Twelve years ago, I found myself starting to journal seriously for the first time. I’d started journaling a few times before but it didn’t stick for long. Perhaps I was too busy soaking in experience as a teenager and twenty-something often does. But at 30 years old, the intersection of a painful breakup, a Master’s psychology literature review called “Why Is Expressive Writing Effective?”, and three decades of accumulated life experience that were ripe for the processing, all compelled me to start a regular journaling practice.
At least it started fairly regularly. Well, it might have been a bit like taking up an exercise regime for the first time. I think I fell off the wagon several times. On the third year, I barely journaled at all that year. I’ve noticed that I tend to journal a lot during the most turbulent or confused periods of life, when there is a big transition and something I’m working through. Other times I am cruising, living, relating, connecting, accumulating experience.
By now I’m somewhere between 1 and 2 million words in. I don’t know more precisely than that. I made a spreadsheet once using document wordcounts and summed columns. My point is that I have journaled a fair bit, as well as studied some of the psychological literature and theory around it. I’ve tried and retried various methods. And I’ve also recommended and discussed journaling with many clients, including their wisdom of how writing has helped them.
Writing has been a big part of my life, having spent 20+ years in school, having a profession that entails a lot of writing, largely chronicling the “hero’s journeys” of my clients, as well as enjoying writing personally. You might be able to tell from this blog.
In this post, I’ve outlined some different types of journaling practices that I’ve tried and benefitted from, as options for those who are looking for guidance or new ideas on how to journal.
Journaling is among the top recommendations I generally give to just about any therapy or coaching client to accelerate their growth and progress toward their goals.
Before giving several journaling techniques, it might first be worth considering why journaling is even a good idea. Many people intuit that it is, but what are the reasons behind that intuition?
Journaling can help with “moving energy”, with catharsis, with emotional release, with grounding us in our bodies and in the present.
How could writing help us get out of our heads? Because when we get our thoughts onto paper (or screen/cloud), we are able to put them down, let them go, and free up psychic space and mental RAM. We also feel emotions as we think, and we can feel our emotions with more acceptance and friendliness toward them when we allow ourselves to think with more acceptance and non-judgment.
Insight and progress tracking
Journaling can also help us remember key events, as well as beliefs and states of mind we had at different times. We might want to log this in order to track our progress. I have looked back at past journals and seen that I have really transcended a problem or limiting belief or confusion since then. I have also looked back and seen that I am still, in a different way, dealing with the same basic pattern. Either way, it’s helpful. In the first case I can celebrate and feel proud of myself and make new goals with the empty space and freedom, having let something go. In the second case, I can examine what hasn’t worked, and simplify and consolidate what I’m working on personally. If I notice a pattern of thinking, feeling, or behaving that endures for years, it’s probably a central and important aspect of my bodymind to have on my radar and prioritize.
Journaling can help us find signals in the noise of our experience by looking longitudinally over years at our mind. Rather than trying to remember how things were, we can see the actual words we wrote and thoughts and feelings we had, and choices we made. This way we can track progress and modify our path accordingly in whatever we are trying to cultivate (healing, maturity, happiness, wisdom, etc.).
One recognition I feel strongly about is that paying attention to our own experience is an act, and practice of, self-love.
How would you treat someone who you loved? Who you were in love with?
One thing we do with people we are in love with is we pay very close attention to them – what they say, what they believe, what they feel, and what they do.
Attention, in a way, IS love. Where attention goes, energy flows, as is sometimes said. Our energy is our love.
And yet, many of us don’t devote our attention energy to our own thoughts and feelings. And the simple reason for that is that many of us were not taught or shown or modeled how to do this. We were experientially programmed to believe that our inner states and lives aren’t all that important. The caregivers and adults who were around when we were kids didn’t show that much interest in their own inner lives, let alone in ours.
But that is a topic for another post. Suffice it to say, journaling is a way to turn this around, to practice cultivating self-love by devoting some time to paying attention to ourselves. And it can be uncomfortable, awkward, discouraging, and anxiety-provoking to try something new like this.
Acceptance and empathy
Journaling is a practice of acceptance. We write what is. In the safety of a private record of our thoughts, we are free to say the truth that is in the now. With no one to judge (except our own inner-critic), we can finally drop facades and pretenses.
Acceptance is necessary for empathy. Empathy, in the Rogerian sense, is a deep, experiential understanding of someone. Before we can understand something, we must first see it as it is, not as how we wish it to be. Without acceptance, we are always straining to see what is, because we are simultaneously seeing how we think it should be.
Therapy and coaching work, to a large degree, via acceptance and empathy. The therapist or coach must take in the reality of what is, the client’s current situations, states, beliefs, feelings, strengths, and challenges. Journaling is a way of practicing this orientation toward ourselves.
Cultivating acceptance and empathy toward ourselves always accompanies greater acceptance and empathy toward others, which tends to improve and create better relationships, and connection.
Starting out with the obvious. This is what most people probably think of first when they think of journaling:
And frankly, it’s my own preferred method normally, and what I’d generally recommend.
“What do I write?” Is often the question we immediately find. “Will there be any benefit to just writing?”
In response, I’d suggest just experimenting with it. You may or may not like journaling in a totally unstructured way.
Maybe it will take some practice, and you’ll have a sense that you just need to stick with it for a while.
“All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.”Ernest Hemingway
In the book The Artist’s Way, Julia Cameron suggests what she calls “morning pages”, which is essentially free-writing with a few parameters.
She suggests writing three pages each morning. I personally think it makes more sense that, if a specific amount of writing is set as a goal, it be measured in words since “pages” will vary widely based on one’s handwriting and whether the writing is typed (where font size would come in) or hand-written. I don’t have a number of words I’d recommend, because I think it would vary from person to person, and I don’t like to make it a set number or words or pages for myself. I want to write as long as it’s helpful. There are days I’ve written thousands of words easily, and other days (or weeks) I don’t have much to say and don’t journal that day or maybe eek out a short paragraph and call it good. Either way I try not to judge the quantity, although I might be curious about it.
Cameron’s morning pages are written with the understanding that they will not be looked at later. They are just put away forever. She simply sees it as writing practice. Perhaps an analogy would be an exercise workout. We don’t “save” the workout, because the workout is automatically saved in our bodies (e.g. muscles and tendons being worked), and that is where the benefit lies. So journal writing can be seen this way as well (the writing is “saved” in our nervous system memory and that’s what counts).
I differ somewhat in that I think old journal entries can be helpful to look at sometimes (more on that below), and I do, occasionally, look back at them. However, I’m not thinking about this very much as a I write.
Resistance to free-writing
The the book The War of Art, Steven Pressfield named and brought to life the force that he calls resistance. Resistance is basically the force that creates writer’s block, that puts reasons in our minds to not write, that tells us there’s something else more important we should be doing (such as social media scrolling).
Resistance, as labeled by Pressfield, isn’t a force specific to writing. It is the phenomenon at work any time we ignore a call to action, big or small. Any time that we take a lower, easier path to lesser goals when we were quite capable of taking the higher path. It could get in the way of keeping up a physical exercise regime, a meditation routine, a healthy diet, a proper bedtime, a course of study, or any other noble pursuit.
But since this is an article on journaling, I’m speaking of the resistance that gets in the way (usually of starting) a journal session.
I do not journal every day, and I don’t believe in being too rigid about journaling frequency or content. That said, I do believe that there are many times that resistance tricks us into not journaling when it’d be a good idea to do some.
For more on the topic of resistance, I’d highly recommend Pressfield’s book, The War of Art, which can also be very motivating for a writing practice.
“I head back to my office, and crank up the computer (…) I say my prayer, which is the invocation of the muse from Homer’s Odyssey (…) It’s about ten thrity now. I sit down and plunge in. When I start making typos, I know I’m getting tired. That’s four hours or so. I’ve hit the point of diminishing returns. I wrap for the day. …I power down. It’s three, three-thrity. The office is closed. How many pages have I produced? I don’t care. Are they any good? I don’t even think about it. All that matters is I’ve put in my time and hit it with all I’ve got. All that counts is that, for this day, for this session, I have overcome Resistance.”Steven Pressfield (The War of Art)
(Stress-free) free writing
What probably is counterproductive is stressing about what to write. See if you can let go of self-consciousness enough to genuinely not worry about the quality or significance of what you are writing.
You can also give yourself permission to not write until you feel like you have something to say. This option segues into the next journaling technique, combining meditation and writing.
Combining meditation and journaling
If you aren’t sure what to write but feel that something in you might want to be put into words, you can simply sit with your journal (paper, laptop, etc) nearby and begin meditating.
I see meditation and journaling as having a lot of overlap. In meditation we focus on any “object of awareness” (the breath, the body, 5 senses, etc). In journaling, we focus on thoughts primarily, slowing them down, looking at thinking patterns, and getting distance from them by writing them.
You can experiment with different time intervals (e.g. 3 minutes spent with the breath/emotion/body and 3 minutes writing).
I don’t tend to use prompts too often, but I think it can fit for some people, perhaps who prefer structure as a way of getting started.
Examples of prompts could include:
- What is hurting?
- I’m proud of…
- I’m grateful for…
- People who helped me today:
- People I helped today:
- I want to…
- Plan for today:
- My growth edge is…
- I’m working on…
- I’m learning (about myself)…
- Today I learned:
- Today’s successes:
- Today’s challenges and what they taught me:
- Plans for tomorrow:
- Things I can do to make my life better:
- Goals for this week:
- Goals for this month:
I wouldn’t suggest trying to use all of these, they are just examples. If prompts appeal to you, pick a few or make your own and try using them for a few days and see if it’s helpful.
Sent or unsent correspondence
Sometimes rather than “writing to no one” (other than oneself), it can be easier to write as if you were going to write to someone you know, or knew, or even would like to know.
One way I’ve used to “trick” myself into writing some effective journal entries is to begin a letter without knowing for sure if I will send it to the person or not.
Write to someone you’re working through an issue with
More often than not, what brings people to therapy or coaching is, at least in part, some sort of interpersonal problem or challenge with another person, such as a partner, friend, parent, family member, etc. Such an issue can take more than one session simply to express and talk out. Why not, then, take the time write it out in an unsent letter? You can always decide to modify it and sent it (or a part of it) later.
For example, say there is a recurrent problematic pattern playing out between you and your spouse / boyfriend / girlfriend. You can simply write/type out:
Dear ____ (love, baby, honey, etc),
I am struggling with ___.
I’m feeling very ____ about it.
It’s been hard to talk about with you because ___.
Here’s what’s going on as I see it…
I’m wondering if you’ve noticed…
What do you think we can do about it?
I think we should…
And so on. Maybe you will sent it later, and maybe not. Not deciding in advance, I’ve found, actually allows me to write more freely. There is always this awareness that I can remove things later, so I don’t have to hold back. Even if you are very angry or feeling other big, tough feelings, I would advise to let the words fly in the unsent version.
Let it marinate before sending
Before sending it though, I think it’s usually best to take some time to let it sit and let your emotions settle before sending it. The person you are sending it to is human, after all, with their own insecurities and distortions. We should tell the truth in a way that is compassionate and humane, and how the other person can safely receive it.
A process I might use would be:
- Write a first draft and put it away for at least an overnight.
- Look at it the next day or whenever the motivation strikes.
- Make a copy, preserving the original.
- Read it from beginning to end and delete parts that don’t need to be said. Modify parts that can be said more clearly or compassionately. Add any parts that now seem additive, constructive, and important.
- Repeat this for as many drafts as feels right.
I have sometimes sent a second draft, a third draft, a fourth draft, or nth draft. I’ve noticed that what I send tends to be much shorter than my first draft, which is largely for me (all the journaling benefits and reasons mentioned earlier in this post). The part I need the other person to hear isn’t usually that long, once I’ve processed the issue internally.
Other times, I wind up sending nothing written, because I’ve realized that the writing was for my own processing. There might, however, be something I want to share verbally later with the person, and the writing most certainly will help this delivery flow, because I will have thoroughly processed, felt through, and thought through the issue, and already articulated my position, perception, and needs. I’m often astounded how helpful it is to write out something before orally sharing it with someone.
Write to someone supportive, validating, insightful, wise, and/or helpful
The other category of people I’ve written unsent (and sometimes sent) letters to are people like close trusted friends and helpers (mentors, therapists, etc).
A close friend, in this case, is anyone who you can open up to. It wouldn’t be that productive to journal to someone who you felt you had to hold back a lot with.
There’s a tradeoff here. It may be the case that no one in your life is going to hear that absolute full truth of your experience. But the benefit of journaling with someone in mind is that it can motivate us to write in some cases, if the idea of one other trusted person reading it makes the writing seem more important or meaningful.
Saving old letters and emails
I really started taking journaling seriously when I was about 30 years old, going through a breakup, and doing a master’s analytical review on the benefits of expressive writing. I didn’t keep a journal when I was 21 years old studying abroad in Spain. Or did I? In a way, I did, because I was in a habit of visiting the computer lab where I lived and emailing friends and family. Some of these emails were saved on my account, and one day I decided to copy them into a journal. I was actually surprised to see that the words I wrote others somewhat resembled a journal (what I was thinking, feeling, and doing during those times). It didn’t capture everything because I was writing (sand sending them) to my family. But it was fun and interesting to read and better than no record at all.
If you have a friend or family member with whom you’ve had personal, written correspondence, those messages might be worth hanging onto in a secure place. That may or may not be the email servers on which they were first stored.
I have found that I generally want to save what I write, not what is written to me. That is my preference. You may want to save both sides of the conversation. But for me the main point of journaling is to reflect and express my mind and heart, and that part is contained in what I’m writing to the other person.
Imagine you’re in therapy
You could imagine you’re about to start a therapy appointment. Your therapist, who you have come to know and trust, is sitting there, patient and warmly receptive, asking, “so how are things going?” They have no agenda except to listen with full presence and attention. Write as if you are speaking the answer.
It doesn’t have to be a licensed therapist, of course. It can be anyone who you can visualize listening with curiosity and a heart to help.
This practice can cultivate our inner therapist. We are there with our self and curious about our self.
I’ve especially found this helpful before and after therapy appointments. Before the therapy appointment, I write out what I would say in the session. That way, when the session starts, I actually say something else. I have moved ahead of where I would have been had I not done the writing. It’s like getting a bonus ten, twenty, or thirty minutes (however long writing feels helpful) out of your session.
Writing after therapy, between sessions, can also accelerate progress in therapy. After therapy, both therapists and clients have “afterthoughts” and “afterfeelings”. I know this having been on both sides of the exchange. The therapy hour is short; standard is only about 50 minutes. There’s usually so much more that could be processed, said, and felt! Expressing and processing these afterthoughts move the process along so that the power of each session is amplified. This may be even more valuable and important when sessions are less frequent than the standard one per week, due to time or financial constraints.
While this works quite well when you have a therapist/coach/mentor/etc who you see fairly regularly, it can be used with anyone with whom you’ve had a trusting relationship with in the past.
You don’t have to reinvent the wheel if you don’t want to. You can use other guides out there. Here are two that are different in their purposes but could provide a lot of ideas.
If you have a spiritual inclination, I found this to be a wonderful guided journal by Michael Singer. You could look him up on YouTube first to see if you resonate with his teachings and personality.
Do you know of a good guided journal? Please let me know in the comments section!
The science of healing from expressive writing
Dr. Pennebaker (and others) have conducted extensive and numerous studies on the benefits of expressive writing, and has developed a theory and practice of using writing to help deal with trauma and emotional pain.
Opening Up by Writing It Down, Third Edition: How Expressive Writing Improves Health and Eases Emotional Pain (James Pennebaker)
Pennebaker showed that students who wrote about challenging, emotional, or even traumatic experiences had better health, as evidenced by fewer visits to student health centers compared to a control group, as well as self report and other measures. This paradigm has been tested on other populations and outcomes and has shown to have a reliably significant effect.
This book has more general writing instructions, such as the following:
Find a quiet time and place. Write for 20 to 30 minutes, focusing on your deepest emotions and thoughts about a stressful or upsetting experience in your life. Whatever you choose to write about, it is critical that you really let go and explore your very deepest emotions and thoughts. Write continuously, and don’t worry about spelling, grammar, or style.
This book is geared toward explaining the science behind expressive writing, and the kind of writing that can improve mental and general health. If you are looking to use writing to heal from the past, you may find it interesting.
Audio dictating journal entries
Instead of writing with a pen or typing at a keyboard, audio dictation can be a preferred way to journal for some people at some times.
I’ve found that technology advancements keep changing and increasing the options available.
I’ve used Dragon Naturally Speaking software for years, from version 10 to 15, for writing certain types of papers and journaling and clinical notes. The downside is that it still makes quite a few mistakes, although it has gotten much better. So I only use it if I want to get my ideas out at one time and revisit the piece later, to edit and proofread. For journaling, this can sometimes be nice, although I wouldn’t want to edit it very soon after dictating it. One way to deal with this would be to create a folder called “journal text dictated” and make a file for each entry that has, as its name, the date it was dictated. Then one day, if you want to re-read them, you can edit them at the same time and move them to where un-dictated entries are kept.
Google dictation is a free way to dictate speech-to-text. At the time of this writing, I would say it might be getting about as good as Dragon Naturally Speaking. One thing I like about Dragon Naturally Speaking (that I still haven’t found elsewhere yet) is that, with some versions, you can record audio (.wav) files and later have them transcribed into text.
Saving audio files
If you don’t mind storing your journal in audio format, a simple way to make journal entries would be to download a recorder app (there are many), preferable one that saves in .mp3 format (or another compressed format), and dictate away.
To backup audio files and preserve your privacy, a method might be to routinely move the files from the recording device (e.g. smartphone) to a cloud storage service (e.g. Dropbox or Google) and keep them online only. That way if you lost your devices, your journal would be backed up on the cloud for you to access but not on the devices themselves. Other people might feel more comfortable backing up their journal on an encrypted storage device that they keep in their physical possession. There are many options for this and the topic is outside the scope of this post (and of my expertise).
Exchanging audio messages with friends
The section above on sent/unsent correspondence can also be applied to audio message exchanges. I’ve found WhatsApp to be a convenient way of sending personal audio messages back and forth between friends. It is 2-way encrypted and stores the audio files on the phone if you want to move/save them.
There are undoubtedly other good apps for this kind of journaling practice.
Revisiting past journal articles
This is something I do from time to time and often find it fruitful. I typically have two different reactions to this process:
- Wow, how great that I’ve gotten past that!
- Wow, I’m still struggling with this…
Both are useful.
I think it can be difficult to find time to journal in the first place, let alone go back and read past journal entries. It this seems to be the case for you also, perhaps try to give yourself a small amount of time (like 5 or 10 minutes), to go to a randomly chosen period in your life / journal. I have entries that go back over a decade at this point. It can be helpful to go 5 years back, 2 years back, 1 year back, a half year back… each provides a different vantage point of our personal path.
The less time you have been journaling, the less often you would do this, since the writing would be more recent.
Sometimes I use a text-to-speech app to listen to the entries while I’m walking or doing something like washing dishes that doesn’t require much thought, in order to reduce screen time. The app I usually use is called “@voice aloud reader”, available on Android.
Sometimes looking at a past journal entry can be a good way to spark a new journal entry:
“I just looked back at what I wrote 3 years ago. Wow. I’m so glad I’m not really worrying about ___ anymore. Reading this brought up how, today, …”
I’m sure that some people won’t want to go back and read past journal entries very often, and others will find it very important and interesting. I’d suggest trying this a few times, and trusting your intuition about whether it is helpful to you or not, and if so, how much time it should receive.
Other journal prompts
Tarot and oracle cards
I’ve enjoyed using tarot and oracle cards as a jumping off point to journal. The tarot deck has 78 cards that represent human experiences, archetypes, and the transpersonal collective psychology. Oracle cards are similar but they don’t tend to adhere to a traditional standard like tarot.
A practice I like is to draw one card, read the description, and write what thoughts come to me regarding how the card relates to me. It could be thoughts and feelings about a current situation, or the past, or something about my path and purpose in life. I don’t structure it, but rather let whatever thoughts come and write them down. It might be one sentence or five or fifteen. Then, if I want to, I’ll draw a second card and do the same thing. Then I’ll look at the two cards together and see if any thoughts come to me that are a synthesis of the two cards, and if that combination might apply to me and my life in some way. This can be done with a third, fourth, or as many cards as one likes. Two or three is usually about right for me, but sometimes drawing just one card can be nice for a brief self-reflection.
Here is an example of a tarot deck that I like (mostly for the artwork but the card descriptions are pretty good as well):
Some tarot decks are modified and deviate from the more traditional tarot deck. This is one example that is quite good:
A free and quality set of all 78 card descriptions can be found online at www.biddytarot.com.
Similarly, you can choose and poetry book, poem, or poet, and read some of their writing and then write whatever thoughts and feelings are stimulated by the poem. I recommend connecting the poem or whatever you read to yourself, as the one structural guideline.
Referenced supportive resources
The War of Art (Steven Pressfield)
The Artist’s Way (Julia Cameron)