How to Journal for Self-Improvement - Examples and Tips

Updated 17 January 2020

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by Christian: Academic researcher and writer with a passion for statistical analysis, neuropsychology and mental health.

We all want to improve ourselves. You may want to be more outgoing or more patient. You might want to learn a new skill. Maybe you just want to be happier. For most of us, self-improvement doesn’t come very easily or naturally. When done properly, journaling can help you define your goals and make them a reality.

There are three steps to journaling for self-improvement:

  1. Defining your goals
  2. Understanding your blockers
  3. Implementing daily strategies

By following these simple steps consistently, you can achieve your self-improvement goals.

In this article, we’ll start by looking at some general tips on journaling for self-improvement, and how to get started. Then, we’ll go through each of the main steps in detail. Finally, I’ll show you how journaling for self-improvement has helped me to achieve one of my goals.

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Journaling, gratitude, mindfulness, and introspection. What do all these things have in common? It's that they're all significantly correlated to your happiness. Find out more about how you can learn from this in Chapter 4 of the biggest (freely available) guide on how to be happy.

Getting started with journaling for self-improvement

Journaling for self-improvement doesn’t have to be complicated, and it doesn’t have to be time-consuming either. Journaling is a bit like meditation: it helps you stay focused, and gives you the tools you need for self-improvement. It also helps keep you accountable.

Getting started with journaling can be a bit daunting, but it’s something everybody can do well. The great thing about journaling is that it’s personal - there’s no right way to do it! If you already keep a journal or track your happiness, that’s great - you may want to go straight to our guidelines on journaling for self-improvement. If not, take the time to read through this section on how to start your journal successfully.

Writing your first words

So you’ve decided to start journaling for self-improvement. Awesome! You just took a big step in the right direction. But what do you write about? That fresh blank page can be daunting. As humans, we assign a lot of importance to beginnings, so you may not be quite sure how to start. One of the best ways is to simply describe your day. As the words get down on the page, you’ll remember thoughts and feelings you had in different situations, and have new ones about them.

Try writing about your day chronologically. Start with when you got up, and describe your day. How did you feel when you woke up? What were you thinking about? Were you excited about your day? Anxious? Move from the start of the day to the end, and let your thoughts flow freely as you relive each experience. Some of them won’t be too interesting, others may get you thinking.

That’s how essayist and author David Sedaris approaches journaling:

If nothing big happened, I'll reflect on a newspaper article or a report I heard on the radio. … When life gets really dull, I'll just look out the window and describe the color of the sky. That will [always] lead to something else...

write a to do list

How much should you write?

In A Beginner’s Guide to Keeping a Journal, writer Kristin Wong talks about the theory of Minimum Viable Effort. This is the amount of effort needed to maintain a new habit. As it turns out, it’s not that much. James Clear, the author of Atomic Habits, explains Minimum Viable Effort like this:

The idea is to make your habits as easy as possible to start. Anyone can meditate for one minute, read one page, or put one item of clothing away… Once you’ve started doing the right thing, it is much easier to continue doing it. What you want is a ‘gateway habit’ that naturally leads you down a more productive path.

When you start journaling for the first time, try writing only a few sentences. The most important thing about journaling for self-improvement is consistency. So start with a small effort: the very minimum possible effort. Once that’s done, all you have to do next time is the same or a little bit more.

Try to write at least a few times a week and work your way up to every day. When you don’t feel like it, stick to the Minimum Viable Effort to get a few sentences on the page. This “gateway habit” will become a powerful tool for self-improvement.

Journaling for self-improvement in 3 steps

There are lots of different ways to journal for self-improvement, but it can be helpful to have a series of steps to follow that keep you on track. The following three steps can be used on a daily basis, or at the end of each week, to help you reflect on your self-improvement journey.

1. Define your goals

The first step is to determine exactly how you’d like to improve. There are no rules here. Your goals can be emotional, intellectual or physical. Emotional goals include things like being more outgoing, being kinder to strangers, more patient with your partner, or learning to love yourself more. Some examples of intellectual goals are learning a new language, doing better in school, or trying to read more. Finally, physical goals include things like getting in shape, running a marathon, or hiking a mountain.

You’ll notice that many of your goals have an emotional, intellectual and physical component. That’s because humans approach most tasks in more than one way. Climbing a mountain may be a physical task, but you’ll probably experience some strong emotions along the way, and you will need to plan your route and make decisions as you go. As you think about what you’d like to achieve, try to explore all three aspects of your goals.

climb one step at a time

2. Understand your blockers

Blockers are things that keep you from achieving your goals. These can be big or small and will take different amounts of time and effort to overcome. Don’t worry - journaling will help you figure out what they are and how to deal with them.

Blockers can be internal and external. Internal blockers are those which come from within: fear of starting, rejection or failure, lack of motivation, and indecision are all common internal blockers. For each of your goals, try to think of what internal blockers you might encounter along the way, or that you’ve already dealt with.

Most people have a few internal blockers that come up repeatedly. Journaling for self-improvement will help you better understand these recurring blockers. Check out this list of 29 mental constraints that will help you put you to identify your internal blockers.

External blockers are those which come from the outside world. They might include time constraints because of your busy schedule or physical distance from an important resource.

3. Implement daily strategies

This is where journaling for self-improvement will be a real game-changer. For each of your blockers, try to think of different ways to cope with them.

Two things are true of external blockers: they’re often used as an excuse, and they usually relate to some internal blockers. These might take some tough self-love to really understand. If your goal is to get in shape, an external blocker might be: “No gyms around me.” But there are lots of other ways to get in shape. What’s really going on is probably a lack of motivation or fear of failure. External blockers may take some creative thinking, but they’re usually not what really keeps you from achieving your goals.

Internal blockers are what keep most of us from accomplishing our self-improvement goals. It’s totally normal if you don’t have the answers right away for dealing with your internal blockers. Luckily, there are lots of resources out there to help you. Many of your internal blockers can be remedied by building your mental resilience, overcoming your fears, being more self-aware, and learning to accept yourself. The Happy Blog is full of useful tools for overcoming internal blockers like these.

Putting it all together

Once you’ve defined strategies for dealing with your blockers, start implementing them in your daily life. When you encounter a blocker, recall your strategy and put it into place. Then, write about it in your journal. This is where the real breakthrough moments come from. When you write about your experiences, you’ll be able to revisit them from a new perspective.

Journaling is important to the self-improvement process because it allows us to evaluate our progress and hold ourselves accountable. Think critically about your strategy — did it work well? How could it be improved? What would you do differently next time? By journaling about your self-improvement journey, you’ll be able to hone in on what strategies work best.

A personal example of journaling for self-improvement

One of my goals this year as to be more mindful through meditation. I’ve never been a big meditator. But I saw the benefits of it all around me, as friends and family members started to meditate more and reap the benefits. I decided to use the above method to start working this goal into my journal.

1. What is my goal?

There are many ways to define your goals. SMART goals are one great way. SMART goals are Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Resourceful and Timed. “Meditate more” or “Be more mindful” isn’t very specific. It’s hard to measure, it might take a lifetime to achieve and it doesn’t point to any specific resources. A better goal for me was: “Meditate for 15 minutes each day this month using a mindfulness exercise.”

2. What are my blockers? 

I started thinking about what has stopped me from achieving my goals in the past. Motivation is one. As I said, I’ve never been big on meditation - In the past, I’d often miss a session, then a week, and then I’d stop. This time, I wanted the habit to stick. Time is another one. As a freelance writer, I sometimes work with very tight deadlines. Even if I wanted to meditate, it can feel like 15 minutes is a big chunk out of my day, especially if I’m at the end of a major project with a time-crunch.

3. What are my strategies?

To overcome these blockers, I needed two strategies. First of all, I needed to make sure that I had the time necessary to achieve my goal for self-improvement. Overhauling my whole work schedule for 15 minutes of meditation seemed like overkill. That would have to be another project. Instead, I needed a quick-fix; something I could do daily, right now. I decided to overlap my meditation with another daily activity: eating breakfast.

You don’t have to sit lotus-style in silence chanting Om to be more mindful.

As for my motivation, I decided that each day in my journal, I’d remind myself about the reasons why I wanted to be more mindful. Inner peace, mental resilience, calmness in the face of difficulty, these are all goals for self-improvement that I knew I could achieve through meditation. By reminding myself about why I started, it would be easier to stay on track.

Over the next 30 days, I journaled about my experience. At first, trying to be mindful while eating wasn’t easy. I journaled about different things I could try to be mindful while eating and looked up ideas on the internet. I realized that sometimes I skip breakfast without even noticing, so I had to be sure to keep up my morning routine.

On days where I had trouble focusing or finding time, I’d write about it in my journal, and find new strategies or solutions to implement the next day. By the end of 30 days, I could already start feeling the benefits of meditating on a daily basis, and my journal helped me to track the progress I was making, note the difficulties I had, and reflect on my strategies to overcome them. While setting goals, defining blockers, and establishing strategies are all key parts, it was in my journal that everything came together.

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Closing words

There are a lot of different reasons to journal, but journaling for self-improvement can help you to achieve your goals. By using a journal like Tracking Happiness, you can easily follow your progress and see how journaling for self-improvement has an effect on your mood.

Let us know in the comments below what some of your goals, blockers and strategies are, and how journaling has helped you on your journey to self-improvement!

Who runs Tracking Happiness?

My name is Hugo, and I'm from the Netherlands. I have a Bachelor's Degree in Engineering, a passion for data and statistical analysis and am an expert in happiness.

I've tracked my happiness every day for 5 years in a row. And I'm now using my knowledge to inspire you to prioritize your happiness. You see, I'm a strong believer in what gets measured gets managed. I want to show you what I - and many others - have learned while tracking our happiness.

My Happiness Essays have reached thousands of people around the world and have been shared in many places.

With my data, I have inspired hundreds of others to also track their happiness. And I'm hoping this number will only grow more!

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