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How to make journaling work for you

journaling
Illustration by Courtnay Hough

“You should journal!”

This is a common piece of advice people who are handling stress might encounter. For some, it may be a comforting reminder of a strategy that they can use, for others it’s a daunting suggestion.

Maybe you don’t think of yourself as a strong writer. Maybe you don’t think you have the time to journal. Maybe you freeze up and don’t know what to write about.

The good news is that, although there are MANY right ways to journal, there’s really no wrong way.

Below you’ll find some advice about how to work on some of the logistics to start journaling. Use what you find helpful, ignore everything else.

As my friend Katrina says of yoga, “if you’re just sitting still and breathing, you’re doing yoga”. Journaling is the same way. Did you write or draw something on paper or digitally? Good! You’re journaling like a pro ❤️

When to journal

When you choose to journal can say a lot about how you use journaling.

Some people like to have a set time of the day with a set amount of time devoted to it. Usually, but not always that’s first thing in the morning or right before bed.

This kind of regimented schedule has the advantage of easily becoming a habit. It can help train your brain that you’re getting ready to start your day or wind down. It can serve as a set time of reflection.  That can help you feel calmer, knowing you have a time and place to process feelings and events from your day.

Although creating a set time and place for journaling has benefits, it’s not for everyone. I myself tend to journal more “as needed”.

When I am feeling something big or need to work through something, I pull out my trusty journal. I don’t do it daily.

I only seem to do it when I need some of what I’m thinking out on paper. That way, I don’t bottle it up.

The benefits of this “rescue inhaler” version of journaling is that I don’t stress about missing a day. I don’t feel incomplete or out of sorts if my day’s schedule is disrupted and I can’t journal. It also provides a coping strategy to use when things are too big or heavy.

Other people will journal as part of a meditation routine.

They keep a journal next to them when meditating. This serves as a place to put thoughts and ideas that came up while they were meditating. Or it can serve as a place to write them down to help clear them from their minds so they can focus.

You may only meditate a few times a week on a regular or irregular schedule. Journaling may be a tagalong activity and happen only when you meditate.

To know when YOU should journal think about what you want to get out of journaling. Pick a time that will do that.

Where to journal

Just like time, the setting for journaling is also important.

When I was teaching in the classroom, I did most of my journaling there, mainly at the end of the school day. There were a lot of heavy emotions, which I’m sure all current and former teachers can relate to.

Where I tend to journal now, is wherever there are intense feelings. It’s always somewhere quiet, away from other people though.

You may find that you want a space that ignites the habit of journaling, like a specific desk in your home or work. You may want to journal only when away from your home and work. It may help to process out of the environment where the things you are processing occurred. Coffee shops, libraries, and parks all make great journaling settings.

Maybe you are a single parent and the only quiet moments you get are in the bathroom. You can keep a journal in there to jot some quick thoughts whenever the mood strikes.

If you are journaling in the morning or evening you may choose your own bed as the setting where you journal. This would link the task even more with your routine.

Wherever you choose to journal, make sure it’s a place you feel safe and can concentrate.

What to use as a journal

Anything can be a journal, but there are a few stand-bys people use if you’re starting out.

Notebooks are very commonly used as journals. You can use anything from a spiral notebook to a fancy leather-bound one.

All you really need to think about is if you prefer blank pages, lines, grids, or dots. Select pages that go with your writing style.

Do you like to create doodles while you journal? Do you want to create a journal-planner hybrid like a bullet journal? Do you like the freedom of a blank page where you can put anything, anywhere?

Consider these questions and pick a journal that fulfills your needs.

What you are looking for here is a journal that “sparks joy” as Marie Kondo would say. It should feel good for you to have it in your hand. Maybe even consider a set of nice pens that you only use for your journal.

Anything you can do to make yourself excited about your journal will make you more likely to use it.

Some people don’t prefer paper though. If you like to keep things electronic, you have many options.

If you have a tablet, you may use a handwriting tool like Goodnotes or Notability. These offer many of the same customizations that I noted above. This includes the ability to choose your own paper and simulate different pens.

If you don’t have a tablet or hate handwriting, you can, of course, keep a journal on your computer. Programs you could use include Google Docs, Microsoft Word, or Pages. This is actually how I prefer to journal since I can type faster than I can handwrite. When I journal I prefer to get it all out as soon as possible.

Consider all your preferences, try out different journal types. Select the one that feels like your perfect wand at Olivander’s. And it’s okay if the journaling method picks you 😉

What to journal about

Journaling can have many purposes as we have seen from selecting time, setting, and manner of journaling.

What you choose to journal about can be extremely variable.

You may journal to explore ideas or thoughts you have, to cross-examine them. It may just be a way of processing, where you write the facts of your feelings and incidents that happened. You may journal about a specific idea or concept every day.

I find that what to journal about is the main thing that keeps people from journaling. They want to journal but when they open their beautiful journal, at their beautiful desk, at the appointed time– they freeze up.

Fear not! You have options.

At Azulita, we have daily prompts for Monday – Friday for the months of January, February, March, April, May, August, September, October, November, and December. When I was teaching, I did these along with my first-hour class and found them very helpful. We never grow out of thinking about where we are and what we want, need, and think. We also have 36 weeks of prompts that are designed to be thought about all week. They’re a good start if you need prompts.

If you google “journal prompts” you will find tons of prompts of every sort.

As for using them, you can, of course, take them sequentially, or pick the one you’re more drawn to that day.

A fun system I once saw for journal prompts, was a friend who kept a big jar on her desk. In the jar were tons of prompts she had written herself or found on the internet and liked. Every day she would just pull one from the jar and that’s what she would focus her writing on that day.

Other people like to have set things they write about every day. This goes especially well with a bullet journal. There you can track all sorts of things from your mood to your water intake.

Some people write a set number of things they are grateful for every day, and that’s their journaling.

Other people don’t write anything. They draw and doodle. For years I kept an illustration journal. In it I drew what had happened or how I was feeling and then wrote a poem below it. (Horrible, horrible poetry, that is just for me).

If you’re writing as a meditation tool or a coping mechanism, you probably won’t need a prompt. That’s because you’re writing about something that came to you or you’re feeling.

Whatever you choose to write about, create a system that helps you to not feel stressed out about what to write.

Why you should journal

Journaling a great tool for exploring your inner life. It can help you see yourself and others better. It can help you think through solutions to big problems.

Journaling may help you see patterns in how you think or handle situations.

It can help you clear space in your mind. That way, you feel calm and grounded. And it can make room for great ideas to pop in 🙂

There are many reasons to journal, but the best one is because you want to.

No matter what you want to get out of it, make a plan, find some tools that work for you, and make it happen!

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