Why Keep a Journal? (Plus: Alternatives If You Hate Writing!)

Everyone tells you to keep a journal these days: therapists, life coaches, self-help and personal development books. They all tout the benefits of keeping one, but the question is: is it really worth it?

I think it is. There are numerous benefits to keeping a journal, and since it can be customized to be exactly what you want or need it to be, there really is no downside. There are a few things that I think are important to keep track of in a journal, but there are a number of ways you can keep one.

What to track

Journals can take many forms: gratitude, mood, food, exercise, random entries like a diary. There are a few of these that I think are important, particularly if you’re trying to make specific changes to your life or if you deal with conditions like depression.

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Mood

Tracking your mood doesn’t need to be a complicated thing. Just a quick word or two that provides a general idea of your overall mood for the day. It can be “happy” or “angry” or even as simple as saying “good” or “great” or “bad.” I recommend having more than just good or bad as your options, however. Include variations, such as:

 

  • Great, good, average, bad, terrible
  • Happy, satisfied, indifferent, unhappy, miserable

This allows you to be more specific, while still not investing a ton of time, so that you can really keep track of your average mood and whether it’s trending up or down.

Gratitude

Showing gratitude for the things you have not only helps you appreciate those things, but opens you up to receiving even more. Taking the time to consciously acknowledge your gratitude for those things only takes a few minutes and helps you to truly appreciate them.

It doesn’t need to be an extensive list, but the more specific you are about the things you’re grateful for, the more effective it will be. Most suggest listing at least five things each day that you’re grateful for. If you can’t do five, at least look for three. You can break that down to one in the morning, another in the afternoon, and the third in the evening. They can be simple, but again – be detailed.

For example:

  • I am grateful for the delicious Chinese Chicken Salad I had for lunch.
  • I am grateful for my beautiful children and how they make me laugh.
  • I am grateful for a car that safely and reliably takes me wherever I need to go.

Body aches and pains

I got migraines years ago, before I had my oldest son. They went away during my pregnancy and didn’t return until late last year, 17 years later. When I went to my doctor early this year to talk about them, he suggested cutting out sugar and anything with white flour in it. I did so, and when I did, not only did I get rid of the migraines, but I also got rid of a low-level constant headache that I wasn’t even aware I had until it went away. I also found that I felt lighter, and eating more plants and protein made me feel more energetic.

If I had been keeping track of body aches and pains, I might have noticed the low-level headache and other feelings before they disappeared. I might have also connected them to the foods I was eating myself.

Again, this doesn’t have to be anything complicated. Just general notes, such as having a stomach ache after lunch, with a short note on what you ate, or that your left wrist is hurting. These notes will help you track pain so that if you go to the doctor, you can describe the pain and how long you’ve had it. It can also help you discover things like lactose intolerance or other food allergies.

What’s important to you

Aside from the three things listed above, all you need to put in your journal is what’s important to you. Whatever you think you need or want to put into it is all you need to do. This can be a detailed account of your day, or just a quick note or two of the most important parts of it. It can be a list of tasks you completed, or a to-do list for the next day. It can be your thoughts on your job, your relationship, what you’ve seen on the news. It’s your journal and it should be written in whatever way is most beneficial to you.

How to track

Keeping a journal brings to mind an actual journal or diary for most people. They picture a fancy or pretty book, probably hardcover, with colors or pictures, and strong paper, maybe lined or maybe plain. They imagine writing the day’s date and filling the pages with their handwriting.

For some, that image is beautiful, satisfying and something they eagerly look forward to each day. For others, it’s a burden. They don’t like their handwriting, or they hate writing by hand, or they imagine how long it would take to fill up that book.

There are a number of ways you can keep a journal, and they can all be adapted for you.

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A journal or diary

If it’s what you like, getting an elegant or beautiful journal can be the ideal solution. You can choose something that speaks to you, that feels right to you. You can buy a special pen that you use only with your journal. You can use the same journal to replace it when you fill one up, or get a different one each time. You can take the time to note the dates contained within each journal and store them chronologically on a bookshelf.

A regular notebook

If keeping a pretty journal isn’t your thing, a regular notebook will work just as well. Often larger than a journal, you might even be able to fit multiple entries on a single page, and you’ll also have more room to write if your handwriting tends to be large or sloppy. You can use a permanent marker to label the front of the notebook so you don’t use it for other things.

A computer document

Microsoft Word, Google Docs, Open Office – they all offer text documents. You can create a single document and add dated entries each day, or create a folder and create a new document for each day’s entry. This allows you the ability to type in your entries, eliminating concerns about messy handwriting. It’s also often quicker than handwriting entries. The downside is that you do need access to the same computer every day, and if you upgrade or your computer dies, you need a backup to transfer it to the new one – and without a backup, you lose it all.

An online app

There are tons of apps in the Google Play Store, Apple Store, and elsewhere that allow you to keep journal entries. This is my preferred method these days, as it allows me to do it from my phone and not have to handwrite anything. My personal favorite is Daylio, because it comes preset with moods, allows me to choose from preset activities as well as input my own activities with just the press of an icon, and gives me a space for writing whatever I want to write. You can choose from any number of apps, and you can even try out two or three at a time to find the best fit for you. There are also websites offering the same service, if you prefer not to do it from your phone.

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Journaling is for you

Keeping a journal, and the benefits it has, is for you and only you. It doesn’t matter what other people do. It doesn’t matter if anyone else would understand your journal – in fact, no one else should even see it, unless you have a specific reason to share it with them.

Whether you handwrite it or use an app, whether you track your moods or your periods or nothing at all, whether you use it to just jot a quick couple of notes or do a complete brain dump, it’s your journal. It should be done in the way that works best for you. If it’s not working, keep adapting until it does. Look at other people’s ideas and examples, but don’t be afraid to adapt them or ignore them.

And if you discover that it really just does not work for you, despite knowing all the benefits and options, don’t be afraid to admit it doesn’t work and let it go. If it’s more of a burden than a pleasant experience that makes you feel good, let it go.

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