How to Actually Stick to a Journaling Routine

8 minute read

A consistent journaling routine can be transformative. Research suggests it’s a reliable way to increase your health and happiness: It can relieve stress and anxiety, improve depression symptoms, enhance memory retention, and boost optimism.

That resonates with Margaret Ghielmetti, author of Brave(ish): A Memoir of a Recovering Perfectionist, who’s been journaling for most of her 63 years—starting with a small, white diary that required a golden key to access her childhood thoughts, and evolving through many Marimekko and Moleskine beauties. Growing up, she journaled about the confusion of being an introverted kid and her all-consuming crush on her eighth-grade science teacher. As an adult, she keeps what she calls “Trip Reports”: journal entries documenting her travels, which she can share with her parents, who are too frail to accompany her.

“Journaling is extremely therapeutic, and that’s why I’ve been at it for years,” says Ghielmetti. She appreciates having access to a lifetime of memories—journals are like a personal archive—and after writing in one, she feels unburdened and satisfied. “It’s been a constant companion to me.”

One reason why journaling is so powerful is because it promotes mindfulness, says Alison McKleroy, a therapist and author of The Self-Compassion Journal: Prompts and Practices to Inspire Kindness in Your Thoughts, Emotions, and Actions. She sees the practice as a “beautiful, radical act of caring for yourself.” It can help us identify the harsh ways we talk to and about ourselves, and begin to understand why and shift our language. Journaling is also an effective way to reexamine things we’re stuck on—like past failures—and figure out what we learned from them and how to move on. “It can be a way to put the past back into the past and complete it, so you can create anew,” she says. “It’s really taking some space to offer yourself clarity and compassion.”

But ask anyone who’s ever bought a fancy new notebook and then stumbled upon it six months later, pages blank: Consistency can be challenging. Here, experts share eight strategies to actually stick to a journaling routine.

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Name why you’re doing it

As you begin journaling, tap into your deeper motivations. Why is developing this practice important to you? How do you hope it will improve your life, and what do you expect to get out of it? “It could be a commitment to health and well-being, or to joy and happiness. It could be committing to learning and growth or meaning and purpose,” McKleroy says. Whatever the reason, “really connecting to why you’re doing it is crucial.” She recommends putting a sticky note on your journal that encapsulates why you’re embarking on this new journey. It might say “meaning and joy,” for example—a big-lettered reminder of what you stand to gain by filling up those pages.

Make a standing journaling appointment

One of the best ways to establish a new habit is to tag it onto an ingrained one, says Asaf Mazar, a behavioral scientist and postdoctoral research fellow at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. This is often called habit stacking: linking a new behavior to one you do automatically. It helps ensure there’s a designated time and place for whatever you’re vowing to do. “What happens a lot of times is people think, ‘I’m going to journal, I’m going to exercise,’ and that it will just kind of happen sometime throughout the day,” he says—but it never does. Instead of leaving things to chance, plan to journal for 15 minutes as you enjoy your morning coffee, immediately after your nighttime shower, or around the same time as some other time-tested ritual.

Create ridiculously achievable goals

Setting doable benchmarks can help keep you motivated and focused, says Masica Jordan-Alston, a psychologist and assistant professor in the department of counseling at Bowie State University in Maryland. That could mean aiming to hit a specific word count or number of pages each day. Or, you might pledge to journal for a certain amount of time—and it doesn’t have to be long. “Say, ‘I’m going to journal for five minutes today. I’m going to journal for three minutes,’” Jordan-Alston suggests. “If you only have one minute, you can draw a picture, just to get your thoughts out.”

Try different formats and tools

There’s no need to feel tied to or limited by pen and paper. Lots of people journal in other ways: Jordan-Alston, for example, has years of journal entries stored in the Notes app on her phone. After her brother died, she adopted a video-journaling routine and shared some of what she was feeling on her social-media platforms. “You can keep an audio journal in your phone as well,” she says. “I do it as Voice Memos—I have tons of them.” There are a variety of other speech-to-text tools that can also assist.

Or you could download an online program. The app Day One offers helpful templates and the ability to password-protect your journal, and it captures things like your location so you can sort through past entries on a map. Diarium allows you to dictate your thoughts with a speech-recognition tool, and you can attach photos and drawings. And Dabble Me sends regular reminders to journal via email—which you can do simply by replying to the message.

Minimize barriers—even the tiny ones

The smallest obstacles could prove to be the biggest reasons why you fail to stick to a journaling routine. If you’re going the pen-and-paper route, make things easier for yourself by ensuring your journal is always within eyesight, Mazar says. If you have to dig through a drawer to find it, you’ll probably move on to something else. It can also be helpful to opt for a bright color, like hot pink or orange, which increases the odds that your journal will stay in your line of sight and on your mind. Make sure, too, that you always have easy access to fully functioning pens. “If you’re tired, and you want to journal, but there isn’t a pen next to you at that very moment, it’s more likely you’ll give up,” Mazar notes. “It sounds silly, because it’s such a small obstacle, but that’s just how we work.”

Experiment with different journaling styles

Journals don’t always revolve around words—or traditional sentences. “There are times when I’m just freestyling poetry,” Jordan-Alston says. Others will feel most drawn to art journaling, which typically means blending color, words, and images on a page. Jordan-Alston’s 9-year-old daughter enjoys doodling in a journal; to her, it’s the best form of self-expression.

Bullet journaling is another popular approach. These journals typically don’t have lined pages; instead, there are sections to log to-do lists and aspirations, and to track things like fitness or fertility, often using shorthand and symbols. You could also opt for a gratitude journal, which is designed to record what you’re grateful for—often, for example, three things per day.

Lean on prompts

One of the challenges to consistently journaling can be figuring out what to do with all that blank space. If the words don’t come easily, consider utilizing a prompt—there are lots of books and websites that list options. For example, some people like the “rose, bud, thorn” approach, which means logging a rose (something positive that happened), a bud (something you’re looking forward to), and a thorn (something bothering you or that you need help with).

Writing letters to your future or younger self can also be powerful, McKleroy says. “I have people write letters to different parts of themselves, and that can be really lovely,” she says. “Like the part of you that’s scared, nervous, or sad.”

Enlist an accountability partner

Sharing your journaling practice with a friend or family member can help keep you motivated and hold you accountable. Experts suggest starting a journaling group with friends or finding an online community to share your progress with.

Don’t feel comfortable broadcasting your most private thoughts? Jordan-Alston instructs her students to share just one thing with their accountability partner. “It doesn’t have to be everything,” she says. And remember: There’s a big payoff to tapping into your vulnerable side, whether you keep your musings to yourself or share them with others. “When you want to get strong, you exercise and lift weights,” Jordan-Alston says. “When you want to restore your brain, you journal.”

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