The years have taught me many things, but chief among them is the importance of journaling in the creative process, and as substrate for reflection. I’ve maintained journals of various kinds for 20 years. This amounts to a massive amount of raw data for my life, from which I am able to write a memoir (in progress, finally, thanks to the great pause) as well as compile the Microseasons of Cascadia calendar (from 13 years of naturalistic observations, also in progress).
Among the massive upheavals that are currently occurring, at the very least, we can find pause—moments to be still among the chaos. I look forward to the creative works to emerge from this period. If you’re considering picking up a journaling habit as a means to dream, brainstorm, process, release, or simply organize and witness, I’ve collected a few notes for you.
Part 1: approaches
Journaling is completely unique to the individual practicing it. Some prefer analog ink & paper, others digital, and some a hybrid between the two (like myself). Some keep distinct journals for different topics (work, dreams, planner, personal diary), others combine them in the same volume and maintain chronological order. The latter is my preference—I like my journals to be messy, eclectic catalogues of certain periods of my life. That said, I have ‘offshoots’ of notebooks from specific classes, projects, or travels.
The daily diary
I’ve maintained a daily entry journal/diary for 20 years. The process itself allows me to untangle & disambiguate confusing emotions, conflicting tendencies, and clarify my inner voice and deepest guidance.
These entries are not particularly literary or masterful (unlike Susan Sontag’s volumes). They read more like my inner child throwing a tantrum, or my worry-wart side, or other general not wholly adult and other-than-excellent sides of myself. But that’s alright. It’s an amazing thing to flip back through the years and evaluate what your teenage self thought about a particular situation (a breakup, not getting into your school of choice, your mom catching you with pot, etc).
As a bonus, you also get to see how your handwriting changes over time, through different moods and periods of your life.
It’s even more compelling to see how wise, caring, and responsible your younger self really was! I notice intuitions and gut instincts that were perhaps brushed aside at the time, but portended something important eventually. Reflections like this help refine your voice, understand your choices and actions in the context of your life, develop narrative, and help shape an evolutionary path forward.
Life is happening all around us, all the time. What songbirds frequent your residence? Can you recognize their calls? What time of the year do they arrive, and what do they eat?
Naturalistic observations inform our ecological understanding of the world, and nature journaling is a grounding and connective practice. It’s as simple as recording what’s happening in the natural world at any given moment—flora, fauna, funga, weather, and anything else that speaks to you. For me, it’s a written form of meditation and can be done from a window, backyard, trail, city park, mountainside, train, and anywhere else that you find yourself.
I believe that drawing and sketching is intrinsically healthy and that everyone should do it. Engaging the visual aspects of our minds sharpens our observational skills and strengthens communication. My work in R&D relies heavily on observational and visual communication skills, as I often prefer to express complex concepts through visual means (design briefs, sketches, flow charts, etc).
Whenever I feel bored, I pick up my pencil & sketch book and draw something. There’s always something new to see. My sketch book is currently separate from my main journal, but occasionally I pick up a blank paper journal so that I can incorporate sketches into my entires.
Why do we have the dreams we do? This aspect of our mental lives in still unknown, but writing about our dreams is a way of memorializing these journeys into dreamtime. Some people feel as though dream journaling practices enable more vivid dreams that can be more easily remembered upon waking. While this isn’t my particular experience, dreams are enchanting and totally worth writing about. Some people prefer separate exquisitely decorated dream journals. I incorporate dream journaling into my main notebook.
Bullet journaling is a particular productivity method associated with dot journals. It’s visual, colorful, and is just cool to learn about and explore for yourself. While I mainly manage my tasks, time, and schedule digitally, bullet journaling has a special place in my heart. It’s a bit of a rabbit hole, but it’s cool to see what people come up with.
Part 2: journals
Out of the 32 journals that I’ve completed so far, 20 of them have been Moleskine. I mostly use the lined notebooks, but waver between soft and hardcovers with no particular preference. I increasingly like dotted paper, which offers a guide for straight lines and neat writing without the confinement in order to incorporate figures and sketches. Grids are too busy for me, and blank pages feel a little too unstructured for daily writing.
The paper quality is fantastic. It’s smooth to write on, and nice to read. The pocket is essential as I also stash mementos in there – ticket stubs, photos, cards from loved ones – which are fun to rediscover. The cloth bookmark is a must-have with journals as well. The construction quality is also great. They have held up for many years, tossed in bags, tumbling off desks, and left out in the rain. They are durable notebooks and worth the investment.
Also worth a mention is the diversity of the product line. I have a massive 12×18” notebook for illustrated plant monographs. But I also have a tiny watercolor notebook for painting while traveling or hiking. There are lots of paper choices, colors, sizes, and applications. The cahiers have been favorites for the ‘offshoots’ – my mixology reference book, work task journal, or the like. I’d love to give the pro collection a try as well.
They have expanded into the digital space in recent years with a few apps. While I find their apps of limited use (overpriced with no particularly interesting features), I appreciate that they are considering journaling and task management in different settings and new spaces.
The Leuchtturm1917 notebooks are rapidly becoming my favorite. They have all the features and construction qualities of Moleskine, but also add a table of contents at the front of the notebook. This feature is helpful for returning to any content in previous notebooks. (That said, you can also just add one to any notebook.) They also include spine stickers to label your notebook to find it quickly again on your shelf. I just started a dotted Leuchtturm1917 journal, and I find myself delighted to be here again after another round of Moleskines.
Grids and Guides
Grids and Guides is a “notebook for visual thinkers.” I have to mention this specialty journal because it’s been a blast to use at work. I found it at my local art supply store, and fell in love the variety of page styles and visual reference guides spanning many subjects. It’s a good notebook for polymaths and people that work with a variety of topics, subjects, and approaches.
I use a variety of apps to manage my digital workflow. I’ve accumulated 1300 notes in Evernote, and hundreds more in other apps depending on the project, topic, and application. Frankly, I didn’t really anticipate ever wanting to use a digital journal like Day One. But I increasingly found myself saving clips of my digital life – a screenshot of a text thread or momentous email, a House Party-enabledd Bob Ross night with my sisters, or photos denoting a particular event. Day One has quickly become the diary of my digital life. It’s easy to use and has sketch features that you can use on a tablet. It accommodates photos, videos, and other media and incorporates location, weather, and other accompanying information well. The company also offers to print a journal if you want a hard copy on your shelf.
At work, every Friday afternoon I write a few sentences to reflect on the week and how I’ve shown up to leadership challenges, research constraints, and design opportunities. I once used Evernote for this, but it’s nice to have a designated work journal in Day One for stuff like this.
I have also used journals from Peter Pauper Press, Blueline, Paperblanks, B&N refillable. They were not particularly pleasant to write in, and did not repurchase a journal from them again. To each their own.
I have admittedly been slow to experiment with different journal and notebook manufacturers. Based on the reviews and recommendations of other IS and nerdy types, these are some that I’d like to try.
- Karst Stone Paper notebooks
- Kunisawa – Japanese foolscap paper
- Midori – Another Japanese line famous for their refillable and repairable travel notebooks. (I’ve picked up a cashier-style sketchbook from a local art supply and loved the paper and quality.)
- Rollbahn – from Delfonics
- Clairefontaine French journals
I haven’t experimented too much here. My favorite pens are the Pilot G2 refillable pens. I also love the Pilot Precision line, but the refillable option is lacking here. I’d like to pick up a Lamy Safari fountain pen – I’m intrigued by their near-cult following.
If you like Bic pens, you can have them all as I don’t care for them.
I have been digitally sketching, painting, and illustration on Procreate app, and was floored by how the Apple Pencil performs on the iPad Pro.
If you like this sort of thing…
- Academic workflow from Beck Tench
- Kate Mats’ ultimate guide to note taking
- Zapier blog on digital and paper note taking systems
- The ultimate notebook – blog post comparing and review journals and notebooks
- Another blog post comparing notebooks
- Ink & Volt – planner & notebook shop
- Milligram – Australian specialty notebook/office supply shop
If you’ve found something that you like and think I should know about, leave me a comment or get in touch. I love hearing what works for people.