My Daily Journaling Habit: What I Do and the Value It Gives Me

Continuing my recent theme of addressing common New Years resolutions in a frugal and thoughtful way (earlier entries included getting fit, building new friendships, saving money, using a planner and setting goals, and reading more books), today I’m going to take a look at another common New Year’s resolution – journaling.

Many people decide at some point that they want to start journaling for some reason or another – perhaps they’ve heard about the benefits of doing so, or maybe they simply want a log of their life to look back on over time or to pass on to their descendants (I know I love looking at my grandmother’s old journal entries). I do it for both reasons, though the self-reflection reason shines a little brighter for me.

Journaling can also be very cost-effective, too. You don’t need a fancy journal or an expensive pen or a bunch of software to do it.

Here’s what I do, why I do it, and how I keep it cost-effective.

My Daily Journaling Practice

I have written in a journal on a regular basis since 1987. I have done so on a (nearly) daily basis since the early 1990s. I still have a lot of those entries, though not nearly all of them – some were lost while moving, while some others were lost in a hard drive failure.

Why do this?

First of all, it provides an amazing log of my life. I can look back through those entries and find out when a particular thing happened, or how I felt in the days leading up to my wedding, or how I dealt with having my first child, or when I first discovered an idea and was wrestling with it. It’s really enjoyable to go back through those entries, and sometimes it makes me reflect on things through new angles or reawakens ideas.

Second, it’s a powerful opportunity to reflect on my day. I think about what went well, what went wrong, what I want to remember, what I’m grateful for, and what I can do better going forward. Those reflections, at the end of a day, provide a lot of fuel for building a better life for myself and those I care about most. It also helps me deal with things that I’m struggling with.

Third, it brings about more thoughtfulness in my own day-to-day decisions. I find that this process has made me reflect a lot more on the things I do and whether they’re right or wrong. I reflect a lot on the long-term ramifications of my daily choices, not just when I’m journaling, but as I’m going through my day. It’s as if “journal thinking” is a natural part of my life.

Finally, it’s a great calming routine. I find that by simply putting aside several minutes before bed to journal, I feel much more calm and sleepy and I’m ready to go right to bed and turn off the lights. It’s often the last thing I do before bed (though when I usually start I don’t feel outright sleepy). I just feel very calm afterwards.

My journaling practice is really simple.

I start by listing five things I want to remember about today. What is it that I will want to know about today five years from now? Sometimes it’s just a sentence for each one. Sometimes it’s a paragraph. I do whatever is needed.

I then list three things I feel like I did well today. It can be anything – maybe I had a great conversation with someone, or I wrote a really good article. I usually try to articulate why I thought those things went well.

I list three things that didn’t go well, too. Again, this can be anything, whether it was an emotional response to something or a mistake or letting someone down.

What could I have done to do each of those three things better, and to ensure it doesn’t happen again going forward? I try to come up with something that I can do in the future to improve the flaw or fault that caused me to make each of those mistakes. These don’t necessarily translate into action steps, but I do find that this kind of thinking is really valuable in terms of helping me plan things going forward.

Sometimes, I’ll write a bit in here about things that I’ve learned today that I want to remember going forward, if there’s something I really want to write down. This is usually just an idea that I’m tackling and trying to process in my head.

Finally, I list five things I’m grateful for, usually drawing upon the events of the day. I draw on my friendships, my health, my family, my life, nature, ideas that I’ve learned, and so on.

Depending on how much I write for each item, this takes up roughly two pages in my journal (sometimes a bit less, sometimes more) or a single full sized sheet of paper. It takes about ten or fifteen minutes.

Once a week, I write an additional longer entry. I usually do this on Sunday. It’s something of a weekly review, where I step back and try to assess some of the bigger patterns of the week and think about some of my bigger goals. I usually do this separately, earlier in the day.

What Do You Need?

Journaling does require some equipment. If you choose to write in a paper journal, it requires paper and a writing utensil; if you choose to do it electronically, you need some sort of computer program to manage it.

Let’s start with an offline paper journal.

While there are all kinds of beautiful notebooks and wonderful pens and pencils out there to journal with, all you really need is a simple composition book or spiral bound notebook, which you can get for pennies at any dollar store, and a pen that writes well without leaking, which you can get at almost any store. A really good inexpensive pen for journaling is the Pilot G2 Medium or Micro or a Uniball 207 Medium or Micro. By my back-of-the-envelope math, I’d probably use up a $0.50 spiral notebook and two $0.50 pens in the course of about a month and a half of journaling, so the cost is about $0.03 per day.

I usually journal in a hardbound journal of some kind. I often receive one or two of them for a gift during the holidays and I’ll splurge on others on occasion. However, I use the inexpensive pens listed above for journaling.

What if you want to use digital tools?

You can journal using pretty much any text editor out there. Google Docs is definitely one great free tool for this if you want to store your entries in the cloud. Another option is Evernote, which also makes it easy to store entries in the cloud.

There are customized packages for journal writing, such as Day One. They tend to work very well for the purpose, but come with an additional cost that isn’t found in the free software options.

My recommendation? Just use Evernote. You can install it on pretty much any computer or smartphone and format your entries as you like. Here’s a great starter guide for journaling using Evernote.

So, if you want to write in an offline journal, I suggest hitting the dollar store for a few inexpensive spiral notebooks or composition books, along with a handful of Pilot G2 or Uniball 207 pens. Altogether, the cost for a month of journaling with those tools is measured in the pennies. If you want to use a computerized journal, I recommend using Evernote.

Final Thoughts

I find daily journaling to be an incredibly powerful practice. It helps me feel more calm and in control of my life. It gives me a conduit to reflect on what I can improve about myself. Best of all, it produces a document that I treasure and can look back on and reflect on going forward, plus it may be valued in the future by my descendants.

I consider it to be one of the most valuable uses of ten minutes of my day. The best part? If it’s done right, it costs virtually nothing to do. It just needs a cheap notebook and a pen or a free computer program.

Good luck!

Trent Hamm
Trent Hamm
Founder of The Simple Dollar

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 after developing innovative financial strategies to get out of debt. Since then, he’s written three books (published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press), contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.

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