Use Them Notebooks, Part II! My thoughts on Journaling

Last month I talked about notetaking, and how I typically forego the many “systems” of notetaking pushed by various online pundits in favor of what works for me. My personal style is more of a stream-of-consciousness, list-making technique that may not look pretty but ends up being a fairly accurate reflection of my life at any given time. It’s purely a matter of form following function, and journaling for me is no different. There’s a perception out there that “journaling” is synonymous with keeping a diary in the traditional sense, i.e., sitting down at the end of every day, composing a running narrative of your life, and ruminating on the overall significance. The thought of doing that - and the massive time commitment it can entail - intimidates a lot of people and keeps them from ever starting a journaling habit. 

That’s not the way it has to be. I journal regularly, but it’s not an everyday thing. As I stated in my last e-mail, journaling is great when you want to reflect on an idea at length, especially when you’re in the initial stages of pulling together your thoughts on the “bigger picture,” whether that be a longer-form writing project like a book or new blog, or a momentous life decision that you’re debating in your head, or events in the news that cause emotional distress and need more processing (ahem). These things don’t necessarily arise for me on a daily basis. When they do, I like to write about them, but I try not to journal out of obligation. I'd also add here that my journals are extremely unorganized and not particularly attractive to look at. I have three or four different notebooks sitting around my office that I'd consider "journals," and I tend to write in whichever one is handy. Because I hate wasting paper, sometimes a single "journal entry" will be scrawled across the bottom half of three or four half-used pages. Not exactly the style that's en vogue right now.  

My personal journaling style borrows heavily from many different influences. (Substantively, of course. The general messiness is all me.) To name just a few: 

  • Kaizen Journaling. If you’re interested in journaling to track personal improvement, give this site a read. Kaizen Journaling is a great source of prompts and ideas for things to write about. It’s not updated daily, or sometimes even weekly, but I’ve enjoyed visiting periodically over the past couple of years. This site inspired my "work journal" that I've been keeping in connection with my day job, hoping to gain better insight into what professional experience I've accumulated and what areas I need to work on.  
  • Day One. Oddly enough, journaling is the one traditional “analog” activity where I’m strongly drawn to the digital world. Day One is an app available for both MacOS and iOS that acts as a sort of digital journal and scrapbook, allowing you not only to record your thoughts but insert photos, links, e-mails, tweets, quotes, etc. that you find special or inspiring. I’ve also been known to snap a photo of stuff I’ve written and add it into Day One, completing the digital-analog circle. Some people also use Day One as a word processor / writing tool. If you are working on a particularly tricky piece of writing, and are unsure whether it would be successful or not, there’s something liberating about having that piece of writing live in your “journal.” If you end up wanting to publish it, fine, you can easily copy/paste or export to your blog or other chosen forum. If not, it can live on in Day One as part of your digital journal. Shawn Blanc (one of my favorite people currently writing online), recently published an excellent piece on how he uses Day One
  • One Sentence Journal. “The idea of keeping a proper journal was just too daunting, so I decided instead to keep a ‘one-sentence journal.’” Gretchen Rubin’s article touches on exactly the type of thing I’d love to discourage: the idea that there's such a thing as a “proper journal.” Her solution to getting past the "expectations issue" is also awesome: write one sentence each day about something meaningful that happened. 
  • How to Make a Journal of Your Life (via Comfortable Shoes Studio). If you’re a Pen Addict reader and don’t subscribe to Brad Dowdy’s membership newsletter, Refill, please consider doing so. One of the benefits of a $5 monthly subscription is that you receive Brad’s weekly links, which is where I learned about this article from Comfortable Shoes Studio. Pretty spot on. What do you put in your journal? Whatever moves you. There’s no “right way” to do it.

I strongly encourage people to give journaling a shot, because it can be time well spent that adds a lot of value to your life. That said, avoid the temptation to embrace form over function and get too absorbed in the act itself. Hey, there’s nothing wrong with creating a journal with nice looking embellishments and adornments. Many people find it relaxing to doodle, color, and decorate their journal as they ponder the substance of what they’ve written. That said, I sometimes worry that many advocates of “journaling” come close to fetishizing the tools and techniques as opposed to the actual benefits that the substantive work can bring to your life. Truth is, there is no “magic bullet.” A $1.50 composition book and a generic Office Depot pencil can be just as effective as the nicest fountain pen put to work on the most elaborate bullet journal. Do what works for you, and get it down on paper.