On Journaling

I’m a long time journaler, and it’s taken many different forms over the years. From a locked diary in my youth, to fancy, leather bound sketchbooks, to morning pages, to bullet journals, I’ve done it all. It’s rarely a daily habit, but more of a possible open space to let my mind wander and my feelings to reveal themselves.

Bookshelf of old journals
A few of my old journals

Over the last few years I’ve taken up bullet journaling, in addition to my free form long hand journal. Over time it’s become more of a logged diary then a quick, bulleted list of the day’s events. I like creating these logs, because my memory is terrible and it forces me to sit down and remember what happened. I especially try to focus on my interactions with other people, as I have a really bad tendancy to instantly forget what people tell me about themselves.

At the end of the month, I read through that month’s entries and then write a summation of how I felt about what happened–the daily logs don’t really capture the arc of experience the way that a larger story can. I also find either that I have almost entirely forgotten what happened, or my memory is drastically skewed, often towards the negative.

What I generally don’t do though, is return months later to get an even bigger picture of my life. I never read through old journals, which is something I used to do a lot when I was younger (and there was no internet and I had lots of time on my hands). Unfortuntly, I often stop journaling when really big things are going on, so I don’t have much written down about the events I would be most interested to read about. I actually find sitting down and remembering what happened difficult and stress inducing, and doing it when I’m really busy or emotionally drained feels even harder. While I have a goal to write and review my bujo twice a day, the reality is that I often go three to four days without looking at it (which is kind of a problem since it’s also my calendar and to do list). Searching my memory for the day’s events can feel like scrambling through a hoarder’s basement using phone flashlight, so I often avoid it.

How you fill your day is how you fill your life. What a terrifying thought. That’s probably why it feels hard to recount my hours: I have to admit I’m not living my Best Life. Thorough journaling means having to come to terms with your life every single day, which is probably, maybe a good thing, I guess. I keep saying I want to “live with intention” instead of floating along, letting things happen, and yet having to catalog how I am actually doing that (or not) can really feel excruitiating. It’s easier to just scroll through Instagram and forget I exist.

2020 is truly the year for facing the hard facts, hitting rock bottom and scrambling back out. It’s helpful to have a map so you remember how to get out.


Austin Kleon writes a lot about his daily journaling practice, from mind mapping to sketching, morning pages, and why it’s important to review old journals.

One of the things I like about Ryan Holiday’s notecard system, the one he learned from his mentor, Robert Greene, is its emphasis, not just on taking notes, but on going back and revisiting your notes: after you take notes in a book, you let the book sit for a week, and then you go back through the book and transfer your notes to notecards, and then you go back through your notecards and find themes, and then you go back through the themes and assemble a book, etc. There’s a kind of constant creative revisiting that goes on, one that leads to new ideas, and new writing. (Re-vision is re-seeing.)

I have a box for notecards where I started something like this, but I have never opened the box for this kind of review. I love this idea of constantly returning, editing, sorting, connecting and rethinking ideas. I have this long held belief that I should just magically remember everything, which is clearly wrong. Somehow if I read a book once, all the ideas should just be there in my head, forever. If I have a brilliant idea, it’s going to stick with me, and I’m totally not going to forget about it in an hour when I’m hungry. The fact is, I can’t remember anything, and writing it down isn’t enough. I have to read it again, re-engage with it, reinterpret it, and keep those ideas alive in my mind, or at least in a place where I can return to them when I’m ready.

A collaged box that says Thoughts
This box is way too large for its contents