In my collection of journals in various forms, I have a variety of ways in which I track my dreams, thoughts, time, tasks, projects, hobbies, health, pet care, books I read, information I gather, and ideas. This overall system has evolved over some 50 years, from the sporadic, angst-filled teenage ramblings and poetry extracts of my earliest entries to a way of deliberately tracking my life as an older adult. It is still changing, and will likely continue to, as a lifelong journey.
In this post I’ll go briefly through my current journals, which are many. I don’t intend this to overwhelm anyone who is just starting to journal, or even just thinking about trying it. What you do is entirely up to you, and this post is not intended as a how-to or guide, and I certainly don’t think everyone needs to have as many forms of journals as I do. But there are no rules. Someone can journal by writing a few words or lines a day, or once a week, and get a lot out of it. Some people use other mediums entirely, with no words involved. Journaling is sort of my jam, so I do a lot of it, and I like to try new things. Some of these I’m consistent with, out of habit or necessity, and others are sporadic or simply ways that I flirt with or experiment with the journaling process. My hope is that my posts here will lead only to satisfaction, no matter what you decide to do.
I hope to take this rather long post as an outline to use to expand on some of these types of journals and ways of keeping them in later posts, so they’ll be under the category, How We Journal, which you’ll be able to click on in the menu to be able to find all the related posts.
Long-Form Journals on Yellow Notepads
This is my main journal format. I keep a long-form personal journal in two different formats, one in longhand and the other digitally. The longhand is written on yellow lined pads that are US letter size (8-1/2 x 11 inches (21.59 x 27.94 cm)). I buy these notepads in big bundles, to get a discount, and I keep the current notepad in a pad-folio that I chose deliberately for its rounded corners and padded surface, because I use it in bed, and usually with a cat curled up beside me. Prior to this one I had an older pad holder that finally fell apart, and it had always bothered me that it had sharpish, rigid edges and corners and was always jabbing one of us — me or the cat — when I moved it around as I wrote. I use a pen — my preference for this journal is a Pilot Acroball 0.7 mm refillable ballpoint, for its smooth-flowing line — or sometimes pencil. This is how I keep my main personal journal and my dream journal, and how I make notes to myself about various projects and plans.
One reason I like using these yellow pads instead of a bound journal is that the pages can be stored in standard file folders, and the order of the pages can be shifted around. If journaling lapses into notes about various projects, the pages can be sorted and separated out by subject. I also don’t like a spiral binding or any kind of side binding getting in the way of the act of writing with a pen. I fill a page, I tear it out and turn it over to fill the other side. I just let my pen move.
Another reason I like this format is that those pretty bound journals you can buy or are sometimes gifted, with the artistic covers and the beautiful creamy paper, have been known to intimidate me. I’ve tried fancy journals many times in my life, and I usually wind up leaving them mostly blank, partly for the reason given above, that the binding constrains me while writing, but also because I don’t like messing them up. My journals are messy, and I am of the firm belief that they’re supposed to be messy. I do use bound journals for specific purposes, which I’ll get into later, but for daily journaling, for my most flowing thoughts, I prefer these ugly lined yellow sheets of paper or some plain lined notebook paper (which I started out with as a teenager). The pads are convenient in that they’re bound at the top with perforations, so they stay put in their stack until I tear them out.
My main journals I write this way are:
- personal journals
- dream journals
- notes about projects, ideas, plans, lists
- rough, rough drafts or pre-drafts of other writing
I tend to write at least 2 pages a day in my long-form journal, and frequently more. I write this mostly in the morning as soon as I wake up, while I lounge with my coffee. Though I have the luxury now of not waking up to an alarm, in my later working-for-others life, when I did have a job to get to, I used to set my alarm early and write a page or two as soon as I woke up, while I had coffee. It’s mostly cathartic writing, kind of dumping onto paper what’s on my mind as I waken, what I’m worrying about, possibly what I long to do instead of what I must do that day, or long-term plans, and maybe a pre-to-do list for the day that isn’t yet prioritized or refined (and is usually far too long for one day anyway), and some spiritual work on paper. I’ll write about plans for the weekend, or work through a problem I’m having, or record some events from the previous day that I want to think about or remember. Sometimes it’s just a mundane reiteration. Other times I write more about my feelings, or my anxieties. Every now and then I’ll be more descriptive or even write some poetry, or come up with creative ideas.
“I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear.” ~ Joan Didion
If I recall a dream, I’ll write that down on a separate sheet as early and quickly as possible, before the memory slips away. Dreams can be elusive, so capturing them takes practice and a kind of opportunistic, lighthanded urgency. So on those mornings, the dream journal takes precedence, and then I write my personal journal pages.
Once the dream is captured, I can immediately do a little dream work to try to figure out what my unconscious is trying to tell me, or I can come back to it later. I’m a lay student of Jungian dream analysis, so that’s the tack I usually take with my dreams. But I also have some non-Jungian ways of looking at them. One thing I’ve noticed in recent years is that although I don’t always remember my dreams, in fact I can go weeks without remembering any, there will be a spate of one to two weeks when I remember them fairly consistently every day or every other day, and sometimes they don’t seem related, while sometimes they seem to form a pattern of some kind, or be loosely tied together in some way, and have to do with my life right now, or what I might need to pay attention to. Sometimes, rarely, they’re even prescient, though not usually in a way that helps me foretell the future so much as they prepare me for it.
Notes About Projects, Ideas, Plans, Lists
While not strictly speaking a type of journal entry, these notes tend not to be the real work either. They are in a sense the path into work from the journal. They are often the source of what goes into my planner (currently a bullet journal) to guide the course of my day or week. Quite often a personal journal page morphs into a set of notes or plans that reach beyond journal into projects, whether hobbies, changes to make around the house, or actual writing or the precursor to it (fiction, essays, poems, reviews, blog posts)….
Rough, rough drafts or pre-drafts
I plot out fiction and write scenes, I design or plan knitting projects, make lists, and think through blog posts and book reviews in this format before taking them to my computer to type them up. The yellow journal pad is my go-to format when I need to think anything through and I’m not in a rush to type thoughts rapidly, but want to take my time, process and sort ideas, and access those deeper thoughts that can seem elusive when at the computer.
Sometimes these get typed directly into the computer later, as a starting point, and sometimes they just form a matrix in my mind for thoughts to crystallize on later at the keyboard.
There are days, honestly, when I wonder if I am two different writers, one when I have pen to paper, and another when I sit in front of a screen and type. It’s likely that the two activities access slightly different parts of my mind. They certainly feel different, and I like that I can experience both through my writing. Sometimes I even miss my typewriter as a third, interim way of experiencing the process of writing. Hand to pen to paper with its tactile nature; hands to keyboard to paper, with that mechanical typewriter forcing me to slow down and get it as right as possible the first time, because corrections are complicated; hands to keyboard to that amorphous form we describe as digital, which is so convenient to correct or change, in fact almost too easy. Each is slightly different, and they all fascinate me.
Digital Long-Form Journals
I have a program installed on my computer called RedNotebook, which is described as a “cross-platform diary and journal.” I use it to do any long-form journaling that occurs to me while at my computer. This tends to take a different form, since I’m in a different mode of thinking during my work day at the screen. Again, I’m two different writers when I move from paper to digital. This particular program is free, and it’s nice because it stores my journals in text format, which is digital at its simplest, so it can move from one type of computer to another and be backed up easily. But the program itself has an intuitive calendar, and a word cloud, and a search feature. These make it feel sophisticated and complete. It’s a brilliant little program, elegant in its simplicity. I use the Linux version, but I understand it’s available for many operating systems.
Planning and Note Taking
My preferred form of planning right now is a combination of a bullet journal and a simple calendar. I think I’ll save any further details about these for another post, because my bullet journal has gone through its own evolution over the past year-and-a-half since I began it.
I posted a bit about note-taking in my post about Building a Second Brain by Tiago Forte. But I’ll take time to focus on how I do it in a separate blog post later. It’s too big a topic to go into in this post, and I’m still working out how I want to do it long-term. I have several ways that I do it now. One is simply to highlight e-books as I read them on my Kindle, then download what I’ve highlighted, which Tiago Forte mentions doing in his book. But I’m still individualizing his methods for my own needs.
Diet Journal, Other Health Journals, Purchase Records
I keep track of what I eat, mostly a holdover from my weight loss I accomplished between May 2021 and mid-March 2022. I do this in a spreadsheet on my computer. It’s one that I designed myself, to fit my individual needs, and I find that it’s helpful to keep tracking my weight and diet, so I know when I’m gaining again, and also for other health reasons. As we age, how the body handles food changes, sensitivities can change, and it just helps me to keep track. I have a separate place I track blood pressure when I need to, and I track my weight first thing each morning on my journal page, then transfer it to this spreadsheet. I should probably track all the supplements and herbs I take, because those needs can change over time as well, but I’m not doing that diligently, though I have a partial record of when I’ve purchased things and when I’ve run out. The same is true with pet foods. If you buy online, most reliable online retailers provide you a history of your purchases. Some even have it in a form you can download.
I don’t have a standalone reading journal. Instead it consists of many parts. The main one is Goodreads, where every book I read gets recorded, and most get reviewed. Some of the notes about what I’m reading start out as long-form journal pages, on those yellow lined notepads. Then I have highlights and notes from my Kindle, finish and start dates and progress in my bullet journal. Then there are blog posts that are book reviews. Other bits and pieces… My reading journal as a whole is a complicated enough system that it deserves its own post, so I’ll leave it at that. I think I should probably work on simplifying that, but for now it works for me. There was a time when I had a single notebook as a reading journal, started as a class assignment, and I’ve reread that and thought I should do that again, so maybe I will eventually. This is the wonderful thing about journaling. It’s something you can tailor to fit you and your life right now, and there’s a lot of freedom and wiggle room to make it truly yours.
Idea Journal a la Barbara Sher
This is a practice that is sporadic for me right now, although I’m always coming up with ideas. I think we’re all creative, but creativity is something I’ve focused on a lot in my life, and it feels important to keep up with it in some way, every day. When I’m not actively doing creative writing or making things, I like to keep my ideas flowing. I see it as a healthy habit, one that keeps life perpetually interesting. Even if I never follow through on some of these ideas, if I collect them in one place, I can go through that resource and always find something interesting to try right now, or to plan and carry out more elaborately if that’s the kind of project it entails. I write fiction and poetry, as well as blogs, and I cook, garden (a little), sew, paint, draw, and knit. I’ve tried other kinds of creative outlets from time to time, and I’m always open to new forms.
Years ago I started this little journal in an unlined red Moleskine Cahier Journal soft cover notebook – one of those thinner, paperback stitched ones that are lightweight to carry from place to place, and which you can lay flat to write in. I first modeled it on the “Scanner Daybook” that Barbara Sher recommended in her book, Refuse To Choose. It’s so much fun to look back through this book now and then. It makes me laugh sometimes, because I’ve had some wild ideas. But I think it’s important to keep our ideas, even if to make us laugh now and then, but also as a resource for new projects. I first had the idea of a cluster of blogs a few years ago, and wrote it down in that notebook. I’m making more of a point of recording my wild ideas, and even some tamer ones, in this notebook in recent weeks.
Visual journaling isn’t a consistent practice for me, at the moment. But it has been at times in the past, and I’m sure it will be again. There have been periods of time in which I kept art journals, and even events in my life or poems I wrote for which I made little art books to keep as mementos. I’ve also explored the type of visual journaling written about by Barbara Ganim and Susan E. Fox in their book, Visual Journaling: Going Deeper Than Words. I see there are even more books available now, by various authors, about this type of journaling, and I recommend exploring this type of journaling. Images and words are treated differently by our brains, and we experience them in such different ways, that drawing and painting, or any other form of visual journaling (I’ve read of people hand sewing daily quilt patches or doing other types of needlework as a form of this) can help us get in touch with our deeper selves.
That’s a goal I have for this year, to take up my watercolors and drawing materials again, set a space aside to work with them daily, and have a visual journaling practice. I’ll be posting more about visual journaling.
Important Events and Transitions
There’s one more journal I keep from time to time, and not very consistently, but I’ve kept it nonetheless. It’s a cloth-bound journal I received as a gift years ago. In fact I have a few of those. But this one I use to record important life events, big changes I go through. It didn’t start out that way, but I began it not long before my older sister died, and it just sort of stayed that way, the place for important life transitions. I suppose it’s similar to what people used to record in family bibles, but on a smaller scale, personal to me. After a few entries I decided to keep it just for that sort of thing. Births, deaths, when we bought our house or moved, pet adoptions and deaths, that sort of thing. I don’t keep it very consistently, even for those events. It’s a bit disturbing to look through, because it can be emotional. But it feels important to me to have something like that, so I keep it.
My Evolution Toward a Daily Practice
This is not how I’ve always journaled. When I was young I mainly wrote on school notebook paper, because I always had that on hand, and later in spiral notebooks. In those days I tended to write later in the day, either after school, or in the evening or at bed time, and although even now I sometimes add to my morning journal pages later in the day, if I feel the need because of something that occurred, it’s nearly always in the morning. I wasn’t consistent about journaling as a teen. There were times I didn’t write for days. Sometimes it was a weekend thing, and I’d doodle and journal for hours, sifting through feelings and thoughts. Again, I do something similar at times now. If I have a lot on my mind or feel a kind of inner churning, I might extend my morning journal to up to 11-12 pages. But that’s rare. Usually it’s 2-4 pages. As a teen I wrote a lot about books I’d read or recorded favorite poems or song lyrics, or wrote about boys I liked, movies I’d watched, people at school who either pleased or irked me. The weather was a fascination of mine then, and I found myself describing weather and the passage of seasons.
Rollers on the beach, wind in the pines, the slow flapping of herons across sand dunes, drown out the hectic rhythms of city and suburb, time tables and schedules. One falls under their spell, relaxes, stretches out prone. One becomes, in fact, like the element on which one lies, flattened by the sea; bare, open, empty as the beach, erased by today’s tides of all yesterday’s scribblings.
~ Anne Morrow Lindbergh
As a teen I read books by Jane Goodall and Joy Adamson, driven by a love of wildlife. I read books about ghosts, UFOs, and the paranormal, as well as the poetry of William Wordsworth, Sara Teasdale, Emily Dickinson, and Walt Whitman. I read romantic suspense by Mary Stewart, Victoria Holt, Dorothy Eden and Phyllis Whitney. Then I discovered J.R.R. Tolkien. So I had lots of romantic and fantastical notions swirling through my mind, and I think those influenced my journaling quite a lot. I also began my first little forays into writing fiction of my own. Nothing serious, and nothing that I even shared with anyone or had any thought of publishing. They were fantasies for me to explore on the page, and I’m sure filled with purple prose. My fiction ideas back then weren’t in touch with any semblance to realism. They were half-starts, and I think even someone who loves pure fantasy would find them sugary and not well thought out.
Later, though, I read some of the journals and letters of Anne Morrow Lindbergh, and that made me begin to take my journal practice a lot more seriously, especially her early entries from before her marriage, when she was the idealistic daughter of an ambassador, describing her daily experiences and surroundings, and contemplating life. She was about the same age, when she wrote those journals as I was when I later read them, and she was a somewhat introverted young woman, as I was, so her journals spoke to me. In a sense she brought me down to earth, to some degree, and I began to think that journaling in itself had a place in my life, that it could be done consistently and could have purpose.
I don’t think even then that I thought of it as something to later publish, as AML had. I still don’t. My journals are quite different, not the sort of thing I want to share, though ideas for publishable materials have risen out of them. But at that time of my life I found a journal useful as a regular way of sifting through my thoughts, processing them, and tracking my life. I still do, and even though I sometimes cringe at things I’ve written in my journals, especially at difficult times of my life, or in those early pages as a teenager, I’ve never regretted doing it as a regular practice, just for me.
Does All of This Take a Lot of Time?
None of this takes me more time than I’m willing to put into it. Most of these ways of journaling can fit into a few minutes a day. Some take longer. I take the longest time in the morning with my long-form journal. Then, once a month I set up some — very simple — new pages in my bullet journal. Again, I’ll blog more about that later.
But most of these processes have been a part of my life for a long time, each came along on its own, and I’m set up to maintain them easily. If you’re just thinking of starting a journal practice, I suggest keeping it as simple as possible at first, doing it at the same time each day, and not demanding much of yourself or the process at first. Just get into a habit, and then let it develop from there. Do what you’re most comfortable with. This is for you and no one else.
What About You?
Are you thinking about journaling and do you have questions? Do you already journal a little and want to share what you think of the process? Have you been journaling for years and want to share what you get out of it? Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments.