Jump-Start Your Habit of Keeping a Journal

Journal Set

I love to talk to people about their habits.

I always enjoy hearing about which habits people want to make or break, and I’m particularly interested in those habits that many people seek to make.

For instance, for our annual challenge for 2021, Elizabeth and I chose “Read 21 in 21” — i.e., read for 21 minutes a day in 2021. We chose that challenge because we’d heard from so many people who wanted to read more.

Another habit that many people want to cultivate? The habit of keeping a journal.

For both mental and physical health, there are many good reasons to keep a journal. Research shows that keeping a journal about your feelings may help you feel less mental distress. It can help you to remember — or spark — important insights. It can give you the satisfying feeling of “ta-da” when you look back on everything you’ve written. It can help you make sense of what’s happening to you. It can generate your creativity. It can help you spot patterns in your life. Research suggests that it can even boost your immune system!

But while it’s a valuable habit that many people want, journal-keeping can be hard to maintain.

If you’d like to keep a journal, consider these suggestions:

1. Clarify your reason.

What do you hope to accomplish by keeping a journal? Clarity will help you stick with this habit. Decide whether you want to reflect on your day-to-day life, document a transition, know yourself better, capture insights, practice gratitude, or something else. Write down this reason somewhere you’ll see it often.

2. Set expectations.

When building your journal-keeping habit, be specific about what you expect from yourself. At what time of day do you plan to write? For how long? Will your journal be in the form of lists or doodles or handwritten pages? Do you expect to record your thoughts every day, or once a week?

3. Choose your tools.

Will you use a yellow legal pad, a leather bound notebook, a Google Doc file, or your phone? Do you prefer a pen or a keyboard? Remember that journals don’t have to be handwritten—you might keep a digital, audio, or photo journal. Experiment to find the tools and methods that work best for you.

4. Look to the past.

If you’ve tried keeping a journal and didn’t manage to maintain it in the past, what factors prevented you from reaching your aim? Write them down. By identifying what hasn’t worked for you, you can anticipate hurdles and plan workarounds.

5. Start small.

Begin with a one-sentence entry. Next time, try three sentences, and then a paragraph. Before you know it, you may be writing a page a day (if that’s what you want to do).

6. Make it a joy.

Pair your writing time with an element of pleasure: the first cup of coffee in the morning, an inspiring playlist. Maybe you’ll find that keeping a journal is most enjoyable when you write outside, or in pajamas, or at your desk before starting work. Pairing something pleasurable with this new habit makes it more likely to stick.

7. Begin now.

This week—better yet, today—write your first journal entry. Or, if you’ve already started a journal and missed a few days, pick it back up and start again. What we do every day matters more than what we do once in a while, and the best time to begin is now.

With the habit of journal-keeping, as with many habits, it’s helpful to remember: “Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good” or “Don’t get it perfect, get it going.”

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