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Every time I'm told to journal my thoughts and feelings, the inner child in me groans ever so slightly.
Instantly, I’m having flashbacks of my seventh-grade diary or eighth-grade health class… where weekly journaling was a requirement.
Despite those things, we somehow managed to get this far in life without ever being taught how to journal for self-improvement… as adults.
Journaling can have a profound effect on our perspectives and mental well-being… yet we often dismiss the notion and immediately seek out other ways to improve ourselves. Things like going to the gym, taking up yoga or speaking to a therapist.
What is Journaling?
Journaling is the regular writing or recording of random thoughts, lists, pictures, doodles, personal observations, interpretations of feelings, creative writing or memories.
Some will confuse journaling with keeping a diary. The best explanation I ever found describing the difference between the two is this, “A diary is a book to record events as they happen. In contrast, a journal is a book used to explore ideas that take shape.”.
A diary allows us to look back on past… but a journal forces us to focus on the present and future. It is this ongoing personal record that can provide insight into someone's physical and emotional well-being.
As a bonus, researchers now believe that regular writing makes you smarter!
Seems I picked the right profession!
How to Journal for Self-Improvement
Journal writing can be transformative. And when done regularly – it promotes healing and self-forgiveness… as well as self-love.
The process can be an incredible journey of discovery, providing us with new perspectives and insights about ourselves and those around us.
You may be thinking it’s hard to keep a journal… sitting down to look upon a blank page staring back at you. And what about the time it takes?
Journaling for self-improvement is a commitment. At the very least a weekly commitment… if not a daily one.
While these are valid points, remember that journaling also has the potential to guide your thoughts in a more positive light. It provides a better understanding of one’s self, which is also known as “journaling with intention”.
Sounds promising, right?
If you’re up for the challenge, keep reading to learn more.
The Basic Types of Journals
There are five types of journaling techniques… but no right or wrong way to write a journal. It's the words, ideas, reasons and feelings evoked from it that are important.
It's about the process, not necessarily the result.
So what are the basic types of journals and how are they used?
1. A Goals Journal
This is your standard journal… the one most common for folks starting out with journaling for self-improvement.
This technique helps you focus on what you want in life, rather than what you think you want… or what other people want from you.
With this type of journal, you simply sit down and list your goals.
First thing each morning, grab a cup of coffee or tea and jot down your top five goals.
This could be goals for the day, the week, month… or even your current life goals.
Do this for 30 days, no exceptions. Wake, write, repeat.
Here’s an example:
- Travel to India
- Lose weight
- Play the piano again
- Answer all my messages each day
- Go to bed before midnight
Slowly, if you are diligent, your thoughts will start to become clearer.
In fact, your goals may even change over time.
At the end of the 30 days, you can begin to explore why you haven't or have achieved your goals.
2. A Daily Journal
The daily journal is a log or summary of each day's events.
But this style of writing is more than just documenting times, dates and places.
Similar to our childhood diaries, it usually includes more details. Things like what you did, ate, said, who you saw and how bad your hair looked.
This journal technique is a great way to record your life’s moments, big and small.
Here’s an example:
Today, I left work early. I said it was for a doctor's appointment, but it was really to get my hair done.
This is a place to be honest with yourself… and it’s your call as to whether or not you want to include every little detail or event.
Remember this though… the more honest you are with your journal, the greater the potential for self-growth.
So don’t be afraid to include things like running that red light before getting home… or why you didn’t tip your lunch server 20%.
3. A Gratitude Journal
Gratitude is a powerful human emotion… and the benefits of gratitude are endless.
Studies show that gratitude improves relationships. It makes people feel worthy.
We say “thank you” others daily. Sometimes it’s with a warm smile to the man who held the door for you.
“Thank you” to the woman who serves you coffee with a smile each day.
“Thanks, come again” is on almost every business window. And most every email ends with “thanks” or “best regards”.
But do we ever thank ourselves?
Gratitude impacts mental and physical well-being… and, this, my friends is the point of gratitude journaling.
Every morning, write down the five things that you are most grateful for. The things and people that make you most happy.
You can make an extensive, running list… or start a new one each day.
Add a little explanation, or don't.
I am grateful for my cat, my friends and my health.
Realistically, gratitude journaling doesn't have to be done in the morning. But keep in mind, gratitude engenders a positive feeling that creates a feedback loop… which can extend to everyone you meet throughout the day.
If you wake up feeling grateful… the day will look brighter.
Gratitude can also affect stress.
A recent study revealed that gratitude affects brain chemistry, triggering dopamine and serotonin release. These are two neurotransmitters responsible for our emotions. They enhance our mood and make us happy.
Think about it, just by consciously practicing gratitude every day, our neural pathways strengthen… creating a calm and positive energy flow.
Other studies have shown that gratitude also negates toxic emotions. The limbic system, which regulates emotions and memory, is activated by appreciation.
Research has also found a correlation between gratitude and pain management. A study that evaluated the effect of gratitude on physical well-being indicated that 16% of the patients who kept a gratitude journal reported reduced pain symptoms.
4. Stress, Fear, Pain and Anxiety Journal
Stress is an everyday occurrence caused by unexpected conflict, scattered thoughts, fear, uncertainty, pain or overwhelming feelings of anxiety.
A stressed state also leads to depression, bad decisions and bad judgment.
The Grateful Heart, a well-known study by McCraty and colleagues, found that grateful participants registered a reduction in cortisol levels… the stress hormone. Better heart functioning and a higher resiliency to emotional setbacks and negative experiences was also documented.
By reducing stress hormones, gratitude significantly reduces symptoms of depression and anxiety.
Journaling negative emotions, like when we are stressed or anxious, can also uncover the root cause. And once we know the trigger point, we can begin to resolve the problem.
When I worry about money, my back hurts and I’ll have to call in sick to work.
Again, there is no right or wrong. It is your journal! And it can be an assortment of stuff – lists, sketches, poems, quotes, or even creative writing. If you need some help getting started, check out this post about journaling prompts for anxiety.
5. A Problem-Solving Journal
There is usually a significant amount of “ranting and raving” in a problem-solving journal.
And that's OK!
Don't be discouraged. Keep writing.
You will eventually get to what's bothering you.
How will I go to college? My grades are so bad and we don't have the money. I don’t want to be in debt for the rest of my life.
In the outside world, we tend to make our problems bigger than they really are… but on paper, things become manageable, as we start to visualize a path to resolution.
OK, so now that we’ve covered how to journal for self-improvement, we need to talk about journal prompts.
Journal prompts, also known as writing prompts, are journaling ideas that help you to focus on what to write. Using journal prompts give you a clearer direction before you start writing!
Basic Journal Prompts
So, how do you come up with journal prompts?
It's easy actually. Start by asking yourself a question you want the answer to.
This will help you focus your thoughts and gives you a topic to write about when you have a “mushy brain.”
There are three types of journal prompts:
- Self-discovery (such as mindfulness journal prompts)
And in many cases, their form and function overlap.
Here’s a journal prompt example for you… one that works well in a gratitude journal or daily log.
“What was the best thing that happened today?”
If nothing happened, write that down too. Just be sure to see if you can add a “why” to everything you write. This will enhance creativity and the thought process.
Self-Love Journal Prompts
Self-love means caring for oneself, like taking a daily shower or defending yourself when bullied or criticized.
So, show yourself some love by answering these questions:
- What makes you feel loved?
- Which of today's accomplishments makes you proud?
- How did you respond when you were teased or insulted?
- What's the last compliment you received?
- Are you good at anything? Why?
Self-Discovery Journal Prompts
Self-discovery refers to the insight into one's own character. In other words, finding your true self.
Get started with these questions.
- What five things engender gratitude?
- Whose approval is important? Why?
- What excites your passion?
- What are your three pet peeves?
- What's your biggest insecurity?
Self-Improvement Journal Prompts
Self-improvement involves actively bettering one's knowledge and character.
Try these prompts on for size:
- What are your goals?
- What energizes you?
- What is your best habit? Your worst?
- What are your biggest time wasters?
- Did you do something nice today?
Final Thoughts on How to Journal for Self-Improvement
In this article, we’ve given you a nice outline of the type of journals you can keep… and a series of journal prompt suggestions to get you started on your journey towards self-improvement.
So now what?
Well, that is up to you.
If you've never journaled before, my suggestion would be to pick one of the techniques we discussed… like the Gratitude Journal.
It's basically just a list… and we all make lists. It’s not a daunting task.
Anybody can write five things they are grateful for every day!
Once you've mastered that, try one of the more in-depth styles (be sure to answer a few prompts… they are great tools).
Before long, you will be a journaling advocate!
And soon after… the self-awareness and growth begins as you find yourself one step closer to a greater understanding of who you really are and what you really want from life.
Are you looking for more information about how to journal for self-improvement? Please read our article journaling prompts for anxiety for a comprehensive list of journal prompts and mantras to help you on your journey.
Finally, if you want to increase your happiness and life satisfaction, then watch this free video that details the 7-minute habit for planning your day to focus on what's important.