How to write a reflective journal

How to write a reflective journal

If you are asked to write a reflective essay you will find you are in a better place to start if you already have compiled a reflective journal.

All you need is a pen and a notebook. Yes, you do need to write it by hand and not type it on your laptop, or worse still on your mobile phone. Research conducted at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology showed that school children remember more when they write by hand than using technology. It turns out that when we use our hands to write we have more “memory hooks”. When you write words on a page with a pen, you are more actively involved in creating each individual letter than you are when you hit a key on a keyboard. And that means you are more connected with what you are writing which is exactly what you need for good reflection.

So, step one – get a notebook that is just for writing your journal by hand. My favourite notebooks that I use for reflections are called “Forbes Notebooks“.

The next thing to do is to make sure you have a pen that you are comfortable with. Most of us have dozens of pens and pencils lying around the place. Your journal is personal, so any old pen that you happen to find when you are about to write your journal is not going to create that individual connection you need. Get a pen that you can keep with your journal. You will find that your journaling becomes much easier. My favoured pen is a Parker IM.

Step two is to get yourself a good pen that you use just for writing a journal.

Now that you have your essential gear, you can get going with your journal writing.

Ideally you will write your journal every day. Set aside time when you have finished studying for the day to write your journal. Make it a habit. You don’t forget to brush your teeth each day because it is a habit. If you make journaling a habit, you will do it every day without thinking about it.

The best way to make something habitual is to associate doing it with some specific event already in your existing daily timetable. For example, you could decide to write your journal each day just before you brush your teeth at night. You would have to force yourself to do that for a few weeks. Of course, you would forget every now and then, only remembering half-way through cleaning your teeth that you hadn’t written your journal. However, after a while your brain would begin to associate “writing my journal” with your “going to bed routine”. And once that happens, which is usually after about a month of forcing yourself to do it, then it will have become a habit.

So, step three in writing your journal is to set up a routine that becomes a habit.

But what should you write about in your daily journal? 

There are three good things to focus on in your daily journal. These are:

  1. What happened?
  2. What did you feel about it?
  3. What do you think it means to you?

These are the key components of reflection, so they are a good basis for a daily journal. However, you can add anything else you like to your journal. It is, after all, entirely personal. So, there is no right or wrong.

Step four in your journal writing is simply to write. Write whatever you think is relevant and important. Whatever comes into your head about your day, just write it down.

One other way of helping to ensure that your journal has a lasting impact is to use images. Draw pictures of how you felt. A smiley face here or there, will help. Or perhaps a cloud to show you were feeling low at some point. Arrows, diagrams, tables, underlining, double underlining – whatever takes your fancy. Using images and symbols in your journal will improve its lasting value to you. The Harvard psychologist Jerome Bruner established the importance of visuals and symbols to our thinking and memory more than 50 years ago.

Step five in writing a journal is to enhance what you have written with symbols and images. Go for it…! A interesting way of thinking about this is covered in the excellent book “The Sketch Note Handbook”.

That’s it – five steps to writing a journal:

  1. Get a notebook
  2. Buy a decent pen
  3. Establish a routine
  4. Write what you feel
  5. Enhance your writing with images and symbols