📝 • the problem with all-in journaling
Journaling is wonderful. It is a continuous log of your life, of the things you value and your experiences, big and small. Of memories that you may have forgotten otherwise. It helps you better put current events into perspective, and to recognize trends, harmful or good. It is a sincere conversation that you can have with yourself whenever you wish. Journaling is wonderful. The only problem is: a lot of people who start journaling end up stopping.
journaling is flawed
Like gym memberships, many people hop on at the start of the year and slowly fall off as time moves on. Many are inspired by posts online about starting daily journals that contain some of the following information for each day:
- A single good thing that happened to you.
- A description of your emotions.
- A description of your problems.
- Three small goals that you have and whether or not you achieved them.
- Something that has been stressing you out.
These posts contain suggestions that involve taking time before bed or early in the morning to write your journal. These posts contain positive language and affirming statements. These posts believe in you and your ability to get your life together through the magical, healing power of regular and consistent journaling. These posts contain instructions. These posts are exactly why people eventually stop journaling.
This type of journaling encourages something I’ll call “all-in journaling”. All-in journaling’s problem is that people have a difficult time resuming all-in journaling after a lapse. Maybe they were busy traveling, with work and friends, or just didn’t feel like journaling that day, and so they didn’t. And then they stopped.
You might think that these people are stopping because they don’t have the time. But how much time does it actually take to write a journal entry? Depending on the type of all-in journal, not very much. Maybe 2 - 5 minutes at most for an uneventful day. So why do people stop? Because they don’t like that they’ve failed.
the demands of all-in journaling
People feel like they’ve failed the all-in journal for the same reason people feel like they fail diets, good habits, or exercise routines. Because they see in those things these three essential demands for “success”:
- Consistency, regular participation or involvement. A daily entry in a journal.
- Verbosity, detail and depth. Two, three, or more sentences for that entry.
- Structure, regular themes and practices. One good thing that happened to you. A dream that you had. How you felt.
Whether or not people realize it, an all-in journal is a sort of challenge. A test of willpower to see if you can meet those three demands. Your reward for meeting those demands? Self understanding and mindfulness. But sometimes meeting those demands is difficult, and so we fail. And unfortunately, sometimes when we fail, it is the last time that we try that thing again.
I failed numerous times after trying to start journals at the start of numerous previous years. I’m not going to pretend that I’m not like all the people that I just described. I believe that a problem like this isn’t a problem with the individual, but with the design of the system itself. I’m not a fan of all-in journaling.
enter, free journaling
At the start of 2019 I began a new type of journal. I give up the satisfaction of pen on paper in exchange for an online spreadsheet with a column for the date, one for a rating out of seven, and a final column for notes. The journal had only one rule:
Building up from this generalization, we derive more concrete “rules.”
- Days can have a rating from 0 to 7. There is no standard for what a 0 or a 7 is like.
- Days can have notes. They can be very long, several sentences, or very short, a single word. They can describe feelings, things I ate, or something completely unrelated.
- Days do not need to have a rating or notes. This is accepting the absence of information as an entry in itself.
- You can skip as many days as you would like.
- You can revise entries for previous days, editing or adding notes or ratings.
My journal starts strong. Regular entries for a whole nine days. Then an entry with a 3/7 for the day, with the comment being “Ow My Hands”, placing that day as one of the many that year where the RSIs in my hands made me unable to work or see my friends. Then, silence for two months. The journal in these two months is equally “strong” as it was those first nine days, even though it is completely empty. The journal has done its job, serving as a very inconsistent log of my life that has some events but not others, the days without entries communicating the information that those days “I just didn’t feel like journaling.”
After those two months, the entries start to trickle back in. While many days are skipped or tersely summarized, some are full-length novels. Some entries are me complaining and have correspondingly low ratings, some entries are me complaining and receive 6/7s. Some entries say that “this is the best thing of my entire life” and receive the rare, coveted 7/7. Many do not have ratings at all.
Sometimes, in the surrounding cells, I quickly jotted down confusing notes, names of songs, dreams I’ve had. It is chaotic. Many entries remind me of beautiful memories. Many entries are complete nonsense.
What I’m saying isn’t anything that’s too surprising: when journaling is very easy you will end up doing it more.
Don’t listen to what anybody says. Except for me. Listen to me. Let a journal be a totally free thing, and avoid consistency, verbosity, and structure where possible. Take from my structure, or make something totally your own. I don’t care! Just journal. Or don’t!
numbers & fun things
Now for my favorite part. A fully digital and searchable summary of my year. Curious about how much time I spent with a person exactly? Easy! Just ctrl-f and count the references. Curious about how depressed I got when I lost most of my mobility? When I regained some of it? Do a little math! It’s all there.