Like any habit, journaling is easier said than done. I tried for years (all of the half-empty notebooks in my childhood bedroom can attest to this) and didn’t form a sustaining habit until I studied abroad in university and wrote in a travel journal daily. Something just clicked during that time, and I kept it up when I was back home, where it morphed from a catalogue of the places I visited and food I ate into a place to work through feelings, expand on questions or random observations, and set goals for myself.
Still, I don’t feel like writing every day, even when I do have something I want to get off my chest. Other times I open my journal and stare at the blank pages, willing some brilliant thought to occur to me so I can write it down for posterity.
If you, too, occasionally have a hard time figuring out what you want to write about, I recommend reading this post by Benjamin P. Hardy, which is filled with great advice on how to build and stick to the habit. I especially like these three prompts for when you just can’t get anything on the page (emphasis mine):
- Start with gratitude and appreciation for everything happening in your life. Take plenty of time to reflect on and write about all the details of your life and relationships. Write about all the people who matter to you. Write about how far you’ve come. Write specifics about what is happening, and what has happened, since the last time you had a recovery session. Recording your history is a crucial component of journal writing. It provides context to your ideas, goals and plans.
- Be radically honest with yourself about what’s going on in your world in your journal. After you’ve just expressed gratitude and appreciation for the brilliance (and struggles) in your life, you need to be honest with yourself about where you’re not showing up. While in a peak state, you need to commit to making specific changes. Write down the key changes you need to make to achieve your dreams and ideals. Write down everything that comes to mind. Journaling is a powerful therapeutic and healing tool. While writing about the things you need to change, openly write about the frustrations and difficulties that have led you to where you are. Write about why you’ve struggled to make these changes in the past. Be very honest and vulnerable with yourself. No one else is going to read what you’re writing. The purpose of this writing is for you to get clarity, and to re-establish your priorities and focus. If you can’t be honest in your own journal, how can you expect to be honest in the rest of your life?
- Write about your big picture dreams. These could be framed as your life vision, your 3 – 5 year goals, or your goals for the next 3 – 12 months. It’s good to take some time and think about what you’re trying to do from the big picture before you zero-in on the specifics right in front of you. A key component of writing big-picture is that it reconnects you with your ‘why.’ It’s very easy to lose sight of your why during your daily routine and busyness. Additionally, there is a huge difference between ‘means’ goals and ‘ends’ goals. And your ends goals are the things that truly matter to you. They are the things you want in and of themselves, not because they will enable you to do what you really want. For example, getting a college degree so you can get a great job is a means goal. But what is the end? The end is what really matters, and you can save a lot of trouble by beginning and continuing with the end in mind. You can avoid pursuing goals that are societal expectations.
I’d like to point out that while I write about my goals in my journal and Hardy emphasises that journaling is a great way to set them for ourselves, you shouldn’t feel pressured to use yours to become more productive. That could be one benefit, if you choose to use it that way, but the best way to use your journal is how you want. There are no rules, and as Hardy points out, no one else is going to read your journal.
You can just be yourself, or work out who that self is. In an age where every aspect of life can seem performative and maximised for efficiency, that is freeing and therapeutic.
And if you want something even more abstract, try freewriting, which is a form of journaling where you write continuously for a set amount of time without worrying about spelling, grammar, or even, really, if you’re staying “on theme”. You just write until a set time runs out.
On days when I don’t have much to say but still feel the need to journal, I use Writelight, which is a website and app that gives you randomised prompts. You choose the amount of time you want to write continuously (say five, 10 or even 20 minutes), and a theme (presented as symbols, such as a torch or cup of coffee), and Writelight gives you a sentence-long prompt.
For example, when I select seven minutes and the little bird, the prompt is “What should I focus on? What is the reason I should focus on these things right now?” If I chose 10 minutes and a cat, the prompt is “If I have the entire morning all to myself, I would spend it doing…” (To be honest, I’m not sure the second option matters that much, but it’s fun to pick one.)
Once you get loose, it’s easier to continue writing, whether you go over the time limit on the Writelight prompt or you switch over to something more personal. And don’t worry if you only journal once every few days or months – this is your outlet, after all.