Most of us don’t blurt out every thought that enters our minds—which is probably for the best. But just because you don’t share certain ideas or feelings doesn’t mean you shouldn’t express them at all. Journaling lets you explore things you otherwise wouldn’t. This self-reflection can lift your mood and improve your problem-solving ability.
Unfortunately, the freedom to say anything can often be paralyzing. For many people, staring at a blank page is so daunting they never actually start writing. So here are five journal prompts to help you on your own journey toward self-discovery.
A daily sentence
Yep, that’s it—one sentence a day. It might be a brief description of your emotional state or a childhood memory that keeps nudging its way into your consciousness. This prompt is helpful if you want to journal regularly but struggle to find the time. According to James Clear, author of “Atomic Habits,” keeping the workload light can help establish journaling as something you do day in, day out without much effort. Once you ingrain journaling as a habit, you might find it’s easy to write more than your one requisite sentence.
If you’re really pressed for time, try keeping your journal in Evernote. That way you can add your daily sentence wherever you are, on any device, without having to carry a physical notebook around with you. Since each entry is short, you can type it on your phone whenever you have a spare minute.
Pro tip: You can record your daily sentence as a voice memo. This lets you journal even when writing isn’t an option. Get an idea while walking the dog or making dinner? Record it in Evernote, and it saves to your journal automatically.
Write three pages as soon as you wake up. Yes, before your shower, before your espresso forte, and definitely before your battle with the morning commute. This strategy comes from Julia Cameron, author of “The Artist’s Way.” She explains that most of us have mental defenses that suppress negative thoughts and feelings. Once in place, these defenses take effort to maintain, requiring you to spend precious mental energy throughout the day.
Morning pages are a way to purge this negativity before your defenses have a chance to kick in. With these negative thoughts out of the way (or at least off to the side), you might discover a new state of mind that serves you better.
Three pages sounds like a lot, but this writing is strictly a stream of consciousness. Switch topics. Repeat yourself. Commit atrocious spelling errors. The grammar police aren’t allowed to comment. If it still feels daunting to meet a page count, a time limit can be just as effective. Try setting a timer for five minutes and write as much as you can before the buzzer.
Keeping a journal and re-reading it periodically can help you identify patterns in your behavior and observe how you grow over time.
If mornings are out of the question or you want something more structured, try doing some self-reflection in the evening with a daily recharge. This involves writing about specific events that occurred throughout your day. You might address your achievements, challenges, relationships, or any self-discoveries that occur to you as you write.
Psychotherapist Maud Purcell recommends re-reading these kinds of journal entries later, saying that “certain portions of the journal will seem more relevant to your life as a whole, and easy access to these areas will be helpful, especially during times of life confusion or distress.”
To get started quickly, check out Evernote’s daily recharge template. It sets up multiple prompts for you, so you don’t have to confront the abyss of the empty page. Just apply the template to any note and start journaling.
Pro tip: After you write an entry in Evernote, tag it with a few of the topics you covered. When you’re ready to re-read your journal later, you can see every entry that mentions a particular idea, issue, or emotion.
Write five things you’re grateful for every day. These can range from the simplest pleasures to the most important people and events in your life. For example, you might list things that made you laugh throughout the day or describe something a friend or family member did that you admire.
Studies from the University of Minnesota and the University of Florida suggest that listing positive events that occurred at the end of each day can help reduce stress and promote a sense of calm at night. So this might be a good practice if anxious thoughts about the day’s events tend to keep you awake.
Evernote’s gratitude journal template prompts you to reflect on the people and events that have made a difference in your life and to draw lessons or takeaways from your experiences.
Pro tip: In addition to suggestions for writing at the end of the day, the template also includes a morning gratitude prompt, so you can gather thoughts from the start and end of your day in one place.
Address the negative (in doses)
Journaling about negative thoughts, feelings, and experiences can help you overcome them. According to psychologist James Pennebaker, writing about troubling or traumatic experiences can improve your mood even more than journaling about everyday topics. But he cautions against habitually ruminating on negativity.
He explains that journaling about a difficult experience over and over in the same way usually doesn’t help people feel better. In order for journaling on these topics to work, James says, “There has to be growth, change, or closure in the way they view their experiences.” He recommends writing about negative experiences or thoughts for 15-30 minutes for three or four days. If you don’t start feeling better, look for other ways to cope.
Keeping a journal and re-reading it periodically can help you identify patterns in your behavior and observe how you grow over time. According to Maud Purcell, the benefit of this kind of self-reflection is that “When current circumstances appear insurmountable, you will be able to look back on previous dilemmas that you have since resolved.” Apply these five journal prompts today to make expressive writing and self-discovery part of your daily life.