A quick-start guide to journaling: 10 essential tips for beginners

Journaling has been nothing if not life-changing for me.

Every time I get stuck – with work, in life, in relationships, in processing emotions – journaling is there to help me sort it all out.

Being able to have that profound impact on your mindset is crucial when you want to heal and move forward in life.

However, back when I started, I had NO CLUE what I was doing. All I knew about journaling was that Dear diary cliché.

But real journaling is so much more.

I spent money on journals and eventually ended up doing bullet journaling instead of journaling.

And that’s a critical difference, especially when you want to access your subconscious programming and change how you make decisions from the inside out.

It can feel daunting to start, especially if you’ve seen people who are practised at this habit already.

But every person’s journaling will look different and there’s no point in getting hung up on comparing yourself to someone else.

With time, you’ll find a way of journaling that works best for you.

When you’re just starting out, try different things and see how you like them. If something doesn’t work for you, adjust it to suit you or drop it altogether.

Tip #1: Don’t get too hung up on the output

Journaling isn’t about performance. You don’t journal to produce a certain word count; you journal in order to clear your mind.

Journaling is a tool that helps you think better.

So, don’t worry about how much you write, worry more about that you do write.

Because in the beginning, before it becomes a habit, it’s harder to make yourself do it. But the more you practise, the easier it becomes to pick your journal up and let it carry your cognitive load for you.

And, as I said, don’t compare yourself to others.

Your journaling is for you. It’s for your eyes only. It’s your safe space to let it all go without judgement.

Forget about what other people do or don’t do, and just find what works for you.

Tip #2: Get a journal that you want to pick up

It doesn’t have to be expensive or fancy. In fact, having a journal that you feel is “too good to be wasted on random ramblings” doesn’t serve its purpose.

Choose the kind of journal you have no qualms about writing in.

One that makes it easy to pick it up and start writing.

Some people like to use hardcover journals, others like to use spiral notebooks or even note pads or those simple notebooks you used in school.

Choose something that you will use.

If that means that it’s not physical, but digital, then do that.

Use an app, or a software, or write a blog.

Whatever works best for you and gets you writing.

I have hardcover journals as well as spiral notebooks in the shop.

Tip #3: Set a reminder for journaling

Especially in the beginning, it’s easy to skip a day.

But that can quickly turn into two.

And then three. And before you know it, you haven’t journaled in six months and your brain is about to explode with overthinking things.

First, find out when it’s a good time for you to journal during a day.

Second, decide how often you want to do it. It’s not important to do it every day, it’s important to be consistent with it. If it’s good for you to do it three times a week, then stick to that consistently.

Third, use reminders to help you stay on track if it feels difficult to start a new habit.

Because just like building any other habit, it takes time and consistent effort before the pathways in your brain form, become stronger and start working in favour of the new habit.

Tip #4: Set a timer for your journaling

It doesn’t matter what you write, so long as you write.

If you feel like it’s too overwhelming to even start writing, set a limit of some kind.

Set a timer for 10 minutes, no more. Or only write three pages of longhand and no more.

When you know that there’s a limit to how long you have to “suffer” through it, it’s easier.

Because when you give your brain a limit, give it parameters that are like an empty box, your brain immediately jumps on how to solve filling that box.

And before you know it, you’ll have pages full of words that just flowed out of you.

Tip #4: Use journaling prompts

One of the best things you can do for yourself when you’re new to journaling is to use prompts.

Prompts are ready-formulated questions that will help you dig deeper into your journaling practice.

Using prompts saves you the trouble of having to come up with what you want to journal about. They’re also great when you want to delve deeper into a specific topic or explore something in more detail than you could on your own.

You can use journaling prompts for gratitude, forgiveness or just simply because you feel stuck and don’t know what to write about.

Tip #5: Be honest in your journaling

Your journal is for your eyes only.

Don’t worry about hurting anyone, or saying something offensive.

The most important benefit of journaling is that you get all that cognitive dissonance out of your head and onto the page.

Also, with openness and honesty comes accountability, healing and self-discovery.

If going through life is like accumulating stuff like a magnet picking up anything with the smallest metal part, writing honestly in your journal is like turning that magnet off and letting all that junk fall off.

If you worry about someone reading what you write, burn it after writing.

Or use a digital file and simply don’t save it.

The most cathartic part of journaling is letting go of all that stuff you a) don’t need and b) didn’t even realise you were carrying around.

Calling yourself out, learning about what makes you tick as a person, and why you act the way you do in certain situations in your journal is a great way to learn and grow as a human being.

Tip #6: No one has to read your journal

Not even you.

This tends to divide people.

Some people journal and keep everything, or most, of what they write so that they can later go back with a new perspective and discover something about themselves.

I’m in camp No, I Don’t Read Old Journal Entries.

I ramble a lot. I write a lot. There’s no point in me going back and picking it back up again – I wrote it down in the first place to be rid of it.

Instead, when I come across some personally meaningful truth in my journaling, I tend to either take an empty page and jot that thought down – and then don’t write anything else on that page.

If I flip through the journal before throwing it away, I can then easily spot the things I found significant.

Or I write it down in a different notebook, or among project notes to which the thought relates.

Most often, when I go back over old entries I find them chaotic and fairly useless in hindsight.

For me, the most important thing is the process of writing, not the output of the journaling. I write for a living, so journaling is like back-office work for my brain.

It’s necessary for me to be able to keep the important stuff clearly in mind.

Tip #7: Use journal printables

This is similar to using prompts, but not the same.

Someone else did the thinking and designing of the question or exercise.

All you have to do is fill it in.

This is a great way when you want to actively lower the barrier to entry.

Having these already set up spares you the effort of having to actually do anything other than act.

You can download free copies of my favourite journal printables right here.

They’re all A4 and printable PDFs. Print or copy them, whatever works for you.

I especially recommend checking out the Quadrant Exercise and Closing My Day printables. They’re quick and easy to fill out, but have such a great impact on your cognitive load and mood.

This is a great way to just get into the habit of writing in your journal every day without having to worry about what you’re doing.

Tip #8: Add other forms of self-care

When you start building a journaling habit, it takes a bit of effort. You have to be firm with yourself to actually do the damned thing.

Don’t accept excuses from yourself. If it’s time to journal, journal.

You can add other things to the journaling habit to make it more enjoyable, to amplify the you-time.

You can light your favourite scented candle for writing, sit down with a bevvy, meditate before or after journaling etc.

Whatever makes it more likely for you to do it, add that.

And whatever gives you more ownership of it, do that.

Making it more enjoyable only serves to make you want to do it more.

Tip #9: Don’t beat yourself up about it

You journal for the process of writing, not to create output.

There is no right or wrong way to go about it, other than to do it.

If you miss a sesh here and there, no sweat. Don’t beat yourself up about it.

This isn’t about being perfect. It’s about being honest and being there for yourself.

Women often have a lot of guilt surrounding self-care or doing things for themselves.

This isn’t another thing to add to the list of things to beat yourself up about.

This is for you. By you. And all about you.

The minute you start doing it because you’re keeping up appearances, you’ve stopped doing it for yourself.

Tip #10: Try different journaling methods

There are a lot of ways to journal out there. And they’re all good.

But just like you like your coffee a certain way, you’ll find you like to journal a certain way.

Not all kinds of journaling are helpful to you. Not everything is necessary for you.

But you gotta try different ways to find what you like. So, don’t be shy.

Examples of different kinds of journaling:

Any and all of these will help to transform your mindset, your mental health and your life.

How do you journal your thoughts?

I realise it sounds simplistic when I tell you to simply be honest and open in your journaling.

And it can be much easier said than done.

Trust me, I was once a stumped beginner, too.

Doing shadow work and facing your own dark side head-on, spilling out feelings that you aren’t even clear on yourself or writing about painful experiences isn’t easy.

We’ve been told to keep our emotions under wraps; society has a very limited range of what emotions are acceptable to show, and so we bottle it all up inside.

Toxic positivity – all that good vibes only shit – just glazes over your true experience.

Letting out your negative or shameful or dark emotions doesn’t make you a bad person. You are not your feelings.

Feelings come and go; that’s what they’re meant to do.

It’s when we stopper that flow – strangle them on the way in and prevent them from going out – that we become ill on so many levels.

Getting out of that habit of bottling it all up isn’t easy.

But it does get easier with practice.

When it feels difficult, go back to using journaling prompts. They’ll coax out your true thoughts and feelings.

Does it sometimes feel like being hit by a freight train afterwards? Yes.

But it also feels better after.

Even I, a journaling veteran of over 20 years, still LOVES journaling prompts. Because they allow me to think about something from a point of view that I yet haven’t, in a way that I haven’t yet considered something.

They open up avenues of thought that I could never achieve simply by journaling on my own.

If you want to get into journaling right this minute, I recommend you sign up for my free journaling course. If you don’t like it, you can subscribe at any time.

I specifically designed it to help the beginner and to get your brain on board with your new habit.

Thankful gratitude email course

Are you looking for a way to be more positive in your life?

Check out Thankful, my free journaling course. With it, you’ll learn how to develop a gratitude practise by tapping into your brain’s natural power to form new habits. You’ll be able to see the good in every situation and learn how to appreciate the little things in life.

So, what are you waiting for? Start transforming your mindset right now!