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7 Things Not to Do When Starting a Journal Habit

Reading Time: 8 minutes

83% of people trying to make journaling a habit fail.

Okay, I made that figure up. But people do fail to establish the habit, and I know that because popular guides and how-tos abound.

So what stands in the way of making a successful journaling habit?

In short: Mental roadblocks.

Many journaling guides expect you to rely on willpower and commitment to writing every single day. “No excuses”, they say.

I get the idea. But I’ve never seen lasting change come from white-knuckling your way through anything. Besides, the more willpower you need to make a change, the less you’re enjoying it.

Tearing down mental roadblocks is what creates real change. So is having fun with the process.

So let’s tackle some roadblocks together!

Girl playing on the beach

1. Making it about writing skills

I’ll shout it from the rooftops: Journaling is not about writing.

I mean, it can be, but it should be an intentional choice you make.

If you’re not making that choice, journaling should be about anything and everything else.

It should be about you, your life, your thoughts, your feelings. Your friends and family. Your dreams and ambitions. Your ideas and passions.

I admit it’s taken me a long time to get to where I write dreadful sentences and let them stay that way. It used to pain me every time I made a mistake in my handwritten journals. Any mistakes made while typing I would instantly correct.

I also wanted to make my entries into poetic, insightful stories, as if my journal needed to read like a novel.

Surprise: It didn’t. The only thing that needs to read like a novel is… well, a novel. Works that are meant for public consumption. Works that need a cohesive story and voice and theme and all that jazz.

Journaling is for exploring your thoughts. If you later want to use those thoughts in a polished piece of writing, there’s nothing stopping you. But you need the freedom to explore first.

Your journal is a playground, not a classroom.

2. Judging your thoughts & feelings

I’ve written so many things I’d crumble if anyone saw.

Sometimes I’ve thought my inner world was so ugly I didn’t want to write about it. Jealousy, pettiness, bitterness, anger. Grudges and curses.

Judging by some entries, I’m a terrible person.

But here’s the thing: I’m not. I’m just human. That means there’s always something stirring in that brain of mine, good and bad. It also means in order to manage the bad, I need to acknowledge it.

One of the best ways to do that is through raw, uncensored writing, where I allow myself to be an ugly little goblin in the process.

I’ve become exponentially better at forgiving myself since opening up for real.

A part of the reason for that is that I wrote down so much of the ugly, which taught me to look at it. I mean really look at it.

I saw that my feelings were a product of my perspectives. By writing things down, I was giving myself the opportunity to change those perspectives. Journaling was the perfect private place to do just that.

I’ve become more understanding of other people, too. After all I’ve seen my own mental clutter written down in all its dysfunctional glory. We’re all in this together.

3. Journaling without intention

I’d wager a whole tub of B&J’s that most people who abandon journaling do so because they don’t quite know why they’re doing it.

They’re not seeing how journaling can help them. That’s fine, of course–it’s not for everyone–but some of them could probably benefit greatly from journaling if they just set an intention.

An intention doesn’t need to be grand and life-changing. But you need one behind your journaling, or you’re going to ditch it.

I ditched it all the times I felt intimidated by a blank page. And I was intimidated because I had no guidelines to show the way.

That’s what an intention is: A guideline and a reminder of why you’re here today, so to speak.

My overall intentions are to develop good habits and shed bad ones, get more organised, express my creativity, and get to know myself better.

I usually also have an immediate intention. Sometimes I just need to vent. Other times I want to make a pretty page. Sometimes I write to understand a problem or an event that’s troubling me.

It doesn’t really matter what my intention is, only that I have one. Otherwise journaling turns into a chore that I have to do because… reasons.

Sometimes my intention is just to get some words down on paper because I don’t want to fall out of the habit. It can be as easy as that.

Whatever you make your intention, just make sure there is one.

Forest crossroads

4. Not keeping your journal private

Imagine doing something in private that you’re not super good at, for fun only. Let’s say dancing. (Please make up another example if you’re good at dancing.)

Now imagine you hear someone approaching while you’re doing this. It affects you at least a little, right? You could be the most confident person ever, but something changes the instant you think about being watched.

Well, it works the same with journaling. If you have a suspicion someone could at some point read your journal, you’ll subconsciously be writing with an audience in mind. That means your subconscious will try to make you look a little better, just in case.

In other words: Whether you’re open to sharing your journal doesn’t matter. It needs to be private if you want it to be a place to fully open up.

So take any steps you need to make your journal for your eyes only. Even if that means keeping an online journal or taking your journal with you every day.

5. Not using journal prompts

Okay, hear me out. Of course you don’t have to use journal prompts.

But if you’ve ever stared at a blank page and thought absolutely nothing, journal prompts are a godsend. Search for some online or make your own–the ones that make you think are the right ones.

I like to browse lists of journal prompts on Pinterest. Then I pick out one that resonates with me the most in that moment.

You can also make your own go-to list of prompts that you’ll always be able to write about. This is a fantastic tool when you show up to journal and find your brain full of cotton.

Suggestions:

  • How was my day today?

  • What have I been preoccupied with lately?

  • What should I stop doing?

  • What should I keep doing?

  • What should I do more of?

  • How’s work right now?

  • How’s life at home right now?

  • How’s the weather today? (I know, lol, but if you’re really stuck then this will at least get you writing some words down on paper.)

Again: Any prompt that makes gets you writing is a good one.

If you want an overarching theme for your journal, you can design your prompt list accordingly.

Want your journal to focus on growth and success? Pick prompts that inspire and motivate you. Want to get to know yourself better? Use prompts that reveal your thought-patterns and behaviours. You get the idea.

Lean on journal prompts when words fail. It can help you find them again.

6. Assuming what journaling needs to look like

Sometimes I think our preconceptions get in the way of journaling.

I know they have for me, anyway. Many times I’ve ignored my journal because something heavy was going on in my life, and I didn’t want to write about it.

But I never had to!

Journal pages are blank slates, ready to be filled with anything. My journal could have been a safe harbour if I’d remembered that.

Only your imagination limits how and what you can express in a journal.

Some things don’t fit words, but can be channeled through drawing.

Sentences don’t have to be complete. You can just write down single words if you want.

Draw lines all over the page and fill the gaps with colour.

Write down the lyrics to the song stuck in your head.

Write as if you were someone else.

You see where I’m going with this.

You, the you you are in this moment, should guide your journaling session. What’s on your mind? What do you want to explore? What do you need from your journaling today?

There’s nothing journaling “should” be. Discover what it can be.

Closeup of paint brush and brightly coloured paint

7. Attaching to the outcome

Okay, let me declare myself as an expert on this one. I honestly have no idea how many times I’ve ripped or cut out the first pages of a journal because I hated what I just made.

Or, at worst, I’d just abandon the whole book and start a fresh one. I’ve probably done that even more.

That’s a problem.

I mean, of course it’s okay to rip out pages now and then. It’s when you chase perfection to the point of self-sabotage you have a problem.

So how did I get over this?

I’m not going to lie: It was a process. I think the harder you are on yourself in general, the harder it will be to accept imperfection in your journals.

The most major shift in thinking came when I realised I wanted to have fun with journaling. I wanted it to be a fun hobby, not a place to be judged. I wanted to learn and experiment and see what would come out.

To have that experience, I needed to humble myself.

I had to admit to myself that I didn’t get it right each time. I had to be willing to look at ugly shapes and bad handwriting.

And I had to learn to focus on potential.

Some years ago I was introduced to the idea of a fixed vs. growth mindset, and something’s been different in me ever since.

In short, a fixed mindset means you think you’re good or bad at something, and that’s that. So when you fail at something you’re supposed to be good at, your self-esteem takes a blow. Conversely, when you succeed, it’s just an image boost.

A fixed mindset means you’re not focused on learning, but your self-image.

A growth mindset, on the other hand, centers around the steps you take. It’s about the process.  When you fail, you review the experience and try to identify what went wrong. Then you think of new things to try for next time. When you succeed, you also look at what helped you get there and take note of that.

You see the difference? A fixed mindset is just a recipe for a rollercoaster ride. Let self-image get in the way and everything becomes a harrowing test instead of a fun experiment.

When you just focus on what you’re doing, on the other hand, learning speeds up dramatically. And each failure is an opportunity to fast-track your growth instead of an opportunity to blame yourself.

Well, so it is with journaling. If you really want the benefits of journaling, the outcome needs to take a backseat to exploration. The focus needs to be what you want to improve, and figuring out the steps to get there.

For journaling to be fun and rewarding, it has to be a dynamic process.

Allow yourself to be bad. It’s the only way to get good.

In conclusion

Journaling is more easily made a habit when it’s a place to have fun, explore and be free. That means letting go of looking good or trying to manage your self-image through your journal.

Instead, let it be where you go to get all your thoughts, feelings and ideas out. Let it be a place free of judgment, where the focus is how you can grow and learn for a happier life.

Journaling is not a test–don’t treat it like one!

Do you journal regularly? Please share your experiences in the comments!

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