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how to journal for self improvement

5 Journaling Ideas for Self-Improvement

Jack Cao
Jack Cao
Journaling Ideas for a better life and explosive growth in your personal development, productivity, mental clarity, and self-awareness.
Table of Contents

Harvard Business Review uses this as their article’s headline:

The need to keep a journal, the more senior your job title, the more you need to keep a journal, journal for success

Journaling has been endorsed by top performers from all fields: from the stoic sage emperor of Rome, Marcus Aurelius, to the diplomat inventor Benjamin Franklin or the modern self-help giant Tony Robbins. They have stacks and stacks of paper written with their thoughts and observations throughout their life.

Journaling helps you become a better thinker, a more productive result-maker and generally a happier person. If you have already understood how to start a journal, then this article will give you 5 journaling ideas to:

  • Be more productive on a daily basis.
  • Manage your progress in personal development.
  • Develop your mental clarity.
  • Deepen self-awareness.
  • Instill positivity and gratitude

1. Productivity Planning – Journaling Idea

Journaling every day can drastically increase your productivity and performance.

How so?

Through journaling, we practice visualization and reflection on a daily basis.

Each goal written down comes with a visualization of its being accomplished, which ends up a lot more compelling than just a passing thought.

At the end of each day, we reflect and study our day: what we have managed to do, how we were distracted, how we could improve on the next day.

These are all simple things yet extremely powerful practice if you implement into your everyday life.

It will serve you no good if you just do this once and stop journaling. Productivity planning must come with consistency, with repetition.

Only then you can be accountable for your goals and observe how much you can realistically accomplish in a day then gradually improve.

Productivity planning is choosing to live life with intention every day. To be mindful and protective of our time and energy on the most micro level to slowly but surely win our macro goals of life.

If you want to increase your productivity, you may also like: How Hobbies Drastically Improve Your Productivity

So how do you write a journal entry for this?

A pen, a notebook, and 15 minutes a day.

Dedicate one page for every day. Cut the page in half for 2 sections:

Write Down your Focus of the day

Nathaniel Drew has a very effective demonstration on YouTube and one interesting add-on: write down one to two words Why you are putting these things in your focus.

This list is meant to be short, 3 to 5 items max so you can see what you should be spending the majority of your day on, as the measure of success on each day.

No matter what happens, as long as you have accomplished this, you win the day.

Write down and visualize how you will get this list done before the day even starts.

Nathaniel Drew Productivity Journal
Nathaniel Drew demonstrating his Productivity Bullet Journal

SEE ALSO: How to Meditate for Focus and Concentration

Capture Your Thoughts of the day

In this section, you capture your reflection about the day.

If we aren’t used to writing down our thoughts, this can be a bit tiring and seem like a chore. So counter that by making them fun, engaging and concise.

And you don’t need to wait until the end of the day to fill your thoughts out. In any free time, whip out your notebook and jot down your thoughts.

Sometimes we can be so exhausted at the end of the day that we pass out and didn’t document anything.

How you felt about your productivity. Why you didn’t achieve what you set out to focus on. What wins you have attained in the day.

3 to 5 sentences can be enough, what’s important is you sitting down and putting down your thoughts for the day and be accountable with your focus the night before.

Nathaniel Drew demonstrating his Productivity Bullet Journal

Notes to Consider

By far, the Productivity Planning journal is the most straightforward practice to face the brutal and ugly truth of our productivity.

Without an accountability system to our daily productivity, days or weeks can be devoured by procrastination and laziness.

Keeping this journal allows us to set clear-cut focus to build intention for each day. With journal comes with a structure for a day.

This doesn’t take away our sense of freedom, but actually create space and time for well-earned rest and eliminate chaos in our lives.

SEE ALSO: Scheduling Tips for Work-life Balance

2. Progress Logging – Journaling Idea

Track your personal development, your mental health or your knowledge library with a journal

How so?

Peter Drucker famously said:

“What gets measured, gets managed.”

How can we ensure that we are actually making progress? Are we actually getting better in the gym or with our running routine?

Well, we could say those could be tracked easily: the time that I spent running or the weight that I add on my deadlift. But what about the subtler aspect of training? Like how water-intake, the breaks between sets, the pacing, the weather, the hours of sleep the night before, your mood during the exercise, your mood after the exercise, the time of the day you spent exercising.

All those elements play into how you perform at the gym and ultimate deciding you get better with your training progress.

And not to mention other forms of progress that is much less clear cut, such as trying to become a better meditator, having a healthier relationship with your moods and emotions, learning a new language…

With a journal, we can store all the progress from day 1 all the way up to where we become a master of our fields. Simply put, by observing how we do things, we know how to better perform.

So how do you write a journal entry for this?

First Step: Set up a progress log space for all of your projects

You can dedicate one notebook for each project or have one mega journal with all of your projects.

A great way to keep a Progress Log journal is to go digital.

Find a platform to support you with:

  • Mobility: it allows you to write comfortably on the go with a tablet or smartphone so you can always easily log in a progress check.
  • Notification: it automatically sends you to update and remind you to log in.
  • Storage:  have unlimited space for you to keep track of your progress from start to finish of a project.

Personally, I use Habitify’s note-taking feature to keep a Progress Logs on all aspects of my personal development: learning psychology, committing to write and reflect daily, reading books and articles and meditate daily.

how to keep a journal habit, journal habit for self improvement

I would get a notification to update the progress, meditation daily, learning about psychology daily and going to the yoga class 3 times a week.

Find out more progress tracking method here: Habit Tracking Method - Which one is for you?


Capture the progress you are making and how you can improve your performance.

Identify what you want to track with each field and update religiously about those indicators.

I do Vipassana meditation, so I care about how thoroughly I am able to “scan” my whole body, with full awareness onto each part of the body. So I want to track how thoroughly I am able to penetrate an area.

Then I log in how I felt about how my session goes…

Or these were once I would practice getting more mindful over humanity’s short mortality and log in how I thought about death.

How to keep a journal habit

Notes to Consider

All long-term projects have multiple slow periods where we don’t see clearly the day to day improvement. Instead of being discouraged and abandon the project, use the Progress Log Journal to identify how to improve, what to innovate and experiment to get out of a plateau.

It’s also such a satisfying feeling to visit earlier entries once in a while, to appreciate the journal and see how far we have come.

You may also like: How often should I review my goals?

3. Cleaning the Mental Garden – Journaling Idea

Clean your mind space and gain mental clarity after 15 minutes of journaling.

How so?

“80 % of Thoughts Are Negative…95 % are repetitive”

This was the crucial finding published by the US’s National Science Foundation in 2005.

The quality of our existence depends on both our external and internal dialogues. And as suggested in the result, 80% of our internal dialogue is eroding our lives and they keep repeating days to weeks to months. 

It can the fear, the anxiety of the future, or the regret, shameful and guilty of something you have done in the past. We fixate and become a broken record, playing a thought loop over and over again. Then we start feeling bad about feeling bad.

Writing down our thoughts onto a paper break the vicious cycle of a negative thought, as we gain a birds-eye view of our mental landscape with a strategic and logical approach. 

As we think, our thoughts pull us into negative emotions.

SEE ALSO: Signs that you are burnout and what to do about it

Courtesy of: ustwo.com/blog/mindful-digital-experience

Writing automatically puts us into a linear sequence of causes and effects.

We can trace a feeling or a thought back to its roots and identify when you were triggered, revealing the core problem that is causing all these suffering.

Only by uprooting the core problems can we gain mental clarity and peace of mind.

If we don’t get rid of the weeds, the place will be a mess, no matter how many pretty flowers we plant in our mental garden.

How do you write a journal entry for this?

Take your time, prepare yourself to go into tough conversations with your negative emotions and twisted thinking.

Get yourself a good notebook, a pen so you can feel more visceral and be more intimate with your emotions.

Step 1: Describe the problems

Define what is bothering you through an objective lens (who is bothering you, what they did to bother you, what the situation actually is) and a subjective lens (how do you feel about all of that).

Just the act of writing down the thoughts could be therapeutic but we don’t stop there. We would try to get to the roots of those uneasy emotions.

Step 2: Identify the problems

We can’t solve a problem unless we know exactly what we have to solve.

After you have described the problems you are facing yourself. Go back to the top of the page and write down in a few words: My problem is [FILL YOUR PROBLEM HERE]

Sitting at the top of the page, now you know clearly what you are dealing with. Either it is procrastination, relationship with yourself or others, or addiction you can’t seem to shake.

Then we start to break the thought loops.

Step 3: Write about your problems

We can free our monkey mind and write anything that comes to mind. Write whatever that is coming up in your mind, what is gripping your attention, how you are afraid of something.

Or you can take a strategic approach and actively question yourself on your thoughts and feelings.

Why do I procrastinate so much? I just don’t feel any motivation to do anything.

When do I usually feel motivated? When I face responsibilities that I must do, especially with a clear deadline.

What is it that made me and my father argued so often? Well, we both do have short temper

Step 4: Find a solution

Sometimes a clear-cut solution will appear just by writing down our problems and now you know what to do about it

Sometimes we can just list down: “10 ways I can solve these problems” and 15 ideas jumped onto the page.

But sometimes it won’t be so easy and obvious to solve our problems. 

A lot of problems run deep and require many hours working on our internal development just to face them. In case of hardship, I would suggest ending a journal entry with two things.

Words of affirmation: you will eventually be able to solve this problem. Write that down in your journal. Repeat them again and again if you need to. This will prevent you from spiraling down into negativity and lift your mood up after an entry.

3 things I can do better tomorrow: leaving a journal entry with a clear action that you will commit to doing the next thing. If you don’t know how to start: ask someone who has solved this problem. If you feel too stressed out about the problem: talk to someone about it.

Notes to Consider

Each of us has lasting problems that plague our lives. And it can be absolutely terrifying to face those problems head-on.

Back to the garden analogy, when the weed is still wreaking havoc, no matter how many beautiful flowers we plant, the garden is still a mess.

Pulling those weeds out is emotionally difficult. Keeping a journal in this situation is especially helpful to understand and process our emotions then find a solution to solve in at its roots through strategic, surgical sentences.

4. Question of the day – Journaling Idea

Expand your self-awareness and give yourself a sense of direction just by asking yourself questions in a journal.

How so?

Tony Robbins shared his wisdom:

How many times have you done something only to be regretted later?

What are the things that you will sacrifice for in this life?

What are the things that you will not sacrifice for in this life?

What is considered success for you?

What is considered happiness for you?

We should all ask ourselves these crucial questions but we rarely do.

One reason is that we are stuck with our busy schedules and have bills to pay. Comparing with many of our responsibilities, self-reflection is a hobby for leisure time nowadays. And most people don’t have much leisure time.

But the lack of effort put into self-reflection results in our disorientation, our aimlessness that we can feel every time the busy life has a glitch and we find ourselves with an evening not knowing what to do with 3 hours of free time.

Isn’t it boredom a sign for the lack of fulfillment in our life?

Another reason is simply we don’t have the capacity to focus deeply enough to contemplate these questions. We put a labor of “big questions that I can’t (and don’t have to) answer” on all contemplation activities of our lives.

But failing to answer such questions can lead to an unfulfilling and directionless life.

So now, how can we use a Question-of-the-day Journal?

To start this journal, we have to commit to a journey of self-discovery and exploration. Only then can we start carving time out for contemplation.

To find the questions to contemplate, you can start with these 100 questions and work your way through the list gradually.

Since we are lacking the ability to focus down to contemplate, we will use a journal as our companion.

First: set aside a time and a place

For this to be efficient, allot 30 to 60 minutes that you will devote to this practice.

Choose the time of the day where you are wide-awake and having the full mental capacity to focus.

Choose a place where you would have solitude. Be alone with just yourself, a notebook, a pen.

Remove distractions such as your phone, your laptop, your books… All of those can come back into your life after the contemplation time.

Second: choose one question to ask yourself.

I wouldn’t expect to find a concrete answer after 30 minutes of journaling. These are all big and profound questions that could take weeks or months, even years to crack. 

The point here is the process of questioning itself, which would lead you to further self-understanding as you go deeper and deeper.

Notes to Consider

There is one question, one topic that has proved to very eye-opening for me the more I spend time contemplating: death.

I ask myself If I was more conscious of my inevitable death, what would I do differently about my life?

All the problems and the insignificant trivial things got put in their places once put into the frame of this question. Growing up, I was never taught how to have an internal dialogue with myself. With everything I was curious about, I would find external sources for the answers.

But a lot of times, I have already had that answer within me, especially when it comes to self-understanding. All we have to do is to ask the right question and seriously devote our time to it.

A Question-of-the-day Journal can be your companion to a better life.

5. 5 –Minute Elevation – Journaling Idea

Live a happier life and fill your life with positivity with a journal.

How so?

Journaling enhances our ability to focus on one topic at a time as we have mentioned in Idea Journal #2

If life were photography, journaling could be our lens through which we look at the world.

And if we were to pick our own lens to capture this existence, wouldn’t it be wise to choose to look at the brighter side of life?

Write down what you’re thankful for.
Write down the best things that have happened in your day.
Write down the good things you have done for the day, even the tiniest achievements.

These would bring in gratitude and a sense of positivity which is based on your actual everyday life events. This would lead you to have more confidence in yourself, to strengthen your self-esteem.

Positive thinking is proven to better our lives and performances. When we are happy and feel good about ourselves, we flood our brains with serotonin and dopamine, which improve our memory and ability to process information.

In The Happiness Advantage, Shawn Achor stated that happy workers tend to exceed expectations, achieve goals and bring a more preferable culture to the company. This also betters your academic performance, as happy students learn faster and retain information longer.

SEE ALSO: How to Meditate for Gratitude

So how to write a journal entry for this?

Use these prompts to write your journal every day and see how they better your life:

  • Today, I am grateful for: *write down what you are thankful for*
  • Today, I have done well on: *write down your achievements*
  • Today, I am lucky that: *write down what went well*
  • Today, I am: *write down which good trait you have demonstrated*

If you write 3 entries for each of these prompts, it wouldn’t take your more than 5 minutes.

Just 5 minutes of investment each day to maintain and keep a journal like this.

Out of all the ideas, this one can the simplest journal that you can start today.

For a live demonstration, check out Tim Ferris going through his 5-minute journal which he has kept for years.

Sample of the Tim Ferris 5-minute Journal

Notes to Consider

This is simple but not easy to do. Not only that we are distracted and fall off track so often, but also that bad days are inevitable. 

Things will not always go our way.

But we can decide how we react to them. Being negative, angry, spiteful or pitiful over ourselves never solves anything. Keeping a daily journal like this is a great tool to elevate our mood and better our mental health.

So You Have 5 Journal Ideas for Self-Improvement

Please let me know how you keep your journals. I would love to hear more creative and effective ways to journal.

And if you have implemented similar journaling ideas, please drop a comment below on how it has impacted your life.

Find out how Habitify helps you build better habits to live your best life.