Daily Journaling: Prompts, Ideas, Questions, and Topics
What is journaling and how do you start a daily journaling practice? Learn here about the science of journaling, and get prompts, ideas, questions, and topics to write about.
*This page may include affiliate links; that means I earn from qualifying purchases of products.
What Is Journaling? (A Definition)
Journaling refers to writing down your thoughts or observations in a journal or notebook. It could focus on positive or negative thoughts. It could be about the past, present, or future. It can really be anything, as long as you're getting the thoughts from your mind onto the page.
Daily journaling techniques
One of the most common journaling techniques is freewriting (or free-flow writing). Freewriting involves writing whatever comes to our mind by just letting the thoughts come and putting them onto the page without any filters or concern about grammar, spelling, or storyline. This may include both conscious thoughts and thoughts that bubble up from the unconscious.
Another journaling technique is called bullet journaling. This is more about making lists and organizing information in creative and helpful ways.
Still other journaling techniques can be more visual and may involve collage, drawings, or other creative additions. When it comes to journaling, the definition, design, and technique can really be up to you.
What Are the Benefits of Daily Journaling?
We may have the assumption that all journaling is good for us, but the last few decades of research have shown us that the extent to which journaling—or expressive writing—is good for us depends a lot on what, exactly, we write about.
One leader in this research field has been James Pennebaker. His primary findings are that writing about emotional experiences tends to result in improvements in mental and physical health. More specifically, these benefits can come from 15-30 minutes of daily journaling for 3-5 days (Pennebaker, 1997). That's it. That means that daily journaling for just one week can result in benefits.
The reason why expressive writing works is thought to be because inhibiting our thoughts and emotions is bad for our health. By disclosing the things we haven't told anyone, we help release that burden of keeping it all inside ourselves (Pennebaker, 1997). And because a journal is private, we can freely and comfortably share thoughts and feelings that we might not feel comfortable sharing with others, maybe not even a therapist.
Does daily journaling always have benefits?
Before we get too carried away, more recent research has pointed to some important caveats. First, strong evidence suggests that the benefits of short-term daily journalling may be small (Travagin, Margola, & Revenson, 2015). And another study suggests the benefits may be greater for physical health than mental health (Frisina, Borod, & Lepore, 2004).
Most importantly, those with the most severe emotional challenges may benefit the least from journaling. In fact, those with the most severe distress may do harm to themselves by journaling about emotional events because they may not have the social or emotional resources to process these events and emotions. So, daily journaling may be the most effective and appropriate for those who have mild to moderate levels of distress (Manier & Olivares, 2005).
Daily Journaling Instructions
To try a science-based approach to daily journaling, use these instructions:
Write about your very deepest thoughts and feelings about an important issue that has affected your life. You might tie your experience to your relationships, past experiences, or anything else that seems relevant.
Try to write daily for 5 days in a row or weekly for 1 month—both approaches appear to be effective (Pennebaker, 1997).
Daily Journaling Ideas
In addition to Pennebaker's research on expressive writing, a variety of other journalling approaches have been studied. These other journaling approaches may be a bit easier and more approachable for most of us. Let's talk about some of them now.
In a gratitude journal, we aim to cultivate appreciative feelings (Kaczmarek et al., 2015). So we might write about experiences we're grateful for, create gratitude lists, or even paste in pictures of things to create a sort of gratitude collage.
Reflective journaling is thought to aid experiential learning—or learning from our real-life experiences. You might start by first reflecting on the details of an experience. Then, aim to interpret the event to try to understand what happened and find meaning or value in it (Hubbs & Brand, 2005).
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) journaling
In CBT journaling, you learn about different CBT skills and write about times when you've used them in your real life. You may also want to think about how to apply the strategy to your current life situation (Fritson, 2008). This type of journaling may help you learn CBT, which is widely thought to be the gold standard of mental health treatments.
Some studies have looked at the impact of journaling on current health issues like cancer. Like other forms of expressive writing about emotional experiences, this type of journaling appears to result in reductions in mental health issues like depression and anxiety for those with health issues. Specifically, it appears that writing about negative emotions is largely responsible for these positive impacts (Smith, Anderson‐Hanley, Langrock, & Compas, 2005).
Another popular form of journaling is goal journaling. This may involve less freewriting and may be more structured to help you set goals, plan, and track activities. Given goal-setting research supports all of these types of goal reflections, this type of journaling can indeed be beneficial and help you reach your goals.
Daily Journaling Questions
To start your daily journaling practice, it can be helpful to have some questions to think about. You might want to focus on one or two per day. That way, you'll be able to explore the concept deeply and hopefully uncover new insights that you were previously unaware of. Here are some daily journaling questions to ponder while exploring different types of journaling.
Expressive and emotional journaling questions
Gratitude and positive journaling questions
Reflective journaling questions
Health journaling questions
Goal journaling questions
Daily Journaling Prompts
In addition to daily journaling questions, you might find it easier to start writing with some prompts—or jumping-off points to get your writing going. Here are some daily journaling prompts to help get your mind churning.
Daily journaling prompts for mental health
Daily journaling prompts for physical health
Video: Journal prompts for anxiety and depression
Daily Journaling Topics
Have you already done a lot of self-reflection and inner exploration? Then you might be in need of some additional topics to dive deeper. These can help you fill in gaps when you feel like you've already processed that big stuff. So what other topics might you want to write about in your daily journal? Here are some more ideas:
Journaling topics to explore emotions
Journaling topics to explore your true self
Journaling topics to explore your well-being
Video: What can be learned from daily journaling
Daily Journaling Tips
Hopefully, you now have a better idea of what to write about in your journal. So how do you stick to journaling every day (or every week if that's a better fit for you)? Here are some tips that might help.
1. First, get a journal and a pen that you like.
If you have a journal with pages that are the right size, with lines spaced how you like them, and with a cover that is appealing, you're more likely to pick it up and use it. If you want to use a regular spiral-bound notebook, that's fine. But getting a nice journal can help you feel like writing is a treat, which can help you do it more often.
Here are some of the best journals for daily journaling:
2. Keep your journal somewhere where you'll see it.
One of the tried and true strategies for building a new habit is to make that habit super easy to do and use cues in your environment to remind you. So keeping your journal somewhere accessible is key. You could keep it on your nightstand, desk, kitchen table, or somewhere else where you'll remember to write in it.
3. Attach your daily journaling habit to another habit.
If you want to make sure you do your journaling every day, try attaching journaling to an existing habit—something like brushing your teeth, eating dinner, showering, waking up, or ending your workday. All you do is plan to journal right after the other habit. That way you'll always know when to do it and be reminded by your other habit.
Daily Journaling Templates
Sometimes it's helpful to just have a template to help you write a bit each day. Here are a couple of daily journaling templates to give you ideas.
More Daily Journaling Practices
If you want more ideas for other science-based writing practices to do in your journal, check out some of our activities. You can write your responses to the prompts in these activities in your journal to gain deeper insight into them.