Journal Writing: How to Start Journaling and Stay Motivated
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It took me a long time to develop a morning pages journaling habit.
One of the key challenges I faced was not being a morning person. For years, my morning routine consisted of:
- getting dressed,
- and clocking in by 9 AM.
There was little time for anything else. Even during my commute, I’d pop on a podcast or mentally scroll through my many to-do lists for that day. Connecting with myself and my thoughts was the last thing on my mind.
Looking back, I regret not getting started with journaling sooner because it transformed my life in such a positive way.
Why Try Journaling?
They say the best things in life are free—and journaling is one of them!
The benefits of journaling, according to The University of Rochester Medical Centre, include:
- Anxiety management,
- stress reduction,
- and an increased ability to cope with depression.
The American Psychological Association adds that self-expression via journaling can help build a stronger immune system.
Researchers at Cambridge University Press report that those who journaled for 20 minutes per day on three to five separate occasions had reduced blood pressure, improved lung and liver function, and fewer stress-related visits to the doctor.
But if all that scientific evidence doesn’t convince you, perhaps validation by these global icons will. Serena Williams, Lady Gaga, and Emma Watson are habitual journalers, and, of course, the notebooks and journals of Charles Darwin and renaissance-era polymath Leonardo da Vinci are legendary.
If some of the world’s most famous and successful people find value in journaling, then that’s a pretty good reason to give it a try for yourself!
The power of morning pages
One of the most popular journaling techniques today is the practice of morning pages.
Lifestyle guru Tim Ferriss swears by its benefits and was even brave enough to share some pages on his blog. Personally, while I found journaling really helped with my productivity, it was specifically the morning pages that helped cut through my mental chatter, put things in perspective, and caused creative breakthroughs.
The catch? It’s a slow burn. You need to do it every day, for a reasonable period of time, before you see the benefits. But it’s worth it.
So, what exactly are morning pages? Julia Cameron, renowned author of The Artist’s Way, who coined the term, calls them “a pathway to a strong and clear sense of self.” The best way to describe this practice is as an outlet for the stream of thoughts that come unbidden into your mind first thing in the morning.
Write three pages (or around 750 words) of whatever comes to your mind (stream of consciousness),
by hand, in seclusion, as soon as you wake up.
Do this every single morning without fail for a clearer mind and better self-connection.
When I first started writing morning pages, random thoughts nagged me throughout the day. Turns out, a clear mind was essential when working on my umpteenth report about the market potential of cashew nuts (yes, being a newbie freelancer was not all glamorous, off-grid travel writing after all). Morning pages helped me express and expend those thoughts early in the day so I could focus on my work.
Over time, however, it became so much more than that. I began to see patterns, insights, and ideas shine through what seemed like a chaotic brain dump. It centered me in surprising new ways as a writer and an individual.
Benefits of a morning pages practice
The benefits of morning pages are like compound interest, accumulating and growing over time. Aside from the physical and health-based benefits, from my personal experience, I’d divide the benefits of morning pages into two areas:
- The outer benefits, which are more practical.
- The inner benefits, which are more spiritual.
Practical benefits in daily life
- Get those creative juices flowing: Just like appetizers stimulate your desire for food, writing your morning pages kick-starts your mind, strengthens your focus, and prepares you for productive work by forcing you to channel your attention to something specific for 30-45 minutes. While the exercise is not about making you a better writer per se, so many new connections form in your mind during this process that you do often get new, creative raw material to work with later.
- Open your mind to new possibilities: Thoughts and ideas start to sound and feel very different when you put them into words. When we write exactly as we think, there is a tendency to counter-argue and question everything, just like that voice in your head does, allowing you to see old thoughts from new perspectives.
- Exercise your writing fluency muscles: As a writer, this one was particularly important to me, but honestly, writing, whether for self-expression or communication, is inescapable, no matter what your profession. So why not get good at it through daily practice? While morning pages are not structured writing, they are a great variation from our regular writing, forcing new mental muscles to form.
- Build a habit: By committing to writing your pages no matter your state of mind— happy, sad, bored, grumpy, or uninspired—you are learning to build a habit. You are training yourself to write through all of your mood fluctuations, regardless of your circumstances. You can apply those lessons to any (good) habit you are trying to cultivate.
- Temporary tech detox: For 45 minutes a day, it’s just you, a pen and piece of paper. There are no devices or notifications to contend with. And you don’t need any smart writing tools to assist you, either. Morning pages take you back to basics. Win-win.
Personal benefits to your inner self
- Acceptance of yourself: By giving myself permission to write absolutely anything, I found myself embracing everything that makes me who I am. All of my quirks, nasties, and plain bad writing. As Julia Cameron suggests, when your inner critic surfaces to judge you, say “thank you for sharing that” and keep on writing. Gradually, you will lose your fear of creating, expressing, and being your authentic self.
- Reflection: Though rereading and editing of your morning pages is not recommended, just letting your thoughts, fears, and anxieties flow onto paper helps you to process them in a more mindful way.
- Free up your mind space: Just like in any relationship, communication is key. Morning pages have become a way for me to communicate with myself. By emptying my (mental) cup, I have space for newer, more creative thoughts throughout the day.
- Gain clarity and direction: This is actually a real bonus benefit. Over time, putting my innermost thoughts on paper gave me clarity and helped tremendously with my goal-setting process.
Overcoming the hurdles of getting started
When it comes to new habits, getting started is the hard part for some, while sticking with it is the real battle for others. Whatever your challenge, the key to success with morning pages is to get the basics of the technique right from the get-go.
Because morning pages are not a quick, short-term exercise you can tick off your list, the longer and more regularly you do it, the more the power of compounding will kick in. Being aware of this will help get over your stage fright and general resistance to change. Give it time. A new habit takes between three and eight weeks to form, so your first hurdle is getting past the 45-day mark. The following time-tested tips will help you make that happen.
7 tips to help you start journaling
It's not easy to get started. These tips will build the right habit to make it easier for you to journal every day.
1. First, remember the three golden rules
- Don’t try to be productive: Not in the obvious sense, anyway. Despite the often transformative effects of morning pages over time, do it for the sake of doing it, and see what happens.
- Welcome your good, bad, and ugly: Morning pages aren’t some sort of positive thinking or motivation ritual. Don’t be politically correct—the more raw and uncensored, the better!
- Don’t try to write well: This is not a test of your writing ability. It is freestyle writing at its best. Zig-zag, meander, ramble. Don’t edit or share with friends. Just write and move on.
2. Accept that forming any new habit is hard at the beginning
It’s not going to be easy, practically or mentally, so be prepared. Once you set your intention to make it a habit, just focus on getting each day done. Don’t worry about the huge mountain ahead; just focus on taking the next step.
3. Start right away
The first few paragraphs come easy. But writing 800 words off the top of your head without a theme or outline is hard! I decided that I would write anything, but from the start, I wanted to stay committed to the idea of three pages per day. Cameron says most people hit a wall at page two, but that’s when the gems start emerging.
So don’t try to work your way up to three pages. Instead, push yourself to go all the way from the start. When all else fails, use prompts like “what do I fear?”, “what do I crave?”, or “what’s making me happy right now?” to get your thoughts flowing.
4. Focus on the process, not the outcome
This entire exercise is about the process. At the start, what you write is not important, but doing authentic and honest writing is. Don’t plan a theme.Just write whatever comes to mind, in whatever fragmented order it comes.
5. Get your act together
- Plan your sleep so you can wake up fresh in the morning with time to write.
- Have your materials, like a notebook or paper and pens, ready.
- Decide on and prepare the place where you will write the previous night.
- Set expectations with your family. This 45 minutes cannot be shared, which is another great reason to do it early in the morning when everyone is still in bed and the TV is not blasting. If you do it during the day, be ruthless about the “no disturbances” rule unless it’s an emergency. Define emergencies.
- Switch all devices off, or leave them outside of the room if you can’t resist temptations. If you have music on, make sure it’s ad-free.
6. Make it easier on yourself
- Make it a ritual: Rituals have a way of forcing you to be mentally present. Light a candle, start with a favorite chant, or make a cup of your favorite tea in your best cup.
- Invest in a notebook that brings you joy: I’m a stationary magpie, so for me, having a nice set of pens and a journal is a key part of the ritual. Also, writing three pages with a scratchy pen can be painful, so invest in a good one.
- Stash your journaling stuff in a safe space: You don’t want to waste time or energy in the morning looking for it. You also don’t want anyone to stumble upon your notes by chance or swipe your pens to write their grocery list.
7. Say NO to self-limiting beliefs
People tell themselves all sorts of stories to get out of commitments! Block these excuses from the start:
- Morning pages are only for creative folks: Morning pages are to help with self-expression and open up your creative pathways. You don’t have to be a writer or artist to find value in it. Just use it as a tool to help yourself face the world with a clearer head and more creative mind.
- Morning pages must be done in the morning: Cameron does say the mind is at its most candid and unguarded early in the morning, so it may be worth the effort to wake early until it comes naturally. But if you can’t, then do morning pages at whatever set time works best for you. A friend of mine with two young kids does her morning pages at 11 AM, after everyone is dressed, fed, and sent off to school. Others do it at night before bed.
- The process is too strict: Writing early in the morning, writing daily, writing by hand, writing three pages—some may find all of this too hard to handle! Keep your eye on the prize: a calmer mind and a more connected self. Don’t underestimate your ability to follow through. One day at a time was my magic mantra to get to the other side of 45 days.
- I already keep a diary or journal; I don’t need morning pages: Journalling is a great practice and can take many forms. Writing morning pages is one of them, but it’s not a daily record of all that has happened. It’s about writing random thoughts, real or imagined, that happen to be in your head on a given morning.
- I’m just not a hand-writing person: Putting pen to paper by hand is certainly more effective for this process because it creates a more physical connection with the process. Do your best to try writing by hand first. However, if it’s still a dealbreaker, then try a service like 750words.com, which has somewhat gamified the experience, or friday.app, which offers a ton of additional prompts and stats. Personally, I find those options too “organized” for the spirit of the morning pages practice, but if this is the only way to make it work for you, try it! I’d recommend that you avoid using the delete, backspace, and auto-correct features, though.
So, I’ve convinced you that you need morning pages and explained how to set yourself up for success with this new habit. Now, it’s your move!
Writing morning pages first thing every day turned out to be a lifesaver for me. I realized that a deeper connection to myself is not about “fixing” myself but about accepting myself and all my myriad thoughts. And that given time, practice, and a chance, great ideas have a way of emerging from piles of random thoughts, instead of just getting lost among them.
Use the morning pages journaling practice to release those uppermost thoughts—the ones that are sitting right at the surface of your mind— and eventually, you will find a deeper connection back to yourself, and perhaps to some of your best ideas, too!