11 Simple Steps to Make Journaling Work for You

UPDATED: March 10, 2023
PUBLISHED: March 8, 2023
young woman journaling in cafe

We live in hectic times, and daily life is fragmented and filled with interruptions. This is not a complaint—it’s reality. 

Over the years, I have found relief and value in keeping a journal for the basic reason that it allows me to find and enjoy uninterrupted sessions for myself in a creative way. My journal is my respite from daily demands, and a place where I can literally make my own world, on my own terms. 

Journaling tips to get you started

I am a professional writer and my journal has been the source for long stories and essays. But a journal can be by your side for no other purpose than to serve as a special place for ideas and inspiration. That’s why I wrote and want to share these 11 journaling tips.

1. Get a journal that inspires you. 

I recommend a lined Moleskine notebook, 5-by-8 inches and a sharpened No. 2 pencil on your night table. You might wake up with a great idea or a revelatory dream and will need to have a quick place to jot it down immediately.

2. Try becoming a morning person.

For me, this is the most fertile time mentally—after you brew that first cup of coffee or tea. (If this transition is truly impossible, I forgive you.)

3. Find a quiet place that belongs to you.

Spirit of place is the secret ingredient for inspiration. Once you get into the habit of going to that place day after day, it will prompt you to set words on paper.

4. Take three or four deep breaths.

Whether you are into yoga or not, “the body makes the mind,” as the poet John Donne once wrote in Iuvenilia, or Certaine Paradoxes, and Problemes. You need to greet the day with an infusion of fresh air coursing through your system.

5. Plant both feet on the floor and (preferably) sit at a desk or a table.

You need to be grounded, connected to the earth from whence so much energy comes, whether you can feel it or not. And because we need to get out of the (understandable but passive) habit of writing on a computer in bed.

6. Start—it’s the most important journaling tip! 

Your brain/mind—the machine that makes words—needs an ignition spark, even if that spark might seem ridiculous to you. And because there are no mistakes in your journal, start with something simple that situates you, like where you’re physically located or whatever random thoughts enter your head.

7. Let it flow.

That’s why my first journaling tips is to use a plain old wooden pencil: because it can’t “run out of ink,” and you can actually hear your words being laid onto the surface of the page (try it!). The sound of actual writing fuels itself and makes your hand and arm want to keep going along to the end of a line and onto the next. 

8. Let the subject arrive.

Have faith—you see how far down the list this comes? That’s intentional, because even if you think you (consciously) don’t know what you’re going to write “about,” have faith (I repeat) because there is something, deep down inside, waiting to be told.

9. Do not overthink… and do not overstay your welcome.

About 10 or 15 minutes into this flow, you might begin to feel fatigued. This is normal! Do not push yourself. Do not force it. Be sensitive and caring to your imagination; it runs most efficiently and honestly when freshly minted.

10. And the best thing is, you can always come back. 

This is where your journal shows its true character. Many Moleskine notebooks have a beautiful ribbon that you simply tuck into the page you’re at, so you’ll be ready to pick up where you left off.

11. Listen for the story.

If, later the same day, that night or the next morning, you circle around and the thread of the story wants to be carried forward, you should obey it. And if something else has popped into your mind that takes precedence, then go for it. Remember this journaling tip: It’s your voice, your story and your journal.

Photo by Olena Yakobchuk/Shutterstock

Neil Baldwin [www.neilbaldwinbooks.com] has kept a journal since he was in the fifth grade. He is the author of acclaimed works of biography and nonfiction, most recentlyMartha Graham: When Dance Became Modern(Knopf, NYC, October 2022). He also served as a professor for many years, most recently at Montclair State University, where he was a professor in the College of the Arts.