When I was a teenager, I wrote in a journal almost every day — pages and pages full of vivid descriptions of social faux pas, psychoanalyses of my classmates, and blow-by-blows of conversations with my crushes. I filled up many spiral-bound notebooks between ages 13 and 17.
And then… nothing. Well, almost nothing.
As an adult, I haven’t been able to get in the habit of detailing the mundane events of my daily life. It just doesn’t seem that interesting to me anymore.
I also haven’t been able to get myself to sit down and just “free write.” Despite science demonstrating the effectiveness of journaling for improving mental health — not to mention the fact that I’ve always (hypocritically) recommended it to my own clients in therapy — the motivation just wasn’t there for me anymore.
But more recently, I’ve found some ways to “hack” myself into journaling more. Here are the three things that have helped the most.
1. Choose a journal that’s comfortable to write in
Am I giving you permission to go notebook shopping? Absolutely.
But don’t do what I used to do and buy the journal that’s prettiest, most expensive, or looks the most like the type of notebook that the type of person you are would have.
Instead, sit down with each journal at the store, grab a (capped) pen, and find out what it would actually feel like to write in it. Is it comfortable to use? Does it fit with the way you hold your hand while writing?
I find that spiral-bound notebooks with hard covers are easiest for me to write in. I don’t have to struggle to hold them open, and I can write comfortably with them on my lap. For you, it might be something totally different!
2. Take your journal everywhere
Yes, there’s a certain degree of risk with this. Don’t do it if you’re seriously concerned about the potential consequences.
But keeping my journal in my bag (most of the time) has allowed me to write in it whenever inspiration strikes — during my lunch break at work, in line at the post office, at a bar while waiting for a friend to arrive.
If you want to reduce the risk that someone might read it, there’s always journaling apps. These apps tend to include password or fingerprint protection, plus reminders, search, and other useful features. My favorites are Day One and Grid Diary, but there are dozens out there.
When choosing one, do it the same way you’d choose a notebook: by asking yourself how practical and comfortable it is to use, and how likely you are to actually do it.
3. Use prompts
This is what’s made the biggest difference for me in establishing a journaling habit. Free writing might be useful for some people, but for me it’s paralyzing. What to write?
Over time, I’ve created a set of journal prompts that reliably get me to write about what’s really on my mind rather than just rambling about the minutiae of my day.
Here are a few to try:
- “Write about something that didn’t go according to plan — but was awesome anyway.”
- “What are you grieving for? What losses have you recently experienced?”
- “Write about a recent situation during which you felt uncomfortable. What triggered the feeling?”
- “Make a list of everything you’re stressed or worried about. Will any of these be over or resolved soon? Are there any small steps you could take now to make any of them less stressful?”
- “What are some things you need or want to do but can’t seem to get done? What are the obstacles? What are some steps you could take to get started?”
As I come up with new journal prompts, I write each one on an index card. I keep the stack of index cards in a binder clip at the back of my journal to use whenever I get the writing itch but can’t decide how to direct it. You can even shuffle and randomly draw them to get started.
I’m by no means a regular when it comes to journaling — but I’m getting better.
Remember that even if you only journal from time to time, it still has the potential to help you. Besides, habits aren’t all-or-nothing. What starts as an occasional activity can become a habit before you know it.
Miri Mogilevsky is a writer, teacher, and practicing therapist in Columbus, Ohio. Miri holds a BA in psychology from Northwestern University and a Masters in Social Work from Columbia University. In October 2017, Miri was diagnosed with stage-2a breast cancer and completed treatment in spring 2018. Besides cancer, Miri also writes about mental health, queer identity, safer sex and consent, and gardening.