How (and Why) to Start Keeping a Journal

It's an easy and surprisingly impactful habit to get into. And all you need is a pen, some paper, and a little introspection.

There’s an undeniable catharsis that comes with externalizing your feelings, be it through conversation, physical activity, or art. We need that release – in whatever form you can get it – in order to process our feelings, what they mean, and what we can do about them. It is, at its most basic level, how we learn who we are. And one of the easiest ways to do it is through keeping a journal.

There tends to be a knee-jerk reaction to the word journal, as though it’s just a more “masculine” version of keeping a diary like the protagonist of a John Hughes movie (and hey, John Hughes movies rule, so you could do a lot worse). But the reality couldn’t be further from that — though if traditional, “Dear Diary…” entries are what you want to write, you should. I think that’s the most important thing to address up front: there is no wrong way to keep a journal.

Go Old-School

There’s something particularly challenging about writing with pen and paper. With so much of the way we communicate having gone digital, there’s a certain je ne sais qoi when it comes to writing something out that is lost when you type it.

There’s a pretty good chance you type faster than you write. So when you find yourself holding a pen and preparing to put it to your journal’s paper, you have to slow down – and that's a good thing. You’ll find yourself considering your words more carefully, putting more thought into the way you phrase things. But you can’t (or at least, shouldn't) spout out your thoughts at 110 words per minute when you’re writing in a journal, and taking a moment to slow down makes you consider what you’re writing more carefully than you would in, say, a blog entry. Not only does this help with articulating your thoughts for your own sake, but it makes you a better writer.

Get a Good Setup

I started keeping a journal something like two years ago after receiving a nice leather-bound one from a friend as a gift. I figured it was good a sign as any to start writing something down every day and see what would happen.

At the time I was taking on writing jobs for the first time and had sort of lost sight of personal work. Holding that rich, smooth leather cover and feathering through crisp, clean blank pages had me itching to write something that wasn’t assigned to me by my boss.

I think that’s a huge factor in encouraging yourself to get started. Get a notebook worth writing in. Pick out a size and a material for starters, and then figure out what kind of pages you write best on. My handwriting is oversized chicken scratch so I tend to stick with unlined, but I have friends that have had a lot of success with writing on everything from grid paper to bullet journal pages. Good tools make for good trade, and having a nice blank notebook ready to be filled with whatever words you wish gets the habit of journaling started on a strong note.

Write Whatever

When it comes down to what you want to write in it, it’s like I said: there’s no wrong way to keep a journal. There’s this sort of cultural perception that keeping a journal is writing out a summation of what happened over the course of your day, when the reality is that a journal is whatever you want it to be. And don’t get me wrong, it can totally just be a play-by-play of your day. But you don’t have to limit yourself to recaps.

If writing a journal entry is about catharsis, that catharsis can connect with whatever’s most present in your mind in the moment. Write about something that’s been in your thoughts for a few days. Talk about something that happened five years ago, ten, even. Did you hear a song recently that made you feel strongly in a certain way? Talk about that. Explore it. Ask yourself why it made you feel that way in particular and what about it stoked those feelings.

If a journal is ultimately about knowing yourself better, the only way to do that is to let the moments you write in it take you to wherever they need to go.

Give It Some Time

Once you make a routine of it, you’ll find it hard to stop. It’s not something you absolutely have to make time for every day. Schedules are different. And only getting the time to do it here and there doesn’t mean you’re failing at it (and it’s important to clarify that you don’t pass or fail at keeping a journal).

Find a time of the day, week, or even just the month that works for you and stick to that. Make the time to do it. And then show up the next time that moment comes around.

Keeping a journal isn’t going to bring you total enlightenment. It’s not going to thrust you into the Elon Musk pantheon of genius if you aren’t there already. And I can’t even promise it’s going to solve any of your problems. But none of those should be your goal in the first place. A journal is about knowing yourself and keeping a record of your growth. And as long as you write in it, every entry is a mile marker of progress.

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