Humans have been journaling for centuries, writing down great works of prose, chronicling historical events, recalling intimate personal details and retelling serendipitous occurrences. But there really is no secret to great journaling, as all you need to do is put pen to paper.
Journaling has long been used as a method for managing feelings like stress and anxiety and keeping track of progress on personal goals. It also keeps your mind sharp by boosting your memory and comprehension, according to an article published by the Royal College of Psychiatrists.
Sounds pretty good, right? But where do you start?
We talked with journaling influencers to get their advice for creating a functional and sustainable journaling practice. Check out their top tips for beginners, plus tools and products you can use to personalize your journal at home.
How to bullet journal
The No. 1 rule of journaling is that there are no rules. It’s about creating an experience that is curated to you, your goals and your life.
“It does not have to be what you know your favorite Instagrammer does; it does not have to be what your best friend or mom does,” says Elizabeth Ghekiere, founder of the Elizabeth Journals blog. “It is what you do with [it] and that’s literally all it has to be.”
The possibilities for your journal are endless. It can be a daily planner, a goal tracker or a place to collect your thoughts and work through problems. Really all you need to get started is a plain ol’ journal or notebook.
Leuchtturm1917 Medium A5 Dotted Hardcover Notebook ($19.95; amazon.com)
This journal comes in 18 different colors and has perforated, numbered pages for easy tracking.
Moleskine Classic Notebook ($16.63, originally $19.95; amazon.com)
If you like having lines to write on, this Moleskine notebook is a great choice and comes with inner storage folders for little notes and reminders.
Lemome Hardcover Classic Notebook With Pen Holder ($13.99, originally $22.99; amazon.com)
If grids are your thing, this hardcover notebook can easily lay flat and comes with a pen loop holder so you’ll never waste time looking for something to write with.
Rhodia Goalbook Journal (starting at $23.49, originally $24.95; amazon.com)
This dotted goal journal comes with numbered pages, an index and two separate calendar sections to keep all your important dates in one place.
Don’t give yourself rules
Sticking to a journaling schedule is good, but don’t fret if you miss a day here or there.
“Don’t give yourself these rules that you have to write every single day, or you’re gonna just be disappointed and not do it,” says Marlena Larson, a licensed psychologist and founder of A Pen and a Purpose blog.
Pick a time of day when you know you have a few minutes to sit down and focus on your journal. It might be first thing in the morning or right before you go to bed.
You can also set a reminder on your phone to keep you on track or store your journal in a place where you’ll see it every day, like right next to your bed, so you can easily write in it.
Make it functional
Again, this journal is for you, so make its purpose and layout fit your lifestyle.
“Keeping layouts that you use regularly and things that you actually return to is really important to keep up interest because if it’s functional, you’ll keep doing it,” Ghekiere says.
The original concept for a bullet journal was very simple: just a bulleted list of thoughts or tasks, hence the name. Today, bullet journals might have more intricate and artistic interpretations, but like with most things, there is nothing wrong with the original.
Sometimes simple just works better. “If you’re tracking everything, you’re not really doing anything,” Larson says. “People can learn to use journaling to kind of talk to themselves, and then actually track the things that matter and see their changes over time”
Rite in the Rain All Weather Lined Journal (starting at $12.99; target.com)
If you never know when or where you might be journaling, try out this weatherproof notebook that repels water, sweat, grease and mud.
Personalized Zodiac Astrology Journal ($24.99; etsy.com)
If your life revolves around your horoscope, pick up one of these personalized, astrology-based notebooks. You can have your name or initials beneath a gorgeous engraving of your zodiac sign.
Lemome Eco-Friendly Natural Cork Hardcover Dot Grid Notebook With Pen Loop ($12.99; amazon.com)
This sustainable cork-covered journal is also made with acid-free paper, making the pages recyclable and pollution-free.
Clare V. for Anthropologie Monogram Journal ($20, originally $24; anthropologie.com)
Want a little more personalization to your journal? Pick up one of these chic monogrammed options from Anthropologie.
Ease yourself in
Journals can last a long time, but you don’t need to plan the whole thing out in one go. Ghekiere recommends planning your journal out about a month at a time. That way, you have the freedom to change layouts or designs and track the improvement in your skills.
There are no limits to what you can write in your journal, whether you want to use it as a daily planner or a place to jot down your to-do list or weekly schedule. If your journal is more of a place for self-reflection, start by just making simple lists.
“[That’s] kind of how I started. I was like ‘100 things that make me happy,’” Larson says. “I just would sit and list those things because the first ones that you list are really easy and then you have to really dig.”
It can be daunting to feel like you have to chronicle a day in your life every time you sit down because sometimes, let’s be honest, the days just aren’t that interesting. Making a list of just a few sentences about your future goals is a great way to get in a daily entry.
If you still have no idea what to write about, guided journals and prompts from books or online can be a good place to start.
Start Where You Are: A Journal for Self-Exploration ($11.19, originally $16; amazon.com)
This interactive journal prompts you not only to write but to act as well, with tasks like coloring in maps of places you want to visit and sending your dreams off to sea in a glass bottle.
Modern One Line a Day: A Five-Year Memory Book ($14.45, originally $16.95; amazon.com)
Take each day one line at a time with this colorful journal that lasts for five years.
Becoming: A Guided Journal for Discovering Your Voice ($9.99, originally $19.99; amazon.com)
Simple Elephant Planner 2020-2021 ($17.99; amazon.com)
The Simple Elephant Planner is perfect for those who want to organize their goals and daily agenda. The planner comes with monthly calendars and spaces to express gratitude and affirmations.
The Five-Minute Journal by Intelligent Change ($24.95; urbanoutfitters.com)
Another good pick if you’ve got a busy schedule, this journal from Urban Outfitters takes only five minutes to complete every day and focuses on all the good in your life.
One Question a Day: A Five-Year Journal by Aimee Chase ($16.99; urbanoutfitters.com)
This five-year journal asks you an array of questions from ones as simple as “What did you have for lunch today?” to more thoughtful ones like “Can people really change?”
Accessories for journaling
While YouTube and Instagram can be great places to get journaling inspiration, some of the design can seem overwhelming for those starting out. “I always recommend: Start simple,” Ghekiere says. “That kind of artwork you see on Instagram and on Pinterest is not what happened the first try.”
Your journal is solely for you. Feel free to try out new designs and ideas, but don’t be afraid to make a mistake. “I say just open your book and scribble on the first page,” Larson says. “Then you don’t have to worry about ‘How’s my first page going to look?’ because you messed it up.”
Sometimes whiteout can be your best friend. In the worst case, you can always just rip out a page and start again. And if you want to quickly add more visual elements to your journal, you can easily utilize stickers, stamps and stencils.
20-Piece Journal Stencil Plastic Planner Set ($8.99, originally $12; amazon.com)
This set comes with 20 different stencil sheets that allow you to quickly create consistent boxes, banners and designs.
Ultimate Productivity Planner Stickers Set (starting at $10.99; amazon.com)
If you don’t have time to draw out an entire calendar, use a sticker instead. This set includes month labels, to-do lists and goal tracking stickers.
Agutape 48-Roll Washi Tape Set ($8.49, originally $8.99; amazon.com)
Washi tape is an easy way to add color to your journal with simple designs and prints.
Jianbenmu Washi Planner Stickers ($9.91; amazon.com)
These simple stickers give subtle decoration to journal pages for those who want a mostly minimalist theme.
Easthill Big Capacity Pencil Pen Case ($12.99, originally $19.99; amazon.com)
If you’re constantly traveling or enjoy journaling on the go, this carrying case can hold all of your journaling essentials.
Marbrasse Bamboo Pen Holder ($12.99; amazon.com)
Keeping all your supplies together makes daily journaling easier. This bamboo holder is durable and large enough to hold your favorite design materials.
Day Planner Stamps (starting at $12.56, originally starting at $17.95; etsy.com)
These stamps will help keep your journal in order. Sold individually, you only need to buy the stamps that work for your use.
Be proud of yourself
No matter what your journal looks like, taking the steps to consistently reflect on your thoughts is something to be proud of.
“Once you start really focusing on what you want and also focusing on what you’re doing to get there and what you’re not doing to get there, you can actually change something,” says Larson. “Without knowing that, you’re not gonna change anything.”
Now all you need is a good pen.
Tombow 56167 Dual Brush Pen Art Markers, 10-Pack ($11.49, originally $28.99; amazon.com)
A favorite of Ghekiere’s, these markers have both a brush and fine tip, which are perfect for illustrative designs or writing short notes.
Paper Mate Gel Pens, 10-Pack ($9.97, originally $29.98; amazon.com)
There’s something about a gel pen that just makes you want to keep on scribbling. This adorable rainbow set can allow you to color coordinate your notes with ease.
RoseArt SuperTip Assorted Color Washable Markers, 100-Pack ($15.99; amazon.com)
You don’t need expensive pens or markers to have a colorful journal. This affordable 100-marker RoseArt set has every color you can think of.
Pilot G2 Premium Refillable & Retractable Rolling Ball Gel Pens ($6.99, originally $9.31; amazon.com)
If you like the clean look of simple black and white, these smooth black gel pens are all you need.
Zebra Mildliner Pen, Double Ended Highlighter, Broad and Fine Tips, 15 Pack ($15.99; amazon.com)
These highlighters are perfect for adding emphasis to dates or phrases and with both broad and fine tips you can mark with as much detail as you need.
Matte Black Forest Fountain Pen ($14.99; amazon.com)
Larson likes to journal using a fountain pen like this one. This slick-looking pen creates smooth lines with the ink color of your choosing.
iBayam Journal Planner Pens Colored Fine Point Markers ($6.79, originally $7.99; amazon.com)
This bargain pack of fine point pens is perfect for daily writing or for tracing stencils and doodling.