Life,  Medium

The Key to Successful Journaling Is Not Following Any Rules

I finally started using the plethora of journals I’d gathered over the years when I let myself write whatever I want.

I don’t know about you, but I’ve seen my fair share of articles about journaling on Medium and elsewhere over the years. It seems that most articles about journaling argue for structure — there are multitudes of articles out there about bullet journaling and hundreds of journaling prompts that will help you write for thirty minutes every single day.

And yet, there are people struggling to start a journaling habit, acquiring stacks of pretty notebooks whenever they stumble across a cute gift shop and some crisp, lined paper.

For the longest time, I was one of those people. I kept buying journals with quirky sayings splashed across the front cover, or pages with beautiful drawings in each lined corner, only to never fill more than half of the pages before the journal started collecting dust.

I tried, again and again, to write my thoughts out on paper daily, even bringing my journal along with me in my bag or packing it in my suitcase on vacation, but nothing worked. I was relentless in my journaling endeavors, and equally (and frustratingly) relentless in my journal abandonment.

But that’s not the case anymore.

The thing that changed me from a lukewarm journaler to an avid journaler is simple:

I got rid of my journaling rules.

There came a time several years ago when, after berating myself for not writing in my journal for several days and breaking my streak, I decided to just go ahead and write anyway. No, the dates were no longer consecutive. And yes, any sense of structure, therefore, started to go out the window, but it freed up my mind to write.

Since that day, I’ve written my way through countless notebooks and journals. I have a drawer in my apartment full of my musings from days and years gone by, and I write in my journal frequently, if not regularly.

I finally have a journaling habit, and the way I developed said habit is by…not having a specific habit. It’s a contradiction, sure, but it works.

If you’re like me and you’ve been struggling to develop a journaling habit only to leave half-filled notebooks in your wake, you, too, can become the journaler of your dreams. While I specifically don’t follow rules when it comes to my journaling, and I don’t really think you should either, there are a few things you should keep in mind as you embark on your journaling journey:

1. Don’t worry about when you write.

One of the things that messed me up when I first started trying to journal years (and years) ago is that I thought I needed to wake up bright and early to journal before I started my day. I’m sure I got this idea from some unrealistic movie or a motivational speaker who swore up and down that her key to becoming a millionaire was writing down her thoughts at 4:30 am before the sun came out, but the idea that you have to write at a certain time of day is ludicrous.

When I finally decided that I could write in my journal whenever I wanted to, I ended up writing a lot more. These days, I typically write in my journal before bed, but that’s not set in stone. When I was going through a particularly brutal time in my personal life earlier this year, I often wrote multiple times a day to help me process my thoughts before going to counseling (or to avoid taking my emotions out on innocent bystanders.) Write whenever you want, that’s the point of journaling — to get your thoughts down on paper as they come. No pressure.

2. Don’t worry about how much you write.

Sometimes my journal entries are practically novella length when I have a lot to say. Sometimes they’re two sentences. Sometimes they’re a page long. There’s no limit on what you can write, and there’s also no minimum. Occasionally, the only thing noteworthy about my day is that I made it through, and that’s what I’ll write — “I survived through x, y, z to live another day. More thoughts to come later.” Later could be in a few hours, days, or weeks, and more often than not I end up writing a longer entry when I finally feel the urge to write.

If you’re not feeling that urge to get every single thought out on paper, though, don’t worry about it. Write however many — or few — words feel right.

3. Don’t worry about what you write.

This is probably the biggest key to actually developing a journaling habit. Hear me out: no one cares what you write about. No one — even if this journal becomes Pulitzer prize-winning memoir fodder after you die one day, it doesn’t matter. So why are you putting so much pressure on yourself to write lyrical prose and witty descriptions? Save that for your novel — when you look back on your journals one day, you probably won’t notice that you used the word “literally” too much. Instead, you’ll be engrossed in the memories old journal entries trigger.

Take the pressure off of yourself to write entertaining, useful, or beautiful journal entries. I really don’t believe that’s what a journal is for. Dump the contents of your brain onto the paper and leave it at that — it will help you mentally process and will be an amazing mile marker for you to trek back to one day when you’re ready to relive the memories.

Just keep writing.

As with anything writing-related, this is key. Don’t let a few days or weeks without writing in your journal keep you from putting pen to paper once again. If you want to develop a journaling habit (yes, even a sporadic one) you have to actually write. If you take the pressure off of yourself to write perfect journals, you’ll likely find yourself inspired to write when you least expect it. So go do it — get out one of those pretty notebooks sitting on your bookshelf and a colorful pen and start the process. Just. Keep. Writing.

Previously published in The Ascent

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