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Last fall, after successfully maintaining a minor journaling habit for a while, I decided to start a bullet journal. It became my go-to notebook for pretty much everything in my life: It’s where I keep a simple gratitude diary, track good habits I want to build, map out my weekly exercise plans, and much more. I also keep a private, online journal for when I have a lot to say, and I write something daily in at least one of these two places.
I didn’t always journal regularly. Back in 2016, I had one New Year’s resolution: Write one thing, every single day. I was motivated for a couple reasons: Journaling has science-backed health benefits, like relieving stress and providing clarity on a difficult situation. As Thomas Oppong writes, “Numerous studies (of the scientifically rigorous variety) have shown that personal writing can help people better cope with stressful events, relieve anxiety, boost immune cell activity.”
Plus, as a writer and editor, I often turn to my personal life for material. The practice of keeping a journal has certainly provided me with more moments of clarity and sparks of inspiration than I would have had if I weren’t journaling.
But especially among writers, it often feels like there’s a “right” and “wrong” way to keep up a journaling practice. The idea of writing three daily “morning pages” is excellent in theory, but it’s somewhat unattainable if you have a demanding job or other regular obligations. And for those who aren’t used to keeping a journal, some advice on journaling — particularly from career writers — is unfair and unhelpful. I didn’t start journaling until I made that New Year’s resolution because the idea of writing so much every day was too intimidating. Spending 15 minutes a day writing in a journal is something you work your way up to, in my opinion. It’s easy to incorporate into your schedule once you’ve gotten used to it, but getting there is a process. So, almost two years in, here’s what my own imperfect process looks like.
I had to find the right journaling medium for me.
When I first started my bullet journal, I was obsessed with keeping it as neat and Instagram-worthy as possible. I found a bunch of templates for different page layouts and began copying some from bloggers whose pages I lusted after. For anyone looking to start a bullet journal, the internet is not exactly lacking resources. A quick Google search will turn up thousands of ideas for habit tracking, monthly and weekly layouts, work progress, and so much more.
Of course, keeping a perfectly organized journal did not last long. For the first few months, I’d spend an hour or more putting together a habit tracker and calendar with the intent of updating it every day. But I ended up being completely inconsistent with it. It was simply too much work to put into journal pages that simply weren’t set up in a way I’d always want to use them.
Eventually, I started adapting my pages into something I’d actually use. This means I don’t spend an excessive amount of time sketching out graphs or adding decorative embellishments. If I feel like sprucing up a page, I’ll write the title in a fun color — and that’s about it. I’ve found that not caring about making it aesthetically pleasing was the only way I was going to use the thing. Otherwise, it was too much of a time sink.
I also found that while I do benefit from writing longer journal entries, I don’t like taking the time to write them all by hand (nor do I feel like handwriting them is a more “authentic” way to journal). If I have a lot on my mind, I use 750 Words, an online journaling platform that provides stats for all your entries—everything from your words per minute to an emotional analysis for each entry.
I find that I much prefer to keep my longer journal entries separate from my shorter daily and weekly recordings. But you certainly may not be the same. If you search around, you’ll find plenty of ideas for journaling techniques that you can use as inspiration to create your own. I’m particularly intrigued by Todd Brison’s method of “micro-journaling”:
Micro Journaling helps me trade a map for a compass. Part of the exercise is coming up with 10 ideas [every day]. The point is not to come up with 10 useful ideas, but to remember there is more than one solution to every problem…what you’re going for is the maximum effect with the minimum amount of time. I don’t want you to think about it, I just want to you write one thing that comes to mind.
You may prefer never to write much in a daily journal entry, or you may see no point in keeping track of what you do on a daily basis. You may even find a lot more comfort from creating beautiful, time-consuming bullet-journal pages than I ever did. Journaling is something you do entirely for yourself — there isn’t one right way to do it.
It’s not — and shouldn’t be — a perfect practice.
One thing most journaling advice gets right is that it should be messy. And for me, that messiness means not taking it so seriously. If you’re a writer, there’s almost no way your journal is going to provide your best work. (Even David Sedaris needed to edit his before publishing it.) Journaling might help you come up with a great new idea once in a while, but most days, it won’t.
My journaling practice looks completely different every day. On average, I’d say it takes about 15 minutes. Some days, I simply log whatever exercise I did and write down what I’m grateful for at the end of the day. But other days, I spend almost an hour therapeutically typing out my feelings on 750 Words.
The only rule I maintain is that I have to write something, just for myself, each day. Journaling is simply about recording. If I can hold myself accountable to that, I give myself more opportunities for a big “aha!” moment than I would if I never wrote anything personal.
It helps with creativity, but it also keeps me in check.
Let’s talk about creativity for a minute.
I am a writer and editor — I am objectively doing creative work on a daily basis. But I’m often hesitant to call what I do “creative,” because I’m not writing what I’d consider art or literature. And in some ways, that’s a good thing: People are depending on me to work (not to mention paying me to work), which means I need to do it well — and on time. If I took writing too seriously as an art, but not seriously enough as work, I wouldn’t get anything written. At least not anything worth reading.
I feel the same way about journaling. It should be adding to your work life, not hindering it. There is so much power in writing out your feelings, goals, and even just tracking your little accomplishments in a private setting. It’s no wonder journaling helps a lot of writers, because you need to give yourself room to write things that are messy, embarrassing, or just straight-up bad. But you don’t have to be a writer to benefit from a journaling practice. You may even be better at it, as you’d be less likely to go into it with grandiose expectations of writing something profound and insightful on a daily basis.
As a writer, journaling helps me work through thoughts and feelings and come up with the things I want to say to the world. But it benefits me even more as a worker. As Tom Kuegler points out, journaling can be essential to problem-solving:
Too many times we do things without questioning it. Journaling turns us into scientists in a way, or engineers trying to solve a problem. If we journal, we get to hold ourselves accountable and talk about the things we’re doing, whether they’re working, and how we can get better.
Journaling gives me time and space to work through issues, to assess where I am with regard to my personal and work goals, and — most important — to get what’s bothering me out of my head, so I have the mental capacity to do better work. My personal life thrives when my work is thriving (and therefore not taking up all of my time), and vice versa. Regular journaling is important in helping me maintain this balance.
It gives me something to be proud of.
Finally, I can’t understate the biggest benefit of keeping a journal, which, for me, is simply having something to look back on. Journaling gives me confidence and a sense of accomplishment that I may not have had otherwise; I now have a book full of everything I’ve accomplished and everything good that’s happened in the past year. (And so what if it has a few coffee and soup stains?) I can open it to any page and be proud of something that’s written down — from small things, like a pie I made or a dance class I attended, to something big, like landing a new freelance client.
There’s a minor sense of accomplishment I get from simply flipping through my journal pages and seeing how much I’ve recorded. It’s a reminder that I’ve already lived that much life. My journal is small, and writing in it takes up a small part of my day. But taking a step back and looking at the whole thing allows me to see how those small moments have added up to a nearly full notebook. Going after my goals, both personally and professionally, isn’t so scary when I have a physical reminder of all that I’ve already accomplished.
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