The Keystone Habit of Journaling

Day One Journaling Series:

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Once you have a solid reason to journaling and quality content to write on it about, the only thing you need is to actually start journaling. However, as I illustrated in part two of this series, starting a journal might not actually be as easy as it seems. It is hard to go from writing absolutely nothing per day, to recording mutiple things on the next. For this reason, the biggest road block people face when they begin to journal is developing a habit—it is very common too see people journal for about two weeks then stop.

Why exactly does that happen?

To better understand why so many people gave up on journaling during the first days I decided to study a bit about how habits work. I faced that struggle as well when I began, so I was curious to understand why it happened—what I found out was impressive.

How Habits Work

I went to my university’s library in search of a good book about habits and eventually came across Charles Duhigg’s The Power of Habit book. The book was so engaging that I was able to finish it in about two days. I won’t bother you with the book details, but what I learned about habits from that book helped me solve the journaling puzzle.

According to Duhigg, the development of a habit is comprised of three parts:

First, there is a cue, a trigger that tells your brain to go into automatic mode and which habit to use. Then there is the routine, which can be physical or mental or emotional. Finally, there is a reward, which helps your brain figure out if this particular loop is worth remembering for the future:


But that doesn’t explain why people stop journaling after a week or two; there is more to it. Duhigg later discovered that there is a missing element in his first habit-formation theory. By observing studying he found out that the missing component was the craving part. The habit only becomes automatic, and powerful, once the cue triggers a craving. Something along the lines of:

A habit loop would then form: upon coming into contact with a cue, the person would automatically crave the reward.


The Journaling Habit

Ok, that is very interesting. But how this it apply to journaling? Simple. If instead of just resolving one bright summer day that you will begin to journal, you setup cues for doing such, your chances of success are a lot bigger. A good example of this would be to journal right after you shower in the morning, or right before you go to bed at night. The cue would be to, as soon as you have put on some clothes after you morning shower, you pick up Day One to journal. Your reward could be a breakfast, or just a calmer state of mind to begin the day.

That isn’t to say that you should only journal at that specific times and days. In my case for instance, I would sometimes go five, or even ten days without journaling. But once I did open Day One, it was indredibly easy for me to spill out 2,000 words. It depends on how you want things to work. Nonetheless, find your cue and establish the routine and reward—it really doesn’t matter if you journal 365, or 20 days a year—so that a habit can be formed.

One note, Duhigg’s final realization also helps you to understand if journaling has yet become a personal habit. If when you see that gorgeous Day One app, you immediately crave the feeling of satisfaction you feel upon offloading your thoughts, you are good to go. And I can assure you, from then on it just gets better and better.

A Keystone Habit

Journaling is not a commonplace habit, it is a keystone habit. Keystone habits affect how you work, eat, play, live, spend, and communicate. As Duhigg says, “they encourage change by creating structures that help other habits to flourish.” A very well-known example of a keystone habit is working out. The amount of areas of your life that are impacted after implementing a work out routine—eating, sleep quality, mood, physical health—is a proof that a minor change in one aspect of your life can trigger so many other positive changes.

The same applies for journaling. Once you are locked in the journaling habit, you will automatically see an increase in other positive life habits. Personally, I started to feel less worried about things. Before I journaled, I sometimes felt a big confusion in my head; now, all that confusion is resting on Day One, ready for me to analyze it when I’m in a calmer state of mind.

The habit of journaling allowed me to become more sensitive to small things around me, to appreciate some moments better, to write more, to communicate better, to be more comprehensive, and ultimately: to live a happier life.

This is part of the Day One Series, a special collection of articles by user Tulio Jarocki about journaling.

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