How ADHD Sufferers Can Learn to Journal Effectively
Using journaling regularly has many benefits, but it can be challenging to start this practice when you have Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). ADHD is a mental health disorder characterized by difficulties in organization, planning, self-regulation, and attention. For people with ADHD, it is often challenging to start tasks that require time to sit down, and it can be hard to finish them as well. Because of this, journaling can be hard for someone with ADHD. First you have to take the time to start journaling, focus on writing, organize your thoughts, and manage to find the time to fit journaling in. Creating and keeping up with journaling can seem too challenging of a task for some people with ADHD, which is why many people never start.
Although it may seem challenging, there are a lot of benefits to journaling as someone with ADHD. On top of other strategies to help with ADHD, like medication and therapy, journaling can provide help for a lot of the challenges with focusing and organizing information in the brain. This guide will walk through some of the benefits to starting a journaling practice as someone with ADHD, and then it will walk you through how to incorporate journaling into your everyday life to help manage daily stresses of having ADHD.
Benefits of Journaling for ADHD
Starting with the benefits of journaling for ADHD, it’s important to know why you should consider journaling when you have ADHD. Here are 7 reasons why you will want to start journaling if you have ADHD, or if you are worried that you do have ADHD.
1. Understand and keep track of your thoughts.
People with ADHD have a constant carousel of ideas and thoughts going on in their mind. These ideas can be great, inspiring, and creative. At the same time, they can be fleeting and easily forgotten by people with ADHD. Being unable to remember every idea can add to the stress of having ADHD. Using journaling can help with adding clarity to your thoughts and feelings by getting them out of your mind and onto paper. Sometimes, being able to look at your thoughts and feelings on paper can make them easier to understand and to see the full picture of what is going on. Having these thoughts written down can also serve as a reminder when you are working on and thinking of bigger projects. The brain dump method (later in how to journal) is a great method for getting these thoughts out of your mind to increase clarity.
2. Know yourself.
People with ADHD often struggle with slowing down and reflecting on past experiences. Those with ADHD are constantly on the go, moving to the next thing, and don’t have time to fully process everything going on. Because of this, people with ADHD may struggle with knowing who they truly are, what they enjoy, and their values. Taking the time to process things through journaling can be a great way to combat this impulse to be constantly on the go. Often times, journaling is a reflective process that aids people with ADHD in slowing down.
3. Reduce stress by writing about your feelings.
Although ADHD is a disorder that is characterized by difficulties with inattention and hyperactivity, many people often don’t talk about the role of emotion in ADHD. ADHD is also a mental health disorder that is characterized by difficulties with self-regulation, including the ability to regulate emotions. This means that people with ADHD may be quick to anger and display emotional reactivity more than those without ADHD. People with ADHD may have trouble responding in a logical way, and instead respond emotionally to emotionally charged situations. Journaling can benefit someone with ADHD who struggles to control their emotions by giving them some time and space to reflect on what they are feeling. When they are able to know how they are feeling, they are better able to respond in a way that is consistent with their values.
4. Problem solve conflict more effectively.
Knowing how to respond in a way consistent with values is essential to problem solving conflicts with others or within yourself. When working through a problem, someone with ADHD may try to think about the possible options and what could happen but have difficulty visualizing everything. They become caught up in the emotional side of the brain and cannot look at things clearly. Journaling might be helpful for people with ADHD looking to better solve problems they have going on in their life. In the case of conflict in relationships, work, or family relationships, journaling can help someone with ADHD think through all of the possible solutions to a problem, other perspectives, and identify a clear solution forward to address the problem.
5. Reduce the effects of stress, depression, and anxiety.
Unfortunately, many adults with ADHD will also experience anxiety or depression. What typically happens is that people with ADHD feel so overwhelmed with the different aspects of their life that they are unable to manage everything, leading to great stress, anxiety, depression, and mental health challenges. Although journaling is not a replacement for mental health treatment, it has been shown to be helpful with reducing stress, overthinking, and difficulties sleeping. Journaling gives people with ADHD the chance to express their negative thoughts and feelings, look at things from a different perspective, and buffer against their experience of stressful life events.
6. Helps make you fall asleep faster.
ADHD can keep people up at night with ideas swirling around in their mind. ADHD places people at greater risk of having difficulties falling asleep, insomnia, and night terrors. One of the reasons for this is that people with ADHD leaves people susceptible to an overactive mind. For those who have difficulty sleeping at night, journaling may be helpful to incorporate into your evening bedtime routine. It can help get all of the thoughts out of your mind so that you don’t stay awake at night thinking of all the things going on that you need to work on.
7. Journaling increases productivity
People with ADHD struggle to get big tasks done at work, home, and at school. It can feel like they don’t know where to start, what to start with, and how long tasks will take them. Journaling can be a helpful strategy for keeping track of everything and all the projects you have going on. It can be a great way to track your progress, and also receive some satisfaction from crossing things off of your to do list. Bullet journaling, which is described in detail below is a great strategy for journaling if you do want to increase your productivity.
Challenges of Journaling with ADHD
“People with ADHD know what to do, but they can’t do what they know,” says Dr. Russell Barkley about ADHD. Dr. Barkley spot on described ADHD and the reasons why many activities, like journaling are challenging for those with ADHD. ADHD is a disorder characterized by difficulties with attention, executive functioning, and self-regulation. These are many skills that are needed to start and maintain a journaling practice. So it’s no wonder why journaling is challenging for people with ADHD.
Executive functioning challenges of ADHD make it difficult to start journaling. Executive functioning skills are considered the control center of the brain. They decide what you do, when you do it, and how you do it. They are essential to planning and carrying out tasks that you need to do. For people with ADHD, these skills often lag behind by about 30% in comparison to those who do not have ADHD. Because of this, people with ADHD have trouble incorporating new habits into their life and sticking with them. Finding ways to adapt to these executive challenging deficits is essential to starting a journaling practice when you have ADHD.
Many people with ADHD also have difficulties with the act of writing. There is a high level of overlap between people with ADHD and dysgraphia, with up to 50% of people with ADHD also having dysgraphia. Dysgraphia is a type of learning disorder that leads to difficulties in written expression. Written expression includes activities like spelling, composing sentences, and writing longer paragraphs or essays. Written expression is the very skill required for journaling, making it even more challenging for many people with ADHD. Even if writing is more challenging for you because you have ADHD and dysgraphia, stick with it. There are actually ways that you can overcome the challenges of writing when you have ADHD.
Getting Started on Journaling with ADHD
Now that you are convinced journaling is a good thing for ADHD, it’s time to come up with a plan for journaling when you have ADHD. Developing a journaling plan is the most important step for people with ADHD. Often times, people with ADHD have tons of ideas about hobbies or activities they want to do, only for them to get lost in their mind or forgotten about. There are several steps to making journaling a habit for people with ADHD. The steps to make journaling a habit when you have ADHD include finding the right journal for you, deciding on what journaling method you want to use, and coming up with a plan to make the habit stick. All of these topics are covered below and will be important for guiding you on your journaling practice.
Finding the Right Journal for ADHD
The first step to journaling is to find the right journal for someone with ADHD. One of the unique qualities about ADHD is that it differs in how it affects everyone. Journals come in all shapes, sizes, and modalities nowadays. This is great, because everyone can find the journal that best fits their needs and working styles. On the other hand, it can be challenging for someone with ADHD to have so many options for how to journal. You may feel lost about where to start looking or what things you should consider when choosing a journal when you have ADHD. In this next section, I’ll discuss the different types of journals available for someone with ADHD, and how to make a choice that fits your needs.
Traditional Pen and Paper Journals
Pen and paper journals can be a great option for those that have ADHD. There’s something about being able to see all your thoughts and feelings out on paper that is different than having them written on your phone. It can add some clarity and get the whirlwind of thoughts out of your mind and onto paper. It can also be helpful for organizing and making sense of everything that you are thinking of.
If you do decide to go with the pen and paper route, the biggest thing is choosing one that will fit your needs. There are tons of journal options available and it can be easy to get lost in all of the options while looking online. Think about how you will use the journal and if it is something you prefer to take along with you throughout the day or if it is something that will be at home. This will help you determine what size of journal is the best fit for you. If you want to be able to take your journal with you throughout the day, finding a pocket size journal is probably best. If you plan on leaving your journal at home, you’re not really limited by the size of the journal.
After that, it’s really all about personal preference for your writing style. Some people enjoy using non-lined paper while others enjoy college-ruled lines. Any of these options can be found online through Amazon or at many retail stores. If you are worried about making mistakes while writing, there are also ways to get around this. The FriXion pen is an erasable pen so that you don’t have to worry about making mistakes while writing in pen. Some people prefer to use pencils or colored markers when writing in their journal. Again, figuring out the system that works for you is what is most important. It doesn’t have to be anything fancy. It just has to work for you and your needs.
Electronic Journal Options for ADHD
There are now plenty of options to electronically maintain a journal of your thoughts. Many of these options are free and accessible via a smartphone or a computer. Electronic journal options are great for people who are frequently traveling, constantly on the go, or who are worried about losing a hard copy journal. Luckily, there are also now many smartphones that allow you to create various entries and upload photos all on your smartphone. Some of my favorite apps for electronic journaling include Day One, Diarium, and Momento. I personally use the Day One app and love that it time stamps all of my journal entries and allows me to upload photos within the text of my entries.
Given that many people with ADHD will also have writing challenges or dyslexia, these journal apps can pose a problem for some. An option if you would prefer not to physically write or type is to use a voice-to-text app or program to write out your thoughts for you. Google Docs even has a free speech-to-text program that can be used for writing. You simply pull up Google Docs on your phone and can say what you are thinking, and it will be added onto the Google Doc. There of course may be some glitches when using this type of program where it may incorrectly guess words, and it won’t be laid out in nice paragraphs or with perfectly placed punctuation marks. But this is a really quick option that can be used anywhere quickly without the hassle of writing. Overall, it is a great workaround for people with ADHD who struggle with writing.
One of the pitfalls of using an electronic app or device to journal is that it can become another notification that pops up on your phone that you forget about. It’s easy to become overwhelmed with small tasks and notifications when you have ADHD. Many of these apps have notification settings that can sometimes be helpful for you if you have ADHD. At the same time, I’ve heard so many people say how when notifications pop up on their phone they become easier to just swipe away and ignore. If the notification doesn’t pop up later, it’s another thing that you’ve forgotten and won’t be reminded of. That’s why having a physical journal can be helpful for you if you have ADHD. It can serve as a physical reminder of a task you are starting to use.
Methods of Journaling with ADHD
1. Brain Dumps for ADHD
One of my favorite strategies to use journaling for ADHD is called the brain dump. Do you ever feel like there is so much going on in your mind that you need to do or think about, that you can’t even start thinking about it? That’s where the brain dump comes in. The brain dump is a way of dumping out all of your mental thoughts, feelings, and to-do lists onto your journal. People with ADHD struggle with working memory, meaning that they have a hard time keeping things in their memory and then prioritizing what should be done first. That’s why brain dumps can be a particularly helpful strategy for people with ADHD.
When doing a brain dump, the most important thing to remember is that there is no right way to do a brain dump. I’ve had brain dumps where there are twenty words scribbled onto one piece of paper, and I’ve also had more organized brain dumps where I write out different thoughts around different words. After you have dumped everything out of your mind into your journal, let it go, and then plan to come back to it at a later time in the day to process it.
These brain dumps can be used in the morning or at night as a way to refresh your mind and add some mental clarity. Some people enjoy doing them in the morning as a way to prepare for their day and determine what tasks they need to accomplish for the day. Other people like to do them at the end of a night to think about what tasks they should accomplish for the next day. By getting it all out onto paper, it can help with falling asleep so you don’t have a ton of tasks running through your mind as you’re trying to sleep.
You can also use brain dumps to prioritize your to do list and to help with that overwhelming feeling people with ADHD get when they realize their to-do list is way too long and they don’t know where to start with first. When doing a brain dump as a way to help with your to do list, go ahead and dump out every single thing that you see you need to get done.
After everything has been dumped out into the journal, you will create three categories: high priority, low priority, and let go. Look at the list of things going on and decide what is high priority and must get done that day or else there will be serious consequences (e.g., getting in trouble at work, not paying rent). Next, add items to the low priority list that would be nice to get done that day but that do not need to be done that day. Separating the tasks between what needs to get done that day and what would be nice to get done that day is a challenging task for people with ADHD.
And the most important category is the let go category. If there is anything that is on your brain dump that you determine is not needed to get done at all, try and let it go. I know that you feel like every single thing on your to do list actually needs to get done that day, but take a closer look at the tasks on your to do list that you feel like are low priority. Have you overloaded yourself on tasks? Is there anyone you can delegate some of the lower priority tasks to? Or can you save them for another day and time that may be better suited to get them done? The more that you practice using the brain dump, the more skilled you will become at prioritizing tasks in your life.
2. Bullet Journals for ADHD
Bullet journals are an amazing way of journaling that can help with organization and productivity. The name bullet journal comes from the use of bullet points to log information in a systematic way. Unfortunately, many people with ADHD never get started with bullet journals because they take some initial time to set up and get into the habit of using. Bullet journaling is a combination of planning and journaling that can be used to combat the forgetfulness of ADHD.
Bullet journals can be customized to however you want them to be but still consist of some similar concepts and themes. Most bullet journals have an index, daily log, weekly log, and monthly log. Within those logs, you may use graphics or symbols to track different goals (e.g., exercise), logs (e.g., food tracking, sleep tracking) or work projects that you have going on. These are appealing to people with ADHD who find traditional planners less than helpful because of how customizable they are.
To get started on bullet journaling, first figure out what you would like to keep track of. Many people enjoy tracking their daily, weekly, and monthly activities as well as other fun things like habits they are trying to have stick. You could even have journaling be one of the habits you are tracking in your bullet journal.
After that, start off by writing your monthly log. At the top of the page, write the month and then write all the days of the month (E.g., 1, 2, 3) down the left-hand side so you can see when the date falls. To the right of each date, write down important things that are going on for that day. After doing your monthly log, you may want to also create a daily log. To create a daily log, you can simply write down the day and then create a task list of things you have going on that day or other things you have going on.
Now this is where the fun part of Bullet Journals comes in. Collections are a fun way of keeping up with different goals you would like to accomplish. For example, if you have a list of books that you would like to read for the year you can write them all out and then fill in a bullet (e.g., box) every single time you have read the book on the list. For more inspiration on how to customize and create your own bullet journal, I recommend that you look onto Pinterest so that you can see what others have come up with. The creative ideas and artistic ways of embellishing a bullet journal can also be a strength for someone with ADHD.
3. Journaling with Prompts
In addition to free response journals where you can write whatever youwant, there are also journals that are already made with prompts in them. For someone with ADHD, the structure of having journal prompts can be really helpful in guiding you on where to start when journaling. The popular “Wreck This Journal” by Keri Smith has many prompts that can be helpful in guiding your journaling practice. I also have a 5-year memory journal where there is one question you answer every day for five years and can see what changes over those years. I have to be honest that I am not consistent with the 5-year memory journal, but it is a fun addition to my journaling collection. If you don’t want to commit to buying a journal full of prompts, you also have the option of googling journal prompts online to help guide your practice of journaling. Journals with different prompts can be great starting points if the idea of journaling is overwhelming for you. Especially for people with ADHD, these journals provide built in structure to help with those challenges.
However, if you are going to choose a journal that has already chosen prompts, I highly recommend you also invest in a basic notebook where you can freely write without the constraints of prompts. People with ADHD like variety. If you are stuck writing according to the prompts in journal, you may not be able to truly write out what you need to, or you may get bored by many of the prompts in the journals. Plus, if you browse through journals with prompts in them already, you may find that some of the prompts are a bit too corny for you to actually invest in. I do believe that both can be great ways of journaling, but it’s important to find what method you gravitate towards.
1. Find a routine for journaling.
After you have chosen a journal and a method that fits with your needs, it’s best to identify a plan for journaling. Habits take a while to become a habit. Sometimes it takes up to a month for something to truly become a habit. One of the best things to do is to find a time that works for you to write. If you feel like mornings are when you would best set your plan for the day and start off strong, try writing in the morning. Or if you would prefer to use journaling at the end of a long day to get everything off of your mind, try keeping a journal next to your bed as a reminder to complete it. Journaling at the end of a day can be a really helpful strategy for helping with sleep issues and anything on your mind that is keeping you up at night.
Decide how much time you want to spend journaling and how much time you can realistically fit within your day. This is important if you have ADHD because if you fail to set aside time for journaling, you’ll find that you run out of time and this habit will be pushed to the backburner. I personally only need about 5-10 minutes because my entries are short and kept to a page. There are other people who need more time and want to spend 20 minutes of journaling. It all depends on what you are using journaling for and how much time you will need. If you don’t know how much time you need to allot to get started on journaling, start off by writing on a day where you don’t have many other responsibilities and see about how long it takes you. That can be a good starting point for deciding on how much time you should plan for everyday when you do journal.
I cannot stress this enough, but you do not have to journal every single day for it to be effective. In fact, if you set the expectation for yourself that you’re going to go from not journaling at all to journaling every day, you are less likely to be able to achieve your goal. When trying to create a habit of journaling, be honest with yourself about how often you can actually journal. Can you journal three times a week? Maybe that is even too much already, and you need only one time per week. It is okay if you aren’t able to make it to journaling every single day. I don’t stick to a set schedule for journaling every single day because I feel that it takes away some of the fun out of journaling. Choosing a few times per week should be plenty of days to get started.
While having a plan for how you are going to start journaling is important, it’s even more important that you are flexible with your plan to journal when you have ADHD. Let’s say that you wake up, start journaling, and realize you forgot an important email you needed to send. Take a minute and assess, do I need to do this email right now or can it wait until I am completely done with journaling? Or maybe you start journaling in the morning and realize you want to grab a cup of coffee because you are feeling too tired. The most important thing is that you allow yourself to be flexible with your plan. If you get too rigid with your plan for journaling, it will likely fail as you become too frustrated and upset with yourself to keep it up. Especially for people with ADHD, this will lead to a lot of frustration and negative self-talk. Allow yourself to have some self-compassion and flexibility in your plans for journaling.
Many people with ADHD like to have some noise on in the background to keep them focused. If there isn’t something else going on in the background, you might be too distracted to get started with journaling, as contradictory as that sounds. It’s easiest if you choose some background noise that isn’t distracting. Music that is instrumental or beats is ideal. I personally enjoy looking at Spotify’s Study playlist as it is just enough noise to keep me focused on the journaling I’m working on.
Now that you have a plan for how you are going to journal, try to stick with it for at least one month. It can take some time to figure out exactly what works for you and what doesn’t work with you when journaling. Just because you tried one method and didn’t like it, doesn’t mean journaling isn’t for you. It’s much more important for you to be flexible and understanding in your journaling practice. But it does take some time to build in habits that work. That’s why I suggest taking a full month of sticking with journaling before deciding if you do or don’t like it. If there are times where you realize you have gotten off track and having been journaling as much as you wanted to, that’s okay. It’s something you can always come back to even when you may have gotten lost along the way.
I know how hard it is to get started on journaling when you have ADHD. The name of the disorder itself means that you are going to have trouble doing things that require a lot of attention. And journaling is one of those things that does require some attention. Even so, this is because a lot of journaling practices are based on neurotypical minds. They aren’t built for people who have different brains and are neurodivergent. If you do want to see if you might experience one of the many benefits of journaling, like greater self-reflection, more organization, and less stress, I recommend you try it for one month. Just one month. Use all of the strategies outlined here because they are built for learning how to journal when you have ADHD. You might find that journaling is something that is good for you too, and if not, it’s just another hobby that you gave a chance.
About Dr. Carrie Jackson
Dr. Carrie Jackson is a contributor of JournalOwl. Her primary interests are to increase access to evidence-based mental health treatments for children and adolescents, providing specific information to parents and individuals with ADHD.
Carrie is a graduate of West Virginia University with a doctoral degree in Psychology, and a specialization in Clinical Child Psychology. Carrie has worked as a therapist and evaluator at several children’s hospitals, providing care and treatment to clients with ADHD, Autism Spectrum Disorder, and anxiety. She has also worked with children with chronic medical conditions, providing supportive mental health care to children with cancer and burn survivors.
Although originally from South Carolina, Carrie has lived in two countries and four states. She enjoys hiking, traveling, and trying new recipes.
JournalOwl is not intended to be a substitute for professional advice, diagnosis, medical treatment, medication, or therapy. Always seek the advice of your physician or qualified mental health provider with any questions you may have regarding any mental health symptoms or conditions. JournalOwl is not authorized to make recommendations about medication or serve as a substitute for professional advice. You should never disregard professional psychological or medical advice, or delay in seeking treatment, based on anything you read on JournalOwl’s website or platform.