Thoughts On Organizing Your Journals

How do you find what you’re looking for? This is not a trivial problem – ask any librarian.

As we fill books and set them on the shelf, hopefully we’re going back and using what we’ve written. Finding that old recipe, notes from a particular vacation, or other tidbit can be just enough hassle to keep us from doing it and that’s a problem worth solving.

Here are some thoughts on organizing things so they’re easier to find.

  • Scan the pages into Evernote or something similar, and leverage their OCR technology to make them searchable. This is a very attractive solution, and for many it seems to be working well. There are notebooks with special markers on the pages to help with the scanning process. Personally I’ve not been able to sustain this for a couple of reasons.
    • There’s no prompt to photograph the pages and get them uploaded. It’s way too easy to tell myself I’ll do it later.
    • When I’ve gone looking for things in the past I’ve found they’re not always found because of handwriting or spelling issues. If I’m going to end up looking by hand anyway, why bother?
  • Keep a table of contents in each book. This doesn’t need to be neat, in alphabetical order, or in the back or the front. It’s just a consistent place where you jot down the notable things – “Awesome guac recipe – 9/12/2005” – in the book along with their dates or page numbers. A good habit to get into is to jot down inside the front cover of the book the location of anything you’ve gone looking for, and looking there first when you open a book.
  • Date entries, and make the delineation between entries clear and obvious. I start each entry with a bold line across the page. Place the date on the same side of the page, so you know where to find it.
  • Page numbers help, but in my last book I didn’t have them, didn’t bother to add them, and haven’t suffered much. Most entries don’t span too many pages so dates work well enough.
  • Organize books by volumes so that finding earlier or later material is easier. By volume I mean a contiguous time period of entries. If I wrote the first ten entries in a book, it is volume one. If I switch to another book for another batch of entries, that book becomes volume 2. Going back to volume one and adding more entries makes it also volume 3. If you have two books where you were writing more or less alternately between the two books, it may make sense to give them the same or adjacent volume numbers. I don’t do this too literally – a single entry in another book isn’t likely to earn it a new volume number.
  • Make each book different. I often know where to look because I know it was a little book, a large one, the leather one, etc. Here a fickle taste in notebooks helps. If I had used a single brand of identical books it would be tougher to find things. It's also one of the reasons I put stickers on my books now.
  • Consider making a master index if you reference your books frequently. Each time you go looking for something, jot it down in an index notebook along with the locations where you found relevant material. I suspect this will be of most interest to people keeping books full of research rather than life notes.

Reader Question On Getting Started

Recently a reader asked about getting started.

Hi steve,

I am just about to start to record my thoughts in an organized way.

Any suggestions plz


Hi Sara,

Thanks for writing!

Everyone’s got to start somewhere, and as you go along you’ll learn more about what you need. But, here are some things I do that almost always me stay on an even keel:

(in no particular order, or format)

  1. Simple gratitude – I write down at least three reasons I should be happy. Usually I start with a few obvious ones, like that I’m not being tortured and don’t have an infected tooth or whatever. Usually I end up finishing a page, and usually I find a few items that weren’t so obvious.
  2. What’s making me anxious or is on my mind causing worry. A simple list – things I should have done but didn’t get to (like making a dentist appointment, or paying a bill), upcoming presentation/assignment/deadline, that kind of stuff. When I have it all down, I go back and write a simple todo for each one. Much of the time there isn’t anything to do – which reminds me that I need to not get wound up about things I cannot change. Just getting this stuff down helps a lot in keeping me sane.
  3. Stuff I really want to buy. I have a list in the back of my notebook. I’m prone to getting the gottahavits for stuff, much of which I do not need and then the lust pasts and I’m glad I just wrote it down instead of buying it. If it’s already on the list, I add a check mark. If something has a bunch of marks, then I feel I can buy it with a clear conscience.
  4. What do I want? In a broader sense – to be thinner? Travel more? Learn a language? By doing this I’ve learned there are things I keep coming back to, but I fall behind when I get distracted by new things. This helps me focus better on the things that are a better fit for me.
  5. Last but not least, what is going on in my life right now? Where have I been and what have I been doing? Some of the most entertaining reading is from entries when I was single, or married but no kids, compared to now being married with three kids. Such a different life! I can see how I’ve grown and gotten a bit wiser, and it’s also nostalgic. On trips and vacations it’s even more valuable because it helps me avoid mishaps on the next trip.

This last one can be the hardest to do because it’s hard to judge how much to write, how much detail, etc. My advice is write what you’d tell your mom or a good friend, or both. Try that for a while and adjust.

I hope that helps!


Getting past the overwhelm

It’s been a busy several months for me. Two new jobs, the second in a different state, my father’s death, a trip to Arizona, another to Disney, and 10,000+ vehicle miles of commuting. 

So I open my journal to write an entry, and I look at the last entry date – over a week prior, maybe longer – and realize how much stuff has happened since then. I’ve traveled, worked a week in a new job, lived in a room far from home. Not to mention all the feelings about a what is going on. It could fill pages! 

I always imagine that my journal entries will be this awesome prose mixed with sketches, and when I think of how much writing I need to do to catch up it’s hard to keep going. 

It threatens to overwhelm. 

To get past the overwhelm, I cheat. I skip the prose. I accept that there will be no sketches. I write bullets:

  • Went to Arizona
  • Swimming at Grasshopper point

  • Saw the Grand Canyon

  • Swam a lot

Then I may add some detail or notes on something in particular, and then I move on. 

Remember the point of doing something is to enjoy doing the something – the writing can come later, and it doesn’t need always need to be awesome. 

Now, the folks who are fond of Bullet Journaling will say that’s the way it should be done all the time. When I first saw that method I thought it a bit dry, but I see the value now. The bullets do bring back memories. But it’s not what I’d want to fill a book with. 

Why a woodcase pencil makes a great adventure journaling tool

  1. Hemingway used one. Even if you’re not Hemingway, or even if you don’t really care for his writing, it’s still cool.
  2. You know how much is left. And, it seems that no matter how small it gets, there’s always a little bit left to write with.
  3. You have to sharpen it, which requires a knife, which is all kinds of adventurous. And the shavings from sharpening could act as a fire starter.
  4. You can erase. Did the fish seem bigger the next morning? No problem.
  5. Low risk – they’re mostly disposable. Ok, the really nice ones might be $2 a piece if you paid a very high price or a lot for shipping, but even then, it’s not that much.
  6. Some people think a pencil will write 45,000 words. That should be far enough.
  7. They’re light. Outdoor adventures always seem to involve carrying stuff, and the less the better.
  8. Water resistant. Alcohol resistant. Fade proof. While erasable, pencil is very resistant to the other things that might wipe out what you’ve created.
  9. Heat & pressure resistant. Pencils don’t leak on airplanes, or in hot cars.
  10. Sketching with a pencil is more forgiving than with a pen.

What Do Your Journal Entries Look Like?

A new reader contacted me with a question about format: Did I write entries like a letter to someone?

I don't have a specific format that I use, although I don't start entries with "Dear…" I suppose I do have a few different ways of doing it though.

  • If I just make an entry, not for anything specific, it's generally in a prose, story-telling kind of style. "Today was ok, work was fairly boring, Susan picked the girls up from camp. They didn't want to leave the place, so much for worry about their homesickness…"
  • If I'm recording an idea then it might just start with a brief heading, and then the idea. "Idea for website: – let people post pictures of silly-looking or badly parked cars."
  • I might do a drawing or a bunch of doodles. Not related to anything, except that I just decide to do them. 
  • When I write a long entry and I'm changing subjects, I'll write a squiggly line between the paragraphs – not all the way across – to denote that I'm changing subjects. Otherwise it reads very strangely later!
  • When starting a new day I draw a heavy line across the page under the last entry, then write out the date. If there's a holiday or some other event, I write it next to the date – Happy 4th of July!

The only bad format is one that makes you unhappy but that you feel obligated to use. It's your book that you're writing, so write it how you want to. 

If you have some old entries to read, go back and read them and see what you think of them. Writing in a journal provides half the value, reading old entries is where the other half comes from. As you read them, you'll quickly develop a sense of what works and what doesn't. The trick is that it takes some time to create enough distance between now and an old entry to read it on it's own merits. I'd say weeks rather than days. 

There is a bit of a knack to keeping a journal. Sometimes you'll do very well, sometimes not. It's ok. The book won't judge, and you'll learn and adapt and make it better. 

Prompts for a Good Journal Entry About an Adventure

A few posts ago I wrote about the struggle to journal adventure – How do you make sure you get these events written down for posterity when the point of the doing them is to have the adventure? I get frustrated with myself for not doing a good job with this, and I’ve been ponding ideas to get better.

I’m not one for journaling prompts. I’ve never used them. But it occurred to me that since journaling an adventure is often just about straight reporting, a list of questions would help shape the story and make sure I considered details I might have missed. So I wrote these down, and I’m planning to put them on a small card I’ll stick in my notebook. We’ll see if it works!

  • Why did you go on the adventure?

  • Where did you go?

  • How was the weather?

  • Who went you?

  • What did you do while you were there?

  • How did you get there?

  • What went wrong?

  • How did you resolve the problem?

  • Why would you do it again?

  • If you wouldn’t do it again, why not?

  • If you would do it again, why?

  • What did you bring that you didn’t use?

  • What didn’t you bring that you wish you did?

  • Did anything funny happen?

  • What did you learn?

What I Wish I had Known When I Started Journaling

If I knew then what I know now, what would I tell my past self about journaling, pen buying, and all the rest?

  • Start sooner. I didn’t start journaling on any regular basis until my 30’s. A lot of interesting years got missed!

  • Less angsturbating! Reading about my worries is interesting for a sentence or two. More is boring to read and hasn’t helped me solve anything.

  • Immediately write something any notebook I buy, to render it usable. No book that was saved for a special purpose turned out better than the others. The precious ones tend to not be worth the wait.

  • Buy fewer notebooks. Skip the stockpile. Shop, caress, investigate, but buy only when there’s a need. Of course, one needs to have a spare notebook in house.

  • Spend less money on pens. All the best writers I have were less than $200 and the ones I most reach for cost a lot less than that. Save that money for interesting things to do, conferences, etc.

  • Worry less about using pencil or water soluble ink. It’s all good. I haven’t ever lost an entry to water or malicious erasure, and the few that have been smeared (but still readable) add a bit of drama. It’s fine to think about permanence, I just can’t let it keep me from writing when I should.

  • Start the kids journaling early. No, earlier. Compared to the cost of medicine, toys, clothes and food, the cost of their notebooks is microscopic.

  • Start a journal for each kid when they’re conceived, keep it for them. Keep it up during their young lives with entries about them during childhood, and give it to them when they enter high school.

  • Write a lot less drivel about my stuff, or how I disliked this or that about my life. A few sentences here and there is more than enough.

  • Focus on the good stuff. Really, most importantly, this means the good side of whatever is happening. There is almost always a good side.

  • Draw a lot more.

  • Use less of the pocket Moleskines. When I moved to larger books, I wrote more, more valuable stuff, and I enjoy looking through those larger books much more.

  • Write more about what was going on in my life. Worry less about the quality of prose, worry more about capturing what happened. I have an entire trip to Europe that had barely a few sentences.

  • Write less. On a good day, when things went well but all I did was go to work, and nothing happened, it is ok NOT TO WRITE. When I just feel like writing but I don’t really have anything to say, the result belongs on a legal pad, not my journal.