Journaling is the most valuable habit I’ve ever discovered. Everything good in my life — improved mental health, sharper writing, greater happiness, better decisions — I can trace all these things back to keeping a journal for the past five years.
This is because journaling is a highly effective keystone habit. What does that mean? Charles Duhigg tells us in The Power of Habit:
“[Keystone habits] can influence how people work, eat, play, live, spend, and communicate. Keystone habits start a process that, over time, transforms everything.”
But, of course, there are lots of good keystone habits — exercise, meditation, healthy eating, etc. What makes journaling so powerful?
This Is What Makes Journaling So Powerful
Journaling cultivates self-awareness. And self-awareness is the key to self-mastery.
Because here’s the thing: We already know most ingredients for a better life — a healthy diet, stable relationships, regular exercise, enough sleep. It’s just that we forget or even ignore these things sometimes. Journaling — the practice of sitting down with your thoughts in a clear and honest fashion — reminds us of our good intentions.
Journaling also helps you stay centered in an accelerated and distracted world. Think about the millions of stimuli bombarding your brain every day. If you leave them unprocessed, you’ll experience anxiety, insomnia, and restlessness — and you won’t even know why.
The ability to focus and pin down your thoughts on paper is more valuable than ever.
How journaling changes lives
In my opinion, the most poignant case study of journaling is Anne Frank. Anne was 13 when she started hiding from the Nazis during World War II with her family. I can’t imagine how overwhelmingly lonely, scared, and confused she must have felt.
What got her through it? Sure, she had her family. But surprisingly, the one thing that comforted her most was her journal. Here’s her very first entry:
“I hope I will be able to confide everything to you, as I have never been able to confide in anyone, and I hope you will be a great source of comfort and support.”
And it was. A few months later, Anne commented on this entry:
“So far you truly have been a great source of comfort to me … and now I can hardly wait for those moments when I’m able to write in you. Oh, I’m so glad I brought you along!”
Remember, your journal is for yourself only. Dreams, fears, secrets — nothing is off-limits. Confide the things you wouldn’t even tell your closest friends and family.
Three scientific benefits of journaling
Of course, journaling goes beyond anecdotal nature. Scientific benefits of journaling include:
- Increased performance by learning from past experiences.
- Significantly improved well-being by writing about traumatic, stressful, or emotional events.
- Boosted emotional intelligence (the ability to name, manage, and control emotions) and higher capacity to empathize with others.
This brings up an important question: Why do so many people still not keep a journal?
Why Journaling Is So Difficult
When I ask people why they don’t journal, they often tell me, “I used to journal, but then I stopped because it took me too much time and effort.”
I think it goes much deeper than that. Over years of keeping a journal, I constantly re-encountered these two problems:
- Perfectionism — You know what to journal about but lose steam because the words don’t come out as you imagined. Why is this such a big issue? Because the words you put on paper will never comply with your actual thoughts and feelings.
- Lack of purpose — You’re ready to spill the pages with ink, but you stop after a week because you don’t see the value in it. You don’t feel the benefits. You’re missing a system. You’re lacking a Why.
And let’s not forget: Filling a blank notebook with your doubts, dreams, goals, and insecurities is incredibly daunting.
So here’s a simple solution to stick with journaling for good. I call it effortless journaling.
The Three Principles of Effortless Journaling
The idea of effortless journaling is to keep the practice so simple and rewarding that there’s no other option than regularly sitting down with your journal. It should be fun, quick, and easy.
Here are three actionable principles to cultivate effortless journaling:
- Journal whenever you feel like it. Journaling shouldn’t feel like a chore — you should be looking forward to it. Don’t force yourself to journal every morning and every night. Instead, only journal when you need to process difficult emotions or when you’re in the mood to write. It’s that easy.
- Don’t worry about style, content, or grammar. I used to obsess about getting everything right — the lettering, the spacing, the font, the correctness. And that was poison because it made journaling unnecessarily complex. Now I stopped worrying. On some days, my writing is a mess, and on others, it looks like I’m paid to do it. I embrace both scenarios.
- Make your journal omnipresent. Keep your journal in an open place where you’ll see it daily. Bonus points if it’s a (clutter-free) place to write.
The takeaway is clear. Forget the rules. Do what works for you. Reduce the friction of getting started to a minimum. Now only one question remains: Which effortless journaling techniques yield the best results?
4 Time-Tested Techniques for Effortless Journaling
Once again, it’s important not to get stuck in conventional thinking about what your journal should look like. Write about what you want. What makes you happy. The only limit is your imagination. For this reason, I prefer journals that are neither lined nor squared but completely blank.
If you struggle to get started, here are four time-tested techniques:
- Process emotional events. Whatever happened to you — a disturbing breakup, losing your job, a deeply embarrassing event — you can lay it all on paper. Research recommends sitting down with your journal for 15–20 minutes in 3–5 sessions. Don’t edit. Don’t stop writing. Transcribe your thoughts onto the page in an endless stream until the timer goes off. I never walked away from these sessions without feeling consoled.
- Prepare and review your day. Sit down in the morning and write down anything you want to achieve today. Keep it simple. Focus on one important task you want to get done — anything else is a bonus. Before you go to bed, review if you’ve accomplished what you set out to do, and write down any unfinished tasks. (Bonus effect: you’ll fall asleep faster.)
- Count your blessings. Several studies have shown that journaling gratitude gives you a more optimistic outlook on life. For me, this prompt has stood the test of time: Who or what am I grateful for right now? Don’t force anything that isn’t there. You don’t need to feel grateful for your health or family just because it’s expected of you. For me, it’s the little things — seagulls slurping from a puddle or the sound of rain at night.
- Track your progress. Habit tracking is the ultimate technique to improve your entire life. It keeps you accountable and provides a sense of progress for all other habits. It’s simple: get a calendar (or paste one in your journal) and make a checkmark every time you complete a habit. Feel free to write down any notes about mood, challenges, and growth opportunities.
When Things Fall Apart, Pick up Your Journal
Life will inevitably fall apart. Yes, I should know this by now, but still— I’m prone to panic. I get anxious. I feel like losing control. In all this chaos, it’s relieving to know I only need to return to one habit: journaling. It helps me examine where I went wrong, process difficult emotions, and find the best action plan to get back on track.
Here’s Duhigg again:
“Keystone habits say that success doesn’t depend on getting every single thing right, but instead relies on identifying a few key priorities and fashioning them into powerful levers.”
That’s what effortless journaling is — a simple yet powerful lever for life. And remember, you don’t need to get everything right. I also skip a lot of days of journaling. But I always return to it when things get tough — and come back stronger than ever.
So what are you waiting for? Whip out your journal. Scribble down your thoughts. Feel the power of this timeless practice.