5 Simple Journaling Tips for Newbies and Overthinkers
After months of convincing ourselves that we needed one and drooling over the ads that followed us around the internet, Joe and I finally got an Instant Pot earlier this month – and we’re forever changed.
Last weekend we took it out for its inaugural use. Joe took the lead on finding the perfect recipe to try (Hawaiian pulled pork sliders! ...with a side of Sunday Night Football) and braving the lines at Costco on a Sunday to pick up the ingredients. But it wasn’t until he’d already done all the prep work, browned the meat, and then switched it over to ‘pressure cooker’ mode that we started hearing a disconcerting rattling sound that made us panic and realize:
We had no idea how to use a pressure cooker.
Despite following all the directions, there’s a certain blend of panic and self-doubt that sets in when a kitchen appliance that’s totally foreign to you starts making sounds like it might explode.
(Everything turned out fine, thanks to some frenzied Googling. And the sliders turned out 👌)
Unlike using a pressure cooker for the first time, there are very few risks or hard-and-fast rules involved when it comes to journaling.
(Not to mention, you don’t have to worry about getting third degree burns or food all over your kitchen ceiling.)
Whether it’s for the health benefits, the creative expression, or it’s just something that’s been on your bucket list forever and you’re finally ready to tackle it, there are tons of worthwhile reasons to keep a journal. It’s no wonder you’re ready to start!
But like doing anything new, journaling can feel awkward and clunky when you’re just getting started.
The “am I even doing this right!?” style of doubt that likes to pop up early on is the exact feeling I like to avoid in most areas of my life – which is why I prefer to do things like read instruction manuals front to back, watch tutorial videos, and take copious notes instead of just starting.
Here’s the good news: with something like journaling or personal writing, that’s the beauty – “right” and “wrong” don’t exist.
Instead, exploration is key here. Your #1 job is to try things, and figure out what works for you. Plus, journaling is such a private process that even if there were such a thing as messing up, no one has to see. And even the idea of getting to do your stumbling around behind closed doors takes some of the pressure off, don’t you think?
While there’s no one right (or wrong!) way to journal... there are some common, basic questions that lots of people have when they’re first starting out. And while it’s true that there are no ‘right’ answers to these either, I can offer some guidance from my own experiences that I hope will help.
5 FAQs for When You’re New to Journaling (or Maybe Just Overthinking It)
1. Which is better for journaling: digital, or pen and paper?
While there are pros and cons for both, the pen-and-paper lover in me is proud to report that science is on my side here. Multiple studies (like this one and this one) have shown that writing by hand leads to greater retention, processing, and comprehension than typing on a computer. Not to mention, you’re less likely to get distracted in your notebook than you are while typing in a browser where you have 17 other tabs open.
Put simply, there is real (scientifically-backed) magic in the mind-body connection that happens when we put pen to paper, and I highly recommend starting there.
However! – and you probably saw this answer coming from a mile away – the ultimate ‘right’ answer here is whatever system you’ll actually use. While I’m a definite proponent of pen-to-paper journaling, don’t let something as minor as the medium hold you back; if the only place where you find traction and flow is in a Google Doc or in your Notes app on your phone, go with that.
2. What should I actually write about? What if I don't know where to start?
This might be the #1 hangup I hear about from people who want to start journaling more, but get stuck starting. It’s hard to shake the pressure to write something “interesting” or “meaningful” – and when everything you think of feels cliche or boring, you want to abandon ship altogether. Who could blame you?
One technique that can help with this, called Morning Pages, comes from Julia Cameron’s book The Artist’s Way. The basic idea here is to write non-stop, stream-of-consciousness style, for three full pages. (Julia recommends doing this first thing in the morning, but I say pick a time of day that works for you and your rhythms/schedule.) She emphasizes that it truly doesn’t matter what you write about – as long as you don’t stop moving your pen before those three pages are full. Inevitably, you’ll find your groove somewhere in there.
I use this strategy when I’m really stuck in my head, and need to shake things loose. It’s surprisingly helpful! Of course there are tons of other tricks and strategies to help get your wheels turning or kickstart a journaling session when you don’t know where to start. These are the kinds of things we’ll be exploring this winter in Ignite - get on the list over here if you’re interested!
3. How long should I write for? How much time is "enough" for one sitting?
Personally, I’m wary of giving myself too many rules to follow here – because I’ve learned from experience that it becomes too easy to lean on the, “oh but I don’t have ‘enough time’ to write today! Oh well, guess I’ll skip it!” excuse.
My one caveat here is that I do believe you need to give yourself a real fighting chance to clear the cobwebs in your mind and find your flow, and that doesn’t always happen quickly. If you’re looking for a rule to follow, I suggest not stopping short of 10-15 minutes. Give yourself a chance to stumble around on the page a bit and see if you can find your way – and then, if it's still not working, don't beat yourself up or try and force it. You can close your notebook, and come back tomorrow knowing that you gave it your best shot.
4. I feel like I'm just writing about what I did every day. How can I make it feel more meaningful or productive?
This might seem rudimentary, but just to say it: there's no rule that says journaling means writing down what you did that day! Yes, that can be an easy place to start, but remember you don't have to limit yourself to that.
Here are a few questions you can answer instead, when you sit down to write:
What’s one thing that happened in the last week/month that stands out as an especially positive experience? What about it stands out?
What are you looking forward to in the next week/month?
What would a perfect morning/evening/workday look like for you? Describe it, using all 5 of your senses!
When was the last time you remember feeling especially strong/confident/relaxed/joyful? Describe it in detail.
What’s one area where you feel stuck of frustrated? What’s going on there?
What’s the area in your life that’s going particularly well, and why?
If someone handed you $1,000 tomorrow and you had to spend it on something (vs. socking it away in savings) … how would you spend it?
5. How can I make the habit actually stick?
This answer is going to look different for everyone – but I can say that with most new habits, the secret sauce to making them stick (that most people forget about!) is accountability. For you, accountability might mean:
Hanging up a progress chart on your wall, that you check off every day
Putting a block on your calendar to make sure that thing gets done when you said it would
Sending a weekly email to your friend that details your progress, or
Checking in with a group of people that are moving toward the same goal you are
That last one tends to be especially effective for me, which was one of the biggest reasons I’m launching Ignite. I’ve found I can only chug along in a vacuum for so long before I start losing steam or motivation – but when I have a person or a small group of people I like and trust who I can share both my progress and my frustrations with (and who are in it with me!) that tends to be the thing that re-lights my fire. If that speaks to you, you can learn more over here.
If you journal regularly: what helps you stick with it?
If you don’t right now but you’re hoping to start: which of these jumps out at you as a tactic you’re excited to try?
Let me know in the comments below!