There are many well-known benefits of keeping a journal: organizing your thoughts, managing emotions, raising your self-awareness and the list goes on.
And journaling sounds easy enough, right? Just pull out a notebook and start writing. Well, there’s actually a bit more to it … if you want to get the most out of your journaling practice, that is.
First, there’s the question of what to write in a journal. That’s where journaling prompts come in — but more about that later.
Let's start from the top.
What to Write in a Journal
There is no right or wrong way to journal. You can make it a daily practice that you do during a certain time of day, or journal when you are overwhelmed and need to process emotions, Dr. Rebecca Leslie, Psy.D. explains. You can also do a gratitude journal and have a daily practice of writing about things you are thankful for.
Tanya J. Peterson, mental health counselor, agrees there are no rules to journaling. “Think of journaling as journey-ing,” she says. “When you write in a journal, you are on a journey of discovery, and you don’t want to impede your path with concerns about rules and ‘shoulds.'"
Feeling like you should write about this or must avoid writing about that is stressful and anxiety-provoking, and it can really block you. Your journal is your own individual path to your own unique sense of wellness. Own it! Don’t let concerns about “right” and “wrong” or even “better” or “worse” journaling restrict your experience, Peterson explains.
While there aren’t any rules, it’s helpful to have some guidelines as to what to write about in a journal.
Peterson recommends these three tips:
Give yourself permission to explore
You’re not being judged or graded on your work. Explore what comes to mind and heart, and see where it leads you. Explorers always begin where they are. You can begin journaling right where you are, too. What brought you to this journey of journaling? You might begin writing about that. As you write, you’ll likely think of new topics or concepts you want to write more about. Allow yourself the flexibility to veer off path, and enjoy the exploration.
Approach your experience like a beginner
Buddhism teaches the concept of beginner’s mind. A beginner approaches life with openness and without expectations. Think of those prompts and subsequent blank spaces as beacons—they provide some light for guidance, but they’re not trying to expose certain answers.
You’re a beginner, not an expert; therefore, you don’t have to provide perfect responses (there is no such thing, anyway). Be open to whatever comes to your mind, and write about it as if you’re trying to learn more about yourself rather than trying to explain yourself to someone.
Let yourself flow as you are in each moment of journaling
Every time you settle into your comfortable seat and, favorite pen(s) in hand, open your journal, you’ll be a unique version of yourself. Let yourself be how you are in that moment, and let your thoughts and feelings flow right from that point. If you are upset about an interaction earlier in the day, allow yourself to write about it. If you are content and want to write about something positive, flow with that. You don’t always have to pick up where you left off (but you can if that’s what you need in that moment), and you don’t have to stick to a particular theme such as self-love or boundaries in your relationships (but again, you certainly can if it’s helpful).
Examples of journaling prompts
To help you get started, Dr. Leslie recommends the following prompts:
1. What am I thankful for today?
2. What are my intentions for today?
3. What am I feeling right now?
4. What am I thinking right now?
5. What are some things I can do to take care of myself today?
6. What word or words describe my intentions for the day?
7. How do I want to take care of my mental health and physical health?
8. What boundaries would be helpful for me to set?
Peterson suggests the following journaling prompts, some of which are more in-depth:
1. Look around you and let your gaze fall on one object. Describe it mindfully (using your senses to observe it rather than using thoughts to judge it): What does it look like? Feel like? Does it make any sounds, even subtle ones, or is it silent? What about scent? What memories or feelings does it evoke within you?
2. When you wake up in the morning, what is the first thing you notice? Is there something you’d rather pay attention to instead? How would your day change if you shifted your attention to something different?
3. Close your eyes, and tune in to your body. Slowly scan from head to toe. List all the places you’re holding your stress. Brainstorm things you can do to release stress from your body. What will that be like?
4. What are you passionate about?
5. What does living with purpose look like for you?
6. Write a letter of gratitude to yourself.
7. List three things that will make the rest of your day great. How will you invite them into your life?
The beauty of journaling is that you make it your own. It’s a therapeutic practice regardless of whether you’re looking to process a traumatic event, work through a relationship problem or need an outlet to vent about something that’s bothering you.
Along with helping to manage emotions, you can also use journaling to help you reframe your perspective and set goals. For example, if you tend to focus on the negative, you may benefit from a gratitude journal. Or if you’re trying to be healthier, try a fitness or nutrition journal. Bullet journaling allows you to keep track of your progress and stay organized.
The choice is yours!