Journaling is different for everyone. In this article, I share how I use journaling for self-improvement and as part of my daily, weekly, and monthly review.
I wanted to get into the habit of daily journaling for years.
Decades, if we’re being honest.
But it always felt like too much pressure to write something of Virginia Woolf-worthy depth and insight or to solve the world’s problems in a few pages.
In the last twelve months, I’ve finally managed to stick to a journaling habit every day. It’s not a work of literature – it would probably bore other people senseless. And I haven’t solved any major problems.
But I have found the process of reflection helps with incremental self-improvement.
In this article, I will share how I created a journaling habit, the tools I use, the journaling prompts I have found useful, and the process I go through to review, reflect, and take action on the things I learn about myself when journaling for self-improvement.
It’s not the ultimate journaling process; it’s just what I’ve learned so far along the way, what is working for me. My approach will no doubt change and evolve.
Here’s how the process stands at this time.
Carving out Fifteen Minutes for Journalling
If you’re busy and have work, kids, housework, and other commitments, it can be hard carving out 15 minutes to reflect on your day.
Nighttime can be a good time to reflect on the day that’s just been, but I’m usually too tired, so that didn’t work for me.
I was getting up at 5 am for a while, but now that it’s winter, I’m less inclined to jump out of bed early. I imagine that will be my summer routine.
At the moment, 3 pm is my journaling time. I’ve done work during the day, the kids come home from school, and after afternoon tea and chats, it’s my time for a quiet cup of tea.
The point is to experiment and find a consistent time that works for your situation and be flexible to change it as your schedule changes (or, as in my case, with the seasons).
Once you’ve found a good time, the next step is to remember to write in your journal. I have a recurring task in my Todoist task manager to remind me. That reminder and because journaling time is linked to my afternoon quiet time means journaling is more likely to happen.
Another option is to set an alarm on your phone or use a calendar app with notifications to remind you it’s time to write in your journal.
These two steps, finding a good time and creating a reminder, are the two key actions that have allowed me to journal every day consistently.
Journalling Prompts For Self-Improvement
Staring at a blank page can be daunting. What do you write? Where do you start?
That’s where journaling prompts can come in handy.
The problem I’ve found with journaling prompts is there are so many it’s overwhelming. And many of them just don’t resonate with me.
For example (this is an actual prompt from a website): Write a poem that uses the theme of water to convey a deeper meaning or emotion.
So below I will share the prompts that have helped me (sorry if the water poem inspires you).
I saved these customised prompts as a template in my journaling app (more on that below), so the template loads each day, and I can just fill in the blanks.
I don’t answer all of these prompts every day. Sometimes I don’t feel like it, or I don’t have anything to say. They’re just there to, well, prompt me to think about the day.
Daily Log and Reflection
My daily log is boring, things like ‘got up at 6, took the dog for a walk, made the kids lunches, answered work emails…’, but I find it useful for reviewing the month.
The daily log is useful for reviewing habits, good and bad.
You can review what’s working in your day and what isn’t.
It is a reminder of what you achieved throughout the month, what you didn’t, and why.
It helps you to see patterns in your day, week, and month.
It also gives you a springboard for exploring thoughts & feelings because these don’t happen in a vacuum. What we think & feel is usually a direct or indirect result of things that occur during the day.
You can write a daily log in bullet format and add reflection comments afterwards.
I find it easier to write in prose and add my thoughts as I go. Either option is fine, but I find writing in prose sometimes allows me to write things I didn’t expect and didn’t realise I was thinking, and that’s when you have your ‘ah-ha!’ moments of clarity.
Rate Your Day
I got the idea to rate each day from one of August Bradley’s emails, but I’ve simplified it to a three-choice rating.
I rate my day as average, above average, or below average (in his system, he rates his day from one to ten, five being average).
For any day that is either above average or below average, I write a short paragraph explaining why. What made that day better or worse than average?
The insights this simple rating system brings can be surprising. I often (not always) find that what makes a day better or worse than average has little to do with outside circumstances but with what’s going on inside my head.
I colour code the day with an image along with the rating because my journaling app lets you attach pictures (see below).
This image allows me to see at a glance average, above-average, and below-average days and see if there are any patterns.
For example, from looking at the below-average days and the daily logs, I have found a clear correlation between how much sleep I get, the stressors that cause my insomnia, and the grey days.
This might seem obvious, but seeing it can help give you clarity and the drive to make positive changes to improve circumstances.
While writing down a few things you’re grateful for isn’t as powerful as feeling thankful in the moment, research shows regularly counting your blessing can be good for your well-being. It can help reduce stress, improve sleep, improve relationships, decrease materialism, and increase generosity, to name a few.
One of the reasons gratitude is empowering is that it helps us focus on the positives of life, not just the negatives. So I take a moment to reflect on what I’m grateful for.
It’s not healthy to ignore or gloss over the bad stuff. But if you’re like me and tend to only focus on the bad stuff, a daily gratitude ritual can provide a bit of balance.
Some days I don’t feel very grateful, so I write that I don’t feel it. My journal is a place for me to be honest and authentic. I use my journal for data to improve my life; fake data doesn’t help me.
What Went Well Today and Why?
Asking what ‘went well today?’ is different to gratitude as it’s about agency and empowerment.
I can be grateful for the good coffee I had, and I can recognise that a hard meeting went well because I prepared for it. It’s less about thanking the universe, so to speak, and more about recognising what you did well.
I got this idea from the book Raising Girls Who Like Themselves by Dr Christopher Scanlon and Kasey Edwards.
The point of the exercise is to develop (or help our daughters (and sons) develop) what the authors call a ‘power perspective’, that how we perceive events affects how we feel about events, and by learning to have more positive and empowering thoughts, we can have more positive and empowering emotions.
Asking ‘What Went Well?’ is about training our perception of reality by focusing on small everyday achievements and our role in making them go well.
It doesn’t have to be world-changing. On bad days, it can be simple, like getting out of bed and showering. The point is to acknowledge those things.
As with the gratitude prompt, this exercise isn’t about ignoring the negative stuff but writing about what went well as well as what didn’t to bring some balance.
What did I learn today? Lessons and takeaways from today
As a dilettante who enjoys learning new things, this is a great question to reflect on daily and review monthly.
What did I learn today?
Did the knowledge stick?
Some days I might write about the online course I’m taking. Or what I’m learning for work or pleasure.
Other times it might be reflecting on a situation I handled poorly and thinking about how to handle it better next time.
Or it might be some life lesson from what happened during the day or about something I read.
And on some days, what I learn could be a simple factoid, like finding out Nutbush is a real place (hey, I didn’t know!).
What am I pleased I accomplished today?
The next two questions are the productivity questions. What am I pleased I got done today?
Years ago, I told a friend that when I felt down about my productivity, I would write a ‘got-done’ list, not a ‘to-do’ list. This was in the middle of my baby-raising years when it didn’t seem like I accomplished much, but when I wrote down the very long list of things I actually did, I felt better about myself.
This journal prompt is your ‘got-done’ list. It’s a counterweight to the to-do list, where, instead of beating yourself up about the things still outstanding for the day, you can celebrate all the things you did get done.
What do I wish I accomplished today?
Even with the best productivity system, there may be things I didn’t get done & I wish I had.
I’m cautious about this question. Sometimes I know I fluffed around & could have worked better. Or I felt resistant to starting a project. This is the spot to explore those issues.
But other times, I have good reasons not to be productive. For example, last week, I got sick & didn’t achieve what I had planned at the beginning of the week. A full to-do list can make you feel like a failure, even when you have good reasons. This question can be a reminder to give yourself a break.
What’s on my mind? What problems or challenges are taking up my mental real estate?
I can’t remember where I got this and the following questions, but they are powerful prompts for improving my circumstances.
I love this question because often when I come to it, something pops up that has been simmering just below consciousness and causing stress without me paying attention to it.
This journal prompt makes me address whatever it is.
It’s funny how you can be productive and get through the day, and on the surface, everything looks ok, but that thing that someone said to you three weeks ago is quietly eating away at you under the surface.
Or there’s something you need to do, but you’ve been ignoring it because it’s hard, and it’s becoming a problem.
Bringing it all to the surface allows us to deal with these things constructively.
Is there anything I can do to move forward on any of these challenges and problems, even just a bit?
This is another empowerment question that I love.
When we don’t address issues head-on, they simmer, and that’s stressful.
And while we usually can’t solve our problems in one day or a single journaling session, asking, ‘How can I address this problem, even just a little bit?’ can help us take action and move the needle, certainly more than ignoring our problems and hoping they go away.
In his book Getting Things Done, David Allen talks about focusing on the next action of a project or problem. Rather than focusing on the whole project or issue, which can be overwhelming, what’s the next small step I can take to move forward?
In this prompt, if there are problems or challenges I’m facing, I try to find the smallest next action that I can take and put that action on tomorrow’s to-do list.
Monthly and Weekly Review
After I’ve written in my journal, I don’t just forget about it. I review it monthly to summarise and move forward on things that come up in my journal.
Reviewing your week, month, and year can be a powerful way to reflect, learn, and acknowledge the stuff that happened. Without this review, we never really use our insights in a constructive way.
I do a monthly review inspired by Katie Callaway in her YouTube video. The video has a link to a downloadable Notion template if you want to use it yourself. Katie also explains each part of the review in her video.
I use the template but changed some to suit my circumstances better.
As part of my monthly review, I read over my journal entries for the month and summarise the events and highlights in the monthly review Notion template.
I’ve added a section called ‘things I need to work on’, which I refer to when doing my weekly planning.
When I plan my week, I look at the previous monthly reviews and see what ‘things I need to work on’ I can incorporate into my weekly planning.
For example, if I need to work on going to the gym more often, I try to make some changes in my schedule to make that happen.
I love the self-care section because, as a mum, self-care can fall by the wayside, and I burn out. The review reminds me to schedule some self-care during the month.
I also plan my week in Notion and will share that process in another article.
Journaling Tools I Use
The tools we use aren’t as important as the process of reflecting on your day, but if you’re interested, these are the tools I use.
Some people like an all-in-one tool so you don’t have to switch between apps (or pay multiple subscriptions). If you prefer to use just one app, Notion is a great free option, and there are a tonne of videos on Youtube about how to set it up for journaling and productivity.
I prefer to use separate apps – it works better for me to compartmentalise things in different spaces – go with what works for you (pen and paper are also fine!).
I use Notion for planning, project management, and reviews.
This is where I keep all of my overview thinking and planning. Projects I want to complete, personal areas of focus like health, books I want to read, goals for the year – that kind of thing.
For journaling, I use Diarium, which is free, with a premium subscription option.
You can create your own templates in Diarium, so I have these prompts in a template that auto-populates each day. You can also add tags (which I use to rate the day, you can also use their star system), add images, and format the text.
I use a stylus to write on the tablet, so it’s like writing with pen and paper but in a digital format that is more flexible. You can sync across platforms, back up your diary to Google Drive, and integrate other apps.
And for productivity and to keep track of my to-do list and commitments, I use Todoist (free and premium) and Google Calendar.
Todoist is a simple task management app with a quick-capture widget for my phone, so it’s easy to write down tasks so I don’t forget. This is where I keep track of tasks.
In Google Calendar, I keep track of appointments and meetings and use it for time-blocking work.
It seems like a lot of work when it’s written out like this, but it only takes 10 minutes or so a day. And as I mentioned above, I don’t always answer all the journal prompts in my journaling template.
But those 10 minutes can be life-changing when we take the time to reflect, learn, and improve ourselves and our circumstances. And that’s the real power of journaling – taking the time to think about stuff. In our busy world, we rarely take the time to reflect and adjust. A daily habit of journaling ensures that we do.