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Ultimate Guide to Start a Journal For Beginners In 2019

October 11, 2019

Looking into the historical figures, I find a common pattern that each used some methods of journaling: whether it is for mathematical equations, sketching out their philosophical thoughts or brief ideas of inspiration.

famous people journals


You have probably heard how keeping a journal can change lives. Yet, when I ask my friends: “Do you keep a personal journal?”, surprisingly most of them said no.

Well, that’s not actually surprising, considering how we were never really shown how to keep a journal, which kind of journal should we start and what are the tips that we should take into consideration when writing down our thoughts.

In case you are still unfamiliar with how keeping a journal can benefit your life, here’s a 1-minute pitch.

Keeping a journal is storing your thoughts, feelings and life experiences into a readable, easily access the folder where you can visit whenever you want to. With a written document, you can have actual proof to consider how good of a thinker you are, reflect on your decisions and revisit old memories. Or simply by writing down, you are taking part in a healing process that is good for your mental health as well as nurturing your creative ability.

So… What is Journaling

In the context of this article, when we talk about journaling, we are talking about the written form of journaling (contrasting to sketchbooks and other artistic journaling).

Journaling is one of the most powerful tools in the self-development, personal management utility belts that humanity has discovered.

Different people throughout history have called the act of journaling with different names, in some cases, it can be called a diary, a notebook, a planner, a bullet journal… yet they can all be relatives under the great family name of Journal.

To put it simply, a journal can be understood as a personal note-taking system with versatile sets of structures, content, and usages whether you were the great genius da Vinci sketching out the beautiful observation of human anatomy, or a small child documenting his feelings of the day.

How to Start a Journal in 2 Simple Steps

To make journaling a lasting habit, it requires you to look a little closer to the reasons why you should keep a journal in the first place.

Step 1: Start with Why

One of the core reasons why we fail to make a habit out of journaling is we don’t know why we should journal in the first place.

Sure, we have been told that it’s awesome and we definitely should try it. But what problems of yours require a journal?

Understanding the problems we could solve through a journal is to know why we should honor and treasure this habit. And the clearer the why, the better you know how to use your journal.

Perhaps you are an aspiring writer and capturing little brilliant sparks of ideas on how to tackle a piece is what matters in your life. A journal can be a place to foster that creativity if you jot down every time you find something inspirational.

You can be someone who wants to keep a balance between work life and personal life, juggling between many responsibilities while still staying in touch with your thoughts and feelings. A journal can be a tool to instill order and keep everything organized

I am into personal development, striving to make myself 1% better every day so my journal would be the place I get to know myself. Looking at my words throughout the months show me the big picture of my problems, what problems keep repeating in my life.

To make it clearer for yourself, I would invite you to pause for several minutes and actually think about how a journal can serve your life now by answering these 3 questions.

  1. Which part of my life do I want to write down?
  2. What do I want to discover about myself through journaling?
  3. How can I make journaling an enjoyable and enriching process?

Step 2: Choose your Journal Categories

With a clearer purpose for your journal, you will already have a sense of direction about where to take your journal.

I have categorized journaling into three main types based on the potential benefits that they can bring to our lives.

Journaling to skyrocket your productivity 

These could be the most popular types of journaling among the self-improvement enthusiasts who are constantly looking for ways to increase your efficiency, whether at work or in personal life.

A planner can be one of the most recognizable tools related to journaling. It’s a to-do list combining with a calendar, keeping you constantly aware of how many tasks are on your plate during the day, the week or the month. You start by identifying what needs to be done when they need to be done and in which priority.

A planner journal is easy to start, easy to keep and great for making you aware of your productivity level throughout the days. You can write an entry once the time for all lists is done to reflect back on your productivity level, what can be improved and what has gone well.


Benjamin Franklin Journal
Benjamin Franklin and his planner


One of the most famous and influential planners was Benjamin Franklin’s program of Cultivating Virtuous Perfection. In which he was determined to track his everyday behavior in a journal, picking 1 out of 13 virtues that he wished to master.

The legendary American diplomat was so proud of this planner that even 50 years after the program, he still took great pride in showing the notebook to his friend in Paris and saying “I am indebted to my notebook for the happiness of my whole life.”

About the Platform: The simplicity and the urgency of the planner makes digital format much more suitable as a journal. I personally use a habit-tracking app and also include my personal side to this productivity journal.

A bullet journal is one of the trendier cousins right now in the journal family. The purpose of a bullet journal may vary but its ambition often remains the same for users: one notebook to rule them all. A bullet journal can contain tracking of our finance, your health, your to-do list, your calendar, your habits, your thoughts, and experiences.

Creating a bullet journal can be challenging as we have to decide on the parts we want to track, how to structure and organize so that they are easy to update and visually appealing. But once started, a bullet journal can serve you well as a platform to govern over your productivity, your feelings and bring order to our everyday life.

About the Platform: For the flexibility and personal customization of the bullet journal, I suggest it’s best to go with the old school way of pen and notebook. Then only the sky's the limit to what kind of functionality your bullet journal serves.

Frequency: You don’t need to use productivity journal year-round, every day to reap its benefit. These productivity journals can offer a great helping hand in times of disorder, busy schedules and performance-intensive times. They help us with providing structure and direction in the daily activities, constant planning and revisions to look for new ways to do more with less time

Journaling to spark creativity and build knowledge 

Here are the types of journals that potentially could elevate your ideas and make others wonder how you amass such an impressive body of knowledge.

Being knowledgeable and creative can be viewed as the same process. You are creative when you are able to generate ideas based on previous inspirations with enough new angles that people can not track back to the source.

Like Austin Kleon labeled one of his chapter in Steal Like an Artist:

“Creativity is subtraction.”

So the more you know, the more potential for creativity to blossom.

An Inspiration Journal can be a place where you document and store everything that has sparked a sense of interest, an awe-some moment. The purpose of this journal is to create a reference folder that you can be at your disposal whenever you need to think outside of the box in your creative endeavors. You start the journal by noting down the moments you have inspiration, what exactly inspires you and in which way.

The more inspiration you document, the more ideas you are storing for your future selves. Inspiration journal can be easy to start, enjoyable to keep (who doesn’t want to write down what inspires them).

A Learning Journal is a counterpart to the previous type, serving as a space of storage for all the new insights about the world that you collect along your life-long learning journey. Its job to grant you access to your own museum of insights from personal observation, life experiences from yours or others’ that you have collected. Your job is to diligently build this museum every time you find something that helps you understand the world and how it works better.

The bigger the museum, the better your understanding of the world. Just simply writing down with a pen or pencil, study says that you will have a greater chance of recalling later.


Da Vinci Journal
Leonardo da Vinci’s world-famous journal on his learning and inspiration


The prime example for Learning Journals and Inspiration Journals is Leonardo da Vinci’s collection of notebooks and journals. Called “the most curious man who ever lived”, the multi-disciplinary artist collected his inspiration from everything in his experience: birds flying, human’s autonomy, flowers, philosophy, architecture, food, science… He even had tiny 3.5x2.5 inches notebooks tied to his belt, always ready to jot down when inspiration strikes.

About the Platform: Both Learning Journal and Inspiration Journal require that you can access them immediately whenever a golden nugget is found. A digital platform would ensure that we are up to speed and always convenient enough to carry around. Also, as we need to link back to the source to revise or look deeper into it, digital linking is far superior compared to any analog system. Day One app can be a great tool for this purpose. Not only are they multi-platform but also have free access that is more than enough to build your museums.

Frequency: the more you use these journals, the more powerful they become. Consider the Inspiration and Learning Journal as a long-term investment that would just get better and better after enough data is set in its place.

Journaling to improve self-awareness

Writing down and observing our thoughts, experiences could help us lengthening our concentration and contemplation qualities. These could enable us to wonderful new insights that we could discover for ourselves.

To me, these are some of the most powerful forms of journaling. This can be developed into a deliberate practice to hone our focus, our understanding about ourselves, getting clear on who we are and why we do what we do.

A Contemplation Journal can be the place to document your deepest, truest thoughts and insight about yourselves. The purpose of the journal is to guide you away from the fast-paced everyday life that has no time for quiet time to sit back, reflect and strategize in a longer perspective. Your job with the journal is to find timeless questions or topics that potentially delivers the juiciest answers.

Here are a few prompts you could take for your contemplation journal: 

  • What pain am I willing to endure to have success? 
  • What is a good life to me?
  • How am I letting fear dictate my life?
  • Who (or what) is having the greatest influence in my life? 

These questions can be visited time and time again and potentially led us to different answers. Keeping documents of these answers can provide you with slices of many different versions of yourselves throughout the years. Or if you find that your answer is always consistent and evergreen, it’s a sign that you have found a truthful statement about yourself.

Platform: These are two of the more intimate journals and require serious effort from you to properly get its benefit. A contemplate journal to me should be in pen and paper, where you each stroke of the pen would require more effort, to put thoughts carefully in order and neatly organized inside your mind before you write them down.

A Diary Journal is essentially the opposite of the contemplation journal. Here, we write anything that captures our attention. A journal can be your very own sandbox of words, drawings, and scribbles on any topics that you want. Its purpose is to document your life as much as possible. This is the most flexible form of journaling out there ranging from pure joy to pure practicality.

Here are a few interesting ways you can keep a diary:

  • A dream journal: get a glimpse into your subconscious world by writing down your dreams right after you wake up and later decipher what your mind is trying to tell you.
  • A gratitude journal: boost positivity in your life by focusing on what you find grateful for in this life.
  • A food journal: control your weight by documenting what they eat, how many calories are going in your body throughout the days.
  • A Dear Diary journal: as old school as it gets, write down your thoughts and memories of any moments that you find worth remembering for the days to come.

The possibility is endless when it comes to these kinds of journals. But the gist of them is to keep filling them up with your life experience. A diary is always worth most when the memories have gained a touch of nostalgia.


Emma Watson Diaries
Emma Watson calls herself an “obsessive diarist” 


Ms. Watson in an interview has confessed her love for the Diary Journal, stating that she can keep 10 diaries simultaneous to document many different aspects of her life: an acting journal, a yoga journal, a dream journal, a journal to note down impressions and thoughts on the people she has come across.

Platform: because of the flexible nature of this journal, I guess there isn’t THE platform that will best serve the purpose. So it depends on your liking of whether you want to keep things digital or analog, with a clear set of structures of free flow from start to finish.

In an analog system, you are free to explore and design your journal in whichever way that suits you. In a digital system, you can easily store your data, get reminders to journal or even have prepared prompts from the app waiting for you. Grid Diary has all these features and I would recommend checking them out

Frequency: for both Contemplation Journal and Diary Journal can vary depending on your need. But a rule of them is that they both serve as documentation of your life, whether the most profound or the most mundane, so try to write as frequently as possible. And if you manage to lock it down into a routine or a habit, your journey to self-exploration would always be ensured with the companion of these useful sidekicks.

Bonus 5 Tips to Start Your Journals

Now you have identified why you need a journal, what you would need it for and what kind of structure or process you are going to use it with the previous parts.

Let’s cover a few tips that would add you great benefits in the long run.

Tip #1: Start Small

If you have never managed or built a journal, don’t expect yours will look stunning or you would always find the motivation to write down an entry every day.

Keeping a journal is building one of the keystone habits that may ripple and cause significant positive impacts on the rest of your life. But that only when you manage to make it stick as a habit.

Rushing in then failing your own great expectation is a sure way to get demotivated and quit before you can see the result. Start small, build momentum and find your joy along the way.

Especially when you are wanting to start with a Diary or a Contemplation journal, consistency is far more important than intensity. Consider this tip and find success later down the road.

Tip #2: Identify Your Routine

Knowing how keeping a journal fits in with the rest of your life can make or break this strategy. If you already have an awesome evening routine, find a way to add writing a journal inside of that.

Identify how long you want to journal for. Keeping a time limit is also a great way to help establish a clear routine and form a habit.

With Contemplation Journals, to meet its high demand for clear focus and intensive reflection sessions, it’s even more important to make them a routine. Link breathing exercises, stretching, yoga or other methods that get you in the right mindset before you pick up your notebook can greatly help your journaling process.

Tip #3: Write Entry Date & Entry Title

When you start to amass a large chunk of writing in your journal, sorting through all those entries can be an ease if you categorize or at least add a timestamp to each entry.

With that, it helps you get a clearer context of your life around the words on the pages. What were you going through at that time period? What led you to document these experiences?

And with an entry title, it made skimming through older entry much easier. A title helps you to get the gist of a 200, 300 words entry in 3 seconds. This is especially helpful with Inspiration Journals or Learning Journals, where you would need to constantly revisit your older entries.

Tip #4: Stack up Prompts

A good way to keep your journals always fresh and engaging is to read up and prepare prompts beforehand.

Not always do we know what to write about, even when we are in the mood for writing. So searching the web and make a list of all possible interesting prompts that you would later use as a starter for a Contemplation or a Diary Journal can be of great help.

Just a good prompt already has sparked many ideas that could lead to many interesting ideas ahead.

Tip #5: Make It Personal

You can first decide how personal you want your journal to be. It can be your safe haven where absolutely no judgment would be cast, where you free to explore everything and anything without the fear of being labeled by others.

This can be the place to discuss topics that are hard to share and harder to communicate with others. You can talk to yourself about bad habits, unwanted behaviors and then made improvements upon.

Get comfortable and show your vulnerability with your journal. Find your journal spot, your journal notebook, your journal pen, your journal time that makes you feel the most secure.

Being open is the fundamental building block of success in personal discovery, at least with my personal experience.

In Conclusion

Keeping a journal can be a worthwhile investment if you know what you are looking for as a return: productivity/creativity/self-understanding…

Once you have identified your goal for the journal, you can pick and play with many types of journals out there. There are no hard rules of right and wrongs in how to start a journal.

So it’s best if you explore the method for yourselves and create the one that suits you the best.

Personally from me, I have found quite a lot of benefits in tracking my productivity through my journal and that also leads me to more understanding about my strengths and weaknesses as a Manager. And there are still so many options to explore out there.

So I would invite you to start your own journey with a journal and see the magic of writing down words on a page for yourself.

If you care for personal development, find out how Habitify helps you build better habits to live a better life.


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