How to Find the Right Journaling Style to Improve Your Life
Whether you want to improve your mood, feel more organized, or sleep better, we’ll help you write it out and make it happen.
Several years ago, I got a call from a local historical society. They’d found my middle school diary! At Goodwill! Might I consider donating it to the historical society? Since much of my middle school life consisted of dull bus rides, crushes on unattainable boys, and a fear of math equations involving decimals, I couldn’t believe anyone would be interested in my youthful musings.
But, I learned, diaries are an important resource. They’re not just for important figures like Virginia Woolf and Anne Frank. They show historians how people lived and tell social scientists what concerns regular folks wrestled with. So I gave the society permission to hang on to the diary, as long as it remained sealed until my death. (I had some very snarky things to say about my fellow seventh graders I’d prefer to keep hush-hush.)
Of course, when I wrote in that diary, I wasn’t thinking about history. I was thinking about channeling my rage, sorrow, and yearnings in a safe way. I recall the relief I felt after unleashing my most unbecoming, potent feelings and knowing they were private. No one could judge me. And I felt better. So why did I stop? Well, some of us let our diary writing go when the manic pace of life takes over; we begin associating writing with work. Or we develop enough self-consciousness that the thought of putting thoughts to paper (or pixels) makes us uncomfortable.
But in recent years, journaling has felt less like a childish hobby and more like a zeitgeisty mindfulness trend. Witness the blossoming of Pinterest boards devoted to bullet journaling (more on that later), the fetishization of Moleskine notebooks, and the sway of journaling advocates like Gretchen Rubin. It also turns out that there’s an ever-growing body of research on journaling’s many benefits. Studies suggest that the habit can boost your immune system, lower your heart rate, and lessen some symptoms of depression, anxiety, and PTSD. Keeping a journal can also improve your body image, even if you don’t write about your weight (really).
So whether you’re looking for peace, perspective, or a creative outlet, there’s a journaling method that might help.
If You Want to Work Through Emotions
Evidence shows that labeling your emotions calms your experience of them. Writing about your sorrow or outrage—owning it, in words, in the journal of your choice—may help you better cope, according to Beth Jacobs, PhD, a clinical psychologist in Chicago and the author of Writing for Emotional Balance and the forthcoming A Buddhist Journal. “There’s an incredible release when emotions become tangible and visible, out of your head and into the world in a contained, self-controlled way,” she says.
But beware the tendency to simply spew. Instead, Jacobs recommends allowing yourself around 30 minutes (or three pages, whichever limit you prefer) to vent about whatever is on your mind. Then spend a little time (about 10 minutes) writing a positive affirmation or questions to ponder post-journaling. You might also look at yourself from an outside perspective. Reread whatever you’ve last vented about in your journal, pretending that someone else wrote it, and spend some time reframing it. What would you ask the person who’d written those words? What would you suggest that person do to move forward?
Another helpful exercise for working through sadness and pain is to write about your best possible self—the person you’d be if everything went right. What job would you have? Where would you live? What steps will you take to get to this version of you? One study found that writing about the ideal self was at least as beneficial as writing about trauma. “You’re turning yourself into the author of your own story in a literal way,” says Jacobs.
If You Want to Get Organized
A bullet journal is a months-long log with an index, task lists, events, notes, and reflections. You can buy one premade or create your own using a dotted-grid notebook from a company like Leuchtturm1917 or Moleskine. A bullet journal (or “bujo,” as the cognoscenti say) is almost endlessly flexible: It can be used for moment-to-moment scheduling, setting and tracking long-term plans and goals, and creative writing and drawing.
For some people (me), that level of freedom can be terrifying. For others, it’s helpful. “My work is unstructured, so the bullet journal provides a focus for my attention,” says Jolenta Greenberg, a comedian in New York City and cohost of the podcast By the Book, who uses her bullet journal to record events, affirmations, and personal thoughts. “I love my bullet journal because of my anxiety.”
A bullet journal is also good for detail-oriented people who crave a sense of control, as it keeps daily and monthly tasks and creative pursuits in one place. Greenberg finds this soothing. “I love playing with calligraphy and hand-lettering,” she says. “I have rulers and different ink colors. It taps into the person in me who loves buying school supplies.”
If You Want To Tune in to Your Creativity
A journal doesn’t have to be text-based. It can be a multimedia sketchbook or scrapbook with photos and art. Jim Henson and Kurt Cobain both kept journals filled with drawings as well as words. As Kendra Levin, a life coach for writers and the author of The Hero Is You, puts it, “A journal can be the external hard drive for your whole life’s memories.” You can incorporate stickers and ticket stubs from meaningful concerts and plays. You can add family photos and old postcards.
Or try journaling with key words: Levin suggests pondering your experiences of the day and writing down the words, phrases, and images that pop into your head without making any effort to connect them. (Why be linear at all? Write them all over the page, in bubble letters and in script, big and small!) You might gain surprising insight into your psyche.
If You Want to Be Kinder
Feeling excessively snarky? Overwhelmed and upset about the state of the world? Grumpy about a coworker? Research has found that keeping a gratitude journal— a place to write down what you’re thankful for—can help you feel better about your life and more charitable toward other people.
In one study, people were asked to list five things for which they were grateful once a week for 10 weeks. Afterward, they felt more optimistic and satisfied with their lives than participants in control groups. They also felt better physically, with fewer headaches, coughs, bouts of nausea—and even pimples. Other studies have found that expressions of gratitude are associated with improved sleep and feelings of connection with others.
To practice gratitude journaling, jot down three to five things you’re thankful for in a notebook; do this every few days or every week. You can be as lofty or as mundane as you wish. Today, for instance, I’d write that I’m grateful for the gorgeous purple pansy I saw in a seed catalog, for my shy cat choosing to sit on my lap, for Trader Joe’s zucchini fries, for being able to help my best friend find an affordable but cute leather backpack on eBay, and for the fact that writing this story made me remember the time my 3-year-old confused the words “diary” and “diarrhea.”
If You Want to Sleep Better
Nighttime journaling can be a great sleep aid. “When you put your thoughts in a book you can literally close, you can take everything running around in your head from the whole day and just plop it in,” says Levin.
Alternatively, you may prefer “morning pages,” a practice first discussed by Julia Cameron in her seminal book The Artist’s Way. First thing in the morning, when you’re still half-asleep, or “before our ego is awake,” as she says in the book, write three pages in a journal—then stop. Just ramble; don’t try to craft anything. When you look back, you may be astonished by what you were working through. Knowing that you’ll unleash everything in the morning may help you rest better at night.
If You’re Not Sure You’re Into Journaling
If beginning a journal is daunting because you find yourself fretting about what to write about and whether you’re doing it “right,” consider a structured format, such as a one-sentence journal that’s such a low commitment you can’t possibly mess it up. A popular one, Q&A a Day ($17; amazon.com), poses 365 questions on everything from what you hope for to what you wore—one for each day of the year. Over five years, you answer the same question every, say, January 1.
Chava Pinchuck, a librarian in Beit Shemesh, Israel, loves her Q&A a Day journal for the long view it provides of her life. “I like it because some things stay the same over the years and some things change, and it’s nice to see the progression,” she says. “Although I seem to wear the same earrings a lot!”
No matter what form you choose, journaling can be an escape, a treat, a snapshot of who you are in time, and a type of therapy. “When you can write yourself as the hero of your own story, you know you can write your way through the most difficult times,” says Levin.
Use an App
While there’s evidence that writing by hand boosts creativity and memory, phone apps are awfully convenient. Highly regarded journaling apps include Journey (2appstudio.com/journey), stored in Google Drive; Penzu (penzu.com), which offers guides for gratitude, prayer, pregnancy, and other journals; and Day One (dayoneapp.com), which earns raves for its design and use of metadata—such as what music you were listening to and what the weather was like when you wrote.