Some Tips for Developing a Journal Habit

I was talking to a friend recently who expressed a desire to start a journal. He mentioned how he always finds a way to start a journal, but has never developed the ability to keep a journal.

This is, undoubtedly, a common phenomenon. While starting a journaling habit is easy, maintaining the habit through the grind is difficult.

Getting through that grind is rewarding and healthy. And, it turns out, has a correlation with greatness.

Michael Balchan says it best:

Great people journal. It’s as simple as that. While I’m not aware of any study explicitly comparing keeping a journal with becoming great, it’s tough not to see the correlation. Consider some of the people who did both: Charles Darwin, Benjamin Franklin, Andrew Carnegie, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Winston Churchill, C.S. Lewis, Sir Edmond Hilary, Presidents Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Reagan, Truman… the list continues. Clearly there is something to be said for the power of the practice.
For starters, being forced to explore thoughts well enough to put them into words is a tremendous way to discover who we are. “In the journal I do not just express myself more openly than I could do to any person; I create myself,” states author Susan Sontag. “The journal is a vehicle for my sense of selfhood.”

Keeping a journal is something we all want to do.

So how do you do it?

I’m by no means an expert. I began journaling in 2011 and went through a dry spell of my own in 2015. I’ve since returned to the habit, but not without outlining a few necessities along the way.

Step 1: Define “Journaling”

One of those necessities: altering — or perhaps recognizing — the real definition of “journaling.” Many people associate “journaling” with penning complete thoughts into a pen-and-paper diary. However, “journaling” is really just a synonym for “recording.” You can record thoughts, sure, but you can also record a daily log of events, or fitness regiments, or what you ate for breakfast.

By accepting a broader scope of the word “journaling,” it’s easier to stay positive through the daily journal grind. By recognizing that “journaling” can mean more than writing your thoughts, you give yourself more chances to succeed. This is fundamental to developing a journaling habit.

Step 2: Create Multiple Journals

My second tip: create multiple journals that can be combined into your great big “aggregate journal.” Not only does this method help create consistency across different segments of your journal, but it also helps you understand that a journal doesn’t have to be written every day to be a habit. If you write a few small things in at least one of them each day, you’ll have a daily aggregate journal in the end.

Let’s say you are planning a camping trip and you have a “Thoughts” journal, a “Photos” journal, and a “Travel” journal. On the first day, you write your camping trip plans into your travel journal. The next day, you snap a photo of the loaded vehicle and place that in your photos journal. The third day, you mark your location at a scenic view in your travel journal. And on the fourth day, you write a few bullet points on the highs and lows of your trip in your thoughts journal.

Combined, you have an aggregate journal of your trip. Instead of forcing yourself to write in your “Thoughts” journal each evening, placing smaller entries within each specific journal makes it easier to stay daily and active in your journaling habit.

How do you create multiple journals? Here are a few things I’ve gone through when creating my aggregate journal:

1. Purpose:

I mean that word. It needs to be necessary to start a journal. If you merely want to journal, it’ll become too easy to pass on writing thoughts or recording your time when you get into that journaling grind. Instead of wanting to record and track, the key is to need to journal. The key is to have a purpose.

Start by finding that purpose. I need to track the number of push-ups and sit-ups each morning to ensure I’m keeping with and growing my fitness levels. When I began, I needed a baseline to start my recording, so I threw a breakdown of the information into Day One.

While you could track time in a time-tracking app, you could also throw your daily time logs into your journal. Many occupations require a breakdown of time spent working on a project. If these types of information are added into your aggregate journal, you’ll have a daily breakdown of your work and activities.

2. Specific:

In the same light as finding purpose for a journal, maintaining a specific scope for a journal is also important. If you have a movie review journal, it might be odd to throw a book review into the fold. Instead, create a new journal that only has book reviews.

Specific journals help you stay focused on what fits in one of your journals and what you can take a break on. I think this is incredibly important — if you stress about missing a chance to record something, specify your scope and don’t record something unless it fits. I have a compulsive need for consistency and completion, so maintaining a specific scope helps eliminate unnecessary journal entries that can bog me down at the end of the day.

3. Routine:

This revolves around incorporating a recording or journaling time into your daily routines.

I maintain a work log journal, where I try to keep track of my activities on the job and how much time I put into them. Each time I change an activity, I reach over to my computer and input the change into my daily work log. It takes two seconds, and at the end of the day, I have a fully formed daily breakdown.

You could take 30 seconds after your workout and record your statistics for the day, or each time you finish a project you record how the project went. I call this a “trigger,” or a signal to jump out of the current thought process and into your journal for a quick second. If it’s fine to listen to your Apple Watch to get up from your chair and stand for a moment, it’s fine to put a few recording moments sprinkled around in your daily routine.

4. Tools:

This is a fun one which should probably be applied to any habit you’re trying to create. If you get through the routine mundaneness of recording and cataloging, and if you go the extra mile to make it a routine, you may as well undertake your habit in the most stylish way possible. Using high quality tools to get the job done is just as rewarding as finishing the job itself.

While I use Day One on my iPhone and Mac to record my daily work log, fitness log, and other thoughts, I also keep two other journals in different formats. I use a Hobonichi Techo to record my overall daily events, such as times I woke, tasks I completed in the evening, or trips I took to the city for work. The Techo comes with world famous Tomoe River paper — the smoothest, thinnest, you’ve-gotta-see-it-to-believe-it paper imaginable. Inside, I like to use fountain pens to record and catalog, such as the Pilot Vanishing Point and Lamy 2000.

You can also use Field Notes, but that’s a rabbit hole for another day.

In short, creating a journal and recording your life is best done with the help of high quality tools and accessories. There’s nothing more soothing than sitting down and scratching out a few thoughts with a fountain pen. Just like there’s nothing better than using high quality software on all your digital platforms.

Step 3: Review

This could very well be the most important aspect of developing a journal habit. If you don’t return to review and read through the fruits of your labor, you’ll never understand the end goal.

What’s the point of writing your thoughts the day before your wedding if not to read them five or ten years down the road? Why log your working day if not to return and see how much time you spent on a given project?

My friend Shawn Blanc talks about this reward in a roundabout way:

One of the greatest ways to recognize our progress is to celebrate all victories — big and small. And one of the best ways to celebrate and chronicle the small victories is with our own daily journal.
We often forget about our small wins after a few days or weeks. Or they quickly get buried under our never ending to-do lists. Or, if we don’t recognize and celebrate them, then they stop being “small wins” and start just being “what we should be doing anyway.”
By cataloging and celebrating our small wins each day then we can be reminded that we are making meaningful progress. And, in truth, it’s the small wins which all add up to actually complete the big projects and big goals.

Cataloging and recording is one way to recognize the work it took to create a journaling habit, and returning to your work to review is of equal value. After all, recognizing and celebrating personal growth is why we journal in the first place.

Wrap Up

As mentioned from the onset, I can’t get on my soapbox and proclaim a remedy for “non-journal-itis.” Journaling is surely a difficult habit to create and maintain and it takes focus to keep the momentum. You might think creating multiple journals to narrow the scope of your entries is a fools errand, or you might want to keep everything digital or entirely analog. Either way, I hope a few of these tips, which I’ve found handy in the past, will work to your advantage as well.

Above all things though, remember to enjoy the process. You don’t owe it to anyone to record your life — you don’t even owe it to yourself. It’s an enjoyable habit to get into. It provides introspection, self-realization, and inner dedication. Honing these skills pays dividends far beyond your knowledge of yourself as a person.

And it never hurts to have the material to read to your grandkids one day.

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