About That Journaling Thing
I keep four journals. I know that sounds like a lot, but they've all got their own purposes, and it's been chaos every time I've tried to use fewer. One journal works for some people. I'm not one of those people.
I like to think that I've got a pocket brain. No matter where I go, it's within easy reach (which usually means it goes inside the bag I loop over my belt). This little A6 book has saved me a few times when I desperately needed paper to get my feelings out on. If I'm in a crowded room and feel the need to decompress, whipping out some paper and a pen does the job better than anything else. This notebook is small enough that it can tag along in my pocket until I need it.
There's a little bit of everything in here. I know that my memory isn't the most reliable when I need to remember some finicky detail, so I use my pocket journal to make quick notes; there's no need to remember it if it's written somewhere that I'm guarenteed to see it later. Some pages are full of idle thoughts and worries that I noted down so I could let them go and keep moving. Other pages are littered with quick charts and diagrams from brainstorming sessions. I've also chucked a lot of quotes from videos and lectures in here so I can transfer them to my other journals later.
Despite its convenience, my pocket journal isn't my preferred second brain. My pocket journal is a stand-in for when I can't bring along my main journal. This is the journal that I really pour my brain into because I find its A5 size much more comfortable to write in, albeit less portable (which is where the pocket journal steps in). To make it easier for me to find my thoughts later, I transfer the highlights of my pocket journal into my main journal.
Most of my thinking winds up in here. If I'm stuck on a thought, I'll sit down and write a page or two digging into that. I find that asking "why?" until there are no more "why?"s to ask goes a long way. A lot of nonsensical ideas get written down as well- the words "stripper turtle" appear on a page of my first journal. Even in context, that's pretty silly. I write things like that because it makes it easier to open up and write the really personal stuff. It feels safer to introspect when I'm not obligated to do so.
What really makes this journal helpful for me is reviewing it. Once a week, I get out a few highlighters and go over the contents of my main journal. I highlight three things:
- Things that stand out to me after a week (yellow; yes, the highlighting on this page means something!),
- Things that I should probably bring up in therapy (blue),
- Quotes I've noted down (purple).
Once a month, I go over my main journal one more time with a red highlighter, picking out the true highlights. If a yellow highlight still stands out to me a month later, it gets marked up in red.
The red and purple highlights in my main journal go into my third journal: my commonplace book. This is the one journal to rule them all. It's an A5 that holds all of the phrases I've picked out in my other journals, making it an easy repository of insights. It lets me find the things that matter most without rifling through months of mundane writing.
This book is half quotes, half insights. As with the main journal, it ranges from silly to serious, but every line in here is deeply meaningful to me. This is the book I'm writing for my future self instead of my present self. What do I want to remember in five years? What do I want to learn?
My last journal is another A6. This is my bullet journal, and it's a glorified to-do list. It helps keep me on track in a way that works for my brain. Planners never worked well for me; they're too rigid and pushy. This strikes a nice balance between a planner and scrap paper. I tried writing tasks in my main journal, but I kept losing them there, so I separated those tasks out into a pocket notebook that can stay with me.
If you've browsed bullet journaling communities (yes, those exist), then you've probably seen some spreads that could be works of art on their own. My bullet journal isn't like that in the slightest. If I had to make my journal pretty, then it wouldn't be functional- all the more power to people that can do both! Instead of focusing on appearances, I went back to the roots of bullet journaling by keeping it simple. At the start of each month, I set up one page with a calendar of upcoming events and a list of the goals I want to complete. After that, I make to-do lists for every day of the month. When an appointment or task comes up, I write it into the list for the day it's due. I schedule daily work and free time while I'm at it. It's done a great job of helping me get things done while feeling good about doing them.
I have exactly one hard rule when journaling: anything goes. It doesn't matter how silly or unhelpful a thought seems. If I want to get it out of my head or take a closer look at it, it goes in a journal. It doesn't matter too much which journal it ends up in. While I do try to keep my journals to their intended purpose (and mostly succeed), I use what I have available in a pinch.
While I can write anything that comes to mind, I do follow a set format. At the beginning of a new day, I note the date (currently in the format MMM d YYYY). This is only written down for the first entry of the day. If I write it every time, then the tedium of writing "Jan 18, 2023" starts to bother me. I only really need to mark where a new day begins. That lets me know when things happened without much fuss.
As for time of day, I hate checking a clock before I write. I needed another system. Rather than noting the exact time I started writing, I use whitespace to separate entries by time. If multiple entries are made at the same time, I indent the first line of successive entries. If entries are separated in time (i.e. I closed the journal in-between making them), I leave a blank line in-between to mark that time has passed.
A journal is not an autobiography (unless you want it to be)
I might have a whole system now, but it hasn't always been like this.
When I was about seven, I tried to keep a journal for the first time. Most of my entries devolved into doodles and scribblings because I never had that much to say. What was I supposed to write about, my life? There was nothing interesting about that. I woke up, went to school, came home, played around, and went to bed. Whoop-de-do. Riveting stuff. Replicating the eloquent, multi-paragraph "dear diary" journals I saw in books and movies didn't do jack for me. I gave up after a few months of getting nothing out of it.
Years later, the urge to try again slapped me over the head, so I popped over to the store and picked up a cheap notebook with a watercolored cover I liked. I snagged a few pens to test while I was at it. Writing with those supplies came next, and that was where my thought process changed and this started working for me.
What made it work this time
As a kid, I had a really specific idea of what a journal should be. There's this ideal journal that keeps showing up in media: "Dear Diary, here's a play-by-play of my life. Love, me." That's what I thought my own journal should look like. I also had oddly specific notions of who my journal was written for. I'd imagined some historian leafing through my journal's pages and trying to reconstruct my day-to-day life. Anne Frank kept coming to mind; her diary's been read by thousands. I wanted my journal to be like hers. Very little of what I scribbled down was intended for me; I wrote for the historians that would someday pick my record apart and document life in the 2000s with it.
Setting historians as my target audience made me really self-conscious while writing. As a result, I regularly censored myself, wrote about events that I didn't give a crap about, and bored myself to death writing in ways that weren't useful for me. It's no wonder I stopped trying. Writing for readers that don't exist yet is pretty stressful.
When I brought my journal home this time, I swept a mass of clutter off my desk and decided I'd do things differently. My journal would not be my autobiography. It wouldn't be written for others to read at all. This chunk of paper would be my space. I would be the only intended reader.
Even then, the thought of future historians judging me stuck in my mind. If I didn't deal with that, I knew I'd wind up censoring myself and writing for nonexistent people again. I struggled to find a solution before a crazy idea hit me.
The first two pages of my first journal are a brain dump of my fears, my vulnerabilities, and all the things I'd never want to show anyone else. I think I'd melt from shame if someone ever saw them. If someone reads my journal, nothing else between its pages can top the absolute exposure of the first thing they'll see- so why censor myself after that? Why write for anyone but myself?
Now that I've gotten into the habit, I no longer need to expose my fears to get going. Instead, I tape in an insert that I typed up, then write two things on my front page. The first line is a nod to every journal that came before the new one. The rest is a warning.
Light the torch. Burn anew.
Obligatory warning: If you're reading this without my permission and I'm still alive, then you're accepting any and all consequences of your actions. If anything in these pages upsets you, deal with it. You agreed to see me talk smack about you when you opened this book. I also have no time in my life for those who disrespect my boundaries. Continuing means that you've not only done so, but done so knowingly. You're the one that has to live with whatever follows. Make your choice.
I reckon that's a fair warning for the average snooper.
Advice to prospective journalers
First off, let's all be honest with each other: my way of journaling isn't likely to work for you. Seriously. If you try to copy me, you're probably going to think "this sucks" or hold yourself to a standard you won't meet. Use it as a base if you want, but you're going to need to find your own way to do this.
When I started, I researched other people's methods and realized that a fair chunk felt wrong for me. Everyone has their own way of going about it. For some people, their journal is their autobiography. Play-by-play journaling can work. Other people log their day down to the minutia without making much of a narrative out of it. One person out there uses timestamps that include seconds! I've also seen a few journals that don't look like a typical journal at all. Art journaling, bullet journaling, junk journaling, doodle journaling, daily embroidery, online wikis, crocheted mood blankets... the options are endless. It's all great inspiration, but it's easy to get stuck on how much you're failing if you try to match someone else's method. Cobble together the ideas that work for you and drop the rest. Don't be afraid to make it your own.
You don't have to commit to five-page monologues, either. One sentence is enough. I know some folks swear by the Hobonichi 5-year journal, and that's barely got space for a sentence or two. You're never obligated to write more. Heck, you don't have to write at all! Some people keep a sketchbook as a form of journaling. There are no rules here.
If you don't have anything to say on a given day, then you don't have to force yourself to journal. Your journal is a tool. If you don't feel like using that tool today, then you don't have to use it. I like journaling daily. That doesn't mean that you have to. If you do want to write but don't have anything on your mind, then you can say as much. "I don't think I have anything to write about" can be a surprisingly effective starter (and if nothing else, you've now written something down).
Some folks are living in situations where their journal might be exposed. If a simple warning isn't enough to deter snoopers, then you've got a few options. You could journal digitally and protect your entries with a strong password. You could journal in a format that others can't read easily (like knitting a mood blanket). If you're feeling creative, you could even write in code or use an alternative script. Don't be afraid to think outside the box if you need to disguise or block off your writing.
Above all, your journal is yours. You decide what you want to get out of it, and you decide how you want to get there. The only rules you have to follow are your own. Starting is all it takes.
Oh, and get a nice pen. Trust me. It's so much easier to write if you like your pen.