A Guide To Journaling Your Way To A Happier Life

Therapists and life coaches the world over expound the benefits of keeping up a regular journaling routine. These benefits are backed up by science, too. Aside from having proven results in reducing stress, processing emotions, and heightening mental acuity, journaling can even boost your immune system and enhance your memory.

People have been keeping journals for thousands of years. It was how many literate men and women passed the time or committed important events to an easily accessed record. And, of course, in prior eras there was no internet with which to access communities for sharing thoughts anonymously – a diary was the only safe place to vent.

To make the most of journaling and its benefits, there are a few best practices to keep in mind. I’ve put together this guide to help you get started.

open journal with a pen entry and sketch
Photo by Noémi Macavei-Katócz on Unsplash

Set Specific Journaling Goals.

There are many kinds of journaling you can do, and before you even choose a notebook you should think about what it is you hope to gain from this exercise. Do you want to keep track of your day-to-day activities? Work through some difficult emotions? Improve your memory?

Whatever the goal (or goals), make sure it’s specific and actionable. Journaling is more effective when you give it a basic structure. Of course you don’t have to sacrifice creativity or spontaneity, just provide some guidelines for yourself.

I like to write a sentence or two about my journaling goals in the front of my notebooks. This keeps them right where I can see them every day, and it reinforces my overall hopes for my writing. Your goals may change over time, and you can always add more sentences detailing these adaptions.

There’s nothing wrong with having multiple journals for different goals, either. Just make sure you don’t overdo it. You want to commit to this activity, and if you take on too much you’re more likely to get overwhelmed and quit.

a woman's hands writing in a journal on an elegant wooden table
Photo by Cathryn Lavery on Unsplash

Choose A Journaling Technique, Or Create One Of Your Own!

This builds on my last tip. There are a number of popular journaling techniques already written about in detail – bullet journaling, free writing, planner writing, and gratitude journals are just a few examples.

The technique you choose should align with the goals you outlined in section one, but you have a lot of leeway when it comes to this choice. Bullet journals are usually thought of as more of an organizational method but can be wonderful for setting out your feelings, too. That’s just an example; my point is that you shouldn’t be afraid to think outside the box.

Maybe none of the popular techniques resonate with you. That’s more than fine! It gives you the opportunity to develop your own. Who knows? Maybe yours will become the next big journaling trend. To develop a system, keep these three things in mind:

  • What is your overall organizational style? Are you a minimalist, messy, or somewhere in between? Do you enjoy visual cues or are you one-hundred-percent verbal?
  • How often can you reasonably plan to write in your journal? It’s important to be honest – a daily journaling routine is an ambitious goal to start with. Biweekly or even once a month is perfectly fine, especially at first.
  • What are the things you tend to spend the most time thinking about? What types of events elicit the most emotional reactions from you? The way you journal should align with whatever impacts you the most in your daily life, so take this self-reflection seriously.

Your technique can change just like your goals can, so don’t feel like you’re making a lifelong commitment. For now you simply want to choose a technique you feel drawn to. The rest will evolve naturally over time.

white journal with gold polka dots on a rustic table with a succulent plant and wooden pencil nearby
Photo by Jen Theodore on Unsplash

Pick Out An Actual Journal – Digital Or Analog?

A digital journal is one you keep on your computer, phone, or any other electronic device. These can be via an app, a simple notes or word document, or however else you’d like to format it. Personally, I’d suggest keeping a digital journal that doesn’t rely on an internet connection, if you choose this route.

An analog journal is a traditional pen-and-paper notebook. You can buy a pre-formatted one or a blank slate, and there are quite literally tens of thousands of options to choose from. It’s easy to get overwhelmed. To avoid this, make a list of five or so “must haves” for your journal of choice (a method I also outlined in my planner post). This should help you stay on track.

Whether you choose digital or analog journaling, the elements most important to your choice of journal will be visual appeal, format, and size. A journal which you find visually pleasing will inspire you to write and stick to your routine. One you find boring or ugly will do the opposite.

Format can make or break a journaling habit. Keep in mind the physical way you tend to write – is your handwriting neat and small or large and more haphazard? If you use a digital format, think about how you want to label your entries. Do you want them laid out simply by date? Type of entry? By specific goal?

The size of your journal should depend on where you plan to write. If you’re going to be writing on-the-go for example, you may want a small diary or a mobile phone app. If you’ll mostly be writing at home, a larger notebook or a laptop installment could be the better option.

All of these factors lead to more of a likelihood that you’ll actually use your journal. Sticking to any new routine is hard, so make it easier by picking the journal that appeals to you on a deeper level.

person journaling in front of a laptop and a black tablet with coffee and photographs nearby
Photo by Thought Catalog on Unsplash

Make A Habit, And Don’t Give Up If You Fail A Few Times.

I’ll repeat myself briefly: forming a new routine is hard. Habits are difficult. So don’t be too hard on yourself if you skip sessions at first or simply forget to journal for long periods of time. Some entries are far better than no entries, and there’s no magical timeline demanding your adherence.

If you forget to journal for a while, simply start back up without any guilt as soon as you remember. Every time you write an entry you are reinforcing your habit – your brain is registering the activity in your “something I do” category.

With your basic goals, technique, and journal structure in place, it’ll be much easier to pick up wherever you left off. If you think you need to start fresh, do it! Journaling is by nature an act of self-exploration and expression, so it’s natural for the process to shift along with your understanding.

The less stress you put on yourself in regard to your journaling habit, the better. You want to make the experience as pleasurable as possible (even if it’s challenging). Your first entries might be gibberish, but that chaos will take shape on its own if you keep making the effort. There’s no big secret to forming a habit like this one. It’s just a matter of continuing to put words down on the page.

If you don’t feel like journaling, do it anyway – even if all you do is write “I don’t feel like journaling today.” Oftentimes this kind of admission leads to my most useful and profound entries. Sometimes it doesn’t, which is also fine.

Many people mistakenly assume that you have to be inspired or motivated to develop a journaling habit. This isn’t at all the case! While it’s wonderful to have fun journaling, that isn’t the point of the exercise. It’s a health routine that has firm benefits to your wellbeing, just like diet and exercise. It takes discipline. And discipline takes time, repetition, and self-compassion.

So be forgiving without giving up. Hop back into your journal and repeat; soon you’ll be reaping a pile of incredible benefits.

jar of colorful pens for writing in a journal or diary on a black background
Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

Finally, Remember Why You’re Journaling.

This may seem obvious, but it’s amazing how often we lose sight of our deeper motivations in favor of surface goals. If you begin to journal simply because “you want to be someone who journals” then you’re on a slippery slope. Your reasons should be much deeper than this.

You want to journal because you want to be happier. You want to know yourself, your life, and your mind better, and journaling is a proven way to do that. Your journal is a way for you to connect with your inner life while living your outer one. It is a bridge between your thoughts and your emotions, and it’s a powerful form of self-love (and self-care).

When you find your rhythm and really enter into the spirit of keeping a journal, your life will improve in ways you never would have expected. Most of us fall into life patterns that quickly become autopilots, often separating us from our deepest selves as we hop from one thing to another without slowing down to reflect. This brings us a sense of unease that usually manifests as stress or feelings of doubt.

Journaling is the cure for this ailment of the modern age, just as it was a healing balm for our ancestors. It’s more important than ever to slow down and ponder during our fast-paced day-to-day lives.

Start with that simple desire – to be happier – and you’ll soon be journaling your way to a more joyful, more elegant, and all-around better life. I can’t wait to see you succeed!

Thanks for reading with me, and I hope you found this post helpful. I love to hear from you all, so send me an email at emilysinclair@bougieonabudget.life if you have any thoughts, opinions, or advice to share. I’ll see you soon!

lined journal notebook with a pencil resting on open page and a pencil sharpener with shavings
Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

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