7 Journaling Questions That Will Make Your Day

My morning routine revolves around three things: Meditation, Exercise, and Journaling. This is part of a series of posts where I explore these topics in detail. Let’s begin with Journaling.

I get stuck on a daily basis. As I write this, I’m on a roll with exercising – yesterday I went surfing and the day before I had my first Krav Maga training. This is a big thing for nerdy me – finally I’m gaining some traction to get in shape. Therefore, now is a great time to binge on marshmallows! I now feel the pain in my stomach from a dozen of those evil little fluffbombs. Piercing their hearts with wooden spikes and setting them on fire is a great start, but I should have let them burn instead of eating them. That escalated quickly.

Journaling is the tool to spot my own bullshit and keep it together.

By writing about my inner turmoils, I get to make a bit more sense of the world and myself. So whenever I’m angry, happy, or overwhelmed, my journal is the place I write it all down. This does a couple of things:

  1. I get it out of my system. The stories need to go somewhere, and when they’re black-on-white, they’re no longer in my head.
  2. I get more clarity. When I articulate what I feel, I am more in touch with my emotions, and I am also taking a small step back to reflect. This distance allows me to deal with the feels.
  3. I find solutions come automagically from writing about the problems.

All of this is has a big impact on my state of mind.

Pro tip: Journaling in the morning is especially effective, because it allows you to set the tone for the day. Morning routines benefit from the “primacy effect”: the things you do in the morning resonate throughout the day ahead.  Have a double espresso in the morning, and you will feel the effects into the day.

Question prompts

I have developed a set of questions for my morning journaling practice. These questions nudge me into the mindset of gratitude and appreciation, and they challenge me to make the most of the day ahead. They provide me with a simple and consistent practice, which resonates throughout the days and years. Yes, years: My entries from a year ago pop up in my journaling app, and I find it incredibly valuable to read about the things that kept me busy in the past. If you spot recurring themes and patterns, you can use that knowledge for goal setting, habit formation and wellbeing tactics.

Example: A decade-long recurring theme for me is “I need to exercise more”. My journaling makes me aware of the severity of this problem, which prompted me to make this my top priority.

The Seven Questions

Without further ado, here is the full list of questions:

  • What’s going on?
  • What’s going well?
  • What am I grateful for today?
  • What did I learn recently?
  • What would make today excellent?
  • What virtue can I practice now?
  • How can I do the most good in the world?

As you can see, they are simple and straightforward. You can answer this whole list in 5 minutes (although I usually take about 15 minutes just to go a bit deeper.)

Let’s go over the questions one by one, to explore the “why” behind them.

“What’s going on?”

First, get all the stuff out of your head. Write down what’s going on, anything that buzzes and that you’re busy with.

This gets the noise out of the way, and primes you for the remaining questions. Think of things like “Finished this book”, “had a nice breakfast this morning” or “I can’t stand my boss and don’t want to go to work today”. Anything goes, don’t think about it too much, just make it a brain-dump of all the stuff happening in your life right now. And yes, feel free to vent here – it’s fine to get the crap out of your system before you move on to the good stuff. In fact, I believe that venting in a contained space is a healthy catharsis, so go for it!

“What’s going well?”

Next, zoom in on the things that are going smoothly.

The things that go well indicate that you are “in the zone” for that particular topic. High fives and fist bumps! Good stuff is happening here, and that deserves some thought and appreciation. These items hint at your skills and proficiencies, which is useful to be mindful of when going about your day. And perhaps there’s a hidden hint to your life purpose buried in the answers here, especially if you notice recurring themes.

Importantly, appreciating your strengths (or luck) lifts spirits. Which primes you for the next one, gratitude, and that’s where the real magic happens.

“What am I grateful for today?”

Gratitude is a solid shortcut to happiness.

This is the heart of the list, the most important question to answer. If you do nothing else, ask yourself this question daily. It will level up your wellbeing like nothing else (except perhaps meditation).

Take a moment to reflect and appreciate the things in your life that you are grateful for. Make this gratitude list as long as you want, and I recommend to mention at least three things.

Pro tip: On top of simply listing these items, live the experience in your mind. For example, I might write down that I am grateful for my surfing lessons. As I write that down, I then also take a brief moment to visualize being on the board, seeing the sunset, feeling the waves, tasting the salty water in my mouth and feeling my surge of happiness that comes with it. Get those good vibes going!

Sometimes, it can be hard to come up with anything to be grateful for. If that’s the case for you, then the small things can save the day. For example, consider being grateful for taking a moment to do a gratitude and reflection exercise, or the fact that you are able to breathe and that your heart is pumping. Even if this seems trivial, just take a small moment to reflect on it, write it down, and then continue your day. Know that this practice is powerful, even when you’re going through a rough patch in life.

Note: If you show signs of depression, please reach out to a professional for one-on-one support. Sometimes a journal simply isn’t enough to save the day. 

“What did I learn recently?”

This question primes you for the more forward-thinking questions that are coming up. You are on a journey, and if you become aware of things you’ve learned, then that can give you key insights into your path and direction.

Your skills and experience are incredibly valuable, and your continued (self) education is the most important investment you can make. By reflecting on the things you’ve learned, you will be more aware of your growth areas, and gain deeper insight into those topics. A big part of learning is memory and recall – so writing down the things you’ve learned will solidify these lessons. Here are some pointers:

  • What have you observed recently?
  • What are you reading or listening to? Did you take anything away from it?
  • Did someone give you interesting feedback recently?
  • Did you have a new kind of experience recently?
  • Did you have any shower thoughts recently?

Writing down what you’ve learned accelerates your education dramatically.

“What would make today excellent?”

For this question, name one thing that you want to accomplish today, or that you’re looking forward to. The anticipation of this act or event will prime your brain to accomplish it, and enjoy it more when it occurs. Furthermore, anticipating the good stuff is a mood booster!

I’d like to challenge you here to think of things that are at least partially within your control, so that you can act on it and make it happen. While “winning the lottery” would make a day excellent, you will set yourself up for disappointment if you rely too much on external events.

Don’t make this a To Do List. List one thing only, so that you focus your attention on it and set yourself up for success. Then during the day, focus your efforts on the one thing that would make the day excellent. Get that one thing done!

“What virtue can I practice now?”

Anticipate the challenges for the day, and how you are going to tackle them.

By preparing yourself this way, you are better equipped to face the trouble coming your way. Which virtue will help you move gracefully through the daily grind? What virtue do you think you’ll be able to practice today? Or put differently, “how are you going to effectively deal with all the bullshit today?”.

Pinpoint the specific virtue that you need now – be it patience, courage, love, persistence, or anything else. By calling it out, you mentally rehearse using this virtue.

Pro tip: Bonus points for articulating how accessing that virtue will impact you and others, and in which specific situations you intend to use it.

As with the previous question, I recommend you list only one item here. Focus is a virtue!

“How can I do the most good in the world?”

Last, but not least, this question challenges you to connect your actions to a deeper purpose in your life.

This question is a catalyst for deep reflection and sustainable transformation. There’s a good chance that your answers will repeat themselves over the weeks and months. For example, for a long time my answer was “be the best leader I can be”. However, sometimes the pattern changes over time, and every time you ask yourself this question you will get more clarity on not just your bigger mission in life, but also how to effectively act on that mission right now.

Name the one thing that you can actually do that will make the biggest positive impact in the world – even if it’s a small thing with limited reach. Write it down, try it out, and see what happens.

Tips for Getting Started

Start today: Even if your day is almost over, I challenge you to start today. Take a pen and piece of paper, or open up a text editor, and write down the questions and answers. You might be surprised at what comes out.

Build a habit: A consistent practice will give you exponential benefit. Start small, set a timer, and do it every day, ideally at the same time and place. No worries if you skip one day, just get back on the horse and keep going. Like any habit, it might take about 2 months to sink in and become automatic.

Use a journaling app: I use “Day One” as my journaling tool of choice. There are plenty of alternatives, but I found this app a while back and stuck with it. There’s a free version and a paid version. There are plenty of alternatives, just see what works for you. Even just a plain text editor or note taking app will do the trick, just make sure you back it up somewhere. And of course the ultimate journal is the pen-and-paper book next to your bed. I personally keep a small notebook and pen next to my bed for night time journaling, and do the more long form morning journaling digitally.

Use a shortcut for fast entry: I use a text expander called “TypeIt4Me” to create fast template entries. This allows me to type “grat;” and the questions automatically pop up in the right formatting. It saves me from typing the questions over and over again. For a low-tech option, you can also save a text file with the questions, and then copy-paste that into your journaling app. And apps like Day One also provide templates for prompts like this.

Take time in the mornings for this: Like a good cup of coffee, journaling in the morning will allow you to reap the benefits throughout your day. I like to make coffee and then sit down with my coffee to journal.

If you can only do this in the evenings, then that’s fine. The gratitude question is still a good question to ask, and you can adapt the other questions to night time. For example, ask yourself “What would make tomorrow excellent” and “What virtue can I practice tomorrow”.

Keep it short and sweet: Especially in the beginning, I recommend you take about 5-10 max and start with small answers. Seven questions can be a lot, so starting small will allow you to build the habit over time. Don’t be too hard on yourself, just write down what comes to mind and let it go. There is no right or wrong answer to any of these questions, and your insights will evolve over time. Just do what feels right for you, as long as you actually do it.

Good luck, have fun, and let me know how this goes!