How to Journal: A Step-By-Step Introduction

Updated February 1, 2023

Some of the most impressive and influential individuals in history kept journals-- Marcus Aurelius, Ben Franklin, Theodore Roosevelt, Albert Einstein, Thomas Edison, and Leonardo da Vinci, to name a few. Let's look at how to start a journal step-by-step to help you on your path to excellence in life.

Journaling has mental, physical, and spiritual benefits that can compound over the years and decades. There's no wrong way to keep a journal, so don't feel intimidated! Without further ado, let's look at how to journal, writing prompts you can use, popular journaling styles, and more.

How to Journal: A Step-By-Step Introduction

In this first section, we will look at the most bare-bones approach to journal writing. All you need is a notebook and a pen, time in your day to write, and the willingness to commit to this beneficial habit.

Later on, we'll go deep into all of the different types of journaling, prompts you can use, and more. But it's important to remember that there is no one right way to journal. This isn't something you're doing for anyone but yourself, so don't get caught up trying to follow some specific formula.

1. Get a Notebook and a Pen

The first thing you're going to need if you want to start a journal is a notebook and a pen. Sure, this might seem obvious, but the deliberate act of choosing both of these items can help you actually turn journaling into a habit you stick with.

You can, of course, choose to keep your journal digitally too. There are some benefits to going this route (for example, you can easily search for repetitive terms, etc.) but also some drawbacks (such as the potential for getting distracted by the internet, etc.)

Many people enjoy the physicality of actually writing with pen on paper. It can be a nice break if you spend much of your time on the computer, and it helps put you in a meditative state of mind.

Choosing a journal can be as simple as stopping at an office supply store and grabbing the cheapest spiral-bound notebook for sale. On the other hand, you can invest in something a bit fancier, like a moleskin or leather journal.

It's easy to get caught up in making a decision about picking a journal-- the cover style, paperweight, and binding questions are all seemingly infinite rabbit holes.

At the same time, a notebook that is so beautiful can actually make you nervous about writing in it. You might feel pressure only to write profound thoughts in them or worry that you'll make a "mistake."

Don't let yourself forget the goal of buying a notebook: to start and stick to a journaling habit. That's it. Whatever tools best serve you in that endeavor, get them.

A note: while it's best to not get too concerned with the style of your notebook and pen, you might want to think about how enduring you want your notebook to be. If you want your journal to be readable by your grandchildren, great-grandchildren, etc. ad infinitum, consider investing in archival-quality ink and paper.

2. Set a Time and Stick to It

Alright, you've got your notebook and pen. What next?

Now it's time to choose a time that you are going to write in your journal every day. Don't feel like you have enough time to write on a daily basis?

I guess you'll have to make time, then.

There will always be things that will try and distract you from your journaling habit. You have to choose to make it a priority.

The Stoics (and many other great minds, by the way) believed that the morning and the evening were the two best times for reflection. In the morning, you can prepare yourself for the day to come. In the evening, you can reflect on the day that is right in the rearview mirror.

It's thought that Marcus Aurelius' Meditations were written in the morning, while Seneca notes that he examined his entire day in the evening.

Maybe you don't feel like you have time to journal for an hour every morning and every evening-- few people do. But do you really not have five minutes? How about ten?

There's a good chance you could steal some time away from less beneficial activities-- scrolling social media, playing video games, binge-watching shows, you catch the drift.

The point is to pick a time every single day when you spend a little time with your journal. If you are legitimately the busiest person in the world, you can still likely afford one minute to write down three things you're grateful for or a quick note about the most important thing you're going to do today.

I personally write in my journal in the morning while I'm drinking my coffee after exercising and taking a shower. I'll often write one page during the week and maybe two or three on the weekends. It's a lovely way to start the day!

epictetus image and quote about how to journal and habits

“To make anything a habit, do it; to not make it a habit, do not do it; to unmake a habit, do something else in place of it.”

– Epictetus

Building new habits can be tough, so don't go overboard and sign yourself up for two hours of journaling every day. Start small and work your way up. Otherwise, you might bounce off the whole thing on a day when you simply can't commit that much time to your journal.

3. Write!

You have your notebook and pen, and you've picked a time every day when you're going to use that pen to write in your new journal.

Now it's time to write!

There are a lot of different types of journaling you can do and an infinite number of prompts you can incorporate. However, when you're first starting out, it can be nice to just write without any additional pressure.

Don't think about what other people would think if they saw what you're writing. Don't try and write a profound and brilliant tome that you think would impress a future archeologist. Don't censor yourself or think too much about it-- just write.

seneca image and quote about writing truthfully and how to journal

“It is dishonorable to say one thing and think another; how much more dishonorable to write one thing and think another.”

– Seneca the Younger

In the next two sections, we'll talk all about different journal prompts, ideas, and styles. The truth is, though, you don't need any of these to benefit from journaling. All you need is a pen and paper, some time, and the willingness to write with honesty.

Stoic Journal Prompts and Ideas: What to Write About

Now that we've gotten the three basic steps of journal writing out of the way let's dive a little deeper. Here are some concepts, prompts, and ideas you can use while writing in your daily journal.

Stream of Consciousness

This is the simplest way to journal and a good approach when you're feeling stuck. All you have to do is write down the first thing that comes to your mind without thinking about it or questioning it.

The sentences don't have to flow or even make sense. There's no structure. It doesn't need to sound smart.

If you find yourself overthinking things and you're just sitting staring at a blank page, just start writing. Write absolutely anything.

So the only word that is coming to your mind is "dog"? Write it down. Then the next word. Then the next.

This can be an incredibly freeing strategy. Even if you tend to use more deliberate prompts most days, consider letting yourself write stream of consciousness from time to time.

Quote Meditation and Response

One wonderful way to use your journal is to write down powerful and inspirational quotes at the top of each page and use them as a prompt for your writing.

seneca image and quote about how to journal and quotes

“My advice is really this: what we hear the philosophers saying and what we find in their writings should be applied in our pursuit of the happy life. We should hunt out the helpful pieces of teaching and the spirited and noble-minded sayings which are capable of immediate practical application-not far far-fetched or archaic expressions or extravagant metaphors and figures of speech-and learn them so well that words become works.”

– Seneca the Younger

Seneca the Younger encourages us to find helpful pieces of teaching and actually apply them to our lives. What better way to help weave the advice of wise people into our actual experience than spending a little time in the morning meditating and writing in response to them?

Where can you get these quotes from, you ask?

Well, for starters, there are literally thousands of Stoic quotes over on our blog that you can use as quote prompts. You also might keep a list of quotes you encounter throughout the day that you feel are meaningful or thought-provoking.

Another strategy is to grab a physical copy of a philosophical or spiritual text and open the book to a random page and place your finger down with your eyes closed. It might sound silly, but there's something really great about letting fate choose your quote for you!

I've personally always been fond of incorporating quotes into my journaling practice. I will often write a quote at the top of the page before beginning to write.

I've also had phases where I transcribed a spiritual text (for example, The Tao te Ching) over the course of months by writing down a paragraph or two at the beginning of each entry. If you have the time, this can be an incredibly enriching process!

Unsent Letters

Writing letters, you won't send can be an awesome way to process your emotions and become self-aware of how you are reacting to a particular situation.

Rather than immediately raging at someone or otherwise acting without thinking, write down what you want to say in a letter. There's a good chance that doing so will help to cool your emotions, so you are able to approach the issue in a much more productive way.

Brainstorm When You're Stuck

Are you dealing with a problem in your life right now, and you just don't know what to do about it? This is the perfect prompt for your journal.

Dump Destructive Thoughts

Your journal is also the ideal place to put destructive, negative thoughts when they are filling up your mind. Whether you're having a rough day and feel like you're just not good enough, you're feeling like a terrible person, or overwhelmed by the feeling of life-sucking, get those thoughts out of your head and out on paper.

Something amazing happens when you write down your destructive thoughts. A lot of the time, they literally leave your head.

If you don't write them down, though? They just keep circling and circling around your mind like a goldfish in a bowl.

Not only does this help get those unproductive and destructive thoughts out of your head, but it also gives you another priceless gift: self-awareness.

This is an excellent way to learn what types of thoughts are really marching around in that brain of yours. As Marcus Aurelius says, "you have power over your thoughts. Realize this, and you will find strength."

Self-awareness is the first step, and writing down your negative thoughts will go a long way in teaching you about what's going on in your own mind.

Gratitude Journaling

You've probably heard people talking about gratitude journaling before, where you write down the things that you're grateful for.

seneca image and quote about gratitude and journaling

"Nothing is more honorable than a grateful heart."

– Seneca the Younger

Many people find it useful to write down three or so things they're grateful for every day. However, it's easy for this to get a little hokey and predictable-- for example, you might find it isn't that useful to repeatedly write down that you're grateful for your health, your family, your house, and your dog, no matter how grateful you are for those things.

To spice things up a little bit, try to think of something that isn't quite so obvious.

“Convince yourself that everything is the gift of the gods, that things are good and always will be.”

– Marcus Aurelius

Think about something that happened recently that wasn't that great and try and find something that you are grateful for related to it. This can be a powerful practice that really has an impact on how you deal with difficult situations in real time.

Respond to Stoic Questions

There are a lot of useful questions you can use as journal prompts that will help you in your effort to incorporate Stoic philosophy into your daily life. Here are a few Stoic questions to use as writing prompts:

  • What is within my control, and what isn't? (Alternatively, you can use this question in relation to a specific challenge you are facing in life)
  • What obstacles am I likely to encounter today?
  • What am I worrying about?
  • What is the one thing I need to get done today? (Or at the end of the night, what is the most important thing I accomplished today?)
  • What am I grateful for?
  • What are my duties?
  • What is my purpose?
  • Did I use moderation today, or was I excessive?
  • What am I afraid of?
  • In which situations did I respond in a Stoic manner?
  • In which situations did I let negative emotions guide my actions?
  • What virtues do I want to live by? Was I successful in this effort today?
  • What can I do better tomorrow?
  • What brings joy to my life?
  • What makes me sad?
  • What am I passionate about?
  • What are my best memories?
  • When do I lose control of my emotions?
  • What daily activities add value to my life?
  • What daily activities bring suffering and pain to my life?
  • What brings negativity and strife to my life?
  • Who influences me?
  • Who inspires me?
  • Which relationships aren't serving me?
  • When I'm near death, what do I want to look back and see that I've accomplished?
  • What would I do if today was my last day on earth?

Choosing one or two of these to respond to each morning or evening can be a great way to track your moral progress and give you insight into your own mind and actions.

Record Your Dreams

Whether you think dreams are random firings of the brain or you're convinced something a little more interesting is going on, recording your dreams in your journal can be a very useful practice.

The Stoics don't write extensively about dreams, but they do point to a difference between the natural dream and the inspired dream. In the following quote, Zeno of Citium (the founder of Stoicism) speaks of the natural dream as a way to measure our moral progress.

“Dreams allow us to realize our progress, if in a dream we do not rejoice, desire or do shameful, atrocious or unjust things: then imagination and affectivity are bathed in reason and shine.”

– Zeno of Citium

The inspired dream, on the other hand, is a mode of communication with the gods. At the end of Book I of Meditations, Marcus Aurelius lists the things for which he is grateful, including that he was "granted assistance in dreams, especially how to avoid spitting blood and fits of giddiness, and the answer of the oracle of Caieta."

Some pretty interesting people have even had their dream diaries published over time, including Franz Kafka, Jack Kerouac, Emanuel Swedenborg, and William S. Burroughs.

You'll find that writing your dreams down helps you remember your dreams better over time. It can also help you solve problems, help boost your creativity, and reduce stress.

Negative Visualization

The Stoics practiced something they called premeditatio malorum, a Latin term for "premeditation of evils." Negative visualization is the modern phrase used to describe a similar practice.

seneca image and quote about wisdom and journaling

“Nothing happens to the wise man against his expectation… nor do all things turn out for him as he wished but as he reckoned—and above all, he reckoned that something could block his plans.”

– Seneca the Younger

When you practice negative visualization as a journal prompt, you will take a plan that you have and go over everything that could go wrong along the way.

For example, let's say that you're planning on taking a road trip. There are countless things that could disrupt your plans-- car problems, bad weather, your dog getting sick along the way, etc.

When you do this, it helps you prepare for disruptions that could occur. At the same time, for people that struggle with anxiety or worry, it can also help illustrate that even the worst-case scenario is something you can deal with.

There are a lot of things that you can't control in life, but that doesn't mean you can't try and prepare yourself for obstacles that could crop up. Even if a problem arises that you can't solve, you'll find that this practice helps you manage your expectations.

Memento Mori Prompt

This is an excellent writing prompt when you're feeling bored, lacking motivation, anxious, or prideful... really this is a great prompt for any old day of the week.

The concept of memento mori is Latin for "remember that you must die."

The Stoics used to help invigorate their lives by meditating on the fact that they were going to die one day. While many modern people see death as a bad thing, the ancient Stoic philosophers didn't see it this way.

What is a bad thing is the fear of death.

“It is not death that a man should fear, but he should fear never beginning to live.”

–Marcus Aurelius

Writing about the fact that you will die can help you overcome the fear of death and also stop fixating on things that simply don't matter in the big picture. It can help you get your priorities straight and zero in on your purpose.

Amor Fati Journal Prompt

Amor fati is another Latin phrase, this one meaning "love of one's fate." The Stoics believed that we should determine what is in our control and what isn't in our control.

We should focus our energy on the things we can control. What should we do about the rest, then?

Learn to accept it.

A lot of the things we are prone to see as "bad" in our lives are actually experiences that offer valuable lessons. After all, it's adversity that helps us grow stronger, more courageous, and wiser. It's usually the tough times that we look back and see were vital in our positive development as individuals.

If you want to learn to love and embrace fate, consider taking some time to write a response to this amor fati journal prompt:

What is the worst thing that ever happened to me? What good came from it?

You can also start smaller than that-- pick something that recently happened to you that you felt was "bad." Can you see that you actually grew from needing to deal with it? Can you see how it might have presented you with an opportunity to exercise one or several of the Stoic virtues you are working to uphold?

Daily Log

As our final prompt, let's bring it back down to earth a little bit. If you're going to be writing in the evening, consider keeping a log of the things that you do each day, the people you meet, and, generally, what happened during the course of the previous 24 hours.

If you're feeling averse to the idea of journaling but want to give it a go, this can be a great place to start. You don't have to do anything but jot down a few notes every day-- it doesn't have to take more than five minutes.

Different Journal Strategies

Now that we've looked at a number of journal prompts let's talk about some specific journaling systems. There is no rule that you have to use one of these, but some people might find a little structure useful when starting out.

5 Minute Journal

Are you worried you just don't have time to write in a journal daily? Or, perhaps you're concerned you're going to get lost in writing, letting far too much of the day go by while you've got your nose in your journal?

If either of these scenarios sounds like you, you might try the 5-minute journal.

You can buy an official "5 Minute Journal," but you can also just do this yourself in a blank notebook.

In the morning, all you do is:

  • Write down three things you're grateful for
  • Write down three things that would make today grate
  • Write a daily affirmation starting with "I am..."

In the evening, all you do is:

  • Write down three amazing things that happened today
  • Write down how you could have made today even better

That's it! For journal skeptics, this can be a simple and easy place to start.

Morning Pages

For anyone that is feeling creatively stuck or otherwise wants to develop their creativity further, a classic book to turn to is Julia Cameron's The Artist's Way.

If you don't feel like diving into a twelve-week creativity course, though, you still might benefit from one of the practices explained in the book-- morning pages.

Morning pages are three pages of stream-of-consciousness writing (long-hand, not on a computer.)

The idea is that you write down everything that crosses your mind without thinking twice about it. There's no wrong way to do it. Don't overthink it-- just write.

Using the morning pages approach to journal writing can help clear away any stress you have surrounding finding the "right" or "perfect" way to keep a journal. You'll also find that you're surprised by what comes out of your mind onto the page in a way that can be a powerful aid in self-discovery and growth.

What good could come from writing three pages of stream-of-consciousness writing every morning? Only you can find out for yourself, but it might be worth exploring.

Bullet Journal

Sometimes known as BuJo, a bullet journal is a specific method of personal organization that is extremely popular.

Focused on productivity, this is a method for organizing reminders, scheduling, brainstorming, to-do lists, and other organizational tasks in one spot.

The Benefits of Journaling

Can journaling really help you? Compared to all of the other ways you could spend your time, will the benefits really be worth it?

Let's look at some of the known benefits of keeping a journal:

  • It can improve your communication skills
  • It can boost your performance
  • It can decrease emotional distress
  • It can improve well-being after stressful and traumatic events
  • It can help you fall asleep faster
  • It can improve your cognitive abilities
  • It can help reduce stress
  • It can boost your physical health
  • It can increase your well-being
  • It can help you process negative emotions
  • It can help you plan out your life
  • It can help you understand and get to know yourself
  • It can help boost creativity
  • It can boost self-confidence
  • It can help you achieve your goals

We could go on and on, but you get the point. Journaling is good for you physically, mentally, and spiritually. So why not give it a try?

Famous Historical Figures That Kept a Journal

Still not convinced that journaling is worth the time? You might change your mind when you realize how many of the great minds of history had a journaling practice.

Here are just a few of the individuals who saw the value in keeping a journal:

  • Marcus Aurelius
  • Henry David Thoreau
  • Ralph Waldo Emerson
  • Mark Twain
  • Anne Frank
  • Anais Nin
  • Leonardo da Vinci
  • Thomas Edison
  • Albert Einstein
  • Marie Curie
  • Frida Kahlo
  • Charles Darwin
  • Ben Franklin
  • Virginia Woolf
  • John Quincy Adams
  • Susan Sontag
  • Oscar Wilde
  • Queen Victoria
  • Joan Didion
  • W.H. Auden
  • Sylvia Plath
  • John Steinbeck

Journaling is a practice that you can carry with you throughout the rest of your life. Not only can it help you understand your own life and offer countless other benefits, but it also gives you a record of your life that you and your progeny can look back on down the road.

Are you searching for quotes to use as journal prompts? Check out our posts full of Stoic quotes about strength and courage, purpose and meaning in life, and the shortness of life.

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Written by: Sophia Merton
Sophia received her BA from Vassar College and has always maintained a deep interest in the question of how best to live one’s life. She hopes to help others understand how they can apply Stoicism in their day-to-day lives in order to become the person they want to be, embrace the present moment, pursue their purposes, and rid themselves of unnecessary anxiety.

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