’t keep going over them in your head.

In clearing out the clutter, you’re also making room for new thoughts and emotions to enter into that previously occupied space.

You don’t have to spend more time thinking about the bad day that you had – you already considered it, wrote about it, and processed it. It makes things easier to let go of.

Journaling can help you develop better insight and clarity.

Once you clear away the surface clutter in your mind and are able to look back on it, you can take steps to really analyze your thoughts and actions.

It can be much easier to identify negative habits and mannerisms when you can look at the long-term, overarching themes of your life and decision-making processes.

We all have patterns. Understanding your patterns gives you more power in developing better habits, unmaking negative habits, and improving.

Journaling is an easy way to track your personal development and nurture growth.

Life can happen fast. We don’t always take the time to sit down and really think about how far we’ve come, but a journal is a written record of exactly that.

You can identify where you made the right choices, the wrong choices, and figure out how you got to where you presently are.

Writing down that information gives you the opportunity to learn more easily from your successes and failures because you have a solid record to reference.

It’s extremely difficult to not experience growth through journaling, for whatever reason you happened to start.

Journaling provides so many tangible, complementary benefits in helping a person analyze themselves, their life, and their personal journey.

It’s a safe place to vent and be honest with yourself about your success, failures, hopes, and dreams.

What Is The Best Medium For Journaling?

Though there are a lot of claims about the subject, there really is no “best” medium when it comes to journaling.

Some people prefer long-form writing by hand, where they sit down with a notebook and pen to get what’s in their mind out.

Other people prefer electronic means.

There really is no wrong answer as to where you record your thoughts.

The benefits of journaling are more about what you think about while you are recording your thoughts.

It is worth noting that the act of writing with a pen or pencil is different than typing or recording.

Handwriting is widely believed to be better because it’s usually slower than how fast one can type.

It makes you slow down and think about the things that you are writing as you are committing them to the page, which many people feel helps them process or think more about the thought they are currently writing.

But there is no real evidence that quantifies that long-form handwriting is best.

Your medium should make sense for you and your life. Ultimately, the best medium of journal is going to be whichever one you can commit to and record your thoughts, goals, and life regularly.

Some suggestions include:

A pen and notebook.

Pen and paper is the oldest and most traditional way to journal.

It’s also fairly safe, assuming you have a safe environment for journaling this way.

You need to be able to write about your deepest, most innermost thoughts and feelings to get the most benefit out of journaling.

A physical journal may not be a good choice if you live with people who would violate your privacy.

On the other hand, a notebook can’t get hacked or easily broadcast to the internet.

A private or public blog.

A blog is a great way to journal down your thoughts and ideas.

There are a variety of options for both private and public blogs.

You should consider very carefully whether or not to make an online journal public, because you should be diving into the deepest parts of yourself where there can be unprocessed pain and difficult emotions.

Not everyone will be kind to you and there will be people who will take time out of their day to judge or criticize you.

A private email account.

A private email account that you only use to write and send journal entries to can be a great repository for your thoughts.

It’s easy to set up, organizes itself through the dates, and is accessible anywhere. It also makes it very easy to search past entries for topics or events should you wish to return to them.

Plus, you can get a free email account with any of the major providers with no trouble at all.

Note or journaling applications.

There are quite a few apps out there that are either for journaling or that can be used to journal.

A brief search on any of the electronic stores (Apple Store, Google Play, Microsoft Store) should turn up a variety of options if you want to go down that route.

They provide the convenience of always having your journal on you (assuming you have a smartphone), so you can get your thoughts out whenever is most convenient.

Record an audio journal.

An audio journal is an excellent option for people who are already spending a lot of time writing and don’t really want to write any more in a day, don’t necessarily enjoy or want to write, or are trying to minimize stuff they need to carry.

You can easily use a voice recording app on your phone or a voice recorder to keep an audio journal and save the files to a cloud service so you can go back to them when you want to.

The downsides are that you can’t easily go back and find particular topics from previous journal entries and you need a quiet place where you won’t be overheard by others.

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How Do I Keep A Journal?

Journaling should not be compared to just jotting down a few things here and there with no rhyme or reason.

Effective journaling is done for the purpose of guiding yourself on a path of growth.

When you journal, you want to direct a considerable amount of focus to improving different areas of your life.

What you focus on in your journal will likely change depending on what is going on in your life.

Let’s look at a few examples of prompts and material you can journal about.

General Life Circumstances

The main body of your journal is likely to revolve around the happenings and emotions surrounding the general circumstances of your life that stand out in some way.

There are many peaks and valleys in life, but for a lot of people there is a certain monotony to structuring your life, working a steady job, participating in scheduled activities, and repeating.

Some people enjoy and thrive on that kind of structure; other people find it oppressive and difficult.

Journal about your day.

Record the peaks and the valleys of what transpired.

Record the flatter plains that are the quieter times of your life so you stay in the habit of journaling even when things are not exciting.

The not so exciting days are a great time to consider future ambitions, set goals, and develop plans on how to work toward them.

You may also want to review and consider your current progress on meeting these goals and acting on your plans.

Journaling will help you measure progress and inspire you to even greater progress.


The process of self-improvement is one that is most effectively guided through goal setting, tracking, and attainment.

A journal is the best place to formulate and pursue those plans.

A simple method for goal setting is to plan it out in blocks of time.

Where do you want to be in six months? A year? Five years? Ten years?

Consider where you want to be in the future and work backwards from that point.

How do you reach the goal that you want to reach?

What obstacles will be in your way?

What resources do you need?

What are your fears, hopes, and dreams regarding those goals?

Keeping a journal is a way to help develop a road map to where you want to go and a record of where you came from that you can look back on for inspiration when you’re having a hard time.

Mental Health

A journal is a good place to process your stresses and emotions.

Is your partner making you frustrated and angry?

Irritated with the kids?

Tired of a particular coworker?

Just done with problems with your car?

Vent these things out in your journal. It offers you a safe place to vent and work out those feelings.

That is typically a healthier option than shifting your negative emotions onto someone else in an inappropriate way (known in psychology as displacement).

That is not to suggest that you should accept bad behavior from other people and just vent it out quietly elsewhere…

It’s more that not every battle is worth waging, or that trying to wage a battle may have far more negative repercussions, like souring a work relationship.

Journaling can also help you realize when your emotions or expectations may not be reasonable.

Sometimes we can misinterpret things and react emotionally before we consider what’s actually going on.

Journaling about the stresses one experiences in life is a good way to get it out of your mind without accidentally letting it leak into your personal relationships, friendships, or work relationships.

Your journal is an excellent place to record and analyze your emotions and perspectives.

It will also serve as an important tool for recovery if you’re working through a mental illness or negative experiences in your life.

Not only can you explore your thoughts, feelings, and emotions surrounding these experiences, but you can also keep an accurate record of your interactions with professionals, medications, and the way these things affected you.

Physical Health

Another good topic to include in your journal is your physical health.

A quality sleep schedule that works for you, eliminating junk foods from your diet, and regular exercise are all things that will improve your physical and mental health.

But bad habits are hard to shake and good habits can be even harder to form.

Journaling about aspects of your physical health that you want to work on can help you determine a course of action and stay on the right path until you start seeing results from them.

The hardest part of making these kinds of changes is sticking to the plan over a long enough time to forge them into new habits.

You may want to include things like meal planning, scheduling for exercise or sleep, and what goals you want to meet with your physical health.

Answer The Question “Why?”

“Why?” is an important question to ask and answer.

Why do I feel the way that I do?

Why am I making the choices that I’m making?

Why am I pursuing that which I’m pursuing?

Why am I passionate about what I’m passionate about?

Why am I not passionate about anything?

Why did I decide to do or not do the thing?

Asking and answering “why?” will give you much greater insight into who you are and why you’re doing what you’re doing.

That will lead you to more effective solutions for problems that you are facing in life, better resolutions for the goals that you have set, and help to inform future decisions you will make – particularly when you’re working your way through mistakes that you’ve made.

“Why?” should be a major part of every journal, because it will help you decipher and unlock who you really are and what drives you, which are two essential components for making meaningful progress and self-improvement.

Bullet Point Lists

Perhaps long-form journaling isn’t something that suits you.

Maybe you just don’t have the time or don’t express yourself well through long-form.

Bullet point journals focus more on lists of bullet points about what you need to get done, what you’re experiencing, and what you need to plan out.

This is a great way to journal if you are the type of person who uses lists to stay organized and productive.

Making lists is a simple and effective way to keep life organized. A bullet point list can be adapted to journaling just about anything, from health to hobbies to goals.

The Art Of Journaling

Journaling can be compared to an art form.

Though there may be common threads, it becomes a practice with a lot of individual flair and style to it.

Some people prefer rigid, ordered approaches in a lined journal.

Others might prefer to jot down their thoughts in a sketchbook while doodling in the margins as they contemplate what is going on in their life.

However you choose to journal will help so long as you focus on staying honest with yourself, your choices, and your actions.

Honesty with yourself is the key to unlocking a happier, more satisfying life.

About The Author

Jack Nollan is a person who has lived with Bipolar Disorder and Bipolar-depression for almost 30 years now. Jack is a mental health writer of 10 years who pairs lived experience with evidence-based information to provide perspective from the side of the mental health consumer. With hands-on experience as the facilitator of a mental health support group, Jack has a firm grasp of the wide range of struggles people face when their mind is not in the healthiest of places. Jack is an activist who is passionate about helping disadvantaged people find a better path.