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How to Journal: 11 Life-changing techniques to get started

Journaling is the best way to massively change your life. And I don’t say that lightly.

If you don’t journal, this is the best habit that you can build right now. If you only build one new habit this year, make journaling a priority. It will make it so much easier to build every other habit.

Your journal is the key to unlocking everything.

Why should you journal?

  1. Improve your mental health
  2. Calm your thoughts when your mind is racing
  3. Understand your dreams and values
  4. Chart your plans for the future
  5. Keep a record of your life
  6. Understand the barriers that keep you from building new habits

How do I journal?

Journaling is simple enough. Write what comes to mind. But in my experience, a lot of people wonder how to do it “right.” There is no one right way to journal. That is part of what makes it hard to start.

The other thing that makes it hard to start journaling is that most people don’t share their journals. A journal is a very intimate and private record of a person’s thoughts. It is a way to work through difficult emotions and decisions. It is a way to understand yourself better.

I hope that you feel safe to keep a journal – feel confident that no one will read it. If you do not feel safe to do that, the second best solution is to keep a digital journal. There are many apps designed to keep your thoughts password protected. Some smartphones have a secure folder where you could keep these notes. Or sign up for one of the many online versions of these tools.

If you are in Ontario, you can use The Big White Wall. It is an anonymous online mental health support service where you can express your struggles and learn more about mental health topics.

I most often use ‘Question and answer’, ‘Stream of consciousness writing’, ‘Thought record’ and ‘Plan your day’. But I’ve tried almost all of the techniques below.

One book that shows the power of journaling is “Writing Down the Bones” by Natalie Goldberg. She is a writer and she wrote this book for other writers. And if you are journaling, you are a writer. You may not be paid for your writing, you may never show another person your writing, but writing is what you are doing.

What if I have a great idea while journaling? How can I keep track of it?

There are two ways to remember your brilliant ideas that surface while you are journaling.

  1. Immediately transfer that idea to a list
  2. Review your journal regularly to rediscover your ideas

If you are leaning towards transferring your ideas to a list, you might also like #9 on the list below. If you already have running lists of ideas or things to do, then transferring ideas that surface while journaling would work quite well for you.

Or you could review your journal every week, every month, or when the journal is full. Look back on what you have written. You may want to put a star beside the ideas that surface while you are journaling so that they will stand out when you look back over your journal later. 1

Either way, you can feel confident that your ideas will be there – much more confident than when you try to keep the ideas in your head! And of course, you could do both.

There is no right way to journal.

There are, though, some techniques and structures that can make it a lot easier. Below are 11 different ways to journal. Try them all on for size and see what works best for you.

The techniques below might have come from somewhere else, or I might have discovered on my own. I have been building a journaling habit (off and on) for over a decade now. Where I can remember a source, there will be a link.

#1: Question and answer

The first strategy is a great way to get into a journaling habit. Pose a question to yourself and then attempt to answer it. Simple, but not always easy. It may take a few tries to get to the answer that feels true and complete.

When I use this technique, I print the question and answer in my usual handwriting. That way, the question stands out and draws my eye when I get distracted. 2

The questions could be prompts you see online or in books, or it could be a question that you think up yourself.

If you answer the question in a way that doesn’t feel correct, simply note that. Write, “No, that’s not quite right,” and then either explain why that doesn’t feel correct or simply try to answer again.

Try it for yourself

Grab your notebook or a piece of paper (or your favourite note app if you choose not to write longhand). Write this prompt: What do I hope to get from journaling?

Write the thoughts as they come to mind. Keep writing until you feel that you have answered the question as completely as possible.

#2: Stream of consciousness writing

This is another technique that is simple, but not always easy.

Write down the thoughts in your mind as they come to you. Follow each train of thought to its final destination. This is the whole point of writing the stream of consciousness thoughts, rather than just thinking. When thinking, the mind often jumps around which leads to a feelings of overwhelm or anxiety.

You get the feel of the whole thought, but you don’t think the whole thought. So you can’t see the illogical or silly parts. And it is harder to see solutions to the problems you face because you don’t fully understand the issue.

Following each thought also slows your mind down. Precisely because you can’t write or type as fast as your mind wants to go. Slowing down, builds a sense calm and groundedness.

What if I have too many thoughts?

Jot down a bullet point list of the different directions that your mind is trying to go. Leave a couple lines empty beneath this list so that you can add to it while you are writing.

Then take one of those ideas, those directions and follow that thought to its logical conclusion. Then move on to the next. In this case, it is the same as question and answer technique above.

What if my mind goes blank as soon as I pick up the pen?

Write about that. If your mind is blank, write, “My mind has gone blank.” Write about the sensations that you are feeling. Write about the frustration that you feel.

Once you start moving, it is much easier to keep moving. It is simple physics. 3

Try it

Go back to your journal. Write the thoughts that are in your mind right now.

Even if you are thinking, “This is stupid.” Write it down. Explore that thought.

If you think you don’t have any thoughts, write that down.

Or write about the sensations that you are feeling.

Write about the ideas or dreams you have in your mind. Especially if it feels too scary to say out loud to another person.

#3: The 5 Minute Journal

This one I first heard from the Being Boss podcast. They, in turn, learned about it from Tim Ferris. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find the exact episode.

Start each day with these 3 prompts:

  • 3 things that you are grateful for 4
  • Today will be great if…
  • A mantra, intention, or quote for the day5

I found this to be a great way to rebuild the journaling habit after getting away from it for a little while. Especially since it is only supposed to take 5 minutes. It’s a low bar to entry.

Try it out

Pull out your journal and fill out the prompts:

  • I am grateful for…
  • Today will be great if…
  • Mantra/Intention of the day

You may also find it helpful to write these prompts on a sticky note so you can remember the prompts without seeing what you wrote the day before. (That’s what I did!)

#4: Gratitude journal

Gratitude helps you to think more positively, feel more connected to the people around you, feel happier, and build hope for the future.

There are many ways to build a gratitude practice

  • Write 1 or 3 or 5 things that you are grateful for that happened in the past day
  • Write a few sentences on 1 thing that you are grateful for
  • At the beginning of the day to set the tone for your day.
  • At the end of your day to finish up on a positive note – and write about things that you were grateful for that day. This primes your brain to be looking for the good things that happen each day.
  • With other people at dinner 6

Or you could do any combination of those things

Try it out

Try out each of the different ways listed above. For now, write in your journal, a list of 3 things you are grateful for. Then write 3 sentences on 1 thing you are grateful for – and why.

#5: Thought record

This technique is especially helpful when you are experiencing very strong emotions or negative thoughts and emotions. It can help to center you and can help to pinpoint what your common triggers are for those types of thoughts and emotions. It is part of cognitive behavioural therapy. If you have a therapist, ask them for more specific instructions on how to best use it in your situation.

A thought record brings awareness to your emotions and there is a lot of power in simply naming the emotion. It is also helpful to note the physical sensations you have.

Writing what just happened helps you to understand where the emotions are coming from. And even if it doesn’t help at the moment, you’ll need it to break it down once you have some distance from the moment

Reframing is a powerful tool and the key part of cognitive behavioural therapy. As an example of a reframe, check out this video on the purpose of stress.

Try it out

  1. Write down what you feel. Be specific and rate the emotion on a 1-10 scale
  2. Note the physical sensations that go along with those emotions.
  3. Write down what happened just before you noticed the emotion
  4. Write down what thoughts are running through your mind
  5. Can you reframe the sensation or your thoughts about what just happened
  6. Rate your emotions on a 1-10 scale after reframing
    (Optional:) What did you do after feeling this emotion? Did it help?

#6: A life record

Create a life record by simply writing what happened in your day. Over time, this creates a record of your life that you can look back on. It can help make happy memories and trips more memorable and it can put difficult memories into context. It can show you have far you’ve come in your life and how you’ve been able to survive and thrive even in difficult situations.

And if you feel like you have a boring life – remember this. When archeologists come across a diary filled with seemingly mundane details, they see a goldmine. These journals are a window into the regular life in that time and place. They learn more from those diaries than the war records or travellers journals. I found this to be oddly reassuring – considering I don’t want anyone reading my journals. 7

Try it out

Write down what you did so far today.
(Optional): How did you feel about what happened?

#7: Habit log

A habit log can be as simple or artistic as you desire. If you want to make something more artistic, there is plenty of room for this (and you’ll also love #8). But if you’d rather have a simple design, it can be very straight forward. (James Clear has a great article specifically about tracking habits)

A simple habit log would look something like this:


Write the habit you are looking to build and check it off each day of the week that you complete it. Or you could use a calendar and put a check mark, sticker, or use a bingo dabber to mark when you did your habit!

I prefer to track habits that have a simple yes or no whether I did it. You could also track how much you did of your habit. For example, how many glasses of water did you drink? How many minutes did you walk? How many servings of fruits and vegetables did you eat? How many hours of sleep did you get?

Try it out

Think of 1-3 habits that you want to build. What can you do in the coming week that will help you build this habit?

  • What will you do?
  • When will you do it?
  • How often will you do it?
  • How much will you do?

For example:

I want to get fit. I will walk my dog at least 4 times a week for 15 minutes. I will go right after work and put a check mark in my log when I get back from the walk.

#8: Art journal

An art journal, like many other things on this list, could be simple or elaborate. You could paint an abstract background, then write on top of it. Or you could draw or paint something that expresses how you feel that day. You could use a single colour and make a black-and-white drawing, or you could use all the colours.

Art journaling is something that I am fascinated by but I have never done.8 So if you want to learn more, here’s a resource to get you started:

Try it out

Take a piece of paper or a blank page in your journal and draw something that expresses how you feel today. If you desire, you can add words or an explanation on why you drew what you did, or you can let the drawing speak for itself.

#9: Bullet journal

Just like the habit log (#7) a bullet journal can be simple or elaborate. The best place to learn about the bullet journal is from the creator of it, Ryder Carroll.

The idea is to take a blank notebook and create a planner that works exactly how your mind works. It is one place where you can put all your thoughts, ideas, to-dos, and schedules. Whenever you have a thought or need to check when your doctor’s appointment is, you know that it is all in one place.

A bullet journal can combine many of the other techniques on this list, or you can just pick and choose the elements that would be most valuable to you.

I’ve tried this many different times, but I prefer to keep separate journals (and I love any excuse to buy a new notebook!). So I have

  • a notebook for this blog,
  • a journal,
  • a calendar (this one to be exact),
  • a recipe notebook,
  • meal plans,
  • and dietitian learning journal (where I can make notes while working on a tricky case).

Listing them all, it looks like a lot. However, I found it more confusing to have them all in one. The benefit to having it all in one is that you only have to carry around one while travelling – where I usually take 3 or 4. Either way, there are trade-offs. So just like journaling in general, it depends on what works for you.

Try it out

Go to: https://bulletjournal.com/pages/learn to get the basics. Then keep a single daily entry for today.

#10: Morning pages

Morning pages are a technique from Julia Cameron in “The Artist’s Way”. The basic instructions are to sit down and write three pages every morning. It doesn’t matter what you write, but you must fill three pages.

By doing morning pages, you empty all the thoughts in your head so that you can move on with your day. If it allows you to move through the rest of your day feeling lighter and more hopeful, then it is a good fit for you.

If the 3-page requirement doesn’t work for you, try setting a timer.

Try it out

Pull out your journal and write 3 pages of stream of consciousness writing (see #2). If this works well for you today, try it again tomorrow morning first thing (or perhaps right after you have breakfast).

And again, if writing 3 pages feels too daunting, simply set a timer. Be sure you keep writing the entire time.

#11: Plan your day

You could start out your day by setting an intention (see #3: 5-minute journal) or you could have running lists (see #9: Bullet Journal). This strategy bridges journaling practice and productivity practices. Specifically:

  1. Ground yourself before planning
  2. Consider your energy
  3. Have you allowed time for the Foundations?
  4. What worked, what didn’t work, and how did your day feel?

Before you plan your day, take a moment to center yourself. It could be as simple as a single deep breath. You could meditate or use any number of mindfulness practices. You could write a stream-of-consciousness (#2) or morning pages (#10) entry in your journal. Settle into this current moment.

How do you feel today? Do you have a lot of energy? Is there a project you are itching to work on? Or are you feeling stressed, tired, or sick? Check your baseline so that you can be realistic with your plan. And you can build in time to work on your project or rest – to take care of yourself.

As you lay out your plan, keep the foundations in mind: Eat, Move, Rest, Grow, Connect, and Mindset.

As you go through your day, fill in the “actual” column with what actually happened today. What surprises arose in your day? What interrupted you? What worked well and what didn’t work at all? How did you feel as you moved through your day? These notes will help you better understand yourself, your needs, and what your ideal day looks like.

By the way, if you like this idea, you’ll also like the How to Do It All workbook. Version 3.0 coming by the end of July!

Try it out

Write down your intention for the day and plan your full day.

Bottom Line

There are as many different ways to journal as there are people journaling. Try on a bunch of different ways to journal and see what fits. Mix and match to meet your needs.

There are no right and wrong ways to journal. There are only ways that work or don’t work for you, today. Once you find ways that work for you, there is no limit to how much it can improve your life.

Let me know: Do you journal? Did you try out some of the techniques I shared in this post? Are there any techniques I missed?

Until next time, be good.9

You are reading this because you are interested in improving your life. That means we have something in common. I’m still working on what the Foundations for the Good Life is all about, and I’d love for you to join me in this journey. I’d love to build a community with you. With people who are trying to figure out what “the good life” means, and how to set up their life to make it possible for them.

If this interests you, join the newsletter to be the first to know about updates, new articles, and to try out tools as they are developed and improved. I hope to connect with you soon.

  1. I personally review each journal once it is filled. I start the review when there are about a dozen pages left. Then as I review the current journal, I make notes at the beginning of the next journal. I’ll note any major events that happened during the time I was using this journal. I’ll also create prompts based on questions or ideas I see that I want to answer (see #1: Question and Answer).
  2. This is actually how I write the rough drafts of these articles. I type the heading and then fill in the blanks between. In the case of articles, though, I typically will type, where I journal with pen and paper. :)
  3. Objects in motion stay in motion
  4. I changed it up and wrote 3 sentences of one thing that I was grateful for (see the gratitude journal below)
  5. While I was trying out the 5-minute journal, I found that a phrase would float into my mind while I was journaling. Sometimes it would be the same as a previous day, sometimes it would be new.
  6. If your family goes around the table at Thanksgiving and everyone has to say one thing they are thankful for – you know exactly what this would look like!
  7. I learned about this while listening to a podcast, though I can’t remember which one.
  8. I love the idea of doing art every day. But at the end of the day, at least for me, it is not important enough for me to set a goal to do. Especially because I enjoy words so much and writing in my journal works well for me.
  9. I was a teenager when I first remember my mom saying, “Be good,” when I left the house. When I left for university, and to this day, she ends most of our conversations in the same way.
    Yes, she meant, ‘I love you’ and ‘stay out of trouble.’ But she also meant, ‘do what’s right.’ Follow what you know to be true for you. Learn from life and how to do things better.
    Now that I’m trying to understand and evolve my philosophy of life; Now that I’m trying to help other people strive toward living the good life; I want to share that phrase, “Be good,” with you. Be good. Live the good life in whatever way you define that for yourself.

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