Last Updated: 24 December, 2020
How to start a journal is a question people often ask at major calendar events such as before New Year, new school year or trips. Or it maybe you’ve heard about the health benefits of journal writing and want to know more.
The simplest way to start a journal is to grab a notebook, paper, or open a text file on your computer and just start writing. But even that simplicity can be intimidating when it is a new activity. The best way is to start simple, because you can always expand your approach or style in the future.
I’ve written a journal for over thirty years and I’m going to share what I’ve learnt. However, I want you to remember there is more than one way to journal. The only correct way is the way that works for you.
I hope these tips will help you think less about the details of how to start a journal and motivate you to get started.
Note: if you want to create a journal about the Covid-19 pandemic these tips are relevant, but you may also want to look at my post on creating a pandemic journal.
Why keep a journal
There are so many benefits of writing a journal that I’ve written a post focused on why you should write a journal. In summary journal writing:
- reduces stress and worry
- improves you mood
- increases your focus and memory
- is a record of your life
Why do you want to start a journal
It is more to ask why do you want to start a journal than why should you start one? What triggered you visiting this page today. Knowing this will make it easier for you to know what to write and develop a journalling habit. You may have a specific reason such as wanting to feel more grateful or helping you sleep, or you may be curious what journalling is like. Any reason is a valid reason, because journalling is about you. If you’re not sure what your reason for starting a journal is, try answering these questions (in fact your answers could be your first journal entry).
- Why do I want to start a journal?
- What do I hope to get out of it or achieve with it?
- How will a journal help me?
What do you need to start a journal
The first thing you need to decide is if you want to keep a paper or digital based journal. The common recommendation is writing a journal by hand is more beneficial . My view is use which ever format is more convenient and appealing to you.
For a handwritten journal you need a notebook, or paper, and a pen. Some people recommend using a luxury notebook so you look forward to writing in it. Although I understand the suggestion, I worry this could delay you starting as you wait to find the perfect notebook or when you have notebook you are intimidated by its beauty. It is absolutely fine to use any notebook you have to hand, or even paper that you store in a ring binder.
Although you can use any notebook, there are also different journalling books you can use. When you’re starting your first journal you may find these useful because some of them provide ideas about what to write about and some provide a defined space for each day. There are also specific journals for children which can be nice gifts if they’ve shown an interest in writing.
There are a number of advantages of keeping a digital journal. You can write your thoughts from almost anywhere, you can search your writing easily and you can easily add links and photos. But downsides are using a screen and potential distractions.
The simplest way to keep a digital journal is to use note keeping or word processing software on your computer or phone. e.g. Word, Evernote. Dedicated journal writing software also exists for both computer and phone.
Blogging originated as an online journal (web-log). However, from my experience blogging and journalling are different mainly because blogging is not private, but also because there is more focus on influence than personal insight.
How to start a journal
What to write about
Your reason for starting a journal may tell you want to write about, but don’t worry if it doesn’t. There are lots of different topics you can write about, and you don’t even have to choose one as you can do several in one notebook. It is your journal so you can write whatever you want to. Here are some ideas to get you started:
- what you’re grateful for
- how you’re feeling e.g. what are you worrying about, what you’re looking forward to
- things you’ve learnt during the day
- what you’ve done during the day
- what you want to achieve and the progress you’ve made
Writing the first page
One of the early difficulties of starting a journal is dealing with the blank first page . It can look frightening but instead, think of it as the doorway to an exciting record of your life. Here are some ideas to get you started, but you want more look at my list of 23 ideas for the first page of your journal or notebook.
- leave the first page blank (if you find this difficult tell yourself you will fill it with an index or summary of the journal when you have finished the book)
- write about why you want to keep a journal and what you want to achieve
- write a summary of your current situation such as where you live, your job and relationship status
- complete a short questionnaire about yourself, such as age, height, weight, goals, role models
- write an introduction as if you were meeting someone for the first time
When to write
The most common times to write are first thing in the morning and just before sleeping, but you can write whenever you want. If taking a few minutes during your lunch break works for you, write in the middle of the day.
The morning is meant to be good to help you prepare for the day, with fewer distractions in your mind. While the evening can help you process the day and calm your head before going to sleep.
Experiment with different times and decide which works for you, or if you want to write at different times for different reasons. For example in the morning to focus on what you want to achieve and in the evening to clear your head.
How Often to write
This is personal choice and will link to the reason you want to journal. Just because people talk about daily journals doesn’t mean you need to write every day. Once you’ve decided how often you want to write, you need to write every time even if it is as short as one sentence.
How to build a regular journal habit
Making the decision to start a journal is easier than writing in one regularly. I know from personal experience having written on and off for many years. It may take a few attempts to embed regular writing, so don’t worry if you miss a few days, just start again the next day. You don’t even need to attempt to catch up, just start again and don’t feel guilty about it.
- Remember why you want to write a journal, what you want to get out of it
- Find the best time for you, and leave your journal out as a visible reminder
- Try different journalling technique to see which you enjoy the most
- Habit stack by attaching journal writing to another habit you already have in place, for example writing as you drink your morning tea
- On days when you feel tired or rushed still write something even if it is just you’re tired and are going to bed early.
- Look for inspiration from other journal writers*
- Start small and achievable as writing one sentence each day is better than writing a page one and nothing for several months. This will help you build up a consistent habit and on some days you may decide to write more, and on other days you may want to stick to one sentence
- Set a timer when you write as it will help you focus on the writing because you don’t have time to wait for the perfect idea
- Approach journal writing as an experiment, where you write every day for a month and then you review how it went and what changes you want to make
- If you don’t know what to write about, start by writing I don’t know what to write about and see what happens next.
Journal writing advice (not rules)
Journal writing is about you. As you do more writing you’ll start to develop and learn your preferences. There are no rules. However, I do have some advice:
- date your entries
- add location details, such as where you are when you write and the name of places you visit
- be honest, don’t lie to yourself
- it is okay to ramble, this is part of processing your thoughts
- don’t worry about spelling or grammar; write quickly without editing
- don’t compare your journal to the pictures of online bullet journals – there are many types of journals and some include art and some don’t.
- don’t worry about your handwriting
If I was to pick one thing as a rule it is journalling should not feel like a chore. If you’re not enjoying writing your journal try something different. For example try writing at a different time of day, try a different medium or using prompts.
Remember there is no correct way to start a personal journal, including the day you start – it does not need to be the first of January. The important thing is to start your journal when you want to start it.
*Disclosure – this post includes affiliate links which means if you buy something after following a link I will earn a propotion of the sale. It does not cost you anything extra.