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How to Make Journaling Work for You

Updated: May 7

Journaling doesn’t need to be a time-consuming or intimidating coping skill! With just a few minutes of your time, journaling can help you reflect, document your life, find gratitude, or seek other goals to improve your mental health. With the following guidelines, you can make journaling a hobby that works for your schedule, your goals, and your creativity. 

Step One: Consider What You Want to Gain from Journaling

People journal for a variety of reasons, and it’s important to consider what your reasons for journaling are. Consider the following statements, and see if one or more of the following resonate with you:

I want to journal so that…

  • I can document my life and have memories to look back on.

  • I can take the time to reflect on my life.

  • I can seek gratitude every day.

  • I can build habits and track them over time.

  • I can creatively express myself.

  • I can show it to my loved ones and share about my life.

Once you’ve recognized your goals for journaling, you can move forward with picking a journaling style that works for you!

Step Two: Pick a Method of Journaling

You may want to choose between obtaining an empty journal, where you make all of the decisions and prompt yourself, or a pre-formatted journal, where there may be dedicated daily spaces or even questions for you to respond to. You can also determine whether you’d like to journal digitally (on your laptop, phone, or other device) or by hand. Here are a few examples of different styles of journaling for you to take inspiration from, as well as free options for each:

Bullet journals are a mesh of planners, goals, and habit-tracking (consider tracking how many hours you sleep each day, how much water you drink, what books you’ve read, or your mood). They can be simple or artistic, depending on what works best for you, and there are free digital options online as well. 

Documenting journals can be done in multiple ways. Whether on a scrap sheet of paper, notebook, or a notes app on your phone, simply note the date at the top and write about what happened that day. For an organized and quick approach, consider the One Line a Day style. I personally like to use my college roommate’s recommendation: the free mobile version of Day One, which shows a “Streak” of how many days you’ve journaled in a row, allows you to attach an image to each entry, and shows you the past entries you’ve written on their anniversaries.

Prompt journals have a wide range of topics and styles available. The Five Minute Daily Gratitude Journal asks questions like, “What would make today great?” and prompts you to seek gratitude each day. The One Question a Day Journal asks you one question per day, and has space for you to reflect on the evolution of your answers over five years. The Better Every Day Journal provides prompts for reflection, intertwined with positive quotes and affirmations. You can also make your own prompt journal by searching up a question each day, noting it down, and answering it on a note’s app or sheet of paper.

Workbook journals are similar to prompt journals, but involve more activities and worksheets for you to set goals and reflect. Rupi Kaur’s Healing Through Words guides you through reflecting through creative writing and the Self-Love Workbook for Women asks you to quiz yourself, make playlists, and more to increase your self-confidence and release self-doubt. To make your own workbook journal, come up with some activities that you enjoy and intertwine them with reflection prompts or any other elements that you find beneficial. For example, on a Monday, you could do a crossword, then write about a memory you have that relates to one of the clues. 

Art journals and junk journals resonate with creative individuals, and sometimes include no words at all. Using any materials you have, simply doodle, collage, paint, or whatever else you’d like. You can use the trash that you collect throughout the day (receipts, wrappers, and the like) or get stickers and whatever medium you desire. These can be reminiscent of scrapbooks or sketchbooks! Here are a few examples, and a page from my own junk journal where I just taped receipts and a concert wristband onto a page:

There are no rules to journaling, so feel free to pick and choose a variety of methods, or come up with your own! Once you’re ready and have an idea of how you’d like to journal, you can move on to incorporating journaling into your routine.

Step Three: Set a Realistic Routine of Journaling

Let’s use the SMART goal framework to set a routine of journaling. We’ll walk through each letter and ask a relevant question that incorporates our thoughts from Steps One and Two, then form one sentence describing our overall journaling goal.

Specific: What specific goal do we want to set? (Think about the goals from Step One)

Measurable: How often do you want to journal, or for how long? 

Achievable: When in your day, week, or month will you set aside time to journal? What steps are you taking to remember to journal?

Relevant: What method will you use to journal? Does the method and frequency of journaling fit with your (S)pecific goal?

Time-based: When will you check in with your journaling journey to consider if journaling has been meeting your goals?

Overall Journaling Goal: Every [frequency], I will journal in a [type of journal] that is relevant to my goal of [documenting, reflecting, etc.] and feels achievable within [length of time spent on journaling each session]. I will be consistent with journaling by [steps to take]. In [length of time]. I will check in on my journaling journey and see if any changes are necessary for me to feel fulfilled from my journaling goals!

As an example, here is my SMART framework and overall journaling goal:

Specific: I want to focus on consistent journaling that documents my days, doesn’t take too long, and is free.

Measurable: I want to journal once a day, for fifteen minutes or less.

Achievable: I know that I can spend fifteen minutes before going to bed to journal. I will set a reminder each day at 8pm to journal so that I don’t forget, and journal on my phone so that it’s easily accessible and free.

Relevant: I chose to use a diary-like journal without prompts, where I just write about what happened today. This fits with my Specific goal of documenting my days, is free, and doesn’t take too long.

Time-based: In one month, I’ll check back in on my journaling and see if I’ve felt fulfilled from documenting my days!

Overall Journaling Goal: Every night before I sleep, I will journal in a diary app on my phone that is relevant to my goal of documenting my life and feels achievable within fifteen minutes each day. I will be consistent with journaling by setting a reminder for 8pm every night. In one month, I will check in on my journaling journey and see if any changes are necessary for me to feel fulfilled from my journaling goals!

Now that you have your SMART journaling goal, the only thing left is to journal!

Step Four: Start Journaling!

You’re now ready for your first entry! As with all other habits, the more you journal, the easier it will be to stay consistent and reach your goal. At the same time, one missed entry doesn’t mean that you’ll never journal again. The most important thing about journaling is that you’re doing it for your own benefit. If journaling isn’t something you find beneficial, don’t feel pressured to continue doing it! If you do continue journaling, revisit your SMART goal as needed and let your journaling journey evolve with you! 

(The links and images throughout this blog post serve as examples, not endorsements).

-Reyna Choi, MSW Intern University of Michigan

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