How to get started with digital journaling

There are endless ways to journal. You can draw, make lists, create spreadsheets, compose paragraphs, use prompts and record audio.

Whatever your approach, journaling has been shown to have positive effects on mental health and stress levels. It can help you process feelings, work through problems and get a different perspective on your relationships or work.

Apple is rumored to be working on its own journaling app that could collect and crunch all the data your smartphone is already amassing about you in new ways. Before the company releases something that could squash the competition, let’s look at some techniques and tools for starting, or getting back into, keeping a journal.

The hardest part is getting started

Don’t fret too much about how you’re going to journal or what tools you should use — you should experiment as you go and enjoy the process.

“It’s not about doing it right, it’s simply about doing it,” says Laura Rubin, a journaling expert and creative coach. “You get to be creative, there’s a sense of play here that as adults you rarely get.”

Rubin teaches workshops and one-on-one lessons on how to journal and has developed her own technique for getting people started. She recommends writing (or drawing or recording) for four minutes a day, four days a week for four weeks. You can, of course, go longer but the idea is to set an achievable goal that isn’t so daunting you’ll give up. Try tackling it in the mornings or evenings, and if you do get distracted or off course, it doesn’t need to be a big setback. Hop back in.

There are a few common roadblocks that Rubin finds often stop people from journaling. One is being worried about someone else finding and reading their innermost thoughts, even if it’s years down the road. If you’re concerned about someone seeing your journal pages, write them and then delete, burn or tear them, says Rubin.

Some people journal specifically to keep a record of their past thoughts and activities, or like to track changes over time, in which case using them to start a small fire isn’t helpful. Instead, use apps that offer encryption or save locally on your devices instead of the cloud. Look up each company’s privacy policies and, if available, turn on extra security features like two-factor authentication for the app. Some apps tout their security, like Penzu, which has a paid option for more secure storage of your entires.

Another issue people have is being intimated by a blank screen or page. Some apps include prompts, like Reflectly, DayOne or the literally named Prompted Journal. Rubin suggests using what’s around you for a kick-starter like opening a book and using the first line or image you see as a prompt, then start writing or doodling.

Here are some of Rubin’s own prompts for starting a journal entry:

  • What’s your favorite body of water and why?
  • What is your go-to memory when you want to feel good? What about it soothes you?
  • What does your body want to say to you?
  • What’s on your not-to-do list?
  • Draw what you’ve made space for by letting go.
  • Draw what makes you feel most alive. Go big.

Mark Koester has been journaling on and off for five years, and likes to use data about his productivity, health and even screen-time reports as his inspiration. He says the data gives him more context for his writing and reflecting. He also likes to look to his own past entires as part of his journaling process.

“How did I think about the last week, and based on that, how do I want to think about the week ahead?” Koester says. “You look at the past in the way that’s a little more objective it makes you more realistic about your dreams.”

Strike up a conversation with an AI chatbot

If writing feels like a stilted one-side conversation, you can try chatting with an AI chatbot to get into a more natural flow. Ask it questions or for ideas about what you should talk about, or just have a little directionless back and forth banter.

Koester, who works in tech as a product designer, has experimented with using ChatGPT for journaling and has come up with a few approaches anyone can test.

He’ll write the first paragraph of an entry, feed it into the chatbot and ask it to come up with five questions based off his writing. Sometimes he’ll simply ask it for journaling prompts, though AI tools work best with some more specific direction. He has also fed AI some of his raw data and asked it to look for patterns or ask questions based on the information, and says he finds the feedback fascinating.

Choose the right apps for you

If you’re interested in a digital journal, you have tons of apps to choose from. Perhaps too many. Some are more free-flowing and creative, others great for a data-based approach. Here are some things to consider first and apps to test.

If keeping an archive of journal entries is key, look up the export and saving options for an app before you start using it. If it’s a proprietary format that is stuck inside a third-party’s app, you don’t actually own your own entires. You want to be able easily back it up to your devices, in a format that is usable with other applications in the future.

If you like structure, DayOne is one of the most well known journaling apps (and one that might have the most to lose if Apple enters the space), but also check out GridDiary, Momento and Daylio. DabbleMe is a fun option for anyone who checks their email.

If you want more of a blank slate, you can use simple note-taking tools like Bear, Apple Notes or Google Keep, or really any text editor. Koester uses an app called Typora.

Ditch technology and go analog

Sometimes our screens are the problem. If you’re struggling to stay focused or get into the right head space on a journaling app, try an old-fashioned paper notebook. Get a book with a combination of lined, blank or gridded pages to see what you enjoy the most.

“From the first moment in the morning when we look at a screen, we are in a constant state of react and respond,” Rubin says. “It is an exponential benefit to have an analog practice. A space where you are stepping away from that level of distraction.”

Even here, there are some tech tricks. Don’t want to waste paper? Try a reusable notebook like Rocketbook, which lets you upload your musings to a device and then wipe the page clean.

If journaling by hand is appealing, but doing it all digitally sounds more manageable, you can use your smartphone to save physical pages. Use a document scanning app or the build in PDF tool in Apple Notes to take photos of your drawings or words and save them. If you have an old tablet that works with a stylus, you can strip it down and keep it in airplane mode to create a digital handwritten journal. Look into apps like Apple Notes, Google Keep, GoodNotes, Evernote’s Penultimate, and Notability.

While his journaling practice is almost entirely digital, Koester also uses it as a way to counteract the roll of technology in his life. Instead of posting whatever pops into his head to social media, for other people to see and companies to serve ads against, he writes in his journal for his own benefit.

“I just don’t want to fall into the distraction stuff,” Koester says. “It’s a weird rebellion to say I’m not going to use social media, I’m going to journal.”

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