Make Your 2021 Journal Work for You

Throw away the rules when it comes to your personal journal

Beth Bruno
Jan 4 · 7 min read
Photo by Luz Saldaña on Unsplash

For years I had an on-again-off-again relationship with my journal. I would start a journal and because of the rules I created about how my journal had to look, my effort would flop. I would write for a few days, or a few weeks, then get off track, unable to meet my self-imposed perfectionistic standards. I had rules for how often, what, and how neatly I wrote in my journal.

The problem was, I was making journaling hard because I had set up expectations that were totally unrealistic and unnecessary. It didn’t help that I I was reading articles about how to do it “right.” That was my first mistake.

There was handwriting. Have you ever seen magazine spreads of famous journals? The handwriting is always gorgeous. I have really nice handwriting, but when I am in the middle of pouring out my heartache or rage or frustration or even my joy on a page, it can start looking like a bird set free from its cage. Wild and erratic. And not pretty. That isn’t what my journal should look like, right?

I read an article once about a woman’s lifetime of journals. She managed, somehow, to always use the exact same notebook. They were a lovely shade of blue and were all lined up on a shelf and they made me cringe with shame. This is what my journals look like.

My mish-mash of journals. Definitely no uniformity here! Photo by Beth Bruno

Sadly, because of my misguided attempt to do it right, most of these journals have many, many blank pages. Whenever I skipped a few days, or weeks, or even months, I would think my journal was ruined and I would put it aside in disgust. Then came the day that I would dedicate myself anew to journaling the “right” way and I would buy a new notebook, with all the starry-eyed enthusiasm of one setting new year’s resolutions.

You can guess what happened. And it happened over and over again until I had an aha moment. After years of failing at someone else’s version of a proper journal, I finally had the palm smack to the forehead. What was I doing? Why did I think someone else could tell me how my journal was supposed to look? I could do it any way I wanted to. There are no journal police!

This is when my journal started serving me, instead of me serving it. I threw out all the rules and started using my journal in a way that felt nurturing, not shaming. I disregarded the advice to keep only daily entries in your journal, and keep another notebook for doodles, ideas, lists, notes and other ephemera. I put whatever the heck I want to in my journal.

I never give up when I don’t journal every day. If a week or more goes by, I may try to do a synopsis with bullets, or I may let those days fall into the abyss of obscurity. But I don’t let perfectionism be the enemy of a really great journal. I no longer see a gap as a fatal flaw in my journal. I just turn to the next blank page and keep going. And when the year ends before the notebook ends, I just put a sticky tab on the page and start the new year right there.

I started a page in July and never wrote a word. I didn’t pick my journal back up until September. Photo by author.

When I listen to a podcast and I want to remember key points, it goes in my journal. When I have an idea for a kitchen remodel, it goes in the journal. When I take online courses, no matter the subject matter, it goes in my journal. Mixed in with my daily entries recounting what I am struggling with, what I am dreaming of, and what is happening in my life, you will find quotes and poems that spoke to me. There may be articles printed off and stapled to a page. Sometimes I make a list of intentions, or recount something funny that happened when I was a kid.

The point is, my journal is a place where all the things I am thinking about, dreaming about, worrying about, learning about, caring about and laughing about gather together in one place to paint a word portrait of my life. It is so much better to have all these things under one cover than to have the pieces that make up a whole life scattered in disparate places.

When I look back at my journal from the last year, I can see clearly the trajectory of my inner and outer life, because it is all there. In this way, my journal is more than a recording of my days. It is a memoir, a record of my spiritual growth, and a time-line of the joys, struggles, victories and sorrows of a year in an extraordinarily ordinary life.

If you have been a slave to an idea of how your journal should look, what should be inside the covers, and how often you have to show up there, try to set yourself free from all that. The only rule should be there are no rules. No one can tell you how to make your journal work for you. That is something you have to work out for yourself. If you want your journal to be somewhere you pour your heart out, and then rip out the page and burn it, that’s just fine.

A list I made on the winter solstice as I met with several women on Zoom. Photo by author.

Your journal can be a place you occasionally come to check in. Maybe you will have multiple years in one slim notebook. That’s perfect if that’s what works for you. Maybe your journal contains sketches, not sentences. Maybe you make a note of your mood for the day and that’s all. Whatever works for you is how your journal should look. And maybe it morphs into something else along the way. That’s ok, too, because your journal is a reflection of your own evolution, so it can change as you do.

The only rule I have for my journal now is that I put the date on every page. In my earlier journals I didn’t always put the date and it makes it hard for me to place the entry in time. This is a small thing, I guess, but when I realized how much I wish I had done that, I made a point to do it from then on. Sometimes I even put where I am (in my comfy chair, in the cottage by the fire, on the front porch in the sun) and the time. It’s just a fun way to track where I was when I wrote a certain entry.

I always write the date and sometimes the weather. Photo by author.

If you can’t commit to journaling daily, please don’t let that stop you. It isn’t necessary to journal daily to get the benefit of showing up on the page. Sometimes the gaps speak louder than words. When I was going through my divorce years ago I did not journal much at all. I regret that a little, now, but at the time it was a challenge just to keep my head above water. My absence from my journal speaks to that painful and chaotic time.

If you are thinking about starting a journal in 2021, or if you are thinking of starting again, give yourself the gift of relaxing about it. Don’t make it a should. This turns it into something you will fail at when you don’t do it like you think you should. There are enough ways we fail without setting up an arbitrary one for ourselves.

Enjoy your journal. Play on the pages. Laugh on the pages. Cry and rage on the pages. Ponder on the pages. Doodle on the pages, make lists on the pages, take notes on the pages. Make your journal work for you. It will be one of the best things you will ever do for yourself.

May 2021 be a year of self-reflection, spiritual growth, joy and laughter for you. And may you find a way to capture all that in your journal.

Beth Bruno

Written by

Human learning to be human. Writing in hopes of getting there.

Wise Woman Within

As women, when we enter our later years we have such glorious possibilities! We have an opportunity to heal, forgive, make peace, explore, dream, lighten up, become open and curious about where we’ve been and where we’re going. The wise woman within will be our guide.

Beth Bruno

Written by

Human learning to be human. Writing in hopes of getting there.

Wise Woman Within

As women, when we enter our later years we have such glorious possibilities! We have an opportunity to heal, forgive, make peace, explore, dream, lighten up, become open and curious about where we’ve been and where we’re going. The wise woman within will be our guide.

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