Five Steps to Start Journaling


 “The weakest ink is stronger than the best memory.”

It’s frightening to realize how few of our thoughts and feelings we remember from day to day. That’s exactly why I’ve carried a journal with me every day since February 8, 2008. I like to think of it as a way of taking thoughts captive.

I haven’t always been this way though. It was definitely a struggle to get into the rhythm of writing, so I thought I would share my methods in hopes that it will inspire you to write also.

1.) Getting Started:

First of all find a journal you like. You’ve got to enjoy using it if you want any chance of forming a habit. I prefer the hard cover, pocket-sized Moleskine with squared/grid pages. It’s a very personal decision, so I’m not gonna tell you what you should like. If you don’t have a preference yet then start with this one and see how she feels.

Keep one journal at a time. The thought of having a journal for movie reviews and a separate one for sermon notes and still another one for your own thoughts is a nice idea, but it becomes a chore to manage all of that. Don’t compartmentalize; keep it chronological. Think of your journal as a slice of life from a particular season. One page may be a grocery list, the next could be an idea for a startup business, and the next could be a funny story about a stranger. Each page may not have anything in common with the next, but they are all woven together by their place in time.

Realize that a paper journal is a terrible method of organization. It’s not easy to search, and it’s impossible to rearrange. However, it is better than anything else for capturing thoughts. Use it for exactly that purpose. You can organize your thoughts in Evernote later. Right now the important thing is getting them on paper.

Obviously you’ll need a good pen too. I recently discovered this Faber-Castell artist pen, and I’ve taken a liking to it. However, it doesn’t stay in my pocket very well, so it’s my “at home” pen. I have another simple ballpoint pen that I keep in my pocket at all times.

2.) Personalizing:

The first and last pages of a journal are the easiest ones to find, and they’re the ones you’ll see the most. Therefore it helps to put the most important stuff on them. Here’s what works well for me.

  • Write your contact info at the beginning in case you lose it. You might even want to add a monetary reward for anybody that finds it. I increase the reward as I get closer to finishing the journal.
  • Number each journal. If this is your first one then you can wait until you’ve finished it. Given enough time it’s easy to forget which journal came first especially when they all look alike.
  • Write the starting date on the inside cover. 
  • Write your mission statement on the very first page. Every journal of mine has begun with the same text. It serves to remind me of who I am, where I’m going, and what I want. As trivial as it may sound I reread this page often, especially when I’m feeling stressed or aimless.
  • Write your bucket list on the second page. Be sure to leave some room for additions too. When you accomplish something on that list check it off and write the date next to it. This way you can flip to that date and read about the experience. (When you start your next journal don’t include the items you’ve already checked off. This insures that every checked-off item on your bucket list was accomplished during the time frame of that journal, which means you can read about it in the pages that follow).
  • If this is your first journal you might want to do a bullet-point introduction. Since there are no prior journals to reference you don’t have any context when you look back.

3.) Writing:

  • Write the date at the beginning of every entry. If you have multiple entries per day scribble your initials between each train of thought. I pay little attention to page breaks because my thoughts don’t always fit on a single page, and sometimes they’re too simple to fill an entire page.
  • Write about the mundane and exciting stuff alike. Don’t spend time judging what is important and what’s not; just write. The paper has a way of filtering out the non-essential stuff anyway.
  • Don’t let perfect be the enemy of good enough. Don’t worry about proper grammar and spelling; no one is grading this.
  • Don’t wait for something to finish before you begin writing about it. Document the journey. I’ve been known to scribble barely legible notes in the middle of a dark movie theater.
  • Doodle even if your drawing skills are terrible. Doodling is one of the best tools for sealing things in your memory. It’s not about creating a work of art; it’s about mapping connections in your brain to enhance your memory and understanding.
  • Write especially when you are inspired; don’t wait for a more convenient time. Emotion is better than eloquence.
  • Don’t try to catch up on days you didn’t write. It shouldn’t be a chore. There’s no reward for perfect attendance.
  • Don’t wait for inspiration. Start writing. The words will come. After all, a journal is a poor man’s counselor.

4.) Staying Organized:

  • Write a one-line caption at the top of each entry. This will help you skim the journal more easily.
  • Keep an index in the back of each journal. Flip it upside down and open it to the last page; it should feel like the first page because the book is upside down now. At the top of that page write the month and year of the very first entry. Below that write the date and then the caption for that entry. If you do this every time you write an entry it makes it much easier to stay organized. In the end you will have an index for every entry and a system (date) for finding it’s location in the journal. This makes your thoughts much more accessible which means your chances of rereading them just got a lot better. In all fairness, this is the hardest part of journaling. It only takes a second, but you have to make yourself do it or else it doesn’t work.
  • When you have finished the journal write the ending date next to the starting date on the inside cover. This will give you a timeline reference for each journal. For example, when I want to read my notes from my wedding I simply look for the journal that spans November 2011.

5.) Making it practical:

Yes, I know you can type faster than you can write, but it’s not about speed. I can cook all of my meals in a microwave, but they taste better when I use the oven. Slow down and let the discipline of writing on paper become a habit.

In order to get the most out of it you have to carry it with you everywhere. If your journal has a pocket in the back try using it as a wallet. Stick a credit card, ID, business card, and a few bills in there and see if you like using it as a wallet. You might need to reinforce the pocket if it looks like it will tear.

Carry a pen with you at all times. The journal doesn’t do you any good if you don’t have anything to write with.

Write three gratitudes every day. Even on the crappiest days you can still find three things to be thankful for. Try to avoid writing the same three things every day. Develop a habit of looking for new things to be thankful for. I recently wrote, “I’m thankful that the cushions on our ottoman are stiff enough to support a glass of water.” Look hard enough and you’ll find plenty to be thankful for.

Keep a trip log for adventures. This is one of my favorite uses for a journal. When I leave on a trip I will make timestamped entries several times throughout the day. By spending 2 or 3 minutes here and there I end up with several pages of notes in a single day. There is no way I would remember all that if I waited until the end of the day to write everything I could recall. This is especially rewarding on backpacking trips; it helps you remember the sights and feelings, but it also gives you a great record of your progress and timing.

Use it as a time killer. Next time you’re waiting on something read through your journal instead of your Facebook news feed.

In conclusion…

Writing isn’t always fun, but it is always rewarding. When I look back through my journals the only days that seem to matter are the ones when I made time for taking thoughts captive. The days when I was too busy to write are the first ones to be forgotten. Hopefully this post will lead to fewer days like that.

3 thoughts on “Five Steps to Start Journaling

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