Keeping a reflective journal is one of the most common ways of keeping a diary. Many people use it to write about their experiences, impressions, feelings, or doubts, and that’s exactly what reflecting is all about: gaining an insight into your inner life.
What is a Reflective Journal?
Imagine this: you’re out having dinner with your partner. Suddenly, they propose moving in together when you least expect it. How do you react?
Perhaps there’s a smile on your face — you’re happy to take your relationship to the next level. But, you also notice that your palms are suddenly sweaty and you’re simply not ready to just scream: ‘yes!’.
Reactions like these are normal. Moving in with someone, apart from being amazing, is also scary, complicated, and new. Just like many other situations life has to offer.
Keeping a reflective journal can be extremely helpful in situations like these.
All you need is a little time to yourself, just 5 minutes of focus, and an open mind. A self-reflective journal can help you gain a deeper understanding of certain situations in your life, untangle complex emotions, and make better decisions.
A reflective journal can be a curated notebook with various reflective journal prompts, or you can use a simple blank notebook to freely express what’s on your mind. What’s important is that you’re honest and open-minded when approaching your reflective journal.
In this article, we would like to tell you more about this amazing practice and give you some tips on how you can keep a reflective journal.
Why Keeping a Reflective Journal is Good for You
Expressive writing is one of the most efficient ways to combat stress, right after talking to someone you’re close with. Journaling about life events, feelings, insights, and relationships can have a tremendous positive impact on both your mental and physical health.
A large body of research shows that journaling can improve our immune system response, clarify our thoughts, improve our relationships with others, help us stay well-organized, and bring many more positive changes to our lives.
Whether you choose to reflect on what’s burdening you deeply, or how grateful you are for everything that’s good about your life, either way, you’re doing yourself a favor.
According to Dr. Mark Dinwoodie, practicing reflection has a number of benefits that might help you be a better person:
- Helps you gain deeper insights into your thought processes and actions;
- Brings you closer to making significant changes in your life;
- Helps you build a different approach to problems.
If you’d like to find out more about why expressive writing about your life is good for you feel free to check out our article about the benefits of journaling.
How to Write a Reflective Journal
There are no clear rules on how to write a reflective journal, but there are some useful guidelines you can follow to benefit the most from this activity.
If you’re a fan of expressive writing, that’s great, as reflective journaling requires you to document situations that happen in your life. It’s sort of a critical dialogue that you’re having with yourself, only in written form.
One thing to avoid when approaching your reflective journal is obsessing over your use of language or phrasing. This kind of restrictive behavior can be uninspiring and push you away from journaling. Your self-reflective journal is for your eyes only, so you can talk gibberish, be pathetic, or tell bad jokes as much as you like!
Reflective Journal Tips
Here’s a short list of tips to help you get started with your reflective journal.
Keep it close: this doesn’t mean you have to carry it around everywhere if you don’t feel like doing so, but in order to get into the habit of journaling, it should be with you most of the time. Imagine thinking of something important to add to your journal while riding a train from one city to another. It’s hard to believe that you’d be able to hold on to that thought until you come home. That’s why it pays off to have your journal with you, or at least an online one that’s accessible from your phone.
Build a habit: journaling every now and then is okay, but if you really want to feel its benefits, you need to make it into a daily habit. Make sure to fill out your journal regularly, even when you’re not inspired. Building a habit is not easy, but luckily, there are some helpful tools: mobile reminders or alarms. After a while, you’ll be surprised by how much you have to share with your diary even when nothing big is going on.
Engage deeply: in order to be able to reflect properly, you need to be deeply engaged in the journaling process. Consider turning off your mobile phone for a while, so you can fully commit to it. Describe the situation in detail, as that’s how you warm up for reflection.
Appreciate small wins: it’s not necessary to have a profound life-changing experience every time you finish an entry. Also, you don’t have to spend an hour or two filling out your reflective journal, as sometimes 10-15 minutes is enough. According to psychologist and researcher Teresa Amabile, the highest driver of positive emotions is making progress with the tasks at hand. Small steps lead to big revelations.
Review: after finishing a reflective journal entry, processing that specific situation is not over. It’s recommended that you return to it after a while, and re-contemplate it. Do you feel any different? Do you have something to add? Did you learn something meaningful?
Now you know how to approach writing in your reflective journal, but how do you actually reflect on things?
Again, there are no special rules, and no one can tell you that your thoughts and insights over a certain situation are not a reflection. However, when it comes to self-improvement, we can always do better, so let’s see what the experts have to say.
According to Donald Schon, reflective practice can take two forms:
Reflection-in-action happens while participating in a certain activity. It’s a cognitive habit of observing our thought processes in-action, and adapting them according to the situation. Reflection in-action means to analyze the situation, be aware of our presumptions, and understand the problem we’re facing. In Schon’s words, it's a ‘conversation with a situation’.
Here are some examples:
- Thinking about your experience in a given moment;
- Thinking what to do next;
- Making presumptions about another person’s feelings;
- Acting in the moment;
- Defining your feelings on the run.
Reflection-on-action usually happens once the activity is done. It’s based on what you can remember about the situation. First, you need to explore your memory and try to remember as much as you can. Then, you try to understand the event more deeply and learn a valuable lesson from it.
Examples of reflection-on-action:
- Recalling the details of a specific event;
- Thinking about various solutions to it;
- Thinking how that event has affected various areas of your life;
- Defining your emotions over that certain event.
Keeping a reflective journal is practicing reflection-on-action. However, this practice is also considered to improve our reflection-in-action, as we become more and more sensitized to observing and identifying our emotional and mental states.
Besides Schon’s, there are other ways to approach the process of reflection. Yes, we can always reflect on past situations, journal about them, and rethink them multiple times. We can also become increasingly self-aware and learn how to reflect while being present and engaged in a certain situation. However, sometimes we expect a situation to happen, and the process of reflection starts before the event.
So, another approach to efficient reflection is to reflect before, during, and after the experience.
For example, you’re preparing for a job interview. Today is Tuesday, your job interview is on Thursday. One part of your psychological preparation can be to reflect on your expectations from the situation.
Before the interview:
- What could the interviewer ask you?
- What’s the worst thing that could happen?
- What are you going to wear and why?
- How will you describe yourself?
- How will you describe your previous experiences?
During the interview:
- How are you feeling at the moment?
- Is this job a good decision?
- Are you as confident as you expected?
- How do you like the interviewer?
- How are you handling the challenges?
- Is there anything more you can say?
After the interview:
- Take your reflective journal and describe the situation from an emotional distance.
- Would you do or say anything differently?
- What did you learn from this job interview? How do you evaluate this experience?
Reflective Journal Prompts
If journaling is new to you (especially reflective journaling), you might find yourself sitting and staring at a blank page for hours. As they say—beginnings are the toughest.
This can become quite frustrating, and even impact your will to continue keeping a reflective journal. In order to prevent such outcomes, and boost your ideas and creativity, we’ve prepared a list of reflective journal prompts.
We’ve divided these prompts into four subsections, however, you are free to change or reorganize them however you like. The more creative you get—the better!
When you don't know where to start, it’s always best to start with yourself. A reflective journal is a great space to think about who you are and how you feel about yourself. Here are some examples:
- What are the five traits that describe you the best? Why?
- Can you recall any situations when you exhibited these traits?
- What unique skills do you have? When and how do you use them?
- Where do you see yourself in a year/5 years/a decade?
- What kind of person would you like to be?
- How are you going to become such a person?
- What do you value the most? Why? How did you gain those values?
- What makes you happy? When was the last time you were happy? Get into details.
- What do you fear the most? Why?
- What’s an ideal gift for you? Why?
- What are you looking forward to?
- What makes you sad? Or angry?
Things that Happen to You
This category of prompts is probably the broadest, as it encompasses all of your experiences. You can dig through your personal history and reflect on your childhood, first sex, first refusal, or last week’s events.
- In what ways have you grown throughout the last year?
- What were some key events that happened last month?
- Which memory do you cherish the most?
- What is your least favorite memory?
- What’s your first memory?
- What was your day like? How did that business meeting/interview/date/road trip go?
One of the most important aspects of our existence are other people. Relationships with other human beings encompass and define our reality, so they definitely should be a part of your reflective journaling. Here are some relationships prompts:
- Name the 3 most important relationships in your life. Try to explain why they are so important.
- Is there a person in your life on whom you’ve had a major impact, or who had a major impact on yours? In what way? Describe.
- Who is your best friend? What are their top 3 qualities that you cherish? Why?
- What qualities are important to you in a loving relationship?
- What are the most important lessons you learned from your previous relationship with someone?
- Are there any rituals or traditions that your family has? Try to think about their meaning.
- What do you love the most about your parents? Why?
- What values do your parents have that you feel aren’t aligned with your values? Why?
- What do you think about the society you live in? What do you find good or empowering about it, and what do you dislike?
Things You Believe In
These are a bit more abstract, but always valuable to think about. Every human being sticks to a ton of explicit and implicit beliefs about themselves, the world, other people, nature, space, or religion. Exploring these can tell you a lot of things about yourself that you never thought about before!
- What do you see as the most important invention for humankind? Why?
- Do you believe in destiny or miracles? Are there any personal examples that support your beliefs?
- Do you think that we’re alone in the universe? Or you believe there are other forms of life somewhere out there? How does the idea of (not) being alone in the universe make you feel?
- Are you spiritual? If yes, in what way?
As you can see from this article, reflective journaling is a kind of self-therapy in a way. The only thing that could happen if you practice it is your personal growth. At first, your entries may seem more chaotic, but it doesn’t matter—they’re yours.
If you’re interested in finding out more about journaling—you’re at the right place. There are so many types of journals you could keep apart from the reflective journal. If you’d like to find out more about the various types of journals to keep, pay a visit to our blog and dive into the magnificent world of journaling.