The Most Effective Formats for Journaling

Note: This is part 2 out of 5 of the Morning Routine Series. Take what serves/resonates with you. Leave behind the rest.

“I’m just not that into journaling,” she said. “I usually get stuck in my stories of self-loathing and self-pity.”

My friend’s experience is such a common one. It's easy to journal in a way that feeds your pity party, keeps your blood boiling, or leaves you feeling more confused, after what was supposed to be 5 scribbled pages of “working through it.”

Like morning routines, journaling feels like one of those “shoulds.” The frequent journalers rave about it and online articles go on and on about all of its benefits. But a lot of people seem to fall into the trap - exercising a practice in a way that does not serve you.

So again, we come to the question of how. All of these self-care tips and productivity blogs tell you to journal. But very few go into the depths of how. In this post, I identify 5 formats of journaling and the applications of each, and I share a dash of example prompts for your next journaling practice.

But before we get started, let’s address a few myths.

  • Journaling is not just for sad teenage girls pouring out their feelings and documenting their daily activities. Journaling is more than an emotional outlet. It’s also a self-improvement tool. A self-management tool. Are you a self? Are you looking to grow? Then cool. You too can benefit from this practice.
  • Relatedly, journaling is not necessarily equivalent to writing in a diary. The content can be very personal and vulnerable, and journaling encompasses so much more - including planning, strategizing, and intention-setting.
  • Men journal too. The latest conversations around self-care are aimed towards women (and understandably so, because sexism is exhausting). But we need to keep in mind that men also experience feelings, pains, concerns, and chaos. So I encourage the men reading this to feel the feels and plan the plans through journaling as well.

Okay, now that I’ve got that out of my system, let’s get into the how. How to journal as in what do I write about? In what way? Here are 5 different formats of journaling and the possible motivations for each kind.

Note: You will notice that my blog focuses more on the purposes of personal development and emotional health. For organizational or business-related journaling, I recommend sources like Tim Ferris or Keep Productive.

I want to write, but more than that, I want to bring out all kinds of things that lie buried deep in my heart.
— Anne Frank

1. Deloading/Decluttering: letting it all hang out

Good for: emotional release, focus, creativity

This is what usually comes to mind with the practice of journaling. This is basically what Morning Pages is. Writing down whatever is going on in your current experience. It could be your thoughts about the past or future, the day-to-day happenings and experiences, and associated emotions/feelings. It could be half a page or 5 pages. Let your stream of consciousness take you on a journey.

I usually deload when I’ve got a lot of thoughts going on in my mind that are distracting me from the present moment. Our brains have a limited capacity for thought + storage, so I export whatever I don’t need onto paper. This helps improve focus. Deloading is also good for when I just need to rant, or when I want to be more aware of what kind of thoughts are going in my head that are activating/feeding certain pleasant/unpleasant emotions.

2. Questions: get crafty

Good for: self-awareness, planning, emotional clarity

Use questions to dig deeper and reflect. An easy start to this process is the question why? I’m not feeling so well today. Why? I don’t like being in this space. Why? This project failed. Why? But as Simon Sinek says, start with why. Don’t end with it. Otherwise, you can end up going down the never-ending why spiral. Move on to what questions to help identify insights or lessons and set intentions for moving forward. What three things can I do today to bring joy? What does a healing space look like? What is the biggest obstacle in the upcoming project? -  Get the idea?

Check out some articles on how to ask good questions (though they’re mostly about business) and some examples of questions for self-awareness. If you want to learn how to ask yourself good questions about your personal life more than in business, join me at our journaling workshops.

3. Sentence Completions: tap into your subconscious

Good for: self-awareness, brainstorming, affirmations

Sentence completions are similar to questions but are formatted a little differently. What emotions am I currently feeling? What am I needing today? Can turn into I am feeling… and my feelings are trying to tell me that I need…  Get creative with these, just like the questions.

Nathaniel Brand, the author of the Six Pillars of Self-Esteem, encourages the practice of sentence completions for self-understanding and personal growth. In his self-esteem sentence-completion program, he suggests us to list the first 6-10 things that come to mind at the end of each sentence. This helps us tap into the depths without having to ask “why” 5 times. Check out the program here (I’m on week 8 myself) as you practice creating your own sentence stems.

4. Conversations: be both the held and the holder

Good for: self-compassion, emotional clarity + management, problem-solving

Have you struggled with destructive self-talk? Conversation is a great practice for when you’re trying to “be your own best friend.” You usually know what you need. You usually know how to hold space for your loved ones. But when we get stuck in our minds, overwhelmed with several different voices, our ability for compassion and mindfulness can shut down. So imagine your distressed self on one shoulder, your loving self on the other shoulder, and watch them communicate - except write down the conversation on paper (getting things out of your minds and onto paper makes brain space for the present moment). Make sure to maintain a two-way dialogue. Don’t let the distressed self take over the conversation. Let the loving self pitch in, affirm, and help the distressed self move through the emotions and figure out what it needs. And meanwhile, remember to not just notice the words, but also feel the feelings.

It is like whispering to one’s self and listening at the same time.
— Mina Murray, Dracula by Bram Stoker

5. Maps + Charts: lay it out

Good for: planning, decision-making, brainstorming, affirmations

Incorporating visuals into the journaling process can activate more parts of your brain and keep you focused and clear-headed. The first examples that come to mind are the typical pros + cons chart for decision-making and a mind map of ideas/thoughts. Maps and charts are especially useful when lists can get too long or too unorganized.

I personally use charts for writing prompts that encompass any type of duality or coupling of concepts. I use maps to look at different aspects, sections, or perspectives of a larger picture/concept.

 
 

source: @alex_elle

When to Journal

Whenever you want. Whenever you feel the need for any of the reasons above. As a part of my disciplined self-care, I journal every morning, times when I’m emotionally/mentally distracted and I need to focus, and before bed.

My Morning Journaling Process

  1. Deloading / Decluttering - often a random combination or stream of thoughts + feelings + ideas to get things off my mind
  2. Question: What are three things I’m grateful for? - and feeling the gratitude in my body because it’s good for my health
  3. Question: What three things would make today amazing? - to focus on the priority actions that I can take
  4. Affirmation: I am… - e.g. a radiant being of joy! to set my attitude for the day
  5. Energy Assessment: Physically/Mentally/Emotionally/Spiritually, I am… and I am needing… - to optimize my energies for focus

         *prompts 2-4 are incorporated from the Five Minute Journal

 

Here's an intimate (+ vulnerable) look into one of my morning journal sessions:

 

Aaaand there you go. Pick one and just go for it. Admittedly, I can only fit in so much in a blog post without going over 1500+ words. If you’re interested in digging deeper into this practice, I invite you to attend a journaling workshop where you will be guided through the step-by-step process of asking good questions that are relevant to YOU and through a handful of example writing prompts for self-compassion and self-growth.

If you’ve come this far, you’re clearly committed. You have the knowledge. You have the know-how. It’s time for action.

NEXT STEPS:

  • Schedule in 10 minutes in your day today to open up a notebook (or laptop) and write.
  • Collect journaling prompts, observe what makes the good ones so good, and write! Find journaling questions on my Instagram or blog posts. I highly recommend Alex Elle’s newsletter too.
  • Attend a journaling workshop for inspiration, ideas, and/or accountability and write.
  • Create your own prompts and write away!

(Yes, it always comes down to writing. Move through the knowing and doing gap.)

Stay tuned for the rest of the Morning Routine Series. To make it easy, subscribe to my newsletter here. And if you could you use some guidance on disciplined self-care or emotional presence, reach out and let's make it happen.

 

Much love,

Ji-Youn

Fill your paper with the breathings of your heart.
— William Wordsworth