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Here’s How to Actually Journal — With Habit Tips From an Executive Coach

Design: theSkimm | Photos: Rifle Paper Co., Hatch, Amazon
January 31, 2024

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I’m an editor that’s been journaling for ten years, and even though I’ve been doing it for a decade, it still is a habit that I have to work to maintain. Recently, I’ve been seeing the hobby trending across the internet, more so than ever. So if you have too and are curious about getting started, I’m here to share tips from Liz Tran, an executive coach and creator of @resetnyc. I’ll also be sharing my favorite prompts and what to buy to kick off your journaling journey. Let’s get writing.

I love journaling for…

  • Memories. It’s a great way to record special moments and different stages of my life.

  • Emotional awareness. I can take inventory of my emotions and become more self-aware of them.

  • Stress-relief. Because nothing beats the feeling of dumping all your stressors out onto a piece of paper.

  • Creativity. As a way to get off my phone, unwind, and even do some scrapbooking.

Some tips to begin

  • Start small. No, you don’t need to write a longform entry about everything that’s happened in the last month. “Developing a new habit is all about duration,” explains Tran. “That's why people who try to meditate for an hour every day inevitably fail. It's better to start small with just five minutes a day, every day.”

  • Reframe your mindset. When it comes to starting any new habit, it’s all about our relationship and inner dialogue with that habit. “If a habit isn't sticking, it's probably due to one of three things: you don't want to do it, it doesn't feel good, or you don't think you're capable of making the change,” Tran notes. She later explains that these three things all stem from our negative mindsets about the new habit. “The first thing to do is explore your inner dialogue and figure out how to create positive associations with the habit.”

  • Make it pleasurable. In order to create those positive associations with the habit (in this case, journaling), we need to make it pleasurable. According to Tran, ask yourself how you can make it fun, make it feel good, and how you can feel good about yourself by doing this habit. “Once you make this new habit as pleasurable as it can be, it will stick without any issues.” So set up your space and buy some products you’re excited about (more on that later).

  • Celebrate your wins. You wrote one sentence? Amazing. Just a word of the day? That’s fine too. No matter how long you write for, Tran affirms to “pat yourself on the back and celebrate big every single day you show up.”

Products to get you started

Amazon, Rifle Paper Co.

Your journal…

You’re going to want to pick something you’ll be excited to reach for. That might mean you’ll want one with built-in prompts, or a classic composition notebook with a fun cover. You might want to keep it minimal to keep your mind as quiet as possible. It depends on what your needs are. We love these options from Papier, so check out our full review for more details.

Buy it

Muji pens that I swear by…

I’ve gone through countless of these. They’re gel pens with the perfect ink flow. Plus, they dry quickly and never smudge. Need I say more? ($7.50/3-pack, Amazon)

Buy it

A felt-tip pen we love for making lists…

These are like those felt tips you had in middle school, but fancier. Use them to add some pizzazz to your entries. A little color never hurts. ($14.02/10-pack, Amazon)

Buy it

A marker/highlighter hybrid for adults…

Adult coloring for the win. I love these Zebra Mildliners because they’re dual-ended. One is angled like a highlighter and the other is a classic marker tip. I use them for highlighting, doodling, and adding any extra color to my entries. Plus, all the colors are more subdued, so they aren’t as harsh as your classic highlighters and markers. ($7.60/5-pack, Amazon)

Buy it

Washi tape for easy design…

If coloring and scrapbooking isn’t your forte, not to sweat. I love using washi tape as a relaxing way to add color or additional design elements, without the added pressure of drawing or writing. Because the tape is less adhesive than regular masking tape, you can easily peel it off without any damage. It’s low stakes and that’s why I love to have it on hand. ($7.16/20-pack, Amazon)

Buy it

Stickers for added nostalgia…

There’s something about getting creative with stickers that is so joy-sparking. My go-to is usually a pack of letter stickers to create headers based on what I’m writing about. ($7.99/4-pack, Amazon)

Buy it

An aromatherapy diffuser for ultimate relaxation…

This hobby is meant to be relaxing. I love lighting a candle or using a diffuser as a way to signal to my mind that it’s time to calm down. This one has seven different colored light settings, which will make your space extra cozy. ($22.99+, Amazon)

Buy it

A sound machine and night-light to tune out any distractions…

When you get started, you might feel inclined to pick up your phone. This machine from Hatch is great because you can change the lighting and cue to your brain when it’s time to unplug — perfect for anyone who wants to journal in bed before going to sleep. PSA: This is a splurge. ($199.99, Hatch)

Buy it

And now, some of my go-to journal prompts

  • A gratitude list. In the act of starting small, write three things you’re grateful for. Don’t overthink it. It can be as simple as listing “I’m grateful for the PB&J I had for lunch.” You can keep the list as long or as short as you’re in the mood for.

  • Highlights of the day. Instead of writing a longform diary entry, list your favorite parts of your day.

  • A timed brain dump. Set a timer based on how much time you want to write. On busy days, I like to set a timer for five minutes. Go in with no agenda and write what immediately comes to mind. Sometimes this looks like “I have no idea what to write,” and other times it ends up being a worry dump, a to-do list, etc.

  • A list of self-affirmations. A stressful, busy, happy, or exciting day is ahead. What do you want to tell yourself as you go throughout your day? Write the statements here. Sometimes there’s just one, sometimes there are a few.

  • How can I show up for myself today? Whether you answer longform or in bullet points, list out things you want to do that carve out “you time.” For example, “I’d like to read for five minutes, call my best friend, or take time to make myself lunch.”

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