Journaling is not just a little thing you do to pass the time, to write down your memories—though it can be—it’s a strategy that has helped brilliant, powerful, and wise people become better at what they do.
Oscar Wilde, Susan Sontag, W.H. Auden, Queen Victoria, John Quincy Adams, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Virginia Woolf, Joan Didion, John Steinbeck, Sylvia Plath, Shawn Green, Mary Chestnut, Brian Koppelman, Anaïs Nin, Franz Kafka, Martina Navratilova, and Ben Franklin. All journalers—just to name a few!
For them and so many others as Foucault said, it wasa “weapon for spiritual combat.” It was part of who they were. It made them who they were. It can make you better too.
Whether you’re brand new to the concept of journaling or you’ve journaled in the past and fallen out of practice, my guide to journaling will inform you of everything you need to know to help you make journaling one of the best things you do in 2023 and beyond. You’ll learn not only how to journal but also about the benefits of journaling, the famous journaling of the past 2,000 years, the best journals to use, and more.
The benefits of journaling
The scientific research to support journaling is extensive and compelling:
- According to a study conducted by Harvard Business School, participants who journaled at the end of the day had a 25 percent increase in performance when compared with a control group who did not journal.
- The Journal of Experimental Psychology found that journaling before bed decreases cognitive stimulus, rumination, and worry, allowing you to fall asleep faster.
- Research published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology found that reflective writing reduces intrusive and avoidant thoughts about negative events and improves working memory. These improvements in turn free up our cognitive resources for other mental activities including our ability to cope more effectively with stress.
Bring your problems to your journal
On June 12, 1942, Anne Frank made her first entry to her famous, existentially essential diary, “I hope you’ll be a Great Source of Comfort and Support.” Twenty-four days after that first entry, Anne and her Jewish family were forced into hiding in the cramped attic annex over her father’s warehouse in Amsterdam. It’s where they would spend the next two years.
According to Anne Frank’s father, Otto, Anne didn’t write in her journal every day. She wrote when she was upset or dealing with a problem. She wrote when she was confused. She wrote in that journal as a form of therapy so as not to unload her troubled thoughts on the family and compatriots with whom she shared such unenviable conditions. One of her best and most insightful lines must have come on a particularly difficult day. “Paper,” she said, “has more patience than people.”
Your journaling is not your performing for history. It’s you reflecting. It’s you working through your thoughts. It’s you figuring things out and clearing your head.
Journal for your future self
Produce something that will give you something to look back on and learn from. The musician, producer, circus performer, entrepreneur, and author, Derek Sivers, wrote an article that began, “You know those people whose lives are transformed by meditation or yoga or something like that? For me, it’s writing in my diary and journals. It’s made all the difference in the world for my learning, reflecting, and peace of mind.”
For over 20 years, every night, Sivers takes just a couple minutes to jot down a few sentences to recap his day, how he felt, and thoughts he had. What’s so transformational about that? As Sivers explains:
“We so often make big decisions in life based on predictions of how we think we’ll feel in the future or what we’ll want. Your past self is your best indicator of how you felt in similar situations. So it helps to have an accurate picture of your past. You can’t trust distant memories but you can trust your daily diary. It’s the best indicator to your future self of what was going on in your life at this time.
If you’re feeling you don’t have the time or it’s not interesting enough, remember: You’re doing this for your future self. Future you will want to look back at this time in your life and find out what you were doing, day-to-day, and how you felt back then. It will help you make better decisions.”
Forget all the rules about journaling. Do what works.
What’s the best way to start journaling? Is there an ideal time of day? How long should it take? How many pages?
Forget all that. Who cares? How you journal is much less important than why you are doing it: To have quiet time with your thoughts, to clarify those thoughts, and to review the day that passed. There’s no right way or wrong way. The point is just to do it.
When Charles Darwin began keeping his little diary at the age of 29, he filled the pages with everything he could remember from his life, until eventually, he was up to date and shifted his journaling to daily notable events.
Thomas Edison made it his objective to record the most mundane events and details of his day. “Went into a drug store and bought some alleged candy, asked the gilded youth with the usual vacuous expression, if he had any nitric peroxide, he gave a wild stare of incomprehensibility,”
Thomas Jefferson’s morning journaling routine began taking weather measurements such as temperature, wind speed, and precipitation.
Ben Franklin used his journal to chart his progress with his personally constructed improvement program of living his thirteen virtues.
George Marshall jotted down the names of everyone he met in his journal and made notes of the character traits he observed.
Leonardo da Vinci’s habit was to write little fables to himself.
Susan Sontag typically journaled lists—movies seen, books read or to read, places to eat and drink, cities she hoped to visit, notable artists, words, and phrases she liked.
As Virginia Woolf’s husband observed in the introduction to Woolf’s collected journal, A Writer’s Diary, she used her journal for “practicing or trying out the art of writing.”
There are no rules in journal writing. The pages are for your eyes only. Be your weirdest self. Be your most curious self. Be your most prolific horrible idea-having self. Dump out everything and anything that comes to mind. There’s no one way to journal. There’s no right way to journal. There’s only your way of journaling. Make it weird. Make it fun. Just do it.
How to Journal
Tim Ferriss states in the 5-Minute Journal which he uses for prioritizing and gratitude:
“The 5MJ is simplicity itself and hits a lot of birds with one stone: Five minutes in the morning of answering a few prompts and then five minutes in the evening doing the same…Think of it as my boot-up sequence for an optimal day. The rest varies wildly but the first 60 to 90 minutes after waking are what I focus on most.”
Your journaling does not need to produce Nobel Prize-worthy prose. You don’t need to commit to a life practice right now. Start with one line—about how you are feeling, something you did today, something you are excited about, or someone you met.
Start by doing it for one week. Start by writing a few things you are grateful for. Start with a sentence about the mindset you are going to attack the day with, about something interesting you learned, or about your plans for the day. Whatever it is, start ridiculously small. You’ll know when you’re ready to build on it and write in more depth.
Track something in your journal
Most people drop the journaling habit, or never begin, out of intimidation. The blank page is scary. Where do I even start? I have nothing important to say. Take the pressure off by creating an easy metric to track each day as the first line of your journal entry.
Nobel Prize winner Danny Kahneman suggests keeping track of the decisions you’ve made in your journal.
Neuroscientist Dr. Tara Swart lists what she is grateful for and what she accomplished.
Bestselling author and avid runner David Epstein tracks workouts and training goals.
Bestselling author and artist Austin Kleon keeps a logbook — writing down each day a simple list of things that have occurred. Who did he meet, what did he do, etc.?
Why? For the same reason many of us struggle with keeping a journal: “For one thing, I’m lazy. It’s easier to just list the events of the day than to craft them into a prose narrative. Any time I’ve tried to keep a journal, I ran out of steam pretty quick.”
You can track what time you wake up and how many hours of sleep you get. You can log everything you ate that day. You can record the tasks you accomplished, the hikes you took, and the places visited. The point is to know where to begin when you open the blank page each day.
Use your journal to review your day
Seneca seemed to do most of his journaling and reflection in the evening. As he wrote, “When the light has been removed and my wife has fallen silent, aware of this habit that’s now mine, I examine my entire day and go back over what I’ve done and said, hiding nothing from myself, passing nothing by.”
He would ask himself whether his actions had been just, what he could have done better, what habits he could curb, how he might improve himself.
Winston Churchill was famously afraid of going to bed at the end of the day having not created, written, or done anything that moved his life forward “Every night,” he wrote, “I try myself by Court Martial to see if I have done anything effective during the day. I don’t mean just pawing the ground, anyone can go through the motions, but something effective.”
Copy down important quotes in your journal
In Meditations, Marcus Aurelius twice quotes from the comedies of Aristophanes, the Athenian comic playwright. Half a dozen times we see him quote the tragedies and plays of Euripides as well as the teachings of Epictetus. He quotes the tragedian Sophocles’ Oedipus the King. He quotes philosophers Democritus, Epicurus, and Plato. He quotes the poets Empedocles, Pindar, and Menander.
Petrarch kept one. Montaigne, Thomas Jefferson, Napoleon, Ronald Reagan, Charles Darwin, Mark Twain, Ludwig van Beethoven—they all kept a journal, a depository of quotes and anecdotes.
According to his biographer, the author and columnist H.L. Mencken “methodically filled notebooks with incidents, recording straps of dialog and slang,” and favorite bits from newspaper columns he liked. Record what strikes you, quotes that motivate you, stories that inspire you for later use in your life, in your writing, in your speaking, or whatever it is that you do.
In 2010, when the Reagan Presidential Library was undergoing renovation, a box labeled “RR’s desk” was discovered. Inside the box were the personal belongings Ronald Reagan kept on his office desk including several black boxes containing 4×6 note cards filled with handwritten quotes, thoughts, stories, political aphorisms, and one-liners. They were separated by themes like “On the Nation,” and “On Liberty.” “On War,” “On the People,” “The World,” “Humor,” and “On Character”.
Brainstorm ideas in your journal
Ludwig van Beethoven was rarely seen without his notebook, not even when out to drinks with friends. One of his biographers, Wilhelm Von Lenz, wrote in 1855, “When Beethoven was enjoying a beer, he might suddenly pull out his notebook and write something in it. ‘Something just occurred to me,’ he would say, sticking it back into his pocket. The ideas that he tossed off separately, with only a few lines and points and without barlines, are hieroglyphics that no one can decipher. Thus in these tiny notebooks, he concealed a treasure of ideas.”
Pliny the Younger, a prominent lawyer and prolific writer in ancient Rome, was another to keep a notebook always at hand. In one letter to the eminent senator and historian Cornelius Tacitus, Pliny describes a morning hunting trip. “I was sitting by the hunting nets with writing materials by my side,” he writes, “thinking something out and making notes, so that even if I came home emptyhanded I should at least have my notebooks filled.
Don’t look down on mental activity of this kind, for it is remarkable how one’s wits are sharpened by physical exercise; the mere fact of being alone in the depths of the woods in the silence necessary for hunting is a positive stimulus to thought. So next time you hunt yourself, follow my example and take your notebooks along with your lunch basket and flask; you will find that Minerva walks the hills no less than Diana.”
Thomas Edison kept a notebook titled “Private Idea Book” in which he kept different ideas that popped into his head, possible inventions he’d later work on, such as “artificial silk” or “ink for the blind” or “platinum wire ice cutting the machine.”
Entrepreneur and Bestselling author James Altucher carries with him a waiter’s pad and forces himself to come up with at least ten ideas per day.
Keeping a journal is the veriest pastime in the world and the pleasantest…Only those rare natures that are made up of pluck, endurance, devotion to duty for duty’s sake, and invincible determination, may hope to venture upon so tremendous an enterprise as the keeping of a journal.