Do you want to start journaling?
Perhaps you love the idea of recording and exploring your new ideas.
Or maybe you want to reduce the stress in your life by getting your swirling thoughts down on paper.
But where to start?
What approaches should you try?
And how can you actually stick with it for more than a week?
We’re exploring all of those questions and more on episode 64 of the I’m Busy Being Podcast this week.
Check it out now and finally establish that journaling habit you’ve always wanted!
You can listen to the episode below, or stream it on your favorite podcasting app here:
Prefer to read? No problem! Keep scrolling for the entire podcast transcript.
Listen To The Podcast Here!
In This Episode, You Will Discover…
- The powerful benefits of journaling
- Different journaling approaches and prompts
- Strategies to establish a consistent journaling habit
Links From The Podcast
- Sign up for your free strategy session with me here
- Read Tiny Habits*
- Read Atomic Habits*
- Check out episode 6 for establishing a new habit
- Check out episode 25 to establish your minimum baseline habit
- Sign up for the How to Make Your Ideas Reality training here
*Affiliate link – thanks for your support!
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Episode 64: How To Quickly Get Started Journaling With Prompts (transcript)
You’re listening to the I’m Busy Being Awesome podcast with Paula Engebretson episode number 64.
Hey, everybody. How’s it going? Thanks for joining me today.
I’ve got to tell you, I’m pretty excited about this episode topic. We are diving into the world of journaling today, which is a practice that – to risk of sounding dramatic – has had an incredibly transformative impact on my life in so many different ways. It’s helped me reach the big and small goals for both work and personal life, it’s helped me improve my mental and physical health, it helps me manage my ADHD brain. And it’s helped me strengthen my relationships. Seriously, it’s influenced pretty much everything.
Of course, I’ve talked about journaling and thought work in passing a lot on this episode. In fact, it’s my journaling process where I often get a lot of inspiration for these shows. And if you follow me over on Instagram @imbusybeingawesome, you’ve probably seen me talking about and sharing images from my morning thought work sessions in my stories, too.
And in fact, somebody sent me a message on Instagram a couple of weeks ago asking me if I had a podcast episode dedicated specifically to journaling, and I realized I didn’t. So we are going to remedy that today. And as a side note — keep these suggestions coming. I love hearing what you want to learn more about.
What We’re Exploring Today
So – today we are going to explore why journaling is such a powerful and beneficial practice to adopt in your life. We will talk about different strategies and approaches that you can take when it comes to journaling. And we will also discuss some different ways to get into the habit of journaling. Because I know that establishing that consistency can feel like quite a barrier for people.
But don’t worry. I hear that from my clients all the time, too. There are absolutely different approaches and strategies that you can use to implement journaling regularly in your life and make it a consistent habit.
Journaling Benefits – My Story
So let’s start by talking about the benefits of journaling. Why on Earth would you want to carve time out of your day to write stuff on paper?
I’m going to start answering this question by speaking to my own experience with journaling. And then I’ll add in the scientific research to back it up. But as I mentioned, for me personally, journaling had an incredibly positive impact on my life overall; honestly, I can’t imagine my life now without it.
But more specifically, before I was an avid journaler, I had a pretty anxious mind. My brain was constantly racing with thoughts – usually negative catastrophizing thoughts – about all of the potential “what-ifs.” I’d constantly spin out with thoughts about what if this happens or what if that happens? What if this goes wrong or that goes wrong? etc. And if you are also an anxious person, you can probably relate to this running loop of negative thinking that I’m talking about.
And of course, I want to mention very clearly that I am not a physician or medical doctor. I’m not giving any medical advice here or making suggestions for treating anxiety. And if you are dealing with a lot of anxiety or have an anxiety disorder, you absolutely should talk with your doctor.
But with that said, I noticed for me – in my own experience – that once I started journaling regularly and learned to manage my mind, I had much more awareness of and control over those racing thoughts.
Separation From Your Thoughts
And once I started putting pen-to-paper on a daily basis and recording those looping what-ifs in my brain and actually seeing them on paper – without judgment, without censoring the thoughts – it helped to quiet my mind.
It helped me recognize the thoughts for what they were. Which are – indeed – just thoughts. They aren’t facts. They aren’t the truth. And when I could see them on paper, it really helped me to put them into perspective. It helped me see those thoughts that were really extreme. It helped me recognize the ones that kept looping on repeat over and over – especially if I kept writing them day after day. And this greater awareness allowed me to start questioning those thoughts a bit. Is that thought true? Do I need to keep thinking this thought? What would I do if that thing or this happened? Let’s create a plan for that.
In other words, journaling helped me create some separation from the racing thoughts in my brain, step back a bit, and think more clearly.
ADHD and Journaling
Of course, since I also have an ADHD brain, I have even more thoughts racing through my head. And making time to get those thoughts and ideas on paper was also really useful because it helped quiet the worry that I would forget them. I always have so many different ideas popping into my mind, and if it was something that excited me, I’d keep it looping there over and over so that I wouldn’t forget it.
But of course, that took up brain space and brain energy. And when I had a lot of ideas like that, it really pulled me away from the thing I was trying to focus on. But when I can put those ideas on paper I can capture them. I reassure myself that I won’t forget, which lets me get back to the task at hand.
Planning and Journaling
And finally, journaling really helps me boost my planning. It helps me walk myself step-by-step through big challenges, thought goals that I’ve set for myself, and through busy schedules, Etc. When I can work through all of my swirling thoughts and ideas, get them down on paper, and map out a plan visually in front of me, it makes such a big difference in how I approach my day.
Journaling Benefits – The Science
Now like I said, there is plenty of scientific research to back up the benefits of journaling that I mentioned – plus lots of other benefits as well. Plus, journaling is also a process that’s been practiced for thousands of years by highly influential figures in our history, which I think also speaks to its important benefits.
Harvard Business School
But to give you an idea of some of the research, one especially compelling study comes from the Harvard Business School. And they found that people who journaled at the end of each day had a 25% increase in their performance compared to those who didn’t, which – if you ask me – is quite a substantial jump.
And at the end of that study, one of the researchers explained that their findings speak to the importance and power of reflection when it comes to learning. We learn through reflection, and journaling provides that reflection.
Journal of Experimental Psychology
And then the Journal of Experimental Psychology speaks more to my own findings with journaling, which is that writing down your thoughts helps to reduce intrusive thoughts, while also helping improve your working memory. Plus, this helps free up your brain’s energy to focus on other things. I don’t know about you, but having extra space and energy in my brain to focus on other things sounds pretty good to me.
So what do you think? Are you convinced? Are you willing to give journaling a try?
How To Start A Journaling Practice
Awesome. Then let’s talk about some different ways that you can approach the journaling practice. What can you do? How can you start emptying those thoughts on paper?
Well, the first thing I want to stress is that there is no right or wrong way to journal. So don’t get caught up in finding the perfect way to do this. Don’t let your perfectionistic brain tell you that you have to do it perfectly. Because there is no such thing as the perfect way to journal.
So what I’m going to do is share with you a handful of different approaches that I have used, and that are popular with my clients, and you can pick and choose what sounds interesting to you. Give them a try and see what you like best.
Now, my favorites approach to journaling begins with a thought download. And a thought download is literally taking what is in your brain and downloading it onto paper. It is writing all of the thoughts in your head onto paper. Some people call this a brain dump, so you may have heard that terminology as well.
I love this approach to journaling because it really helps me clear my mind. It helps me identify the thoughts that might be holding me back or creating stress or anxiety or overwhelm. And it really helps me start the day off on the right foot. And there is a multitude of ways that you can approach thought downloads.
Open-Ended Thought Download
On the broadest level, you can simply write about all of the things in your head. I like to do this in lists by writing one sentence per line of the paper. So if you find that your brain is really swirling and whirling, you could start by simply writing at the top of the paper: “what am I thinking about?” And then just start writing sentence after sentence after sentence. And it will be all over the place. It might be a thought about the weather, then an appointment you need to schedule, then you have a thought about an argument you had with your partner, followed by something you need at the grocery store. It’s all perfect. Just get all the thoughts down on paper.
Targeted Thought Download
Another angle I personally like to take is to have a targeted thought download or a focused thought download. This is where you write a prompt or a particular circumstance in your life that you have a lot of thoughts about at the top of the paper.
So maybe you have several things on your calendar for the week ahead, you might write at the top of the page “what do I think about my schedule this week?” And then you just go to town writing down all of your different thoughts about the week ahead.
You might do the same thing for the goal you’re working toward. And you can write down all of your thoughts about that goal both good and bad.
You might ask yourself a question like “why haven’t I finished this project for work yet?” Or “Why haven’t I cleaned the house like I wanted to yet?” And then answer that question with all of your different thoughts.
You can also do this with feelings. “Why am I feeling so stressed right now?” Write down all of your thoughts. Or “Why am I feeling so angry right now?” And write down all of your thoughts.
I also like to use a targeted topic download to look into the future and plan for my future self. So for example, I love using the prompt “Wouldn’t it be amazing if…” And I write down all of my thoughts about what would be amazing.
Or if I am struggling to reach a specific goal, I might think about my Future Self and write at the top of the page, “what would Paula five years from now tell me to do in this situation?” And I write down all of the advice from that wise a version of future Paula.
Question Your Thoughts
So again, there are so many different ways that you can approach a thought download – whether it is a targeted topic or just an open download of all of the things in your brain. Both are incredibly effective, and they both reveal a lot of powerful information about the thoughts in your brain.
And what’s especially powerful about this practice is that you’re bringing to light beliefs that you have about your current situation, or your abilities, or what’s happening in your life. And you can question them.
You can look at your list of thoughts and ask yourself, “Hm. Are these thoughts true? Can I absolutely be certain they’re true?” And when you learn how to create that distance and recognize your thoughts as thoughts, I’m telling you, it’s SO powerful.
Now, another great approach for journaling is simply freewriting, which is exactly as it sounds. Freely writing what comes to mind. But there are also approaches with slightly more structure. Slightly less free, if you will.
For example, maybe you’ve heard people talk about doing their Morning Pages. This is a good example of a slightly more structured free-writing approach. Basically, you set a guideline for yourself to write for a certain amount of time or a certain number of pages – for morning pages I believe it’s to write for 3 pages.
And then you just keep writing until you reach the end of that time frame or the end of the page length. And even if you have nothing to write, you just write that down. I have nothing to write. And the very process of the free write is often quite Illuminating – again, especially if you stick with it – because of what comes up when you let your brain go. When you don’t censor what comes out. And you just explore all of the different thoughts going on in your head.
Reflecting on a Quote
Another way that I like to approach my thought work in the morning is to combine both the thought download and the free write approaches. And I do this by putting a quote or an inspiring passage at the top of my paper and writing and reflecting on that quote or statement.
I love to look at these wise or thought-provoking words from other people and ask myself, how does this apply to my life? What does this quote make me think about or how does it make me feel? Does it speak to a problem or challenge that I’m facing right now? I’ve found that reflecting on a passage like this can be a really inspiring way to start or end your day, and it helps you to explore your life and your current situation through a new lens.
Intention and Reflection
And speaking of starting and ending your day, if you are looking for a super simple, super quick way to get started with journaling, you could also spend a little bit of time at the beginning of the day setting an intention for how you want it to unfold. What is one sentence or one idea that summarizes how you want to experience your day? What is one result that you want to create by the end of the day? In other words, you could literally sit down and write out to one or two ideas of what you want your intention to be for the day ahead. It’s giving your brain something to focus on.
And then at the end of the day – or just at the end of the day if you want to start with just one of these suggestions – you can look back upon the day and review what worked and what didn’t. What will you try again? What will you do differently? And what did you learn? etc.
I can’t tell you how powerful just these two practices alone are when you do them consistently. Thinking about your future self and how you want to show up each day. And combining that with thoughtful reflection on what worked, what didn’t, and adjusting based on what you learned – that’s the secret. That is the secret to success.
And then the last suggestion I will make in terms of journaling approaches is keeping a gratitude journal. And just like all of the other suggestions, you can make this as detailed or as simple as possible.
For example, you could start by simply listing three to five things that you’re grateful for each day either when you wake up or when you go to bed. You could challenge yourself to list 5 things every day, but you can’t repeat them. So that means you’re constantly looking for new things throughout the day. You could choose one thing each day that you’re grateful for and then spend some time reflecting on why you’re grateful, how you feel from that gratitude, why it’s so important to you, etc.
The Power of Gratitude
Studies have proven the power of regular gratitude practice in terms of improving your health – both psychological and physical. It can help improves your self-esteem. And it can strengthen relationships. It can enhance your empathy and reduce aggression. It’s even shown to help improve your sleep.
So if you have not given gratitude journaling a try, I highly recommend it. You could even start by simply writing down one thing you’re grateful for when you plan out your day. I have a little spot in my planner that says “I’m grateful for today…” and I spend a little bit of time thinking about something new that made me smile or that I’m grateful for. I find that it keeps me in that regular practice of noticing the big and small things that improve my life each day.
How to Maintain a Journaling Habit
Okay, we have talked about the power and impact of journaling, we have explored different approaches to journaling, and now I want to talk briefly about how to get started and actually stick with it? Because that’s the key, isn’t it? Actually sticking with it.
It is so easy to get wrapped up in the Romantic idea of curling up in your cozy chair with your coffee in the morning and savoring those quiet moments as you reflect on what’s happening for you and your life.
But let’s be honest, the reality might look a little different. The reality might look like a crazy morning trying to get the kids out the door to school, or you’re racing off to work, or perhaps you simply value sleep much more than waking up early, or whatever.
So my point is, reality doesn’t always look like our perfect ideal situation. And the important message here is don’t let that stop you. Just because it’s not perfect, doesn’t mean you can’t do something.
You Must Make Time For Journaling
And that is where we have to begin.
You must make time for journaling if you want to establish a journaling habit. You need to literally create space in your day to sit down and write something.
Now again, it doesn’t need to be hours upon hours. It doesn’t need to be perfectly quiet and reflective with steaming cups of coffee by your side. You just need to carve out time to make it happen.
This might mean getting up 10 minutes earlier. It might mean taking 10 to 15 minutes during your lunch break for some reflection. It can mean taking 10 or 15 minutes at the end of your workday as a transition to help you shift from work mode to home mode. Or maybe it’s writing for a few minutes at the end of the day before going to sleep.
The important thing is to make time for journaling and stick to it consistently. Don’t tell yourself, you will make time for it at “some time” today. Because “some time” never happens. It just keeps getting pushed off to later and later and later. So set a time and make it consistent. And then, put a repeating reminder in your phone or on your computer (or both) so that wherever you are and whatever you’re doing, you don’t forget.
I also recommend starting small. Now, we’ve talked about different strategies to establish good habits several times and throughout this podcast. In one of the episodes – I think it was way back in episode 6 – I talked about the importance of creating small, tiny habits and building up from there. And this message was inspired by both the books Tiny Habits and Atomic Habits.
I won’t go into this in detail here, I’ll link to some of the habit episodes in the show notes if you want more information on this, but there is a lot of compelling research that speaks to the importance of starting small and building up to your desired end habit.
So maybe you start by writing literally one sentence a day. Maybe you write one affirmation. Maybe you write one thing you’re grateful for. Or perhaps you write however many sentences you can in one minute.
When I work with my clients, establishing a consistent thought work habit is one of the first areas we start because this is such an important component of the work we do together. And when they get started, they start with just 5 minutes. It’s simply a 5-minute thought download each day. And then we build up to longer sessions with guided questions in their workbooks and more targeted questions based on whatever it is that we are working on together. But we start small. We start with 5 minutes every day of maintaining that thought download practice.
Don’t Break the Chain
And that leads me to the idea of setting a certain goal for yourself. Maybe you stick to it for 2 weeks – 14 days – to see how it goes. Just like I’m doing with my 30 days of meditation – can you set a challenge for yourself to stick with it for a certain amount of days. Give it a try – 14 days in a row for 5 minutes – and see what you find.
How Can I Make This Easy?
A great question to ask yourself when you think about journaling regularly is: how can I make this easy? Often times this will help bring up the barriers that are holding you back now, and it opens your mind to solutions to those obstacles.
Maybe you struggle with knowing what to write. If that’s the case, perhaps the easy thing would be finding a journal with prompts in it or finding prompts online.
I have several clients who love having accountability. And when they’re just starting out and establishing their writing habit, they like knowing they have me to hold them accountable. So they might send me a note each morning sharing one thought or one Model – the self-coaching model that I teach my clients – that they found during their journaling session.
Or maybe it’s simply getting a notebook and a pen that you love writing with so that you get excited when you get to use them each day. Ask yourself what would make it easy, and give it a try.
You Can’t Do It “Wrong”
And the last piece of information I want to leave with you is the reminder that there is no wrong way to journal. You can’t have a bad journaling day. So don’t let that all or nothing, black or white thinking sneak into your brain.
There is no wrong way. As long as you put pen-to-paper, it’s a great day. As long as you follow through on the habit and write that one sentence or explore for those five minutes, you did it. That’s a good day. So as much as possible, I encourage you to leave the perfectionist thinking behind and remind yourself that simply writing something is all you need to do. That is perfect. Putting pen-to-paper; that is enough.