I Did This 3-Step Journaling Method For 10 Days, and It Noticeably Improved My Mental Health

Getty / Karl Tapales

I journal in cycles. When I’m overwhelmed with stress, emotions, life, etc., I’ll fill pages with run-on paragraphs just to get everything out; when I hit a creative streak, I’ll sketch elaborate doodles, try some poetry, scribble down sections of half-formed stories, copy down favorite quotes and poems. Sometimes I have to so much to say, I’ll fill up every square inch of space on a page; other times, I’ll go months without writing. There are no rules in my journal, which is why I’ve always rejected the idea of structured journaling. As much as it can help your mental health, filling my notebook with lists of goals, intentions, and things I’m grateful for felt so antithetical to the free, creative space I wanted my journal to be.

Over the past year, though, I’ve watched my mental health go from “probably not great, but we don’t need to confront that right now” to depressed and run ragged. I couldn’t ignore it. I wasn’t focusing at work or making headway on personal to-do lists. I was unhappy in my tiny apartment and at my parents’ house, stuck in that pandemic-specific combination of under-stimulated yet overwhelmed, bored yet chronically, paralyzingly anxious. Around the beginning of fall, I lost interest in journaling and my personal writing altogether. Sometimes, late at night, I’d fall down an anxiety spiral thinking of all the personal goals and dreams I’d left languishing and wondering how I could ever get back on track.

How I Journal For Gratitude and Goals

I found a glimmer of an answer in an unexpected place. It was the week before Christmas and I was streaming a surfing competition when the broadcast cut away to an interview with pro surfer Lakey Peterson, the number-five-ranked woman surfer in the world. She was talking about journaling and sharing the exact technique she used every morning to start her day. With Peterson’s method, you write down:

  • Three things you’re grateful for
  • Three goals you have for today
  • Three goals you have for the year

This approach seemed simple, quick, and surprisingly manageable, and it lingered in my mind into the new year, when I finally got so frustrated with my own lack of focus and direction that I thought: what do I have to lose? I sat down with my journal on the morning of Jan. 4 and made my first three-part list, just to see what would happen. Imagine my surprise when I not only managed to stick with the habit, but – just like all the experts said would happen – it actually worked.

Why I Love Gratitude and Goal Journaling

Section by section, this method addresses a few areas of mental health I needed to work on. When I write out the things I’m grateful for, I find myself reflecting on my day and my week, what I’m proud of and what I want to change. Practicing gratitude doesn’t come easily to me, especially right now, so I focus on small things, like a new song I love or the sunset I saw the day before. I love writing this part first because it forces me (sometimes reluctantly) into a more positive mindset before I look to the goal-oriented sections.

The daily goals portion sharpens my focus. It’s noticeable, especially because I journal in the morning when I have a tendency to open Twitter or Instagram or get sucked into the news. That habit sidetracks me; this one hones my mind. Some of my goals roll over from day to day, but I always add at least one new one to keep me motivated. I also try not to think of this section as a daily to-do list, something that feels naggy or weighs on me throughout the day. While my daily goals sometimes do cross over with my to-dos, I want them to be more aspirational, things that (as simple as they might look) challenge me or make me feel accomplished.

The final part, listing out your yearly goals, might seem more repetitive. It is, because you’re literally writing out the same goals every morning. But after the reflection and focus of the first two parts, physically writing down my yearly goals reminds me that I’m working toward something bigger than what I did yesterday or what I will do today. It ties it all together. It’s also a gentle way of keeping those goals at the forefront of my mind instead of getting washed away in the day-to-day.

After almost two weeks of using this method, I’m amazed at the changes I’ve noticed. I feel more purposeful, calm, and focused at work, which is (coincidentally . . . or maybe not?) one of the yearly goals I write down every morning. Starting my day with reflection, focus, and a reminder of the big things I’m chasing also grounds me, almost a way of defining myself and my reality when stress and anxiety start to sweep me up during the day.

Above all, this technique makes me feel like I’m actually moving toward something: a creative goal, a long-held ambition, an improvement of my character. It’s helped me find a little bit of direction during a scary time, and I can’t help but be grateful for that. In fact . . . I think I know what I’ll be writing in my gratitude list tomorrow morning.

Image Source: POPSUGAR Photography / Maggie Ryan

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