You’ve heard that keeping a journal has a whole pile of benefits, and you’ve decided to give it a try. But, when you sit down to write and that blank page is staring back at you, you are suddenly faced with a paralyzing question: What should you write in your journal?
If your mind feels like a mess, clogged up with all your to-dos, didn’t-dos, wish-you-could-dos, and should-dos, keeping a journal will be revolutionary for you. It can help you organize your thoughts, set goals, process emotions, feel more calm, and be happier.
Of course it does.
That’s why, in this article, I will show you exactly how to decide what to write in your journal so you can begin to reap those rewards today.
Diary or Journal
It is fairly common in some circles to refer to a diary and journal interchangeably.
But that’s a mistake.
The difference between keeping a diary and keeping a journal is actually pretty important.
The difference comes down to purpose.
A diary is used to record the events in your day, and to reflect on how you feel about them. Over time, it becomes a chronological record of your activities and emotions.
If you’re just starting out, keeping a diary might be a good idea. It provides a very basic structure to get into the habit of writing every day.
On the other hand, a journal can be many different things, depending on what you want. At times, it can look a lot like a diary. At other times, it could resemble a sketchbook. It’s really up to you.
Can You Write Anything You Want in Your Journal?
Yes and no.
The idea that you just need to sit down and write ANYTHING is one of the most pervasive myths about journaling.
Yes, if you just want to write for the sheer joy of writing, then go for it.
But, if you’re reading this article, you probably have a specific reason why you want to start a journal:
- De-clutter your mind
- Overcome your fear of failure
- Relieve stress
- Become more productive
- Be more successful
- Feel more calm
- Process your emotions
- Feel less anxious
- Become happier
And, if you want to accomplish any of these things, what you write in your journal matters.
In other words, why you want to keep a journal determines what you write in your journal.
Where to Start
I’ve already said that starting with a basic diary might be best for you, if you’re just starting out. If you’re a bit unsure about your specific goal for keeping a journal, or if you’re just testing this whole journaling thing out, starting with a diary is probably the easiest thing.
But, if you want to keep a journal for one of the specific reasons I mention above (or one that isn’t on that list), then you will want to take a different approach to what you write in your journal.
So, the place to start is to decide on one reason you want to keep a journal. Feel free to choose from the list above, or come up with your own reason. But choose only one for now.
Once you have your main reason for keeping a journal, the question of what to write in your journal becomes much, much easier to answer.
Take an Approach to Journaling
Before you can actually sit down and put pen to paper, you will also need to decide on the best approach.
You’ve already answered the why question above. Now it’s time to answer the how question.
How will you approach your journal?
At this point, things start to get a bit more individualized, based on your situation, needs and personality. Let’s look at just three examples.
A bullet journal represents one particular approach to journaling. And, if you do a quick search on Pinterest or Instagram, you’ll notice that “bullet journal” can mean a lot of different things to different people.
But, did you know that the founder of the bullet journal system, Ryder Carroll, developed it for a very specific and personal purpose?
He had suffered his whole life from ADHD, and he was constantly frustrated by the fact that his brain couldn’t concentrate on what he knew he needed to do. He would be distracted from the simplest tasks, and, if he did accomplish things he wanted to get done, they always took him too long.
Well, over time, Ryder developed a system that works for him. It helps him focus on what he needs to do and keep track of what he’s done.
The idea of the bullet journal has exploded, with people all over the world adapting Ryder’s system to meet the needs of their own lives.
The example of the bullet journal illustrates how important it is to spend some time thinking about the approach you take to keeping a journal—if you want to see actual results in your life, that is.
In the case of the bullet journal, the goal is to increase productivity and de-clutter the mind.
If your goal is to process your emotions, setting up a system where you keep a series of detailed lists probably doesn’t make sense.
But sitting down with no plan at all doesn’t make sense either.
In this case, you might want to come up with some guiding questions:
- What am I feeling right now?
- What happened today that made me feel happy/sad/angry/etc.?
- Why did I feel that way?
- Are there any emotional patterns over the last day/week/month that I notice?
- What could I have done differently to change my emotional reactions?
These are fairly generic examples. But you can make them more specific, depending on your particular circumstances.
Spend some time coming up with 3-5 specific questions, and write them down on the inside of the cover of your journal.
Then, whenever you sit down to write, there’s no question about what you should write in your journal. You simply start answering those questions.
If you take this approach, you should also limit the amount of space you can spend on each answer. 3-5 lines is usually a good start.
Limiting the amount of space you give to answering each question forces you to really think through your answers and to be deliberate in what you write down.
It also makes it easier to look back on previous entries and see how you’ve changed and developed because you don’t need to wade through pages and pages of rambling first.
One of the objections I often hear when I tell people to take a specific approach to keeping a journal is that it doesn’t seem to leave room for much personal exploration.
The thinking is that by using a system with clear guidelines, your journal ceases to be a creative outlet where you can explore and discover things about yourself.
I understand this objection, but I don’t agree with it.
Nevertheless, a lot of people want to keep a free-form journal, where they write down whatever they want.
The idea is that through the process of writing, you can come up with new insights and breakthroughs that you wouldn’t come up with if you use other systems.
But, even here you have to decide to take a certain approach.
You have to decide before putting pen to paper what you will start writing about.
And that can be hard.
One of the best ways to approach this kind of journal writing is by asking yourself more generic questions, such as:
- What do I love?
- Who frustrates me?
- Why am I grateful?
The list of questions could probably be endless, but you get the point.
With this approach, you don’t need to set out limits to how much you write, though I would still recommend that you not write more than a few pages in one sitting, just so you stay on track.
What to Write in Your Journal
Now that you’ve spent some time thinking about why you want to keep a journal and how you will go about approaching your journal, you can finally begin to answer the question of what to write in your journal.
In short, your journal should always be about what you care about most.
This might, and probably should, change over time.
Today you might care about managing your home or having success in your job. Next week, you might be under a lot of unexpected stress. So, naturally, relieving that stress would become top of mind. And so on.
If you stick with it, you should find that, over time, you use a number of different approaches to your journal. So what you write in your journal will change over time, too.
Your journal should change and grow along with you as you change and grow. That’s what makes it such an effective tool.
Now you should have an idea of what you can write in your journal. If you still don’t know what to write in your journal, it’s probably because you haven’t gone through the process of asking yourself the right questions.
First, you need to know why you are keeping a journal and how you will approach your journal.
If you answer the why and how questions, the question of what you should write in your journal will become clearer.
And, by answering the why and how questions first, you will be surprised by how valuable your journal becomes for you.
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