My apartment used to be littered with empty notebooks with a first page that read, “I’m excited to start journaling again!” And then, after a few scribbled pages, nothing. I couldn’t seem to stick with the habit (despite how much I prided myself on self-discipline).
How could I want to do something so much but not actually do it?
It wasn’t until I changed my approach to the habit that I found the breakthrough. And then, over time, established journaling as a daily habit ingrained in my routine.
What was my secret?
I finally accepted that I needed to rely on more than mere motivation. I had to work smarter, not harder. I also had to show myself some self-compassion and patience in the process.
With the right self-awareness, a few strategic life hacks, and a healthy dose of self-love, you can find your way to a new journaling habit, too.
Why Is It So Difficult to Start a New Habit?
All of our outdated brain wirings make it really tough for us to start and stick to something that’s not effortless, pleasurable, or instant. Journaling can certainly be pleasurable, and it will definitely benefit you in the long run - but it won’t be instantaneous.
That’s because we’re fighting against a whole slew of fundamental survival instincts, human tendencies, and societal distractions that get in our way. Most of us have become technology-addicted, passive, and reactive participants of our own life. And we don’t even realize it!
Fortunately, the simple act of journaling can help change this balance and give you more clarity in your life. Journaling allows you to reclaim control, cut off distractions, and focus on what you want.
But starting a journaling habit requires us to overcome our natural human urges. How do we do so?
First, we remind ourselves of our Why. Why do we want to journal in the first place? What can it give us? Be clear with what it is you want, because it can help ground you with both inner calm and motivating energy.
Then, we accept that motivation and willpower alone won’t get us there. We need to set up the right environment to minimize any obstacles. This practice, called “removing friction,” is crucial for any goal-setting you might do.
It’s like running a race. If your path is straight and free of obstacles, you’ll be able to run from start to finish with no problem. However, if rocks stand in your path and your shoelaces are untied, your run will be harder (and more unpleasant).
The more you can remove these obstacles, the easier it will be to complete the task. The same logic applies to starting a journaling habit, and these six life hacks will help you do so.
1: Define your journaling habit.
Defining a new habit is more than mere words; it involves setting your intention, gathering supplies, and committing yourself to the cause. What will journaling look like for you?
For your journaling habit, you must commit to writing by hand. Your supplies include paper and a writing utensil. Writing by hand is the original journaling medium, and with good reason. It unlocks different areas of your brain, forces mindfulness, and allows you to unify your body and brain better. While there are other journaling mediums out there, you’ll never truly receive all of the benefits unless you write by hand.
2: Find a routine time.
Starting a new habit is a bit like meeting someone new. You might enjoy talking to them, but unless you carve out time for them, you probably won’t solidify the relationship.
It’s imperative that you find a routine time to journal. Until the habit solidifies, you can’t just assume that you’ll simply “pick up a journal every day when you feel like it.” This won’t work. Not only will your willpower diminish, but your brain will forget about the new task.
Routine times might include:
- In the morning, when you wake up
- In the evening, before you go to bed
- During the day, when you’re on a break
- When you return home after work
Try to find a consistent time each day, and don’t be afraid to do a little trial and error. Remember, it’s about removing friction - so choose a time that fits in naturally with your schedule. Don’t try to force it at a time when you know you’ll be distracted or feeling pressure to do something else. Setting reminders or alarms on your phone can also encourage this routine time.
3: Stack your habits.
Every time we perform an action, we activate a pathway in our brain. The more times we repeat the action, the more we strengthen the neural pathway. Over time, it becomes a habit.
If you haven’t journaled much yet, that brainwave is pretty weak. However, you do have a lot of already-established habits. A helpful strategy to start a new habit is to “stack” it onto one that already exists. Eventually, your journaling habit will be able to stand on its own.
Consider the daily routines and habits you already do. Would you be able to add some journaling before, during, or after them? Examples might include:
- Journaling during your morning cup of coffee
- Journaling when you pack up at the end of each workday
- Journaling on your lunch break
- Journaling while your dinner is cooking
You know that you can rely on these already-established habits, and therefore can give your new habit a leg up.
4: Start small!
I can’t emphasize this step enough. When you start your new journaling habit, start small! Remember, your brain hasn’t established it as a habit yet. Therefore, if you try to take on too much, you’ll set yourself up for failure.
For example, expecting yourself to go from zero journaling to journaling for one hour every day is unrealistic. Rather than starting a new habit and reaping the benefits of journaling, you’ll most likely give up. Then, you may feel pessimistic about the whole process.
As you think about starting small, be aware of:
- Frequency. Instead of journaling every single day, consider every other day or a few times a week. Then build yourself up to a daily habit.
- Length of time. Until you’ve strengthened your journaling muscle, even five minutes might feel like a long time. Start with 5-10 minutes each time you journal and work your way up.
- Amount you write. Don’t force yourself to write multiple pages when starting. Instead, focus on doing it in the first place. Even bullets might be a good place to start as you work to establish the habit.
Think of yourself as a rookie. You can make it to the big leagues one day, but you can’t expect yourself to start there.
5: Use guides and prompts as you discover what works best for you.
Some people love to free write each day. Others feel intimidated by a blank page and need prompts. I’ll repeat this because it’s so important: starting a journaling habit is about discovering what works best for you.
You can set yourself up for success by establishing a routine for what to journal about. You’re working through this guide, which means you understand the importance of guided practice. Other journaling exercises might include:
- Daily prompts
- A regular journaling template
- Guides or courses (often in the form of daily lessons)
You want to sit down with your journal and feel inspired, not stuck. Learn what helps get your expression to come out.
6: Reward the behavior.
You know that journaling is extremely beneficial; I know that journaling is extremely beneficial. However, your brain might know that quite yet. And until it learns of the long-term rewards (otherwise known as delayed gratification), you want to encourage it in the short term.
Try to find ways to make journaling a positive experience. After you journal, give yourself something that makes your brain say, “Yes, I like this!” As it associates journaling with this reward, it’ll be easier for you to stick with the habit.
Possible ideas might include:
- Buying a new journal or pen to make it feel valuable
- Listening to happy music while you journal
- Journaling in a beautiful place or setting
- Giving yourself a treat after you finish (this can be in any form you want)
Eventually, you won’t need these rewards, because it’ll be an established habit. Until then, you want to make it as pleasurable as possible.
Don’t be afraid to get creative, either. Remember, your human nature is working against you. But, with a little bit of effort and creativity, you can start and stick with a new habit.
Conclusion: Six Surprising Tips to Start (and Actually Stick With) a New Journaling Habit
Remember, your human nature is working against you. But instead of criticizing yourself for having trouble, work to create an environment and situation that allows you to thrive despite these tendencies and distractions.
If you follow these six strategies, you’ll be shocked by how quickly you can start a new habit–even if you’ve struggled with it in the past. Don’t wait! Pull out a journal and consider how you can incorporate these six strategies into your new habit!
Journaling Activity: How can you set yourself up for success?
Reflect on each step. Then, answer the questions below to help you create a plan that will set yourself up for success with your new journaling habit.
- Define your habit. What are your intentions with journaling? What are your supplies?
- Find a routine time. Consider your daily routine. Where is there time to add journaling? When do you feel most creative? When do you have a period of quiet and solitude?
- Habit-stacking. What daily habits do you already have in place? What habits could you stack journaling onto?
- Start small. Be realistic with yourself. What frequency do you want to start with? How long can you journal for? What amount of journaling feels helpful but not intimidating?
- Use guides and prompts. Reflect on any journaling you’ve done thus far. Do you enjoy prompts, or do you prefer to free write? What prompts inspire you the most? What possible template might work best for you?
- Reward the behavior. How can you make your journaling practice a positive experience? What can you do to reward the action?
Kara McDuffee is the writer and founder of My Question Life, a community dedicated to helping you discover yourself and find the answers you’re searching for. She gives you the questions you need to become more self-aware and vulnerable in your everyday life. To read her posts or download her free eBook The Art of Being Self-Aware, check out her blog.