How to Get Out of a Journaling Slump

Friday, September 18

By Ella Shively

Cover photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash.

Until earlier this year, all of my personal journals followed a very similar pattern: no entries for several weeks, followed by a massive info-dump and another long, empty period. If this is the way you journal, that’s perfectly fine! There’s no “correct” way to keep a journal. For myself, however, I feel that I get more out of it if I make entries consistently... Easier said than done! Over the course of the last several months, I’ve figured out some techniques to motivate myself to write daily. If you’d like to start journaling more regularly, here are some suggestions to help you find a routine.

Set your expectations

You might not be able to journal every day and that’s okay. Journaling is supposed to be fun, and trying to write down everything you experience every day becomes fatiguing pretty quickly.  I only write about a few topics each day, and I usually write 1-4 page entries at least every few days or so. Alternatively, you could commit to writing something every day, even if it’s just one sentence. Don’t put too much pressure on yourself.

Let go of preconceived notions

A quick google search for “journaling” reveals a slew of picture-perfect bullet journals, gorgeous watercolor illustrations, and clean, legible entries. If that’s what floats your boat, that’s awesome! But don’t let the pressure to make your entries look pretty or conventional keep you from writing altogether. Some people find meaning in beauty and/or order; others find meaning in chaos. Your journal can incorporate art or writing or both; you can tape feathers and leaves into the pages; you can write in fragments instead of full sentences. Personally, my journal entries usually consist of undecorated paragraphs with a lot of words scribbled out because my focus is more on what I’m writing than how the page appears. You have the power to decide what your journal looks like and what goes into it.

Too many feelings!

When I returned home after two months studying abroad in Peru, I was overwhelmed with emotion. I didn’t feel ready to unpack all of the feelings I was experiencing. Instead, I wrote down a list of my initial impressions: 

  • “the sweet smell of fallen leaves and pine needles” 

  • “the whole day feels like one long morning–none of those blackout curtain evenings like in the tropics.”

  • “dimmed colors–a beauty in the bleakness”

  • “so cold!”

The day my flight arrived in Minneapolis, I could have written this: “I am experiencing dramatic culture shock. My heart is conflicted between missing Peru and rejoicing at being home.” But at the time, I didn’t have the clarity of mind to put my feelings into words. Instead, I let my observations speak for me. 

Like I mentioned before, your entries don’t need to be written in full sentences and paragraphs. Changing up your journaling format can help you find a way to express yourself on days when it feels impossible to capture the emotional overload. Too angry for words? Scribble all over the page! Sometimes you can learn things about yourself through art, poetry, and fiction that you wouldn’t have realized while writing in essay format. During quarantine, I often wrote poetry and fiction that referred to the chaos taking place around me rather than describing exactly what was happening. All expression is valid. Giving yourself the freedom to create in a variety of forms will help you to make consistent entries, even during your most stressful weeks.

Think about the future

I am in love with the idea that, one day, long after my life has ended, a future graduate student will cite my journal in his/her/their thesis on early 21st century history. I explained this to my sister once, and she replied, “so you’re trying to be a primary source?”

Yes ma’am, that is exactly what I’m aiming for.

For me, thinking about future readers can be the extra incentive I need to start writing. Maybe my complaints about improper mask-wearing don’t seem important today, but writing about it may prove an invaluable gift for future scholars trying to understand the COVID-19 pandemic. There’s something comforting in knowing that even my boring journal could be a treasure trove for future historians.

On the other hand, the idea of somebody reading your journal might give you the creeps. Absolutely valid. You can burn your journal. You can tear out pages. You can scribble over your cringiest moments in black sharpie. Some people like to keep two journals–one that you can carry around with you during the day, and one that stays safely locked in your room. Your journal can be just for you. If you’re an intrinsically-motivated person, think about how proud and fulfilled your future self will feel when you start writing regularly

Get writing, folks!

If you’re looking for more tips, the internet is chock-full of journaling advice. But the best suggestion I can give you is this: just write. Something. Anything. Write a sentence, or three, or ten. You never know how much you have to say about something until you try to write it down. Once the words start flowing, you just might surprise yourself. 

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