Attempts at note taking and journaling
Image by Midjourney, prompt: "a robot writing in his journal with a puzzled expression, digital animation style"
Why take notes? Just as I was writing this post I came across this article that I think summarizes my motivation well: we write notes so that we can safely forget things and free our mind for something else. Also, writing helps us crystallize our thoughts, especially about something we learned. There is an article about that too.
I've tried several approaches over the years: mind maps, journals, physical notebooks, note taking applications, smart pens… I couldn't keep them up for long, and some of the reasons are listed later in this post.
Eventually I landed on a process that works for me:
- Write daily, even if it's just a little
- Keep a number of documents open at any given time. Start a new one for every thought that seems to be worth exploring, even if it's brief, and add to it later
- Write about topics, not calendar dates (i.e. don't keep a journal)
I use Craft to write my thoughts. It's pleasant to use and shows me all my documents in a “cards” layout, which gives me a nice visual overview of what are my current trains of thought. Adding a picture to the beginning of the document makes this view even more powerful.
I also use Pocket to save links I come across during the day and would like to read later, and try to review them periodically. For to-dos, both personal and work-related, I use Workflowy.
What didn't work for me, and why
I tried a variety of other note taking apps: Evernote, iOS notes, Google Keep (RIP)… none of them were as frictionless as the ones I'm using now. I like Craft because it's easy to use but still is a full word processor. Looking at a well-formatted document just makes me feel good about what I wrote.
I like writing by hand and especially doodling, but for one reason or another I never have the notebook with me when I need it. Paper and pen remain the most efficient way to draw things, so I keep some paper lying around to make drawings that I then take a photo of.
I have a Livescribe pen that I was very enthusiastic about for a while. It's a great piece of technology and it's really fascinating to see your handwriting appearing on the screen of your phone while you write on a physical notebook. However it is sitting unused in my drawer now, because you need to have the special notebook and the pen itself, which I almos never do when I need them. It would have been great to have it when I was studying.
I also tried iPad and stylus, but aside from having the same availability problem, I don't like the feeling of writing on an iPad screen.
I read the Mind Map Book book and gave an honest try to this technique years ago. It worked for a while but my brain works best in checklists. However as my checklist is becoming longer and longer, I might give it another try.
Many people talk about the benefits of journaling and how it helps to process the events and feelings of the day, but I don't find it so useful. Mostly I cringe when I read what I wrote, and most days I struggle to find anything more to write than a boring one-liner. It's a different thing if you live an interesting life such as Alan Rickman's. I did try though, with various journaling apps like Momento and different types of notebooks, and even the combination of the two with the Livescribe smartpen I mentioned earlier.
I managed to keep a regular journal for a while once I discovered Field Notes. They are cheap, light, and easy to carry around and store. If I started again, this is the system I would use.
For the purpose of documenting your life, I find that the best way is to take photos with your smartphone and look at them later. I recently used this method to write a recap of my Summer holidays and it worked great.
Side note: just as I was writing this, Apple announced journaling in iOS 17! I will try it and report once it's available.