How to Start (and Keep) a Journal that Works for You (10) (1)

In my last post, I dove into how journaling can:

   Deepen your awareness and connection to your work and yourself

   Give you clarity and confidence to make important decisions

   Propel you towards what you want to accomplish

That all sounds fine and dandy, but how exactly do you keep a journal that accomplishes these things?

The good and the bad news is this: There’s no right way to journal.

I can’t offer you a foolproof system or formula to ensure that your journaling practice constantly improves your awareness, confidence, and momentum.

But don’t click that X in the corner just yet! Have I mentioned that I’m an experienced journalist? No, not the newsroom kind of journaling… the notebook kind.

If there were a certificate in notebook journalism, I would hang it with pride above my desk. And, while there’s no such certificate (as far as I know), I do have years of experience. I’m talking trial and error, stopping and starting, progressing and regressing – you get the picture.

Keeping a journal can feel daunting and somehow self-invasive. But you in just a few minutes per day you can reap some unbelievable personal and professional benefits! If I’m not credible enough for you, read about why Mike does it. Mike is a journaling fanatic. And he’s the expert, right?

If you’re still not convinced, you can check out what Forbes, Harvard Business Review, FastCompany, Inc, Entrepreneur, Psychology Today, and Psych Central have to say on the matter.

It’s safe to say that word is spreading about journaling, and the consensus is unanimous: journaling is essential to your productivity and also to your progress.

I’ll assume I’ve convinced you, okay? Now, let’s begin.

Choose Your Set-Up

Everything 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. When you jump back and forth between mediums, it is confusing and totally counterintuitive. So if you want to use paper, go to the next section. If you want to use a digital journal, skip a paragraph and go to that section.

So, you want to use a paper journal. 

Your journal doesn’t have to be fancy. As a self-proclaimed notebook journalist, I literally use an 8.5×11” 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.

If you’re into the old school pen-and-paper system, check out Mike’s tips on why paper works and how to use a notebook.

Okay, so you’re using a digital journal.

Do yourself a favour 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 you take the time to reconnect with yourself and review your day, airplane mode is your friend.

If you’re pursuing the path of digital journaling, use a writing tool or app you can take offline (I like Word or Pages). Mike’s also written some tips for journaling with Evernote.

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. This structure prevents you from guessing and planning 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 you need to journal the 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 favourite 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 Leads To 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 workday, 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 perspectives, 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.).

Not sure where to start? Have a conversation with yourself.

How was your day?

Great, now ask yourself how you came to that answer. What factors did you evaluate? Work? Relationships? Health? Personal development?

List these factors and write about how you feel you’re doing each one.

How do you feel (physically, mentally, and emotionally)?

What did you learn? How did you move forward today? (This could relate to knowledge, skills, self-awareness, goals, etc.)

What’s one specific thing you can do to build on this progress tomorrow?

What did you struggle with today?

What’s one specific way to deal with that struggle tomorrow?

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.

Start today.

Find a set-up 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.