If there is one habit that countless successful people across all industries throughout history have practiced, it’s probably a habit worth trying. I’m not sure how many habits meet this criteria, but certainly the most common is keeping a journal.
A journal has been by the side of history’s most successful and creative men and women, and still continue to be a cherished friend of many world leaders, CEOs, and artists.
Leonardo da Vinci famously kept journals on all of his thoughts and works, including paintings, scientific research, and crazy inventions. His journals were bought by Bill Gates for $30 million.
Marcus Aurelius, the Roman emperor and stoic philosopher, organized his thoughts and feelings in a journal. He would also write passages to motivate himself, such as a motivating passage to get him out of bed in the morning:
“At dawn, when you have trouble getting out of bed, tell yourself: ‘I have to go to work — as a human being. What do I have to complain of, if I’m going to do what I was born for — the things I was brought into the world to do? Or is this what I was created for? To huddle under the blankets and stay warm?'”Marcus Aurelius
President Theodore Roosevelt kept extensive journals on every aspect of his life, including his political career, hunting expeditions, and hiking treks. It provided him with a way of keeping track of everything that would happen (he led a very interesting life) as well as an outlet for his deep emotions.
If keeping a journal is good enough for a Roman Emperor, a Renaissance man, and a President, among countless others, it is certainly good enough for you and me.
In fact, you’ve probably stumbled upon this article because you’re interested in keeping a journal, but don’t know how to!
That was my biggest dilemma. I’ve used my journal for so many different forms of journaling. One page will be a narrative recount of that day’s events; another will be stream-of-consciousnesses writing; another will just be bullet points of what I did on that day.
To help get you started on keeping a journal, here are some tips and benefits:
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The Benefits of Keeping a Journal
It Organizes Your Thoughts
Just think of how many thoughts pass through your mind every day. It’s an uncountable number. When we keep these thoughts in our minds (or at least try to) we can quickly become overwhelmed.
Think of your journal as an extension of your mind. Put thoughts down onto paper so you can visually see them. This will help you organize your thoughts, as it gives you an actual look at them.
Once on paper, feel free to forget about them. You won’t really forget them, since they will be in your journal and you can access them whenever you want.
But to not worry about remembering these details…that’s will feel good.
It Improves Your Writing
Do you identify as a writer? Probably not. That label is reserved for professional authors with books on Amazon’s bestselling list. You and I, sitting at our desks, would never be considered writers.
And yet, so many people rely on writing in their professions. In any given job, a typical day could include writing emails, giving presentations, writing blog articles, writing press releases, and writing social media posts.
When you think about it, writing plays a big role in most corporate jobs. You could almost say that to work in such a setting is to become a writer, in the modern sense of the word.
One side effect of keeping a regular journal is your writing will improve. And not just your penmanship.
You’ll begin to notice improvements in how you structure sentences and paragraphs. Maybe you’ll have an easier time getting your thoughts onto paper in a way that makes sense.
One thing I learned during college is that writing is an art. And just like any other form of art, it needs to be practiced in order to look halfway decent. Journaling ever day will provide just that practice.
It Relieves Stress
If there was a sole reason why so many still keep traditional journals in the digital age, it would be the stress reduction effects.
Sitting down with a journal forces you to unplug from the digital world. Phone away, TV off, and any background music put on pause. Even 20 minutes of quite time with a journal away from electronics will make you feel better.
When you unplug and sit down with a journal, you begin to take your inner thoughts and put them onto paper. Many use a journal to get out two specific kinds of thoughts: stressful and thankful.
Seeing both kinds of thoughts on paper — as opposed to just floating around in your mind — is an almost-therapeutic exercise.
To put the stressful thoughts onto paper is to get them out of your mind. Useless anxieties that only exist to make life harder than it needs to be belong on the pages of your journal, not constantly on your mind.
To put the thankful thoughts onto paper is a great way of reminding yourself what you’re thankful for. It’s been the practice of so many people over the centuries to remind themselves on a daily basis what it is they are thankful for.
It Provides Clarity
As I hope I’ve made it clear above, journaling is a great way to get your thoughts down onto paper. Not only does this help relieve stress and turn your attention to more thankful thoughts, it also provides a kind of clarity that dwelling on thoughts can’t have.
Placing your thoughts onto paper and seeing them can give you a different perspective, and may give you the answers you are looking for.
Keep It Private: A Warning
To get the most use out of your trusty journal, you have to write in it uninhibited. Don’t hold anything back, and don’t look back at what you have written if it’s something you just needed to get out of your mind.
Above all else, I would say the number one rule is to keep your journal private. The fear of someone looking in at your journal and reading your thoughts will certainly cause you to hold back many of those thoughts, and become extremely critical of your writing.
A journal is where you can put your thoughts onto paper uninhibited. It’s probably the only place where you can do that. Don’t let the prying eyes of someone else ruin that for you.
Different Ways to Journal
Google “different ways to journal” and you’ll quickly become overwhelmed with the results. It seems like everyone has their own way of doing it, and each journal is different from the next.
That’s because journaling is a highly personal practice. Everybody is different, so everybody has their own way of journaling. Yours will look different from mine. Even mine looks different from mine!
Here are a few common ways of keeping a journal and the reasons why someone would choose to do so:
A Daily Log
Probably the most common way to keep a journal, and many would argue the best.
The daily log is simply a collection of thoughts on the day’s events. This could be a bullet list of the five or so highlights of the day, along with five or so things you’d like to improve on; or it can be a narrative of what happened that day.
The beauty of a daily log is you can see how your day played out, and have an idea on what you want your next day to look like. You’ve heard the saying “What gets measured gets managed.” A daily log is a measure of your day, so you can manage the next.
Additionally, it may be fun to look back on what a typical day was like for you later on in life. I’m in my early 20s now. When I’m getting ready to retire, I’m certain it would be fun to read old journals and remind myself of what life was like when I was just starting out my career!
A Travel Log
Travel logs aren’t just for adventurers heading into the heart of Africa of South America; they can rightly be used by anyone who is planning a trip.
Start your travel journal to plan your trip. You can list the route you intend to take, any restaurants you want to stop at along the way, people you hope to see, etc. The beginning pages will be your road map for the rest of the journey.
You can even take the planing phase a step further and write about what you imagine your journey will be like. Visualizing the most important parts will help make those images a reality.
When on your travels, it’s easy to think that you’ll remember the most important parts. But this is giving way too much credit to our memories, which become more and more crowded with information each day.
Use your travel journal to write down as many aspects of your journey as you can, because it’s a good assumption to make that you’ll forget most of it within a week of coming home. Even writing down five bullet points at the end of each day of traveling will save more information than you know for the future.
Don’t be afraid to doodle a little or add some pictures. Theodore Roosevelt, after he left office, went on a safari in Africa to examine the hundreds of species. His journals from the safari that lasted almost a year are filled with doodles of many animals and insects he encountered.
To conclude your travel journal, many would advise to write about your trip after you get home. What was your journey like? How did it impact you? What were the highs and lows? These musings will be the perfect conclusion to your travel journal, and can only be written after you get home.
Laying Out Your Thoughts
This goes off of what I wrote about before; a journal is a great way to lay out your thoughts and get a different perspective on them.
But a journal that is specifically meant to be a place for your deepest thoughts is on a different level than simply laying your thoughts out.
We are surrounded by so much noise all day and night that it’s easy to repress our deeper emotions in favor of shallow feelings. Many people use a journal to access those thoughts and get them out of their minds.
Diving Into Your Subconscious
What if you could read your subconscious thoughts, on paper? Perhaps the closest we can come to that is through stream-of-conscious writing.
Stream-of-conscious writing is where you write down what is going through your head, word-for-word, without directing your thoughts towards any particular direction.
You sit with your journal and pen, and observe your thoughts as they pass through your mind. Think of it as bird watching: You watch the birds fly overhead, but don’t interact with them in any way. You simply write down the birds you see.
Writer have used this to unlock their creative thinking. Bob Dylan wrote many songs with this technique, and it has given his songwriting a unique flair.
In my practice, I’ve found that I need to write two pages of stream-of-conscious thinking before I hit upon ideas that were in my mind, but I wasn’t aware of yet.
So how do you start off writing what’s on your mind? I simply start by writing something such as “I’m now writing what’s on my mind.” It really isn’t complicated, but can be difficult in practice, especially if you’ve never done this before.
Tips on Getting Started
The hardest part about anything is getting started. Journaling is something so simple, yet so hard to start and keep up with on a regular basis. Here are some tips on getting started:
Tell a Narrative
Telling a narrative is a much better way of journaling than simply recapping the day’s events. It’s also a lot more fun, and you will have an easier time with it once you get started.
Narrating the day’s events is the best way to improve your writing, since most pieces of writing today use narratives to tell a story (about brand values, products, news, etc.).
Begin with the Minimum Needed to Continue
Journaling three or four pages a day great, but only if you keep it up. It’s better not to overthink it and only write one page — or even one sentence — if it means you’ll return to your journal the next day.
One sentence written is better than three pages unwritten.
Start with a Gratitude Journal
The first steady journal I ever kept was a daily gratitude journal. This is simply a bullet list of five things I was grateful for on a given day. No more, no less, and no excuses.
This is a great way to build up the habit and work towards a daily log style journal with a narrative. But, even if you just stick with a gratitude journal, I’m sure you will be very happy with it!
Morning vs. Evening Journaling
Don’t get hung-up on this question. Some people say the right way to journal is in the morning; other swear by an evening journal.
It really don’t matter! What is more important is that you get a journal started and find a time that works for you.
For me, an evening journal is what works. I love recapping my day, and often concentrate on one aspect of my day to muse on.
That’s a long-winded way to basically say, “Keeping a journal is good.” That’s the big takeaway.
The benefits that come with keeping a journal are too good to pass up:
- It organizes your thoughts by placing them on paper
- It improves your writing, both grammar and penmanship
- It relieves stress by giving you an outlet to release your emotions and thoughts
- It provides clarity to issues you may be facing
A Google search will show you all the different ways of keeping a journal, and it can be hard to figure out which is right for you. So the best thing to do is to try out the different methods and see what you like:
- A daily log will help you keep track of your daily routine
- A travel log keeps your travels organized and documented
- A journal can simply be a way to lay out your thoughts, with no rhyme or reason
- You can also use stream-of-conscious writing to dive into your subconscious
The hardest part of started a regular journal is getting started. Journaling is something so simple that it’s easy to over-thing it. It helps to have a few starting points:
- Tell a narrative instead of just listing the day’s events
- Begin with a promise that you will write even just a sentence a day; after a while, you can promise yourself a little more; even a sentence a day is better than three pages a day that you don’t write
- A daily gratitude journal is an excellent way to start; by listing five things that you are thankful each day, you can build up the habit of journaling while also focusing on the positive aspects of your day
- Whether you choose to journal in the morning, the evening, or some time in between, it doesn’t matter; choose a time that works for you and dedicate yourself to sticking to it