If you’ve thought about starting a journal anytime since the start of the pandemic, you’re not alone. When Austin’s BookPeople reopened in August, notebooks were a top seller, according to Cassie Swank, the store’s gifts buyer.  Later that month, the New York Times published a much-shared story declaring “Now Is the Time to Start Keeping a Journal,” in part to chronicle this moment in history but also to help you relax and cope.

“Translating upsetting experiences into words is very powerful,” says James W. Pennebaker, a psychologist and professor at the University of Texas. “It changes the way that they’re even encoded in the mind.” His original research on “expressive writing”—the practice of recording your thoughts about something that’s bothering you so that it doesn’t bother you anymore—has sparked myriad studies exploring its numerous health benefits, which range from mental (“It helps to still the mind,” he says) to physical (in one study, “it seemed to reduce the rate of colds”). Labs around the world have investigated expressive writing’s ability to help patients cope with everything from alcohol abuse to post-traumatic stress order.

Pennebaker points out that expressive writing is an extremely accessible tool during tumultuous times: you can simply jot down your thoughts whenever you’d like, and it’s free.

“If you find yourself thinking about something too much—worrying about it, being disturbed about it—the idea is to simply set aside some time, maybe fifteen to twenty minutes a day for no more than three or four days, and write about it,” Pennebaker tells us. The rest is up to you. If you feel better, keep at it. If you don’t, stop any time. This problem-solving approach should be much easier to commit to than a daily “Dear Diary” routine, which has a tendency to lead to burnout, even for professional writers. 

“I wrote every day through high school and college,” says the Austin author Elizabeth Crook, “but now just stuff personal emails and letters into notebooks, and number the notebooks—lazier, yes, I know. But it keeps a record, although I’m not sure why I want a record or who will ever read it. Probably not me!” A similar fate befell Swank. “I used to be a very good journal keeper, but stopped for no good reason several years ago.” Even Pennebaker can’t help but agree: “Frankly, the concept of journaling scares me, you know? I don’t want to commit to journaling.”

But maybe that’s exactly what you want: a healthy new daily writing habit—in which case, don’t let these folks scare you off (if McConaughey can keep it up, so can you). Or maybe you’re in the market for a happy place to record your positive thoughts, to pick up whenever the mood strikes. Whatever your motivation to put pen to paper, here’s a quick guide to set you up for a successful and enjoyable journaling practice.


If you want to write a little bit, every now and then …

Try a fun format that speaks to you. You’ll be more likely to stick with it. If you enjoy answering questions or making lists, BookPeople has options for that: check out Q&A a Day and Listography. If you prefer to channel your inner John Muir or Henry David Thoreau, writing only when you find yourself in the great outdoors, pick up a notebook with a waterproof cover like this or this instead.


If you want to work through something that’s bothering you …

Try expressive writing. Set aside a few minutes in your day to write about what is keeping you up at night. Pennebaker says this practice will help you acknowledge the big picture and, ultimately, find some clarity—and peace. You might find yourself writing, for example, “‘Why am I so upset about this? How did I get in this situation?’” Pennebaker recommends spending no more than four days writing about the same subject—otherwise, you might find yourself ruminating, or getting stuck. Choose any medium that works best for you: “You can write in a beautiful book or you can write on the back of a paper sack. You can type it. You can talk into a tape recorder. Experiment.” When you’re done, keep it or throw it away. It’s up to you.

Another approach with similar benefits: morning pages, a concept based on Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way. The idea is to start your day by filling three pages with whatever comes to mind—anything goes. Texas Monthly’s social media editor, Taylor Prewitt, swears by it. “Since beginning the practice, I’ve had more clarity of thought and less anxiety,” she says. “Writing about feelings has helped me label negative emotions, which in turn helps me organize, process, and file them away—a useful and necessary thing in a time of constant uncertainty.”

If you want a small space to reflect …

Try a five-year journal. These low-commitment books have space for just one line per day. “In the past, I’d often start writing in a blank notebook every day, but then quit,” says Rose Cahalan, an associate editor at Texas Monthly. Filling an entire book can be intimidating, but “only having room for a single sentence felt weirdly freeing.” The organization is key: Each page in the journal shows what you wrote on a single day over five years, so that eventually, say, February 14 becomes a snapshot of how you felt on Valentine’s Day every year. “I love how it brings back little memories,” Cahalan says. “A year ago today, January 26, was a Sunday—all I wrote was, ‘Made waffles for brunch with Elsie and watched Picard together.’ I never would’ve remembered it otherwise, but that was a really nice day.”

If you want something that sparks joy and joy alone …

Try a guided journal. Complete with prompts and fill-in-the-blank style pages, these personal growth workbooks are like Mad Libs for the wellness set. One of the most popular iterations is the so-called gratitude journal, which gives you space to acknowledge quick, satisfying, life-affirming thoughts like “one great thing that happened today.” At BookPeople, offerings range from a “Happiness Doctor”–designed option for adults to colorful picks for kids

If you want to get better at something …

Try a themed journal. Gardening journals, for example, help us chart our successes so that we can find more of the same in the future. Just write what you learn as you go. Texas’s own beloved TikTokker with a green thumb, Marcus Bridgewater (a.k.a. Garden Marcus), advises addressing big-picture questions on the pages, too, like: “What did I do well?” “What could I have done better?” “What do I want to learn in the coming year?” At the end of 2020, he told Texas Monthly about journaling: “Planting my seeds of thought in December helps them begin to bloom as the new year begins its course.” The same poetic idea could be applied to any month you want to get started—and the concept of journaling this way applies to any area of your life you’re interested in improving, whether it’s your health (start a food or fitness journal) or a hobby (a sewing journal is one of my own most prized possessions). 

If you want a good old-fashioned journaling habit …

Try a diary, and don’t overthink it. Start with any kind of notebook, perhaps BookPeople’s best-selling style, and let your imagination run wild. Want a little inspiration? While discussing his new memoir, McConaughey opened up to Joe Rogan about his 36-year-long journaling practice; Austin’s Adriene Mishler shares advice for journaling on her “Yoga With Adriene” platform; even former first lady Barbara Bush once spoke to us about her diaries, which she kept up all her life. Her advice: Parents shouldn’t read their kids’ diaries. “Whatever it is, you don’t need to know it.”

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