Journaling for Growth Series: 4 Tips on How to Start a Journal

In the Journaling for Growth series, we tackle the benefits of journaling, how I have used journaling to change my life, and how you can get started journaling.

You create the best book you’ll ever read.

Imagine a book that held a collection of the greatest achievements, inspirations, and lessons tailored exactly for you; enter your journal.

You write the best book you’ll ever read. There is no other tool that I know of that could ever match the power of something written by you, for you. The 4 tips I discuss will help you start a journal that is focused, personal, and most importantly, consistent.

Let’s get right into how to start journaling today.

Check out part one and two of the Journaling for Growth series here.

1. S.M.A.R.T Journaling: Choosing a topic

There are hundreds of methods for journaling. What’s most important is that you find one that fits your needs today.

You have to choose what you want to use the journal for. It may be a topic, some sections, or maybe even questions. But you have to choose.

Choosing a topic will help pinpoint what you’re trying to work on. And the best way to outline what you should address is to write down some S.M.A.R.T Goals.

The SMART acronym stands for a type of goal setting technique that focuses on creating practical goals. You can use SMART goals to hone in on the purpose of any given journal topic chosen.


Deciding exactly what you would like to achieve leaves no room for misunderstanding your intentions. If you want to start reading books, you wouldn’t write ‘read books’ as your goal. It would be more like ‘read 20 pages of Winnie and the Pooh on Sunday at noon’.


When writing SMART goals they need to have a measurement that is clear. To continue with the book example, I would not want to make it a goal to just read, how will I ever know if I am reading enough to be considered hitting my goal? But reading 20 pages? It’s clear, it’s concise, and I know for certain what is considered ‘successful’ when I put the work towards reading.


Get real with yourself for a second. Can you really read 1000 books this year if you have not read a book in three years? Consider how achievable your goal is. Are you trying to do something the world has never seen? Perhaps start a bit smaller; by editing your goals to an achievable size. Our goal here is to create a system that proliferates a behavior, not saddens us because of how challenging or farfetched it looks on the outset.


Often when people set goals they choose them based on what they have seen other people do. Stop accepting the status quo. Do what is intrinsically connected to you and your developing skillset. You need to take a good look in the mirror and ask yourself questions like:

  • What am I good at?
  • How can I leverage my skills to my advantage?
  • Why does this goal matter to me?

Setting SMART goals involves a meta-analysis of where you currently are. So make them realistic or else they will never be able to lead you towards an intentionally built future.

For more information on setting SMART goals, I’d recommend you check out Charles Duhigg book, Smarter Faster, Better.


In the bestselling book Predictably Irrational, author Dan Ariely notes research he conducted at Duke University that demonstrated the power of good deadlines. He assigned three major papers and told students they had to create deadlines for each of them by the end of the first week of class. Dan found that the students who set all the deadlines for the last possible day of submission tended to do worse than students who broke up the assignments and committed to earlier deadlines.

“When resolving to reach a goal—whether it is tackling a big project at work or saving for a vacation, it might help to first commit to a hard and clear deadline, and then inform our colleagues, friends, or spouse about it with the hope that this clear and public commitment will help keep us on track and ultimately fulfill our resolutions.”

Dan Ariely

Have a timeline in mind. Deadlines awaken our inner ‘Get shit done’. Constraints of time on tasks establish a workable frame of reference for how much effort ought to be put into a task relative to the time left allotted. So when you’re choosing journaling goals think about the timeline for the journal. Is this a yearly thing? Or do you have journaling tasks you are trying to address for this month specifically? No matter the goal, without some time-based constraint you will find yourself prioritizing other things instead of the journal goal because there’s always ‘plenty of time’.

With these steps in mind, building a SMART journaling tactic is within your reach. No matter the topic, be intentional about your reason for journaling and that includes what you use to journal.

2. Pick Your Gear

Now that you have a system all worked out, gather the appropriate gear to customize a physical note-taking method. Nothing really compares to putting the good old pen to paper. So I recommend you do not use online mediums to gain the maximum amount of control over where and what you write.

This is your special place. Being proud to carry, and excited to write in your journal are two ways to promote the habit, and diminish the barriers to developing your journaling habits.

There are plenty of ways to make your journal your own. Here’s what I use.


To me, my journal design symbolizes that I take what I record seriously. My journal represents my ability to create freely. With no lines on the page, I am free to write, connect points, and draw an illustration in whichever way I please.

Here is a link to the type of journal I use.

Find Nice Pens

I’m a Pen snob.

Never could I consider writing in anything that was anything but a Pilot. The brand creates quality products in every color you can think of and have a professional style that I have found no other pen to replicate. It is the brand I use for all my book summaries, and will continue to use until my dying day; man I love these pens.

Here is a link to the pens I use.

3. Select a Time & Place

You have to be intentional about when and where you’re journaling. This is especially important if you have never done a self-reflection task before because habits are built, not born.

Becoming deliberate about the time and place that you’re going to write will help you to start journaling consistently. Choose a location that you can access easily and be sure remove any interruptions that may steal your attention from journaling. I’d recommend the quiet place in a library or a special corner in your house dedicated to journaling.

When selecting the best time, think about what the task entails.

Depending on your goals, the optimal time to work will vary. I find that first thing in the morning or last thing at night are optimal times for people reflecting on the day at hand. While with more task-based writing, you only need to schedule a block of time that comes after a specific cue that you outlined when setting up your journal. For example, I have a notes section that I use for writing about a moment that brought intense pleasure or pain. I use this section only after the appropriate emotional cue arises (intense pain or pleasure) and then block out 20 minutes or so to address sensations. This is more task-based writing because it revolves around a set of circumstance before it is initially blocked.

Once you choose a time and a place it is best if you time yourself. I don’t say this as a way to rush the writing process. In fact, this is to ensure that you are getting started. Set a timer for at least 25 minutes and commit your focus to working through your journaling task and only the journaling task. You will find that after 25 minutes of focus you can begin to concentrate solely on journaling for a bit longer. Choosing to stop after the initial period is fine. But if you comfortable, keep going! Take advantage of the focused state.

4. Trust your journal

This is a warning.

You will not see the results if write to your journal like you write to your friends. DON’T HOLD BACK. The best book you’ll ever read leaves no space for the fluff that usually comes with writing. Understand that your own truth is not your enemy.

Surrender to the process you outline, be genuine with yourself, and the process will yield results. Writing naturally ensures you do not hold yourself up when the bias kick from overthinking. Spelling, grammar, and structure can all go out the window; write for your advancement, not for an audience.

Bonus: Be sure to stay consistent by never skipping more than two days of scheduled journaling.

This is the trick that will make the difference between a lukewarm and spicy journaling practice.

Good habits are established not by doing them once a year, or a week, but every day. Repetition is the path to excellence, so when you’re just starting to journal, work with it as much as you can. In a way, you have to prove to your brain how important the task is to you before it eases up on the amount of stamina it takes to start the habit.

Think of journaling as the best book you’ll ever read & Journaling will change your life.

Check out some of the other things I do every day to make today the best day of my life.

Are you ready to start Journaling? Send me a picture of your journal to have it featured on the Forces of Habit Facebook page.

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