6 Journaling Exercises to Feel Better in 20 Minutes or Less

Journaling Exercises

Ever since I can remember, my journal has been my trusty sidekick.

I was born with a love for writing, finishing my first ‘novel’ at the age of six. I also kept journals from a young age – from primary and high school through to uni and now adulthood.

But even if I hadn’t had such an affinity for the written word. I’d have still aimed to use a journal in my daily life – for sharing, thinking, organising and reflecting.

A journal has the ability to be seriously powerful. It can be used to write lists, unload your worries and stresses, organise your thoughts and figure out what you really want (and need) from life. It can be a cool way to record happy times so that you can read them back later, or write down your feelings when going through a tough time. A journal can provide not just relief and comfort in the present moment…it can also offer insight and support when you read over past difficulties, and see how much progress you’ve made.

In short, journaling can be a profound form of therapy.

I’d venture to say that, if I hadn’t had a journal by my side all these years, I’d have definitely struggled a lot more than I did in difficult times. And I don’t think I would know myself as well – or feel as grateful for the life I’ve experienced – as I do today.

Journaling tips


How journaling can benefit you

‘That’s great,’ you’re probably thinking. ‘But how does this help me?’

Well, the cool thing is that you don’t need to be a proficient writer or even great with words to be able to benefit from journaling. It’s an activity that can literally be tailored to suit anyone – you can write about whatever you like; in whatever style you like, and as much or as little as you like (even if it’s just one sentence per day).

And you don’t even need to be journaling regularly to use it as a comfort tool in times of stress, worry or uncertainty.

Whilst I used to write reams and reams of free-flowing thoughts in my pages, nowadays my style tends to be more structured (time is precious, after all).

I’ve found that depending on how I’m feeling, I always tend to fall into one of these familiar patterns, and all of them are really good at inducing positive thoughts (no matter how I was feeling beforehand).

And it’s for this reason that I decided to put them all in a list here, to help anyone that may be looking for a life pick-me-up.

I haven’t invented these writing exercises by any means, but I can attest to their value and helpfulness.

If you’re feeling down and out, feel free to give one (or more) of these writing exercises a try.

1. The Gratitude List

Call me unoriginal, but the gratitude is probably my most common form of journaling, because it’s so damn easy, yet so effective.

It works like this:

  1. Turn to a clean page in your journal or notebook.
  2. Write the date & day at the top of the page (so you’ll be able to remember where you were when you made it.)
  3. Make a list of everything you’re grateful for, in bullet points. They can be as silly, small or seemingly insignificant as you like. They could be things that happened that day – or just things going well in your life right now. They could be people, things, situations, opportunities, or events…anything that made you feel good.
  4. Repeat as often as you can.
  5. Read back old lists whenever you’re feeling low.

Though it may seem nonsensical to show gratitude for one’s situation when you’re currently feeling bad, it can actually have a transformative effect. There is actually so many things to be grateful for in life – from the simple things like clean water, food and somewhere to live; to the grander things like a car, friends that love us, our favourite clothes and maybe a good job, that allows us to spend money on the things we enjoy.

You might be in a dire situation where something big in your life has gone disastrously wrong…and yet there’ll still be something to be grateful for. If you’re reeling from the death of a loved one, for example, you might be grateful for having friends and family there to support you. Or if your relationship just ended, you might feel grateful for getting the chance to know that person, and for the opportunity to embark on a new chapter in your life (as scary as it might seem).

Of course, it doesn’t need something big to go wrong for us to feel a bit down, and it’s why making a gratitude list daily or at least weekly, can be so helpful. You might start by just writing a couple of things you’re grateful for that day – like eating your favourite breakfast or calling a loved one. But this often leads to you remembering more things you’re grateful for, in turn creating a flow of positive energy.

If you’re going through a difficult time, it can really help to know that there are still plenty of other reasons to be happy.

But even if you’re feeling pretty upbeat and nothing is wrong, making a gratitude list can act as ‘momentum’ that you build upon, making it harder for negative events to drag you down. Plus, it provides great material to read back later on, when you do need a lift.

Journaling prompts


2. The ‘Inspired Action’ Plan

Sometimes, you might find yourself in a place where you know what things would help you feel better…but you’re just not sure where to start.

Maybe you feel you’ve been slipping lately on certain habits or commitments and you’re feeling lethargic and sluggish. Maybe a series of things have ticked you off this week, and you know there’s something you can do about it. Or maybe there’s some stuff you’ve been putting off lately, and it’s been cluttering up your brain…but you haven’t given yourself any time to properly address and approach any of it.

The ‘Inspired Action’ plan is intended to do just that – to inspire action in whatever way you feel will help your mood or situation. It works like this:

  1. Turn to a clean page in your journal/notebook.
  2. Make a list of anything you can do right now that you feel will enable you to feel better.

They can be big things or they can be ridiculously small things (like ‘Message my friend’), but getting them out of your head and seeing them written down on paper can be enough alone to boost your mood.

If there’s some big stuff you’ve been putting off, then it helps to break them down into smaller steps. Instead of writing ‘Find a job’, write something easier to accomplish that will bring about instant positivity, like ‘Bookmark some jobs I like the look of’ or ‘Spruce up my CV’. Of course, the actions might be more personal or more unique to you, but always try to frame them as things you can do almost immediately or at least, in the very near future.

Sometimes, you might find yourself writing things that are more abstract, like “Stop caring what other people think.” Obviously, that isn’t going to happen overnight, but seeing it written down on paper can really give you clarity and enable you to shift your focus onto what’s really important.

Once you’ve got your list of actions, you’ll have a clearer idea of what you need to feel better, and how you can improve your mood or situation.

3. The ‘Let Go’ Pile

Having a bunch of irrelevant, needless or negative thoughts taking up space in our heads is never fun.

Whether it’s that annoying voice telling you you can’t do something; a person or scenario that’s been irritating you lately, or just a belief you’ve been carrying around that’s proven to be more harm than help…as humans we’re prone to carrying around so much baggage, mentally and emotionally.

Sometimes, like in the previous example, there are things we can actively do to amend these bothersome feelings. In these moments, the responsibility sits with us.

Other times, however, there might not be anything we can do – like if the feelings are a result of someone else’s behaviour, for example.

We may not be able to change that person, behaviour, situation or thing…but we CAN control how we feel about them.

Therefore, if there isn’t anything we can actively do, the only option left is to let go.

Let go of those feelings….let go of that belief we know is utter crap…let go of caring about something we can’t control.

This might sound super simple – and it is. But it’s amazing how the majority of us forget that this is a legitimate option, the majority of the time.

The concept of ‘letting go’ might sound kind of vague and opaque…and that’s exactly why writing it down really helps make the process.

It goes like this:

  1. Turn to a clean page in your journal/notebook.
  2. Make a list of all the things you need to let go of, or that you feel aren’t serving you right now.
  3. Optional step: burn the list.

This might sound kinda dumb and simple, but trust me – seeing a list of all the thoughts, worries or beliefs not helping you provides incredible insight into what you’ve been wasting your energy on. It can also be a strong sort of relief – relief from the realisation that you no longer need to carry around any of these things.

An optional step is to later burn the list, as I hear this an be incredibly cathartic and help with the ‘letting go’ process. However, just writing them down is usually a huge help on its own for me.

Reasons to start journaling


4. The Brain Dump

This one is so simple and straightforward; it pretty much is the essence of what journaling is all about.

You might actually wonder why I am even bothering to list this as an ‘exercise’, seeing as it’s something most people with a journal do anyway.

But I’m here to remind everyone – even those who may believe they can’t write – the benefits of putting pen to paper whenever you’re feeling unsettled.

The brain dump tends to work best when you’ve perhaps allowed your brain to become too cluttered; when you’ve been handling a series of stressful events, and/or haven’t been taking the time to process your wants, needs or feelings. I rarely use this format of writing, but I do need it sometimes, when I’m feeling distracted and overwhelmed. It’s like the ’emergency-break-glass-here’ act of journaling.

You don’t need to be going through anything big or serious for this to work. It’s YOUR list, so the things you dump can be as trivial or serious as you want.

Unsurprisingly, it works like this:

  1. Turn to a clean page in your journal or notebook.
  2. Make a list, in bullet point form, of everything getting you down right now – the things niggling you; commitments and deadlines you need to remember; annoying things or thoughts, and generally just anything cluttering up space in your head that would be better off out of there.

Okay, so you’re not LITERALLY taking thoughts/worries out of your head and parting ways with them. But trust me, it’ll feel like the next best thing. Just getting these bothersome thoughts – no matter how large or small – out onto paper can feel like a huge relief and gives you the headspace to think properly.

Oftentimes, when you see something written down you’ll realise that it was actually nowhere near as bad as you previously thought. In fact, it might even seem kind of silly! It’s when our thoughts and worries stay bottled up that they tend to control us most. Simply getting them out in some way – by talking to a friend or by writing them down – can take the energy out of them and give us a clearer perspective. It can even help us see solutions we may not have thought of before.

Note that I suggested listing things out in bullet points. This is to emphasise that the aim here is to just get your thoughts out on paper in the simplest form – there’s no need to write tons of paragraphs in order to feel better. However, if you feel like writing more or adding some extra detail, do so. Write until you feel you have emptied out as much as you can, or as much as you need in order to feel lighter. And don’t worry about spelling or grammar – this is your journal, and you’re the one who will benefit from it.

Journaling to let go


5. The ‘Did It’ List

You’re probably already more than familiar with the ‘to do’ list.

You know, that little list that can sometimes feel like it’s running your life. It starts out as a well-intentioned guide (or maybe motive) to get things done, but it ends up being the bad guy. The items never get ticked off; the list only seems to ever get longer; you feel guilty about having fun because you haven’t completed your ‘to do’ list yet, or at the end of the week you feel a sense of disappointment and frustration, because you didn’t get done all those things you wanted to do.

If this is how you feel, then this exercise could really help. In fact, I began making it a regular thing in my weekly routine because I felt it really eased those pangs of guilt, frustration and urgency.

Sometimes, we don’t complete everything on our ‘to do’ list, and that’s okay. Life happens: you had an exhausting week; you had to make time to rest; something else came up, like friend or family or job-related, or maybe – as is usually the case – you underestimated how much you could realistically get done.

Instead of beating down on ourselves, however, or piling on the pressure to ‘make it up’, we should do this instead:

  1. Turn to a clean page in your journal or notebook.
  2. Make a list of everything you did get done (that day, week, month or whatever).

This is different to just listing the things on your to-do list that you managed to tick off. Sure, these can be included, but the idea is to list all the tasks and accomplishments – no matter how small – that you’ve completed, which maybe weren’t on your list, but matter nonetheless.

Most of the time, we get distracted from our to-do list by other things, that are just as equally important. And yet we forget about them, or don’t count them, because they weren’t part of our original plan.

The thing is, most of us are achieving, doing, and being productive all of the time, but we just don’t realise it. Things like ‘Working out every day this week’ or ‘Finding time to cook all of my lunches’ are just as great wins as anything else. Maybe you didn’t get around to finishing that blog post…but instead you helped out a friend, caught up with family or meditated. Any action you make to make your own life/self better in the long term is, as far as I’m concerned, a great thing – even if it wasn’t on your list to begin with.

That’s why the ‘Did It’ list is a good exercise, to serve as a reminder of all the great things we are doing, even when we’re not thinking about.

(And, as an extra reminder: self care should always find its way onto your to-do list.)

6. The Limiting Belief System

This one is a super easy exercise. Though I don’t feel the need to use it often, it can be incredibly helpful for those locked in a cycle of negative thoughts, which prevent them from doing things they want to do, taking risks or moving forward with their lives.

We’ve all been in that scenario at some point, and as you know, it’s not great.

But how do we just suddenly change a thought pattern in one moment, when they may have embedded themselves into our brains so long ago, only to keep being ‘affirmed’ when ‘bad’ stuff happens? Oftentimes, the ‘bad’ stuff we perceive as confirming our worst beliefs are only happening because we carry the belief in the first place (though that might require a whole other blog post).

Therefore, it’s changing the belief that would really help, but how can we do this when our minds are so cluttered and stuck on repeat, going over the same disarming thoughts?

This is where writing really comes in. As has probably been explained in all the other exercises, writing does what sometimes your brain on its own can’t – it isolates certain thoughts or feelings and enables you to view them with more clarity.

So this is where the limiting belief system (we all have one) can really begin to be addressed.

You can do so like this:

  1. Turn to a clean page in your journal or notebook.
  2. One by one, write down any beliefs you have right now that you feel are holding you back or weighing you down in some way.
  3. Beneath each one (or on the reverse side of the page), write down a reason or argument for why that belief is NOT true.

This might sound difficult, and you might be thinking, “But my beliefs ARE true!”

But the key is to, after writing down your unhelpful beliefs, pretend you’re a friend or an opponent who’s job it is to DISPROVE all of those beliefs.

So for example, you might write something like, “I never have success in relationships. I’m pretty sure I’m destined to be alone forever.” Then, to counter that belief, you could write, “I have some pretty amazing friendships, and people seem to like spending time with me. Therefore, I’m sure I’ll meet the right person when the time is right.”

No matter how much you may think something about yourself to be true, there will almost always be things in your life that say otherwise – it’s just that you’re not paying attention to them. You might believe that everyone likes seeing you fail or that your friends always let you down…but the chances are, there are people in your life who are there supporting you – you’re just not noticing them.

It isn’t always easy to get into this ‘alternative’ way of thinking, and it does take some practice. But if you can at least have a go at it, it will begin to change up your mindset and get you thinking past all those limiting thoughts. Even if you don’t really believe the more positive alternatives, just thinking of them and writing them down can be enough to get you out of the negative cycle. Eventually, the belief that they are possible will follow.

Writing to feel better

Do you use any of these writing exercises, or have any others you’d like to share? Are you a natural journalist, or would like to try it? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

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