Kick/Start

A Beginner’s Guide to Keeping a Journal

Even if you don’t see yourself as a journaler, the habit comes with powerful benefits

Illustration: Kyle Griggs

Writing down your thoughts is a simple act with powerful effects.

Over the years, a wealth of scientific research has extolled the benefits of “expressive writing.” It has been shown to play a role in lowering blood pressure, improving cardiovascular health and immune function, speeding up healing, strengthening memory, easing symptoms of depression, and helping with test anxiety.

Those aren’t the reasons that Dee C. Marshall, CEO of the consulting firm Diverse and Engaged LLC, has kept a journal for over a decade. Her journal, she says, is a place to capture what she calls the “juice and gems” of her inner life. “If there was a hurricane or earthquake and I could only take three things,” she says, “the journal is one.”

It sounds like it should be simple enough to write down your thoughts and ideas. But how do you start? What do you say? For those who are new to journaling, a blank page can be overwhelming rather than cathartic.

Everyone’s needs and priorities are different, and it might take some experimenting to see what makes the most sense for you. But there are a few guidelines you can keep in mind as you begin your journal.

Don’t feel limited to one format

Not all journals are dense blocks of prose written in bursts of creativity. If the idea of sitting down to fill pages upon pages sounds like a drag, embrace brevity. Gretchen Rubin, host of the “Happier” podcast, has praised the one-sentence daily journal as a way of reaping the benefits without putting in too much work: “It’s manageable,” she writes. “It doesn’t make me feel burdened.”

Jennifer Zephirin, author of Misunderstood Millennial Talent endorses going even briefer: “You can just give one-word answers,” she says.

A journal doesn’t have to be a narrative or chronology, either — you can keep lists, dedicate sections to certain ideas, and write manifestos. For example, Marshall says, “I track failures in my journal. I literally have a half a page of failures.” In every journal she keeps, she also has a list of lessons she’s learned, as well as a section she calls “life pages,” which she fills with reflections on her identity and her purpose.

If you’re more of a visual person, your journal can reflect that. Austin Kleon, author of Steal Like an Artist, is an avid journaler who has delivered talks about using his notebooks for artistic expression, and filling them with drawings and visual brainstorms (a technique known as clustering) as well as words.

If you’re still stumped, Marshall recommends starting with a quick list of what you’re grateful for, and letting your thoughts flow from there. Guided journals, which offer a daily or weekly prompt, can also be a helpful starting point.

Keep different journals for different purposes

The actress Emma Watson has said she keeps multiple journals at a time: a dream journal, a yoga journal, a journal recording people she meets and advice they give her, an acting journal, and various collage books.

The bottom line: Keep your ideas filed in whichever way makes the most sense for you. The great thing about keeping a journal is that it’s a flexible habit. As your needs change, your process can easily change, too. And if you see journaling as a way to fill multiple needs at once, it’s fine to channel each of those needs into its own space.

Zephirin suggests keeping a couple of journals in various locations: one in your bag for easy access on the go, and one by your bed or on your desk for regular entries. She tries to keep a daily gratitude journal, she says, along with one that’s more project-based: “It helps me focus and clarify my thoughts.”

You can keep a journal for trips, vacations, and travels. Astronaut Peggy Whitson’s diary of her time aboard the International Space Station is available online on NASA’s website. Normally musings on condiments aren’t exactly riveting, but they take on a whole new dimension when you’re slurping mustard in space.

Be consistent

Kiaundra Jackson, a Los Angeles-based licensed marriage and family therapist who often recommends journaling to her clients, has found that articulating your reason to journal helps.

“The best way to maintain a journaling habit is to have a clear goal on why you are journaling in the first place,” Jackson says. “Then find a routine and stick with it. So that means you may choose to write in your journal at the end of each day, or on a Friday night at the end of each week.”

And be kind to yourself — you’ll be more likely to stick with the habit if it’s something that feels good, rather than something that feels like an obligation or brings you down. “I had a client who realized she would only write negative things in her journal and felt bad about that,” Jackson says. She encouraged her client to keep two journals: one where she had full permission to write all her negative thoughts and feelings, and another to write down only the positive.

Ultimately, though, there’s no right or wrong way to keep a journal, Jackson says. Try a few approaches, and figure out what works best for you.

Writes about relationships and pop psychology for The New York Times, Vice, and more. Author of “Clearly, I Didn’t Think This Through.” Lives in Philly.

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