What Is Journaling, Really? - See Change Studio

What Is Journaling, Really?

By Elaine Kiziah, Ph.D.

Sep 15
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My in-depth journaling how-to guide will teach you the core ingredients for transforming yourself and your life through writing — with examples and instructions to help you get started (or go deeper).

But before we dive into all that, I want to be sure we're on the same page about what I'm actually talking about here.

Because people can mean very different things by the word "journaling".

And because understanding what journaling really is can help you make the most of this powerful tool.

Journal, Diary, Planner — What's the Difference?

A journal. A diary. A personal planner. 

All three of them involve some form of writing. All three involve reflecting on yourself and/or your life. And all three are time-bound — usually involving a dated entry of some kind.

No wonder people sometimes use the word "journal" to mean any of these tools. But I see a real difference between them.

What is that difference?  And does it really matter anyway?

I don't really care what you call them. But I do think it's helpful to distinguish between the three, because their purposes are different. And you should choose a tool — and corresponding methods — that fit with why you're doing this in the first place.

That said, the lines between a journal, a diary, and a planner can get a little blurry. And that's okay.

(In fact, you can use that to your advantage! More on that later...)

Here's a framework I've developed for explaining the difference between these three approaches to reflective writing... 

My Journaling "When" Diagram

(Nerd joke. Get it? 🙂 )

This Venn "when" diagram shows what I see as the key difference between a diary, a planner, and a journal — time perspective. 

And it shows how mindfulness is the starting point for a transformative writing experience.

Venn diagram showing the difference between a diary (focused on the past), a planner (focused on the future), and a journal (begins in the now but integrates the past and future)

My Journaling "When" Diagram illustrates the difference between a diary, a planner, and a journal — and it shows how mindfulness is the starting point for a potent reflective writing experience.

So let's take a closer look at these three different (but related) ways of using writing to reflect on yourself and your life...

What's a Diary?

A diary is primarily grounded in the PAST.

The prototypical diary is a daily record of your experiences.

Those can be very concrete outer experiences — stuff you did, people you encountered, things you saw, and so on. Or they can also be more ephemeral inner experiences — ideas, insights, moods, emotions, etc.

A diary can of course drift into present-moment observations, and it can also touch on future implications and aspirations. But at its heart, keeping a diary involves looking back in time — usually to the period in your life since your last entry.

Why do people keep diaries?

It's obviously a great way to record experiences you want to remember. But the benefits can also go deeper — potentially making you more observant of your own life, offering you more perspective on yourself and your experiences, and reducing the sense that time is flying by.

What's a Planner?

A planner is primarily grounded in the FUTURE.

Twenty years ago, a "day planner" was THE go-to tool that most everyone used for keeping track of their calendar, their to-do's, and essential reference info (e.g., address book).

In today's age of mobile devices and cloud-based apps, few people use that kind of old-fashioned paper planner anymore. But more and more, people are in fact returning to paper as a tool for managing their time and tasks. It just looks a little different... 

Modern paper planners often have more flexibility than planners of old. (The ultimate example of this kind of flexibility is the bullet journal method — which requires no special equipment, just a blank notebook and pen.) And they often can be used gracefully in conjunction with digital tools.

An example from my own Bullet Journal — four different daily entries.

(Want a nice overview of different planner options? Check out this New York Times article and the accompanying Wirecutter planners review.)

But whether you're using an old-fashioned day planner or a newer tool, the emphasis here is on looking to the future — tracking future commitments, setting goals, planning out what you'll do and when. 

As with a diary, using a planner need not exclude here-and-now observations. And, like a diary, it can actually end up serving as a record of your experiences. Or it can even be used to look back in time in a more active way — with the goal of learning from your experiences and applying those lessons as you make decisions about what's next for you.

The main point, though, is of course about the future. A planner is a tool you use to help you make smart choices about how to invest your time as you move forward from day to day.

What's a Journal?

A journal is anchored in the NOW — the present moment.

I define a "journal" as a tool for connecting with yourself in THIS moment through writing. But let's unpack that. Because it starts in the now, but it doesn't end there.

Stop and think about it...

This current moment is the culmination of all your past experiences. It's also the doorway into your future. So it makes sense that your NOW is actually the perfect vantage point on your life. A bridge between your past and your future.

NOW is also your only real opportunity for being in communion with yourself — or your Self — and for accessing the gifts that kind of connection can offer you.

And here's where the mindfulness piece comes in...

Jon Kabat-Zinn, one of the fathers of the modern mindfulness movement, has defined mindfulness this way:

"Mindfulness is awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally . . . in the service of self-understanding and wisdom."

— Jon Kabat-Zinn

Writing mindfully, then, involves non-judgmental observations about what's arising for you in the moment as you explore your chosen writing topic/focus.

When you look to your past and your future while anchored in that kind of present-moment awareness, you can access deeper levels of wisdom and insight. You can leverage your connected NOW experience to make sense of and integrate your past and then to move with wise intention into your future.

And that is what I would point to as the true purpose and experience of journaling.

#Journaling leverages a connection with yourself in the now — to make sense of and integrate your past — and then to move with wise intention into your future.

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Could you have a writing practice that's only about your moment-to-moment experience — one that excludes any reference to your past or your future?

In fact, you could. When I do this myself, I call it a "written meditation". And that sort of approach can be a lovely entry point into your journaling. (More on that later!) But to stop there would rob your writing of its potential.

You could also mindfully write about your past — and exclude any questions about the future. Or vice versa. But again, you'd be missing the sweet spot.

There might be days with your journaling that you just focus in the present, or on the past, or on the future. But for a writing practice that transforms you and your life, the most potent mix ultimately involves all three.

Journaling Can Take Many Forms

Journaling is where I'm focused with this how-to guide, and in the coming sections I'll share some examples from my own journal — entries that were real game changers for me.

But I don't want my examples to give you any ideas about what journaling is "supposed" to look like. Because journaling can take a variety of forms. There's no one "right" way to do it.

It can include prose and non-prose of any type, including:

  • free writing (such as Julia Cameron's morning pages technique)
  • script-like dialogues or active imagination or Q&A's
  • letters you don't intend to send
  • stories and narratives
  • poetry
  • lists
  • mind maps and diagrams
  • individual words and sentence fragments

Some people instead make visuals the centerpiece of their journals — drawings, paintings, collage, mandalas, etc.

For them, words are secondary, if they appear at all. ​I do that on rare occasions myself, but I won't really be speaking to it here. My focus with this guide will be on writing.