How to start your journal:
Choose your setup
It starts with deciding your medium: digital or paper. Make this decision right off the bat and stick with it. Journaling is a practice of organizing jumbled thoughts, feelings, etc., and jumping back and forth between mediums is totally counterintuitive. For notebook journalists: Your journal doesn’t have to be fancy. As a self-proclaimed notebook journalist, I literally use a standard 8.5x11” lined notebook. I drool over beautiful journals as much as the next writer, but I’ve found that fancy covers and gold-lined pages intimidate me from “dirtying” them with my imperfect words (especially on the tough days). Use what works for you, but focus on the process of journaling rather than the physical journal itself. For digital-journalists: Do yourself a favor and turn off wifi before you start typing (at least at the beginning). Though I’m a proud notebook journalist, when I’m writing on my laptop – which is constantly – I disconnect from online distractions. When taking time to reconnect with yourself and review your day, airplane mode is your friend. If you’re pursuing the path of digital journaling, I suggest using a writing tool or app you can take offline (I like Word or Pages). Evernote is also a great option. (More options) I generally steer clear of using my phone or any dictation tools. While these can be easy ways to get things down quickly, they often invite distraction. Plus, since we casually speak thousands of words each day, by the time you sit down to reflect on your day, you’ve already spent your day talking. Writing exercises different parts of the brain than speaking, leading to deeper and more attentive reflection.
Embrace the blank page
One of the most important lessons I’ve learned from journaling is that it doesn’t have to sound good. This is good news for me, because most of the time, it doesn’t. You’re not writing poetry or crafting a business presentation. Your writing is only for you. The important thing is to get your pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard). Don’t give yourself time to second-guess yourself. If this is a struggle for you (which it initially is for everyone), check out the questions at the end of this post. Or write your own list of questions you’d like to answer each day. Having a writing structure prevents you from guessing and directs your energy towards the actual writing part. Not into prompts or questions? Try writing the first thing that pops into your head and take it from there. Free writing is a great way to encourage creativity, see where your head’s at, or get more comfortable with writing regularly.
Be honest with yourself
Both with free writing and specific prompts, journaling only really works if you open up – especially on the tough days. There’s no doubt that it can be hard to recognize and reflect on your struggles. This is especially true when you’re in the midst of turmoil and feel like you’ve got 100 thoughts spinning around in your brain (and 99 of them are problems). The hard days are the days when you need it most. Get those thoughts out of your head and onto your screen or paper where you can actually see them. This can provide incredible clarity and allow you to tackle one thing at a time. Some of my favorite journal entries to look back on are from the toughest days. These generally included a lot of scribbles, capital letters, and a few profanities. In reading them, I can understand and appreciate my struggles, vulnerability, perseverance, and progress. Honest journaling allows you to express what’s happening now so that you can better understand it and know how to deal with it – both now and in the future.
Practice creates habits
There will be days when you won’t feel like writing or you don’t feel you have anything to write about. The key to journaling is to make it a habit – even if for a few minutes each day (preferably at a similar time). I personally like journaling before I go to bed. This way, it’s not just at the end of the work day, but at the end of my entire day (there’s so much to reflect on outside of work!). If you had a great day, take a few minutes to celebrate your wins. If your day felt like an endless struggle and you’re just waiting for it to be over, reflect on what made it challenging. Being specific puts things in perspective, transforms thoughts and feelings into practical actions, and can shed light on the problem should it arise again in the future. If nothing particularly eventful happened that day, write that down. (If you notice a series of those notes in your journal, it might be time to incorporate something new into your work, relationships, habits, etc.).
Act on this:
Have a conversation with yourself.
- How was your day? (Ask yourself how you came to your answer. What factors did you evaluate? Work? Relationships? Health? Progress?
- How do you feel you’re doing in each of the above factors?
- How do you feel: physically, mentally, and emotionally?
- What did you learn? (Knowledge, skills, self-awareness, goals, etc.)
- How did you move forward today?
- What’s one thing you can do to build on this progress tomorrow?
- What did you struggle with today?
- What’s one thing you can do to deal with that struggle tomorrow?
And so on and so forth. Check in with yourself by asking these questions. If you do this regularly, you’ll begin to see patterns and gain a deeper insight into your life and yourself. This insight is the first step in changing your habits, shifting your priorities, and (slowly) reshaping your thoughts and lifestyle. As I said in the beginning, there’s no right way to journal. But with time and attention, you can customize this practice to make you more productive – in a way that’s meaningful to who you are and where you want to go. How can you start today? Great question!
- Find a setup that works for you.
- Use prompts or free write to acknowledge and review your thoughts.
- Be vulnerable and honest with yourself.
- And practice until it becomes a habit (and then keep practicing!)
Meaningful productivity begins with mindfulness. And mindfulness begins with you.