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Journaling in practice

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If you’re wondering why you should journal in the first place, then maybe it’s a good idea to start reading ‘healing creative scars’ and ‘a samurai learning mindset’.

There are hundreds of resources available on the Internet on how to journal, how to keep a bullet journal, how to index everything, how to getting things done and so forth. The following advice is something that works for me - it might not work for you at all. Don’t worry, simply try something else. Journaling should be kept easy and fun, otherwise you won’t be doing it daily and you won’t gain the same amount of satisfaction and things might not get done at all (if that is what you’re after).

What’s in it

That’s fairly simple:

  • Notes taken from class, thoughts, while reading a book, … This is loose text, mostly structured as a mind map, eventually accompanied by sketches.
  • Something I call a “braindump”: full sentences of things I’m thinking or feeling right now.
  • Drawings.
  • Pictures, greeting cards, stamps, stickers, … (scrapbooking)
  • Lists of things to do, food to eat, things to research or buy or sell or …

One journal to rule them all

Anything goes. A requirement for me in order to work with everything in one journal is that it’s unlined. Otherwise I feel restricted and won’t take as much notes as I intend to. Again: this might not be the case for you.
So yes, everything is in one journal. I used to keep sketchbooks separate from (Moleskine) journals because of the differences in paper, but binding your own book or buying something else than Moleskine fixes this problem: see ‘about the paper’. When I take a note, I just start writing where I left off - I might put a small line down to keep things separate when I feel like it. But I always date notes (I’ve seen people use the time, I’m happy with only the date for now.)

Keeping one notebook with me at all times beats having to hog a notebook, a sketchbook, another work related notebook and a family planning notebook. I know this might sound counterintuitive to you: “but I how will I be able to find stuff later on?”. Good question we’ll answer later. A part of the answer is simply by re-reading. If you don’t re-read what you’ve written, nothing will ever happen with it. So, if you intent to simply write down thoughts in order to feel a temporary moment of relief, fine. But if you intent to change your life, that won’t suffice.

On TODO items

TODO items

Speaking of GTD, if you’re into David Allen’s mindset you can reserve one page for all your TODO items to tick off with a sticky note. That way it’s easy to open up your journal on the current TODO page and quickly jot it down. If everything is ticked off or you’re out of space, simply start a new page. Agree upon a convention of tick boxes for yourself, you’ll be needing something like

  1. Open (TODO)
  2. Done (tick off the open box or strike through!)
  3. Rejected (Not needed anymore)
  4. Reverted (Written down in a new list, or someone else will do this)

If that’s not enough one could imagine things like “doing right now”, something in between open and done, or “will do someday but not now”, something in between rejected and reverted. Those TODO lists are the only kind of “special” pages I have right now that give me instant access to what I should be doing between the notes and sketches. Some people dislike reserving a page for these kind of things and keep those lists in digital apps on their cellphones - fine, but you won’t feel that spark of joy when actually physically ticking off that box. I’m more of an analog person and as I journal anyway, why not integrate that?

The palest ink is better than the best memory - Chinese proverb.

On easily spotting ideas

TODO items are definable things that need to get done within a certain time frame. Loose ideas that might or might not get executed will be translated (maybe in the next journal) into those concrete items, but before that I wanted to create something easily recognizable that catches my attention when I re-read the pages. To do that, I mostly draw simple light bulbs as an indication of an idea. Pretty original eh? Remember: do something that simply works for you. When I’m in the mood, I might even color it! Look at that!

woah, an Idea!

See what a bit of color does to where your eyes go to? That’s one of the reasons I also try to vary in the inks I use - more on that later.

On ending a journal (or year)

There’s this thing I simply call “365”. With each new year (or sometimes at the end of a notebook, when I feel like it), I make a 2-page spread mind map of things that kept me busy. It’s more or less an analog tag cloud and it’s extremely rewarding to make. You get to browse through previous journals, look at things you’ve written down and actually managed to pull of, and take note of that in one or two words. That creates a thick cloud full of the things that defined you for the last year. It’s actually quite incredible to look at. When I’m done doing that, I try to underline the words that meant more to me than others.

Applying the retrospective principles from software development on your own personal life and writing down what made you glad, mad or sad actually helps you do something about that. Another trick that might work better for you is creating mind maps of things you’ve already written down in the past - that way they grab your attention again. I like to call these meta-notes: notes about notes. Those are the best. Don’t be shy to add notes to older pages, or to strike them through if that’s how you feel about them. Remember that “braindumps” are momentary surveys: they might contain a lot of negative emotion. Don’t get dragged away in that negative feeling again while re-reading! It’s a tarp! Danny Gregory said in his Creative License that journals should contain happy thoughts only but I disagree - sometimes writing how you feel when you’re upset helps to place that feeling in that moment. That said, those braindump pages are of little use to me afterwards.

An attitude of gratitude brings opportunities.

About the paper

different kinds of journals

Different kinds of journals: Magritte edition, the back of a black Moleskine, a smaller Paperblanks silver Filigree, a yellow Leuchtturm 1917 and a Midori A5 notebook.

Do you use a fountain pen? Avoid the Moleskines and go for MD or Leuchtturm - they absorb the ink very well and there’s almost no bleed-through. Do you want to use watercolor for sketching? There’s a special Moleskine watercolor paper journal that soaks up a decent amount of water (25% cotton). The Paperblanks and Ludion books have thicker paper, the Moleskine has the thinnest paper. I always go for a creamy white color instead of bleached white that hurts the eyes and doesn’t pair well with my preferred ink colors. If you intend to do a lot of scrapbooking (pasting stuff between pages), you might benefit from a heavier book that handles additional weight well.

Another minor thing to notice is the ability to put stuff away in the back pocket of some notebooks like Moleskine and Leuchtturm. I like carrying stamps and greeting cards with me in case I feel the sudden urge to write a letter and that’s where they go until they’re used. No big deal if it’s not there: simply glue an envelope onto the back of the book:

journals with or without pockets

Tucking some post-its in there also never hurts.

How to search in it

Step 1: Page numbers

Do you see the number on the bottom left of this note?


That’s 113. Every page is numbered. Leuchtturm does this for me but not the way I want it: they number every page like most conventional books, but I number an “open page” (a span of two pages) as one page. That way, I can refer to a section of page in a book by using #(booknr)p(pagenr)(section), for example #8p113a. There are four sections in my journals: A (upper left), B (down left), C (upper right), D (down right). Since I used to buy only Moleskines, the first thing I did was writing a page number on the bottom left of every (“open”) page, and as I’m lazy, I don’t want to write 200+ numbers. Another advantage of using the page numbering like that is that it keeps notes together as I tend to write or sketch a lot on the open pages on the same subject. So referencing is another tip, if you’re re-reading you might think “ah, I already wrote about this in #5p30b!”.

Step 2a: Use an appendix

In 1685, The British philosopher John Locke published a book called “a new method of making common-place books”. A “commonplace book” was in essence a journal where one keeps famous quotes, parts of books one has read and reflects upon them. That’s also a vital part of my journal, but my intent is to keep something much broader.
He introduced a revolutionary indexing system to keep track of what one wrote that I tried out myself in several journals but ended op ditching all together. In essence, you reserve the last X pages (problem 1) to create a more modern tag-based indexing system. Refer to each page using your special page numbering system. But the problem is, as your journaling collection grows, multiple indexes might contain the word “Japanese food” and there’s no global overview of the overview per book. Also, it’s hard to lock in on one or two words per section. For instance, consider I wrote something about Japanese food in #1p01a. It’s about sushi, which is rice, and about maki or other kinds of rolls. What tag am I going to pick? Japanese food? Rice? Maki? Sushi? Everything is the best possible answer, but that only increases the useless size of those last X pages.

Step 2b: Digitalize everything.

After not finding my notes quick enough, I started exploring the possibilities of Evernote. It’s OCR does not work well on handwriting but that’s okay: I can quickly add tags per scanned page myself. Below a few screenshots of my Evernote workstation:




Every notebook has it’s own digital notebook, and every page (remember my page numbering, that’s 2 physical pages) is one scan and one note, titled with the page numbering system I explained earlier. In order to use Evernote’s fast search system, you have two options:

  1. Write down notes below the scanned image. (those get indexed)
  2. Use tags.

I decided to go for the second one. The Evernote scanning app on Android has evolved quite nicely the last few years, it recognizes pages flawlessly and scans them quite well. There are however a few manual steps to be needed in order to get my system working:

  1. I want one note per page. Scanning one page with my cellphone and touching “done”, reopening the application and scanning the next page is very tedious. So I scan as much pages as possible, all crammed together in one note. Afterwards, I post process those notes on my Mac by cutting each image, creating a new note (CMD+X, CMD+N, type in the page number, tab, CMD+V).
  2. I want the note to be easily readable without relying on tags - that’s my backup. So another manual step, rotating the image, is sometimes needed.
  3. The most painful one: go through everything note per note, re-read and try to figure out what’s on it, and tag accordingly.

Tags do have their advantage over plain text: I can see how much I’ve written about self improvement with one click of the button as seen in the last screenshot.

This whole process takes up to 4 hours for one A5 notebook. I’m okay with that: it usually takes 6 months up to a year for me to complete a journal anyway and it gives me the power to have access to all journals at all times with the Evernote app. When I quickly want to reference a cooking recipe, I can search for “pancakes” and immediately hit 3 or 4 notes. It does take a while to look at the scanned image to figure out where exactly I placed that particular piece of information - that’s one downside of the system. But as I journal “organically”, meaning putting everything in the same place from pictures to drawings, my brain can find what I need on the scan pretty quickly, compared to pages full of text between lines.

Tools of the trade

In my pencil case

Some stuff I regularly use for journaling:

my current pencil case

  • A small scissor for scrapbooking
  • Pritt and tape with a lovely pattern
  • Fountain pens (Lamy EF, TWSBI 1.1 Stub, Metropolitan F, Sailor Fude) loaded with different colors.
  • Kuretake Water brushes
  • HB pencil, sharpener, kneading gum

I love constantly changing what I carry in my case. The HB will be replaced with a 2B/4B, for drawing I like a softer edge. The kneading gum might disappear, using it less and less. A pocket knife is rather heavy and I only use the scissor so I might swap that out with something more comfortable. I recently trashed the pigment liners in favor of fountain pens with document ink like “De Atramentis”. Writing and drawing on different paper will give you a different feel: your taste for the paper and the pens will evolve so be prepared to experiment a lot - that’s part of the fun!

My wife taught me to add some color after some pages are filled and the more I do that, the more I like browsing through the journal. Watercolor is still too heavy for most notebooks and I don’t bother to bring colored pencils on location. That’s a relaxing activity to do at home.

For the gadget freaks

This tiny thing is something I also use now and then:

polaroid pogo

It’s called a “Polaroid Pogo”, a pocket printer with Bluetooth that prints on small stickers. Excellent sticker quality but abysmal color quality. Instead of printing a picture and cutting & pritt-ing it in my journal, I simply send a picture from my cellphone to the printer to immediately stick on the page. A part of the picture on the Evernote screenshots above is a Pogo sticker - it works well enough but the paper isn’t cheap and is hard to find besides Amazon.

Note taking at night

At night, my journal stays in my backpack. That way I won’t forget to take it with me the next day. Also, note taking in bed with a pen is difficult because the ink flows along with gravity and I don’t like to use a pencil for writing. The solution is fairly simple: there’s a note block with a pencil on my bedside table. I scribble down stuff and forget about it. Every week, I collect those notes and decide what to do with them: throw it away or copy it over into my journal.

More notebook pimping

A Moleskine is actually rather boring. It’s black (except if you’re willing to spend even more on the limited editions). As I wanted my journals to be something that characterizes me and that makes me smile every time I grab them, I added something on the cover:

some book covers

You can imagine the possibilities. It should - and will - fuel your creativity. Go with the flow, don’t be too hard on yourself. Welcome to a wonderful journey.

I want more!

Here are some interesting links of people that helped inspire me:

These more general blogs are also entertaining to browse through:

These books I consider to have changed my life completely:

tags icon journaling digitizing fountain pens

I'm Wouter Groeneveld, a Brain Baker, and I love the smell of freshly baked thoughts (and bread) in the morning. I sometimes convince others to bake their brain (and bread) too.

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