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How to Keep a Journal (theparisreview.org)
138 points by lermontov on July 20, 2016 | hide | past | web | favorite | 62 comments

I started journaling in high school and found a very effective medium for it: a dedicated gmail account.

I created a new account only for this, and periodically send emails from that account to itself, each email representing a day and having a subject line of the form "July 20, 2016".

Since the account has never been used in any other way, the inbox becomes a pure index of dates, and the account receives no other messages because no person or service is aware it exists besides me.


    --nobody can find it lying around    
    --inherently passworded    
    --nobody can ever even know it exists unless I tell them    
    --indexed, searchable.....can't tell you how wonderful it is to be able to type in a person's name and find the day I met them, years and years later.
    --never gets damaged or lost: it'll go down when gmail dies. not anytime soon.
    --infinite "pages"
    --accessible from anywhere
It's been wonderfully rewarding. It isn't until you start keeping a journal, and have had it for quite some time, that you start to realize just how much of your life you forget. As soon as you reread something from a certain day, you might think, "Wow! I totally forgot about that!" but now the memory is reawakened, fresh as yesterday. The memory was still there, hibernating. It might have been lost if you hadn't dusted it off.

But then there are many other memories, from 7 and 8 and 9 years ago, the small day-to-day interactions, the smaller subplots in the greater storyline....that may as well be from someone else's life. I know the places and people they're describing, but I have no memory of having done these things anymore. It's a little sad in a way.

I'm glad I keep a journal. 10/10 recommend even if you only update occasionally.

Great idea thanks for sharing! Using gmail as a journal though does seem to contradict the message in this article because by using Gmail, while it is extremely efficient, it's not 100% private. Maybe it's just my own paranoia but I feel like you would even more fall into that disconnect "between what I thought I was supposed to feel (what a normal person would feel) and what I actually felt." Or maybe I'm interpreting this article incorrectly?

I didn't actually read this particular article, I was just making a related comment. So I can't really debate it with you!

But what do you mean it's not really private?

IF you are referring to Google having access, this is my response, otherwise, not sure what you meant:

I mean....I believe in anonymity through numbers.

Even if there were employees at google for some insane reason sitting around reading private gmail accounts, what are the odds mine would come up for notice among more than a billion others? It's pretty ordinary. It's not full of child porn. It's like worrying someone would notice a particular grain of sand on a beach just because it's sitting right there in the open.

I love this idea. Thanks for sharing!

I have been using paper, Evernote and apps, but I love this simple approach and I think it will work really well for me, since there is so little friction with all the upside I am looking for.

Sounds fun but I do more of a photo journal with my phone, which I keep with me always. On a normal day I'll maybe take a few photos. On a more notable day I'll have a few dozen at least. Scrolling back through my albums helps me remember lots! I like doing it this way because I do it without thinking about it; it's not really any extra work.

I always liked words more than photos, myself.

When I started journaling, I promised myself that I would be honest with myself, because the purpose of journaling was to chronicle what I was thinking at that time in my life. I not only write out moments that stand out in that day, like things that went wrong or went well, but how I feel about those events. Most of the time this revolves around my interactions with people, or lack of interactions with people. I also write about what I am especially grateful for that day, what I'm looking forward to, and what I'm doing today to get me there. It is a very cathartic experience to go back months/years later and read it. You get such an insight into the person you were, but more notably, realize that you do actually change over time even if sometimes it doesn't feel like it.

Agreed, it really is a fascinating experience to look back on your thoughts.

Somewhat related: http://lifehacker.com/the-psychological-benefits-of-writing-...

This is what I find appealing about journaling, but I just find the thought that someone might find mu journal and read all my thoughts over the years kinda scary. Do you do anything to protect your journal?

I sometimes write in encrypted files through vim for this reason. :X does the trick.

It feels juvenile to hide it when I know no one will care, but the idea that it can be entirely personal opens the option to being more honest. Future self can still be judgemental, but the only way to avoid that is to pipe it to /dev/null instead.

Nice, I didn't know about that vim feature, thanks!

And the equivalent for emacs is?

You can encrypt org files pretty easily. http://orgmode.org/worg/org-tutorials/encrypting-files.html

Start writing public blog posts, but don't pimp them, notice nobody cares to read any of those (or at least not all) so who would care to read your journal? That should help with fear. (Though I guess it's possible people will want to read everything if you have an interesting life and write well, but then you'll deal with the fear through gaining confidence instead of apathy.) I have a private journal I update every few weeks to a few months that I wouldn't really want to have in the public, I don't go to great lengths to keep it private though. It exists in a txt file on one machine, that's good enough, but if I cared more it wouldn't be hard to stick it in an encrypted folder or just aes decrypt/encrypt whenever I want to update it.

Edit: I had a handwritten journal once when I was 13 or so, it disappeared, probably my mom finding and reading and destroying it. Just do it on a computer. Besides for me I can barely stand handwriting anything longer than a page anymore.

> Edit: I had a handwritten journal once when I was 13 or so, it disappeared, probably my mom finding and reading and destroying it.

That is the most awful thing I've read today.

A lot of parents read their kids' text messages and email. I never have done it myself, but I can sort of see the rationale. Teenagers don't have the best judgment and the relative permanence and ease of redistribution of electronic communication creates consequences that paper note-passing or phone calls didn't in prior generations.

Once I started living on my own - and the risk of prying eyes dropped near zero - I've preferred hand-writing my journal. Some combination of the tactile nature of pen-on-paper and the portability (I hate typing for any length of time on my phone) hits the sweet spot for me. Plus, I can add illustrations.

Inside the front cover of my journals, I have written "You wouldn't worry so much about what others think of you if you realized how seldom they do."

I snatched that from GoodQuotes. I'm no poet, but I feel like it carries a lot of truth. If somebody wanted to rob my house, if all of my most private thoughts and truths were stacked on the coffee table in the front room, they would still make off with my TV, and those books would still be sitting there when I came back to the aftermath.

The best advice I ever got about journalling was something to the effect of removing the fear-block by not journalling about anything I wouldn't say in person. It was enough to get me started. By getting started like that I learned that journalling changes you. These days I don't worry about someone finding my journal and I pretty much write whatever comes into my head.

I learned a different script for English and write in that.

I don't (yet) read it as quickly as I read normal English, though; if you're interested in self-reflection and review, this tradeoff won't be an obvious win.

What did you pick? I learned Shavian, and that was fun. It took less time than I'd expected.

Which one, please elaborate.

I've seen Ford shorthand system which replaces alphabets with easier to write variants. It could also be used to write faster and provides some obscurity from the uninitiated.


Same. And my tactic over the years is removing pages (I prefer actual writing to anything electronic. I like nice pens and good paper).

Write honestly, review periodically, and discard what's really just mental or psychological dead-weight. It's surprising how much of that, once on paper, can be just let go and be done with.

I've used mostly moleskines for their range and availability, particularly the hard covers. Those all now have huge sections of sliced out pages so I'm trying their Valence line where every page is perforated.

I'd also be afraid of your future self, because annoyance is the typical reaction to past self, at least it is in this article.

I already feel annoyance with my past self reading my old code. For example, "Why did you code it this way? Are you an idiot?" I've since added more comments explaining certain decisions after thinking something was a bug, but it was just a bit unintuitive in the hope that I annoy my future self less.

Honestly, I do the bare minimum. I keep it tucked under my bed.. so if anyone goes that far to invade my privacy, then that is their problem at that point.

I started keeping a journal after my wife's family got scans of her grandfather's journal and seeing the fun all the aunts and uncles had reading them.

The journal I keep is for my family. It's very brief, just date-events and (mostly) happy memories. I want to keep and share with my kids in the future. I find it's great for keeping track of my kids' developmental milestones, a perspective on time, and seeing just how much life my family squeezes in to a year. There are notes for myself, but I use a cryptic code so only I understand them (my wife's grandfather apparently had a similar system that the kids have never deciphered).

Google Photos has been a big enhancement as well. I make it a point to take gigs of photos every month, keep them backed up, and also enjoy them in the Google Photos timeline and scrapbooks it algorithmically generates. Before Google Photos, I was using Flickr, but that was a more manual process. Additionally, my wife and I combine our photo collections every quarter, which makes the digital family photo album a huge library of videos and moments in time that I visit all the time.

Strange thing is... before the digital camera on my phone and starting my journal on Google Drive, I have this big semi-empty place in my life history. I've tried to fill it in by sifting through old emails, scanning my parents' photo-albums, etc, but it's much thinner and the memories are therefore somewhat dimmer. I have a friend who said he will not start a journal of his daughter's life because he would feel so bad about not documenting her first two years and all the memories he would realize he'd lost. I didn't think about using my phone camera on a daily-basis until my first son was over a year-old. As a result we have much less of his first year documented, and I do feel a significant loss for failing to preserve that.

You may already be aware of this, but, from the experience of watching old home movies while my mom digitized them: if you're recording video or taking pictures at least in part for your kids, be aware that they may care more about seeing old you and other relatives than they will old them, so try to turn the camera on yourselves once in a while.

Many people in the world do not have trouble turning a camera on themselves, but this is solid advice for those with introspective tendencies.

It can be really easy when filming/photographing your kids to forget this, in my experience, at least. Parents seem to focus on the kids to the exclusion of everything else. I make a conscious effort to get my wife or other adults in frame with the kid(s) when possible, now that I know what it's like to watch old home movies when you're all growed up. Also the occasional slow sweep of a room or other context before/after a shot so maybe they'll get a few more "oh wow, I remember that chair!"-type moments than they otherwise might. No one ever thinks to film the furniture :-)

These are all great points and ideas. And I'm instantly thinking of things I'm not capturing enough of in my videos and pictures. Thank you all!

Not entirely true. Maybe those without kids, but I personally hate taking selfies. I only do it because of the kind of idea above.

I typically want to see photos of myself later, but I'd rather remember what I saw so my memories come back. There are years where I have basically 10 good photos of me, but maybe a 1000 great photos of everything else.

I love reading about the people of history, and most them are written through organization and analysis of letters and journals. Theodore Roosevelt was a prodigious writer (sending a few letters per week from your ranch in the Dakota to Europe was possible when you were a Roosevelt), and Ms. Kearns Goodwin[0] was able to pull together an incredible story of the lives of Presidents Roosevelt and Taft as told through their journals and letters, not just what was written about them in the newspapers.

What book will historians write about me from my git log (assuming historians figure out git's interface)?

[0]: The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism by Doris Kearns Goodwin

I have been keeping a journal and taking a picture every day since my first year of college. Before I moved out of my parents' house I looked at a few family photo albums. There were countless times where I thought, "I would have never remembered that without seeing this photo." That thought both scared and excited me. I don't what significant memories I have lost throughout my life, but I can make sure to write down every future one I deem important.

Writing down my thoughts also forces me to reflect on my conversations with other people. I often find myself seeing someone's point of view more clearly and better understanding their thought process. I thought I was open-minded before, but dissecting someone else's seemingly convoluted opinion makes you accept almost any possibility.

I also make sure to write as honest as possible. When I look back at my journals in the future, I want to think, "This is exactly how I perceived the event given my knowledge at the time." I write what happened, my thoughts on what happened, and how I reacted.

Actual title: "How Not to Keep a Journal"

Summary: Write about how you felt, what you thought, and why. Don't simply catalog events.

Something I feel passionate about. One of my very few regrets is that I didn't start my daily journal until my 30's. Chatting to friends who are about to become parents, the only advice I could think of was to take the pictures/videos (which you will do) and keep a simple journal - it's the little stuff which years later provides so much joy.

I started a basic journal in my early 20's but it was really just a list of important things that happened to me, no embellishment or feelings, I should have taken the time to do more.

My journals are private, I use Evernote now but could do the same in a .txt file which I used to do. The technology is not important, setting aside a little time each day to document what happened and what you thought about it is. Start today people!

I am not saying don't keep a journal but ...

I wonder how important it is for most people in the world of today. I have every email I've written since about 1995. If I go read heart felt correspodence with close friends I effectly get at least some resemblance a journal. Before email I wouldn't have likely kept copies of letters I sent but now that's effectively automatic.

Similarly many people take an order or two more pictures than they did before digital picture and smartphones. Several times a year I stumble on my photo collection usually when searching for an old picture and I end up seeing a large percentage of my entire collection back to about 95. I've also had scanned all my dad's slide collection and my grandmother's photo collection.

Of course a dedicated journal would probably be better. I'm just pointing out that I get some of the benefits automatically.

I really wish I could fully backup and download my Facebook entries, comments, chats. Same with Line and Whatsapp. I used to backup all my SMS messages back when I used SMS.

Whatsapp has a way to backup as well, but I think you need to be using an iPhone. There's an option to store everything on iCloud, and from there you can access the iCloud backup folder via your computer. I don't remember the exact process, but it is possible - I had a few months of audio Whatsapp messages I wanted to backup/keep and was able to do it.

I've been keeping a dream log for some time but it takes quite a bit of time and energy - often 30-60 minutes after getting up. These days, I only write down the most interesting dreams. So yes, writing things down every day has a real cost and this energy and time will just not be available for other activities.

You can actually request archival from Facebook. It zips up your photos, entries, and chat logs.

I never kept a journal or diary. I'm 39 now, and I don't regret it. I do regret not having more photos of myself when I was younger though!

Assuming my old emails from 20-odd years ago are representative - if you read your thoughts from N years ago, they'll probably seem stupid and gauche, and you'll realise that in N years' time you'll probably think exactly the same of your thoughts today. Not a positive thing, I say, if you wish to project a general attitude of confidence, especially if you have have a natural tendency to second guess yourself anyway.

On the other hand, if the few old photos I have are anything to go by, when you look at a photo of yourself from N years ago, there's a fair chance you'll look attractive and youthful - no matter how pedestrian (or worse) you thought your looks at the time. And then the same line of thought applies... but hopefully with an opposite result.

I don't formally keep a journal, but I've written a great deal that's still accessible, mostly by virtue of being online in various personae.

Yes, there's a period of your life when much of your writing is juvenile. My experience has been that there came a point where what I was writing took a distinct tone and clarity and actually managed to be good at times. I still catch myself liking and/or being amused by my various thoughts.

There's also the evolution of ideas and interests. Mine have evolved quite distinctly as I've passed through some five decades, almost, and watching what's changed, and what's remained constant, in that evolution is also fascinating. Well, for me, anyway.

How do HNers keep a diary? I feel like I've done it all: pleb notebooks, fancy notebooks, private blog, public blog, apps (DayOne), Emacs modes, text files in a dir, photos, plaintext, markdown, html. Seems like everything comes with a compromise. I love the custom Emacs mode I made, but then it doesn't include photos and I can't easily do it with a phone. I loved DayOne, but then they forced a change on their storage policy, which reminded me of the stupidity of paying a business for a proprietary system. I've used Apple Notes, but then I wonder about getting the data out of Apple Notes. Pen/paper are great, but slow, and (comparatively) fragile (I know, I know, pen/paper will last a thousand years; but believe me, you don't want to drop your paper journal out of the canoe). Etc etc.

I actually make private Facebook wall posts to myself. It's great, easy to see and scroll through any time, and I can also add my friends individually (or a list of them) at a time when it's appropriate to share. The interface is great, I can comment on my own thoughts... I know this won't get any fans in this crowd but I think it's great.

I have been keeping a journal in a private ikiwiki instance for several years now. Basically, I set up an ikiwiki blog that generates a static website, served by Apache over localhost. Files are in markdown, and kept in git. I do searches via "git grep". The static site is for easier browsing.

I've added things like "topics" (sub-blogs based on links to a topic page) and "people" (ditto). A topic is a page and automatically shows (via ikiwiki inline) all the blog posts that link to the topic page. A person is also represented by a page, and similarly lists linking blog posts. Topics are usually using a meta link directive in ikiwiki, whereas people use a person/lastname.firstname link to achieve the same.

I wrote a little tool to make admining topic and person pages easier, and to easily add new blog posts and attach images or other files to the blog post. http://git.liw.fi/cgi-bin/cgit/cgit.cgi/jt/ has the code; I should probably write this up some day.

I've published some of my journal, related to one of my hobby projects. http://liw.fi/obnam/journal-dump/ if you're curious, though from server access logs I know nobody is.

I keep my journal private mostly so I can be more honest when I write. If I need to, I can be rude and impolite and use quite dirty language, which I wouldn't if I was writing in public. Also, some topics are private and nothing good will come from disclosing them.

I think this is such a hard question, I've been trying to figure out a way to do it, also.

So far my best answer is to do Jekyll, with every post 'published: false'. I like it because I can include LaTeX and probably even Lilypond.

Flaws are I haven't figured out easy photos, and haven't figured out how to journal from a mobile device.

I'd also like to encrypt my journal but I'm not sure how to combine that with git and searchability.

I've had relative success with org-mode. I figure that's the emacs mode you're talking about.

I have a capture template that automatically catalogs the entry to the right date. It comes up in a new window and I just write whatever I'm thinking. It works for me because it's so easy to hit C-c j when I'm doing anything at the computer and then I can write all I want. And if I want to make two entries on the same day, I can. The template has a little area for a title.

I've managed to journal a few times a week every week for over a year now.

2016-07-21 08:19 Journal format

Picked up from jrnl.sh. One text file per year. Single-line title starts with timestamp. No specific daily routine, just making an entry whenever I want to take notes. Usually plans or work log for personal projects.

It's basically a bunch of files (named like YYYY-MM-DD.md) in an encrypted DMG volume, which is stored in a Dropbox folder. I also have a shell script that decrypts/mounts it + open the folder in vim, and also encrypts/unmounts it (given the option). I have a special syntax for tags, which helps me find related events.

What I like is the fact that I can just grep the whole thing to find relevant information.

I'm using the previous version of DayOne as I want it to use Dropbox rather than their sync system. I'll keep using it until the app no longer works.

I've been considering trying to put together an org-mode compatible mobile app that would support photos (syncing them to the same Dropbox folder), but that's tricky.

I've used Day One [1] for a couple of years now—it's for Mac and iOS. It syncs quickly, effortless to use, adding photos to entries is really nice, good search functionality, etc. You can treat it more of a power tool too with tags, separate journals, etc.

[1] http://dayoneapp.com/

People used to attach instant photos (think of Polaroid cameras) to their journal... and that was it, basically.

I guess you/we will have to find a compromise.

Put the text files in a Dropbox dir. Now you can edit them on your phone.

modded bulletjournal.com

I keep a journal; entries arise about every two weeks. I want to record things I want to tell my future self. Or thoughts worth thinking about that I don't want to encode into the internet. I did keep an ad-hoc one for years, and I regret not writing in it more.

Because of that ad-hoc experience, I do a mm / dd / yyyy for each entry - because I've journaled literally years between entries! (do not recommend) These bits and pieces of trivial information do provide a regularity, a structure, a ritual to the matter. Anyway.

I highly recommend keeping a reflection on what you do. It provides introspection now and later.

What is the point of journaling? To remember the past and how we felt.

So with all these online services where we're living our lives we should save these in a kind of journal. Twitter, pinboard, flickr, etc.

I am really interesting in Camlistore[0] for this and the fact that you can add normal files of any size to it as well. Now I can archive my old notes which aren't useful right now, but I wouldn't want lost somehow.


Only tangentially related: I find the concept of laboratory journal fascinating.

I wonder if someone keeps such a thing, and how would it be.

How could the concept of lab journal apply to computer science and/or software engineering ?

Debugging Journal. Though to be honest, it's hard to stick to this habit. When I do make entries, they are of the form:

- Symptoms (how is the bug manifesting) - Initial Observations (This is where you dig into the code/debugger and write down all the weird things that are happening) - Guess (A statement of what you think is causing this based on your observations) - Fix (what change you made) - Result (Did it fix the bug? Did some new bug pop up as a result?) - Repeat till bug resolved

Obviously, it's hard to keep writing so meticulously about bugs, but it sure does help when something similar pops up again.

I'm a PhD student in statistics. I use a lab notebook (well, Emacs org-mode file) for my work, much of which involves writing software to implement my research ideas.

The notebook is useful in quite a few ways. Often in a project you investigate many different ideas (should I implement the algorithm this way? a different way?) and discard those that don't work, and the notebook is a record of the reasons I threw away each idea. When the idea pops up six months later, or I need to mention it in a paper, I can remember what the results were and why it failed.

When I'm investigating a weird bug or exploring some possible improvement, the notebook records my progress. I might be profiling a slow chunk of code to find potential improvements, pasting each profile into the journal, and then refer back to them to see if my changes have helped.

I also record various ideas I have but don't have time to explore, papers I've read with potentially useful information, research progress, and all sorts of useful stuff. I find I don't actually have to refer back to old entries very often -- mostly just to the last couple days as I'm working through a problem -- but it's very reassuring to have around.

I suspect the role of the lab notebook is subsumed by public bug trackers and mailing lists for collaborative developers -- if you're tracking down a bug, you might post your progress in the GitHub or Bugzilla issue so your collaborators can follow along. I know Mozilla carefully links commits to bugs so they have a permanent record of every change that went into their code.

I've always kept paper notes as a programmer. I know it's idiosyncratic, but I honestly don't understand how others can design anything or keep track of their jobs at all without a notebook (or a virtual notebook.) I can reconstruct my entire thought process on any major project I've ever been involved in.

So for me it applies in exactly the same way.

Choosing the medium to store journals is pretty easy when all you want is plain text. But when you include photos, that is where the problem starts.

HTML seems the most time proof format to me.

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