Journaling Ideas for Beginners: Prompts + Process

Let's start at the beginning: what is journaling?

Journaling gets a lot of hype. And for good reason.

It's one of the most accessible forms of self-care. In theory, all you need is something to write with and something to write on. Then you're good to go.

But, in practice, we can overcomplicate journaling by getting too caught up in doing it the "right way", with the prettiest pens, the most aesthetic notebooks, the perfect prompts, and "enough" writing.

Those expectations transform what should be an accessible practice into something that feels too intimidating to try—especially for a beginner who is just getting started.

Let this blog post be your (re)introduction to journaling. It doesn't have to be that complicated, and you might already journal without realizing it! Here's the definition we use:

Journaling is simply a form of written reflection.

That's it! If you're writing and reflecting, you're journaling.

Why everyone recommends journaling: the benefits

We could spend this whole blog post talking about the benefits of journaling.  

Journal writing is an effective way to connect to your thoughts and feelings, and there are more research-backed benefits to starting a journaling journey:

Journaling can help you improve working memory.

Working memory helps you use information in the moment. Let's say you're visiting a museum on vacation. Working memory helps you remember the directions—Go up the stairs. Turn left at the red sculpture. You'll see it to the right of the wooden bench.—to get to a piece of art.

One study found that expressive writing supports your working memory. Think of it like mental spring cleaning. It's a great way to give lingering thoughts a home so that you're less distracted—consciously or subconsciously.

Journaling can increase your ability to handle stress.

The mental spring cleaning of expressive writing doesn't just improve your working memory. That mental decluttering gives your brain more space to constructively handle stressors as they pop up.

Journaling can reduce burnout.

The research on burnout originated in "helping" professions, like nursing. Unfortunately, the phenomenon has spread across industries and professions. It's not all bad news. A study of nurses found that journaling reduced burnout for the nurses who took part. What if it could do the same for you?

Journaling can enhance your mood.

You know those days when Murphy's Law is in full effect? It's like the Universe makes a game of thwarting your plans. One study suggests that journaling might be the antidote to a bad mood. It's a simple practice that could turn your day around.

These were only a few of the benefits of a journaling practice. If all the research is true, why do people still avoid avoid getting started? Let's talk about it.

What intimidates people about journaling

When you're new to journaling, you might stare at a blank page. The clean slate is as intimidating as it is inviting. You're wondering what you're supposed to say and thinking that everyone else has it figured out.

Guess what? Even prolific writers experience that intimidation. They've even given it a name: blank page syndrome.

Staring at a blank page isn't a sign that you don't know what you're doing. It's a sign that you're part of the writers' club!

Besides blank page syndrome, you might find yourself worrying about the number of journal pages you write. Maybe you've heard of more prescriptive approaches, like morning pages, which call for exactly three pages of writing.

Release yourself from that pressure. These are the only guidelines you need to worry about in your journaling practice:

What are the steps to journaling?

With that reframe in mind, let's get you started. There are really only three steps.

1. Pick a type of journal.

Are you a physical journaler? Experiment to find your ideal setup.

What makes you feel most creative? A grid? Lined paper? Unlined?

And what writing utensil feels most satisfying as you put your thoughts on paper? You've got options! Markers. Pencils. Felt-tipped pens. Ballpoint pens. Highlighters. Try them all to find what works for you!

If a digital journal sounds more appealing, you've got options as well. You could go straightforward and use Notion or Google Docs to type up your thoughts.

Maybe you want the best that digital and physical journals have to offer—the feel of writing by hand paired with the peace of mind of having your entries stored in the cloud. In that case, start looking at tablets. Ipad apps like Notability and Goodnotes turn your iPad into your personal journal. (Pro tip: Use a screen cover like Paperlike to really get that paper feel.)

If you're all in on the idea of a digital journal, it might be worth it to invest in a device like a Remarkable 2. These tablets are only made for reading, writing, and drawing. Because there's no internet browser, this journal is a great way to get the benefits of the cloud without the temptation to scroll.

2. Decide how frequently you want to journal.

You're a journaler whether you write three times a day or check-in once a month. If you aren't sure where to start, commit to a weekly practice for a bit. That cadence probably won't overwhelm you, but it will give you a sense of how the practice is working for you. Then see if you're craving more or less time to journal from there.

3. Start your journal entry

Once you've decided what kind of journal you want and how often you'd like to journal, it's time to start writing. This is where people get stuck. This is where writing prompts and different journaling formats come in. Using a prompt or structure when you journal will help you get the initial words on the page, and that's the hardest part.  

Journaling ideas for beginners

How do you start journaling when you don't know what to write?

Journaling doesn't need to start with a blank page and stream of consciousness writing. Both beginners and expert journalers can benefit from a little structure. Like putting up a fence around a playground, following a journaling format provides just enough boundaries for your creativity to run wild.

Accessible types of journaling

Here are a few formats to try out as you get started on your journaling journey. It's ok if you vibe more with one format over another. The best format is the one that works for you.

Gratitude journal

Gratitude journaling, just like it sounds, invites you to reflect on what you're grateful for. You might make a gratitude list of 3 or 5 or 27 things ranging from a roof over your head to finding the perfect shade of blush. While this goal of this practice is to focus on the positive, that doesn't mean you need to ignore the negative.

I think of gratitude like taking blinders off of a horse. It gives you a wider range of vision. The tough parts of your life are still present, but now you can see the good as well.

Dream journal

Keeping a dream journal can be a great starting point for beginners. Leave a notebook by your bed, and write down whatever you can remember from your dreams as soon as you wake up. You can stop the practice there, if you'd like. You could also get a dream dictionary and reflect on what your dreams might mean.

An added benefit of dream journaling is that your have something to do besides looking at your phone first thing in the morning!

Bullet journal

Bullet journaling is basically the opposite of what many people think of when it comes to keeping a journal. This format focuses on bullet points instead of long paragraphs of text. Despite the low word count, it's a really effective way to reflect on your life.

Image viva

Some popular bullet journal layouts include:

  • Daily log, weekly, and monthly logs to document tasks, upcoming events, and keep notes
  • Daily gratitude
  • Habit and mood tracking to stay on top of what you're doing and how you're feeling
  • One word that sums up your day
  • Weekly or monthly reflections

Brain dump

This is one is a personal favorite for any time I'm feeling stressed or anxious. Make a list of everything on your mind. Literally anything. Nervous about tomorrow's meeting with your boss? Write it down. Need to send a birthday text? Add it to the list. Whether you're replaying a situation in your head, ranking dinner options, or sitting with a poem you read, it can all go on the list.

You'll probably feel at least a teensy bit better just by doing that first part. There's something calming about taking all the thoughts that've floated around your consciousness and giving them a home on paper.

If you want to take it a step further, you can organize your thoughts. What are the themes you see? Are there recurring emotions, thoughts, or situations?

Then, if you'd like, choose a theme or a single item on your list to explore further. Write about why you feel nervous for big conversations or why that poem's impact lingers days later.

Other journaling ideas for beginners

Here are a few bonus journal ideas:

  • In the morning, write a little bit about what you want your day to be like. How do you want to feel?
  • Before bed, write about your day. It can be a moment-by-moment break down or an overview of the high and low points that stand out most.
  • Complete our free self-care assessment, and use the reflection prompts that come with your personalized PDF report.
  • Get inspired by Reddit, and write a Today I Learned with something you learned about yourself or the world that day.

Journal prompts for beginners

What's a journaling prompt?

Another way to structure your writing sessions is to use journal prompts.

These are questions are designed to prompt your thinking and get your creative juices flowing.

Three reminders about journal prompts

  1. There are no right or wrong answers. You're reflecting, not writing a book report for your 5th grade teacher. Many questions are intentionally open-ended. Interpret the questions in whatever way makes sense to you.
  2. You'll probably go off topic, and that's a good thing. You know the question is working its magic when you start to make connections you didn't even realize were there. Let the magic happen.
  3. You can always follow up. Sometimes a prompt doesn't take you as far as you wanna go. In those instances, I like to re-read what I've written and see where I can ask myself a follow up question. I ask myself, "If I was chatting with someone who'd just shared what's on the page, what more would I want to know?

With those reminders handy. here's a list of prompts for your practice.

Journaling prompts for beginners

  • How am I feeling right now?
  • What do I need?
  • Where do I feel supported?
  • Where am I experiencing tension?
  • What am I most afraid of in this moment?
  • If I won $10,000 today, how would I spend it?
  • What is my body trying to tell me?
  • What messages am I sending my body?
  • What's energized me lately?
  • What's draining my energy?
  • What's living in my mind rent free?
  • What does my inner wisdom want me to know?
  • Where am I feeling connected? Disconnected?
  • Write a letter to a past version of myself.
  • Write a letter to a future version of myself.
  • If my life was a book, what would this chapter of my life be called?
  • What's a memory that brings a smile to my face?
  • If I could redo something from the past week, what would it be and why?
  • What's something I want to celebrate?
  • Where am I prioritizing other people's needs above my own
  • What if....?

A few journaling tips to close it out

  1. Stack your journaling habit with something you already regularly do. Maybe you journal in the morning once you get back from walking your dog or at night right after you brush your teeth. This makes it easier to become a habit.
  2. Make the practice feel special. Even if you're only going to spend a few minutes writing, little things like lighting a candle or using a dedicated pen can turn the practice from a chore to a beloved ritual.
  3. Experiment. Experiment. Experiment If you avoid daily journal writing because it feels overwhelming, try weekly or monthly instead. If you're bored of your current format or questions, try different ones. If you can't bring yourself to write in the morning, see what happens when you write after work or before bed. There's always a way to make your journal work for you.

Congrats! You're officially a journal writer.

Continue your journey with the Self-Care Sundays newsletter. You'll get an affirmation, an exploration, and an invitation in your inbox each week.

Taylor Elyse Morrison

About the author

Taylor is the founder and author of Inner Workout. She's also an ICF-certified coach, a certified meditation + mindfulness practitioner, and was named one of Fortune's 10 Innovators Shaping the Future of Health.