About That Journaling Thing

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Journaling is one of those things that seems easier said than done. It's not hard to get a piece of paper and a pen, but what do you write? How do you keep the habit? How is any of this supposed to be helpful? It can feel difficult to get what you want out of journaling.

Something that's helped me is looking at other people's journaling systems for inspiration. There's a lot of variety out there, and while one person's ideas might not work for you, someone else's might be just what you need. I've been helped by a lot of strangers' webpages describing how they approach their journals, so I figured I may as well return the favor for others. I also chucked some advice at the end for folks looking to start their own journals.

My own journals

I used to keep four separate journals. Now, I keep two. I've found it much more useful to keep everything together than to break it up.

1. Pocket

If I'm in a crowded room and feel the need to decompress, then whipping out some paper and a pen does the job better than anything else. This mini composition book is small enough that it can tag along in my pocket until I need it. I keep it on me at all times.

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 main journal later.

2. Main

Despite its convenience, my pocket journal isn't my preferred second brain. My main journal is the book that I really pour my brain into. I find its A5 size much more comfortable to write in, albeit less portable.

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'm looking for 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. If a yellow highlight still stands out to me a month later, it gets marked up in red. Making these highlights lets me spot patterns and learn from the recent past, and backreading to make them often reminds me that no matter how rough things were, they did pass with time.

Discontinued journals The pocket journal and bullet journal get copied into the main journal. The main journal gets copied into the commonplace book.

3. Commonplace

The red and purple highlights in my main journal used to go into my third journal: my commonplace book. 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. 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?

Discontinued because: I've mostly replaced this with an index at the end of every journal. This index lists the main events that happened in my life during that journal's lifetime. If I need specific insights from that time period, then I can check what was highlighted in the relevant journal. This saves me from having to maintain yet another book. Finished journals' spines are all labelled with when each journal was in use, so it's not too hard to find a specific time period.

4. Bullet

My last journal was another pocket journal. This was my bullet journal, and it was a glorified to-do list. It helped 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 struck a nice balance between a planner and scrap paper.

Discontinued because: I fell out of the habit of keeping this separated. If I need a to-to list, then I chuck it into whichever journal I have on hand. My calendar is now kept separately from my journaling system.


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, then it goes into a journal. It doesn't matter too much which journal it ends up in. I just need to get my thoughts onto paper.

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 d MMM YYYY). This is only written down for the first entry of the day. If I write it every time, then the tedium of writing "18 Jan 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. 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, then I indent the first line of successive entries. If entries are separated in time (i.e. I closed the journal in-between making them), then 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)

There's this ideal journal that keeps showing up in media: "Dear Diary, here's a play-by-play of my life. Love, me." As a kid, that's what I'd thought my own journal should look like. 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 journaling in ways that weren't useful for me. Writing for readers that don't exist yet is pretty stressful.

When I brought my journal home this time, I sat down to write and decided that 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?

Now that I've gotten into the habit, I don't 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- I was thinking about carrying the torch as a metaphor. The rest is a warning to snoopers. I doubt anyone will ever read it, but it soothes my worries to have it there.

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 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

Just write. Buy a cheap composition book or staple some paper together, grab a pen, and write something down. It doesn't have to be good or meaningful. If you can write something, then you've gotten the hard part out of the way. Everything else is a question of what you want to get out of journaling. Tailor your practice to your goals.

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. Cobble together the ideas that work for you and drop the rest. Don't be afraid to make it your own.

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. If you do want to write but don't have anything on your mind, then you can say as much. "I don't 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.

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