Tag: journals

How I Index My Journals

I have written quite a bit about my journaling: the paradox of journaling; a year on paper; how my journal notebooks have changed over the years, and more. One thing I haven’t written about is how I go about indexing my journals. Since I’ve had at least one person ask about this, I thought it might be a useful post for others.

First, let me remind folks that the current incarnation of my journal began back in October 2017, after I’d read a piece in the Atlantic on Thoreau’s journals. A comment then led me to the journals of John Gadd, and his journals provided the model for my current journals. In that article, was this:

And each Christmas he sets aside two weeks to meticulously index that year’s diary – proudly claiming he can find anything within three minutes.

I was fascinated by the idea of indexing my journals to make it easier to find what I was looking for. Back when I was an Evernote Ambassador, I used to claim that I could find any note within a minute or two, and so the notion of doing this in a paper system intrigued me. Unfortunately, the article didn’t go into any detail as to how Gadd indexed his journals. I had to figure that out on my own.

The system that follows works pretty well for me. If I could start it all over, I might do a few things differently, and I’ll mention those things later on. One thing I’d be really curious about is if other folks have better ways of indexing their journals on paper. I realize that I could do this digitally, but part of the pleasure it being able to do this without electronics of any kind.

A few notes about my journal

For my index to make sense, you need to understand a few things about my journal. First, I number each entry in my journal sequentially, beginning from entry #1 in the first volume. The numbering is independent of the date, which is separate from the entry. The idea for indexing the entry as opposed to using a page number comes from what Isaac Asimov did with his Biographical Encyclopedia of Science and Technology. Tired of the tedious work of producing indexes keyed to galley page numbers, Asimov decided to number each entry in the book and key the index to the numbered entry rather than the page number. This suited me perfectly for my journals, because I knew they would span multiple volumes (9 as of this writing) and that way, I’d never have to refer to anything other than the unique entry number.

It is also important to note that there are generally four types of entries in my journal:

  1. A standard entry, summarizing the goings on (see #723 in the image below).
  2. A topical entry, usually titled, on some specific subject (see #28 in the image below).
  3. A book entry, which summarizes my thoughts on a book I’ve recently finished reading (see #917 in the image below).
  4. A “commonplace” entry, which has quote from things I’ve read with my own comments (see #725 in the image below).

Below are examples of each of these types of entries.

The type of entry has some bearing on how I decide what to include and leave out of my index.

Structure of my index

I use a Leuchtturm1917 notebook for my index. The index has two sections:

  1. Monthly line-a-day summaries
  2. Topical index

Monthly line-a-day summaries

A monthly line-a-day summary fits on a single page. It lists the month and year across the top and the dates going down the page. The idea for this model came from John Quincy Adams’s line-a-day entries in his diaries. (If you want a fun way to see an example of this each day, follow JQAdams_MHS on Twitter.) The image below shows a typically line-a-day page, with annotations that follow.

  1. The month and year.
  2. The dates, listed down the page. The “S”s represent Sundays.
  3. A typical entry.
  4. An entry with a reference to a journal entry (in this case, to entry 159).
  5. Days surrounded in blue are days that I am out of town, either with, or without the family.

These pages are extremely useful for finding something in the context of time. “When was it we went to Hershey, PA?” I I’m pretty sure it was in October or November 2017. I quick scan of the two pages will answer the question. The first 193 pages of the notebook are reserved for these monthly entries. Currently, they fill 48 pages, so there is plenty of room to grow.

Topical index

The remaining 50+ pages of the notebook are reserved for a topical index. There is a set of facing pages for each letter of the alphabet, as well as a # page for entries that begin with number. A topical index page looks like this:

Because of the varied nature of what I write and when I write it, there is no way to keep the entries on a given page in any type of order. So they are entered sequentially as I need them. The entries themselves consist of two parts:

  1. The topic
  2. The corresponding journal entry numbers that relate to the topic.

In the image above, for instance, you can see that “baseball” has six entry references; “boo-at-the-zoo” has two references. Parentheticals after the reference number provide some context. For instance, under the “books” entry, you’ll note a parenthetical indicating “unread” which means the entry has to do with unread books. Many of them have a “book” or “bk” which means it refers to a book summary that I wrote upon complete the book.

Process for indexing my journals

These days, I use the large, A4-sized Moleskine Art Collection notebooks for my journals. These have about 96 usable pages in each volume. Depending on my mood, a single volume can represent anywhere from 2-6 months worth of entries. Here is how I go about updating my index:

WhenWhat I do
Upon completing an entryReview the entry to see if there is anything worth adding to the topical index. If so, I try to add it as soon as I’ve completed writing the entry.
DailyWhen I finish writing in my journal for the day, I’ll do the line-a-day entry for that day, either immediately after finishing, or first thing the following morning.
Upon completing a volumeI’ll skim the monthly index for obvious items that should go into the topical index; if I have not already put them in, I’ll add them. I will then go through the full volume, checking to see if there is anything else I want to add to the topical index that I haven’t already added.

If I am good about keeping up the index more-or-less in realtime, then the final review of a volume usually takes about an hour. I prefer doing this in realtime (as opposed to John Gadd’s method of taking 2 weeks off at the end of the year because (a) it spreads out the work so that it is only a little effort each day, and (b) it makes the index immediately useful for current events.

How I choose what goes into the topical index

The topical index is the most difficult part. The completist in me wants to capture everything in the topical index, but that would be too time consuming. What I have done therefore, is to try to strike a balance between representativeness and practicality. I do this by asking myself a couple of questions:

  • Is this something that I have needed to search for in the past?
  • Is this something that I would have a fair chance of needing to look up in the future?

If the answer to either of these questions is “Yes”, then I include the item in the topical index.

This gets easier over time as I’ve gotten experience, both with adding items and searching for things. Also, as more topics get added, the likelihood is greater that it is already there in the index and I just have to add an entry number.

Lessons-learned

If anyone is thinking of modeling their own indexes on this, here are a few lessons I’ve taken from what I’ve done thus far. I might do these things a little differently if I were to do it all over.

  • Carefully consider how much space you’ll need for you topical index. In some instances, I feel like a 2-page spread is not enough. In other cases, 2-pages is too much (I don’t think I’d fill half a page with Q or X entries).
  • Separate people into their own index. People, especially immediate family members, have a lots of entries. I included them in the topical index, but in some cases, I could see their entries taking up one of the two pages available for the letter in question.
  • For topics you write about a lot, be sure to leave plenty of space in the index for entry numbers.

I’d be curious about how other people index their journals on paper like this. I know that this could also be done using text files, but I enjoy the process of manually writing these indexes, and having my little index book sitting among my journals. If you index your journals on paper, I’d love to know how you do it. If you are willing, let me know in the comments.

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Better Labeling for My Journals

When I fill up a volume of my journal, I usually stick a label on the spine. The label contains the volume number, the dates that the journal covers, and the entry number range included in the volume. I give each entry a unique number and index my journals using these numbers so it is nice to have them on the spine for quick reference. Sitting on the shelf by my desk, these labels look like this:

my journals with white labels

The problem, as you can see from the photo, is that they peel off easily. On some volumes, I’ve tapes the ends of the labels onto the notebook. On others, I keep trying to get the label to stick at least once a day. It isn’t pretty no matter how you look at it.

Not long ago, over on Facebook, my friend Michael A. Burstein was looking for a way to label his Field Notes notebooks clearly on the inside front cover. On some version of the notebook (those with lighter covers) it is easy to scribble in the information. On ones that are dark, it is harder. Ultimately, Michael’s solution was to use a pen that could be easily read on dark surfaces.

I went online to see how other people handled this problem with Moleskine notebooks. Most of them did what Michael did. So, I ordered some Sharpies that are designed for writing on dark surfaces, and this afternoon, I pulled off the labels from my journal notebooks and instead, used the Sharpie to scribble in the results. I think it came out looking pretty good:

my journals labeled using sharpies for dark surfaces

It is clear, legible, and nothing is peeling anymore. I am happy.

Incidentally, I was reminded earlier today that I have never written about how I index my journals. You can see the smaller index notebook on the top of the stack. I’m not sure if how I do it is the right way to do it, or if there even is a right way, but you can expect post in the near future on just how I go about indexing these journals. Once you see how I am doing it, I’d be open to suggestions for improving what is certainly something of a hack.

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How My Journal Notebooks Have Changed Over the Years

When I first started keeping a journal/diary, I used a thin, bluish “Record” book that I found in an office supply story. I bought for two reasons: (1) it was inexpensive, and (2) it was thin. I wasn’t sure how long this endeavor of mine would last. If I filled one notebook, I could buy another. So, on April 6, 1996, I made my first entry in that “Record” book.

After filling two volumes of that notebook, I felt more confident that I could keep up my journal every day. When the time came to get a new volume after filling the second, I opted for something larger. This time, I bought a thick, leather-bound volume that contained more than 300 lined pages. This was a more expensive notebook than the blue record book I’d used, but I was making a little more money so I figured I could afford it. As an added bonus, the pages were numbered. I ended up filling three of these volume between late 1996 through 1999.

In both of these notebooks were lined, but other than that, were completely free-form. There was nothing limiting what I would write. Most entries were relatively short for a given day, but some could go on for a page or more. The pens I used varied. Flipping through these older journals, I find a mix of blue and black inks, as well as print and cursive writing depending upon my moods.

When the millennium rolled around, I decided once again to change things up. I decided to buy a “Standard Diary” dated for the year, with the idea that I could continue these volumes on into the new century. The edition I chose was one that had a pre-printed page for each day in the year, with the date already there. All I had to do was fill the page. This simplified things, somewhat. I had a limited amount of space for each day, and so I didn’t have to worry about filling pages and pages each day. Just hit the highlights. I was inspired in this by a passage from the first volume of Isaac Asimov’s autobiography, In Memory Yet Green. Writing about starting his own diary, Asimov said,

In most cases, I suspect, a dairy pasta for a few days, a few weeks, a year at most. Sometimes, though, it endures, and in my case it did. It is still going on today, and dozens of annual diaries stand side-by-side on my shelf like good and faithful soldiers, each of them, with one or two exceptions, in the same style.

The idea of having a shelfful of these standard diaries side-by-side appealed to me.

The Standard Diary lasted five years, although in 2010, I went back to it for a single year. After 2010 my written journal become more intermittent as I wrote more and more on this blog (which started in 2005).

In 2017, things changed again. I’d written a post on the paradox of journaling, and in reply to that post, a reader, Jack Bary, pointed me to an article about a fellow named John Gadd, who’d been keeping a journal since 1947. The article was a revelation to me. In this article, I saw how it was possible to really keep a journal, to do it all longhand, to index it, and to make it multimedia. So in October 2017, my journaling began again with renewed vigor. After pondering several choices, I settled on the Moleskine Art Collection Sketchbook A4. At $27/each, it was by far the most expensive notebook I’d used to that point.

I fell in love with it almost at once. The paper is off-white and thick, at 111 lb. There are 96 usable pages, all completely blank which makes it perfect for both written word and pictures and other items. I began to tape photos into the books along with my entries. Sometime ticket stubs from events would find their way in, or “I Voted” stickers alongside entries on elections I’ve voted in. I also decided to try something new: rather than try to index my notebook by page, I gave each entry a unique number (beginning at #1) and when I index things, I refer to the entry number. This has proved useful in several ways. In volume 3 I might refer to an entry in volume one simply by number. Unlike page number, the entry numbers don’t restart with each volume.

Since October 2017, I’ve filled 8 of these volumes, approximately 770 pages over the last 4 years. They have been more successful than any other notebook I’ve tried.

And yet, I recently decided to try mixing it up once again. I happened to look back at pictures John Gadd’s notebooks from the article and saw that his notebooks were lined. I thought perhaps a lined notebook would help with my handwriting. These days, I write my journals in cursive because I can write faster, but the legibility varies from day-to-day. Perhaps lined paper would help with the consistency, I thought.

I ordered a Moleskine Classic Notebook, Hardcover XXL. At 8-1/2 x 11 inches, it is a little smaller than the A4. On the other hand, it has twice the number of pages. And they are lined pages. It is also even more expensive than the Art Collection version at $29. Alas, my little experiment lasted exactly 3 days. The main problem was the quality of the paper. It is less than half as thick as the Art Collection paper. Ink from my fountain pen easily bleeds through. And because the paper is so thin, it is not as easy to tape or glue photos and other things into the notebook. You can see some of this illustrated below, with the Art Collection edition on the left and the newer Classic Notebook on the right.

The new notebook didn’t even make it 2 full pages before I realized it was wrong for me. Indeed, if you can manage to read my writing on the right-hand page, the final paragraph of the top entry reads:

Not sure if I like the thin paper in this notebook. There is a lot of bleed through. But I am going to stick with it for now because I have the notebook and I don’t want it to go to waste.

This morning I realized that it just doesn’t work for me, so I am going back to my trusted Art Collection editions. I think I knew how much I liked the Art Collection editions from pretty early on. I was worried I wouldn’t be able to get my hands on them in later years so I bought a bunch in advance. There, on my shelf where my journals are arrayed like good and faithful soldiers, are 3 blank Art Collection notebooks, still in their shrink wrap. I just pulled one of them off the shelf, and volume 9 will start today.

It is important to experiment with change. Sometimes you discover something new and wonderful. Other times, you learn that what you’ve been doing all along really is what works best for you.

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The Lure of Paper Systems

Not long ago, I came across Ryan Holiday’s notecard system for remembering, organizing, and using everything he reads. It was instantly appealing to me, the way that reading about John Gadd’s journals changed the way I did my own journals back in 2017. You can read about Ryan’s methods at length, but the gist of it is that he puts everything onto 4×6 index cards which he then categorizes, files, and then uses for whatever he needs. As soon as I finished reading his post (which was originally written in 2014) I bought myself 300 4×6 index cards with the idea of testing out the method with my own reading notes. (A few examples that I used for this post are below.)

I enjoy reading, but I also read to learn. I mark up books, both paper and digital, and then I take those notes and capture them in Obsidian. After that… not much happens. It took a fair amount of time for me to write the scripts that I used to capture those notes and link them the way I wanted in Obsidian. I like being able to see the web of relationships that form, but the return hasn’t been worth the investment.

This seems to be a theme with me when it comes to digital systems. I find very cool tools, and then decide that they aren’t quite cool enough, that they need more. I’ll then spend a ton of time writing my own code to integrate, automate, and manipulate the tools to do something very specific for me–in this case, take my Kindle highlights and notes and move them into Obsidian. I spent years doing this with Evernote, only to find my use of Evernote scale back to basic document capture. I’ve probably spent more hours writing scripts to automate tasks around my writing than I have actually writing fiction. And I can’t even begin to quantify the amount of time I have spent investigating tools, switching to them for a period of time, only to find something else later.

I find myself increasingly drawn back to paper systems. Recently, I tried switching to a digital journal as a mean to be more efficient, but ultimately switched back to paper. I’ve never found a notes app that works well for me for ephemeral notes. Instead, I’ve been incredibly happy using Field Notes notebooks to serve this purpose. And while I do have a digital version of my reading list, my master list is contained in the pages of a Leuchtterm 1917 notebook.

a recent page from my master reading list notebook
A recent page from my “master” reading list notebook.

Thinking about this, it seems that paper systems are more effective for me than digital ones. There are a number of reasons for this, but they boil down to four things: simplicity, ease-of-use, effectiveness, and longevity

Simplicity

  • If I need to make a quick note, I simply pull out my Field Notes notebook and jot it down. I have yet to find an app that works faster or more reliably than that.
  • When I want to write in my journal, I pull it off the shelf and start writing. There is no need to log into a computer, or open a document, no need to worry about formatting or data syncing.
  • For me, the thing I want to do needs to be really simple, otherwise, I’ll eventually give up on it.

Ease of use

  • You can’t get much simpler than scribbling in a notebook or on an index card. There are no keyboard commands to remember, commands that often vary from one app to another. There is nothing to “save” or “open.” I don’t have to worry about syncing with cloud services, or whether a password has expired.
  • If the power is out, or I don’t have Internet access, my notebooks and note cards are still accessible and usable.

Effectiveness

These simple system work for me. I have little processes I’ve built up (how I number my journal entries for easy indexing) or how to Iabel post ideas in my Field Notes notebook so that I can easily identify them for later use.

But perhaps what makes these systems most effective is that I don’t get distracted writing code to try to improve them. Being on paper, they are already about as refined as they can get.

Longevity

I still have notebooks from college, and diaries from 25 years ago. I have school papers going back to kindergarten. Yet I have only a small number of digital files from college: a few papers, a few stories I wrote. Most notes I took on the computer back then are gone. I can’t begin to imagine how much digital stuff I’ve created that has been lost over the years, not by accident, but because I simply didn’t care enough to keep it. For me, if I can touch it, it seems to matter more than if I can’t.

There is always the question of how long digital media will last. We’ve only had it in the modern sense for about fifty years. But there are countless diaries and journals that have survived hundreds of years. Famous examples include John Adams1 and John Quincy Adams, Henry David Thoreau, Samuel Pepys, and of course, Leonardo Da Vinci. As Walter Isaacson wrote in his biography of Da Vinci:

His mind, I think, is best revealed in the more than 7,200 pages of his notes and scribbles that, miraculously, survive to this day. Paper turns out to be a superb information-storage technology, still readable after 500 years, which our town tweets likely won’t be.

But it is not just the paper of famous people that lasts. Currently, I am reading The British Are Coming by Rick Atkinson. In it, he describes the early battles of the Revolutionary War in great detail, often relying on the diaries of average citizens and militia on both sides of the fight. I’ve made it through the first three chapters as of this writing, and along the way, encountered the following citations:

  • …Lieutenant Frederick Mackenzie told his diary.
  • A physician visiting from Virginia told his diary…
  • …recorded in his diary
  • …Lieutenant Barker of the King’s Own told his diary.
  • …a parson told his diary
  • …a deacon in Brighton noted in his diary.
  • …Reverend Ezra Stiles told his diary…
  • Horace Walpole, ever astringent, told his diary…

There are about half a dozen more and that’s in just the first three chapters. You get the idea. There is a level of confidence in the longevity of paper systems that just doesn’t isn’t there with digital systems. Paper can burn, of course, but I treat paper with more care than I do digital documents.


One of the reasons I’ve put a lot of effort into digital systems in the past is to leverage their ability to do things faster than I can do them myself. Searching for something is a great example of this. Having my journals in digital form means that I could easily search for stuff in them. But when I have kept them in digital form, I’ve found that I simply don’t search them enough to make it worthwhile. Instead, I’ve developed a simple way of indexing my journals (on paper) so that if I don’t know immediately where to go, I can use the index as a guide.

a recent journal "index" page
Sample index page for August 2021. Number in parentheses represent journal entries on the topic

My reasons for building the scripts that take my reading notes and import them into Obsidian was to leverage Obsidian’s ability to link notes together. I thought I’d gain new insights from this. But this wasn’t how things turned out. The notes go in automatically, and I never look at them again. It has been different with the notecards. After finishing a book, I’ll go through it and make notecards from things I’ve highlighted in the book. I’ll organize them by topic or theme and them file them away. I do the same thing for anything I read: magazine articles, blog posts, etc. That means that some themes (say “Paper v. digital” — see the images above) contain cards from many different sources. That is much more useful to me. And there is something about the tactile use of paper, whether notebooks or cards, that impresses them into my memory better than looking at the same information on a screen.

More than any of that, however, is the time saved by not writing code to build all kinds of integrations that I won’t end up using. Instead, I can just read, or write, or jot downs notes.

This is not to say that paper is always better. I use Obsidian, for instance, for all of my work-related notes. I used to keep my notes in those marble notebooks you find for 50-cents at Target during back-to-school sales. But I do search work notes frequently, and often refer back to them. It makes much more sense to me to have those notes in digital form. I use Obsidian because underneath, it is just plain text and compatible with everything.

Calendars work better for me in digital form than they do on paper.

I prefer paper books to digital versions and paper magazines to electronic ones, but the fact that the latter take up no physical space is a big plus. So I read books on a Kindle in lieu of paper when it is convenient, and I read magazines mostly on my phone, except for a handful that I get in the mail each month, also because it is convenient.

But isn’t digital easier? Maybe, but maybe easy is not the point. In his post on his card system, Ryan Holiday writes:

I don’t want this to be easy. Writing them down by hand forces me to take my time and go over everything again (taking notes on a Kindle is too easy and that’s the problem). Also being able to physically arrange stuff is crucial for gettin gate structure of your book or project right. I can move cards from one category to another. As I shuffle through the cards, I dumb into stuff I had forgotten about.

This resonated with me. The ability to collect random bits and shuffle them and reshuffle them, that tactile feeling of manipulating the information, is important to me, and it is something that is much more difficult to do in digital systems that exist today. If you think of each “note” in Evernote as a card, how do you “shuffle” the notes into some useful order? How do you reshuffle them when needed? How do you easily “flip” to a random card? Ditto notes in Obsidian.

Paper systems are also cheap compared to their digital counterparts. Even my more expensive Moleskine Art Collection notebooks (about $28/each) cost less than half of an annual subscription to Evernote. And for the price of an iPhone or a MacBook, how many good notebooks, index cards, fountain pens, etc. could I buy that would far outlast the need for me to upgrade said phone or laptop?

A few days ago, I sat in my office with a 1996 diary in my lap, flipping through the pages and stopping now and then to read a passage. I wasn’t looking for anything in particular, just doing a bit of time travel. I could have done the same thing in a different way if that diary had been in digital form, but it wouldn’t have been the same. I wouldn’t have seen my own handwriting, and the cross-outs I’d made here and there. I wouldn’t have seen the color of the ink change from one day to another, or how I wrote in cursive one day and printed the next. I would have missed the blood stain on one page from a cut, or the corner I’d torn off a page to jot something down.

The lure of paper systems is about more than simplicity, ease of use, effectiveness, and longevity. The lure of paper systems, for me, is about history. The paper contains history. It yellows with age. It carries stains. It shows wear. It has a feel and smell and even a sound: pages riffling; that tap of an index card on your fingers; the whisper of a fountain pen across the page. Digital systems have none of these things, at least not to the extent that paper has. I can take a Field Notes notebook into the woods on a hike with me and not feel connected to the world. I can’t say the same when I have my phone and note-taking apps in my pocket.

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  1. Yes, I recognize the irony of linking to a digital version of a paper diary that has been around for over 200 years.

Failed Attempts at Digital Journaling

My Moleskine paper journals

It is important to know what you are not good at, if for no other reason than to decide either to improve, or to stop wasting time on them. Over the years, for instance, I have made several attempts at keeping my journal in digital form, instead of in notebooks of various kinds. My reasons for doing this always seem pure. I type faster than I handwrite. It My typing is not illegible when I type faster. My hands grow less tired when I type. I think this means I’ll write more on a computer than I would in a notebook.

But it never works out. Take my most recent foray into digital journaling. I was looking for small efficiencies in my day. I thought that by being able to type my journal, I’d get it done faster, possibly write more, and also have a place where I could easily search my journal for what I was looking for. All of these were perfectly sensible. And still, things turned out much worse than if I just stuck to writing in my Moleskine notebooks.

This most recent adventure began about a month ago, and at first, it seemed to work well. Between June 29 and July 16 I banged out nearly 7,000 words in my digital journal, far more than I probably would have written on paper, although I’m not completely certain of this. So far, so good, right? Well, since July 17, I haven’t written a word–the longest stretch I’ve gone without writing in my journal since possibly 2017.

This is part of a recurring pattern. Ever since I first started keeping a journal in 1996, I’ve been repeatedly fooled by the paradox of journaling, in much the way Charlie Brown is lured by Lucy’s promises that she won’t pull the football away this time. Every now and then, some whisper in my mind tells me it will be much easier if I type it into a computer than writing in a notebook. It hints at time saved; it hints at the ability to search my journal using regular expressions. It is an alluring voice, the dark twin of the call of the wild. The problem is, I can never sustain it for very long, and ultimately give it up.

I cannot explain why this should be. When I write in my notebooks with pen and ink, I can go for years without skipping a day. It took all of two and a half weeks for me to give up my digital journal. I’ve tried to think about what causes this. The answers I have thus far are weak and uncertain, but two are worth contemplating

  1. I spend enough time on computers that I want to be done and so I don’t put in the extra time to write my journal.
  2. I somehow feel that there is more permanence to what I write in a notebook, and am therefore more committed to it as a lasting repository of my writing than digital media.

I think the latter point may be the crux of the issue for me. When I read Walter Isaacson’s fantastic biography of Leonardo da Vinci, I was impressed by a point Isaacson made the importance of which seemed all out of proportion with the rest of the book. Isaacson wrote:

[Da Vinci’s] mind, I think, is best revealed in the more than 7,200 pages of his notes and scribbles that, miraculously, survive to this day. Paper turns out to be a superb information-storage technology, still readable after five hundred years, which our own tweets likely won’t be.

Somehow, I have internalized this. Indeed, I’ve had the experience where some of my digital writing is forever lost to the ether. While I have most of the stories I’ve ever written going back to 1992 in digital form, I have nearly none of the digital journaling I’ve ever done. Instead, I have diaries and notebooks filling with my journal writing. The one exception to this strange rule is my writing here on the blog, which covers a span (as of this writing) of 16 years and is, in some respects, a kind of public-facing journal. Still, I have this suspicion that because my physical notebooks have weight and texture, they, and what they contain, are more valuable than intangible bits stored in clouds.

I suppose that if you were to search this blog, you’d find among the nearly 7,000 posts, a few where I confess this problem, only to write later on about yet another attempt to migrate my journal into the digital realm. This is me in the role of Charlie Brown, to the digital world’s Lucy, holding a virtual football, and then pulling it away at the last moment. Sometimes, even when I recognize my mistakes and failings, it is hard not to repeat them.

All of this to say: as of this morning, I am back to fountain pen and ink in my Moleskine Art Collection large sketchbooks.

In the future, if you see me eagerly writing about how I am once again going to move my journal into digital form of some kind, kindly drop a comment on that post with a gentle reminder of the inevitable results. I think a simple, “Good grief!” would do the trick.

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Small Efficiencies in Workflow

With my recent plan to focus on my writing and improve my overall well-being (a.k.a. Project Sunrise), I have been hunting for small efficiencies in workflow that can have an outsized impact on my day. My morning routine takes about two and a half hours to complete. While developing the routine, I teased out actions or tasks that I could eliminate or improve upon to maximize the use of my time. Two examples come to mind.

Writing in my journal: content versus medium

Since 2017, I have been writing my journal longhand in large Moleskine notebooks. I’ve written about the advantages and disadvantages of having a paper journal versus a digital one in a piece called The Paradox of Journaling. I like the feeling of writing longhand, and I understand and believe in the durability of paper. But there are two tradeoffs to consider when time is limited and my goals depend on data:

  1. The speed and clarity with which I can write.
  2. The speed an accuracy with which I can find what I wrote about.

With limited time, I had to consider what is more valuable to me now, the content of my journaling or the medium in which it is stored. Today it is the content. Since I can type much faster than I can write longhand, since my typing is more clear than my handwriting, and since I express thoughts more clearly through a keyboard than a pen, it seemed prudent to switch my journaling to a digital form instead of a paper one. This is why for the last week, I have been composing it as a text file using Obsidian, despite what I wrote in February when I initially rejected the idea. The reasons I rejected it were valid then, but circumstances have changed, and I think this little efficiency will have long-term benefits.

One of those benefits is the speed with which I can find what I wrote about. It is much easier to search a text file than volumes of journals, even when they are roughly indexed. And time is the key. I want to spend as much of my time as possible on creative tasks. That said, to improve, I need to look back at the data I’ve collected so that I can apply it going forward. I can do this much more quickly searching a text file than books. Practical considerations–speed of input, clarity, and speed of retrieval–have overridden my desire to continue writing my journal longhand, at least for the duration.

Composing in WordPress

For a long time, I composed my blog posts in an external editor. That editor has changed over the years. I’ve written drafts in Scrivener, in Word, and most recently, in Obsidian, my current editor of choice. With my recent migration to WordPress hosting, and conversion to a modern WordPress theme, I have found WordPress’s native Gutenberg editor to be comfortable and easy to compose in directly. This saves a good deal of time. Prior to composing directly in WordPress my process looked like this:

  1. Write the post in Obsidian (or other editor)
  2. Copy the text out of Obsidian
  3. Paste it into a blank WordPress post
  4. Fix any formatting issues
  5. Publish.

For the last week I have been composing directly in WordPress which allows me to eliminate the administrative steps I was doing before. This shaves a little time spent on each post, which I get back for creative work, like writing the posts themselves.

These are small efficiencies. They don’t save huge chunks of time each, but the affect is cumulative. I journal in the morning and evening, so I am saving a little time each journaling session. I tend to write in the mornings, sometimes one post, sometimes more than one, and I save a little time with each draft. In a cumulative sense, over the long haul, I think small efficiencies like these have outsized results.

I am always looking for small efficiencies like these because of their magnified results over time. Do you have small efficiencies that you have discovered? If you feel like it, share them in the comments.

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We Need More Practical Lessons

While reading Walter Isaacson’s new book, The Code Breaker, I was particularly struck by some seemingly minor details. The book is a fascinating look into the modern process of scientific discovery, and there was some discussion of how a discovery written in a lab book and then signed by witnesses in order to document the dates of the discovery. When do scientists learn to do this?

I took AP biology, and AP physics in high school, as well as physics, chemistry and organic chemistry in college and no one every taught me how to properly use a lab book. Indeed, what was implied, at least at that level, was that what the teaching assistants and grad students who led the labs really wanted was nice, neat copy in our lab books with clear results that were easy to grade. I remember many of my fellow students had two lab books: the one they worked stuff out in, and the one they turned in after everything was cleaned up. I couldn’t spend the money on two lab books, so mine were messy.

It seems to me that the mechanics of a lab book–its true purpose and how it is used the real world–is a practical lesson that any burgeoning scientist should learn. But who teaches this? Are there upper division chemistry classes that focus on this? Certainly o-chem didn’t.

This got me thinking about other practical lessons that I would have benefited from, but was never formally taught. How to read a newspaper is one example that I’ve written about before. What about keeping a diary or journal? I don’t ever remember this being taught in school. I don’t ever remember a class in which the pros and cons of journals were discussed. I would have found these things very useful. Instead, I learned how to keep a journal by following (initially) the example Isaac Asimov described for himself in his autobiography.

Lab books are useful tools outside of the laboratory. For the first half of my career, I didn’t keep any kind of notes about the code I was writing. If I had to recreate something, therefore, it was often hard work. At some point, it occurred to me to keep notes as I worked. When I do something particularly complicated, I often list it out in my notes in high level steps, and then fill in the details as I work. I keep one simple idea in mind: a person new to the organization should be able to take my notes and reproduce my work. Technical debt is a big problem in I.T. People come and go and leave behind lots of undocumented code in their wake. You’d think lessons in keeping good notes would be part of the training process, but I’ve never seen it.

For that matter, how about something as simple as keeping a to-do list? I was never taught this in any of my classes.

There was one class I had–a 7th grade science class–in which our teacher spent quite a bit of time teaching us how to organize our work. We learned how to keep our science folder, and how to keep our notes and assignments organized in the folder. It was practical information that served me well through the rest of my pre-college schooling. Beyond that, most of the practical things I learned from books.

I can’t remember a teacher teaching how to take notes: how to identify the important points, and highlight them; what to leave in and what to exclude from the notes; tricks of shorthand to capture information more succinctly. All of this I had to figure out on my own. I read a book between my sophomore and junior years in college, and one chapter was all about note-taking. It changed the way I take notes and I use that method to this day.

I try to pass on some of these practical lessons to my kids. The Little Miss keeps a journal and I encourage that, and allow her to look at my journals in order to take ideas, but mainly so that she understands she can make it whatever she wants it to be. The Little Man could benefit from a daily to-do list, and I’ve tried on a couple of occasions to suggest it, even offering to help him get started by reviewing it together. He resists it, but he is at the age where he doesn’t think he needs it. (He does.)

It seems to me that in addition to classes in science and math and reading and English and history and art and physical education, there should be some practical classes on topics like these. Better yet, practical lessons could be merged into the existing classes.

  • In science, you could learn how to keep a lab book while you do your experiments. The lessons would be about the purpose–not to show you got the right answer, but to be able to reproduce your results, whatever they were.
  • In English, there could be a section on the literature of diaries and journals. There are plenty to choose from: John Adams, Samuel Pepys, Henry David Thoreau, Anne Frank just to name a few. Discussions could ensue about why to keep a journal, the practical value, and the literature can provide examples of what other people have done.
  • In home room, you might learn how to better organize your day, keep track of your work, and manage stress.

We need more practical lessons. I certainly would have benefited from them earlier than I did.

Journals of the Plague Year

As we passed the year-mark for the pandemic, I went back to my journals from early 2020 to see if I could find when I first mentioned the coronavirus. As best as I can tell, it was on February 24, 2020 when I mentioned, at the very end of that day’s entry: “Stock market down 1,000 points on coronavirus fears.”

On March 5, 2020, I wrote, “I’m not sure what to make of the coronavirus . There is so much conflicting information that I find myself relying on a combination of common sense and my knowledge of science.” I noted that there had been 11 death from the virus thus far. “I keep drawing mental comparisons,” I wrote, “to the outbreaks of Yellow Fever and smallpox during Revolutionary times.”

I typically fill a 100-page volume of my journal (written in large Moleskine Art Collection Sketchbooks) in 5-6 months. But I filled an an entire volume in the period between February 6 – June 25, 2020 alone, the second shortest period after the very first volume of this incarnation of my journal. And much of what I wrote was about the virus.

As someone who is fascinated by journals and diaries, I’ve often considered them to be a source of untapped personal analytics and other data. Before iPhones and FitBits kept track of our movements and heart rates, diaries and journals, letters and other correspondence were a rich source of this (implied and inferred) data. Collective war letters provide a different perspective to war than what a history book might have to say about them, for instance. And so I wonder what kind of data is stored within the journals of people around the globe when it comes to the COVID pandemic.

March 11, 2020: “News of the Coronavirus is getting more serious with ‘social distancing’ the new watchword of the day. It does’t stem the outbreak but it does make its impact on resources more manageable. I think the outlook now is something like, ‘be diligent, but plan on getting the virus.'”

March 12, 2020: “NBA has suspended its season and NCAA will be playing without crowds. MLB has suspended spring training and is delaying the start of the season at least 2 week.”

March 13, 2020: “The most dire predictions of the virus’s spread sees as many as 170 million people in the U.S. contracting the virus–and between 400,000 to over 1 million deaths from it.” On that day, just a year ago, we canceled out planned trip to Florida.

March 15, 2020: an entire page in my journal is dedicated to a list of all of the stuff I bought at the store to stock up on because there were rumors that shortages were coming. The list is 2 columns long.

March 16, 2020: we had our first Zoom call with my parents, brother and sister, something that evolved into a weekly Sunday afternoon affair this is still going on today.

March 18, 2020: all three of our kids began distance-learning, something that continued for the remainder of the 2020 school-year, and, for my son at least, for the 2020-21 school year as well, until just last week, when he finally went back into the classroom for the first time in a year.

I’ve heard of people who say they’ve burned their journals (or will burn them before they die). I’ve never understood that, but I guess people keep journals for different purposes. I think of the information we might have lost if John Adams or Leonardo da Vinci had burned their journals. I’ve always wanted a record of things I’ve done, even the mundane things, so that I could look back on it. For me, my journal is another reference book, like dictionary or almanac. I also thought it would make a fascinating read for my children and their children. I imagine my kids telling their kids about living through the pandemic, the way my grandfather talked about lie during the Great Depression. All I had from my grandfather were some vague memories and axioms about this time in his life. I would have been fascinated to read about what his day-to-day life during those times, if only he’d kept a journal.

This is something at least my kids will be able to do, if they wanted to.

Diaries, Journals, Commonplace Books and Notebooks

What is the difference between a diary and journal? I can’t find much of a difference in how the terms are used. They seem interchangeable, but that only means that somewhere on the Internet, a big flame war exists over the subtle differences between these terms.

Accord to Merriam-Webster, a diary is “a record of events, transactions, or observations kept daily or at frequent intervals.” After that it says “: JOURNAL”. I had to lookup what that meant in the Explanatory Chart. It is a synonymous reference, which is Merriam-Webester’s way of saying that diaries and journals are the same thing.

Merriam-Webster says a journal is “a record of experiences, ideas, or reflections kept regularly for private use.” I noted that there was no synonymous reference back to DIARY. Both, it seems, are a record of events and experiences. The definition of “diary” refers to transactions, which is sort of odd. I think of journal (specifically, a double-entry book-keeping journal) as more transactional than a diary.

I think I use the terms interchangeably, although I say that I journal (verb) more than I say, “write in my diary.”

Journals/diaries don’t seem as popular as they once were. At least, from my reading, it seems that people kept diaries more than they used to. There are, of course, famous diaries, like those of John Adams, and John Quincy Adams, or Anne Frank. At one point last year I began reading the diary of Samuel Pepys. I suspect there are three reasons I don’t see as many people admitting to having diaries as they once did:

  1. There are no courses in keeping a diary. Certainly, I never learned how or why to do this in my schooling, a lapse that I am both grateful for, and that I also lament.
  2. Time is occupied by other activities. John Quincy Adams, even at his busiest, did not have social media, movies, and television competing for his attention.
  3. Litigation. People worry that what they write can be subpoenaed and so they don’t record anything.

It is something of a shame, really. All of those historical diaries sitting in various collections contain valuable data about everyday life across all walks of life. It seems like there is useful research information in that aggregate data.

For many years, I used red Standard Diaries, keyed to the current year. These were convenient for their ready-made pages, but limiting in that there was only one relatively small page per day. If I wanted to write more, I felt constrained. If I didn’t fill a page, I felt it a waste. Now I use large Moleskine Art Collection Sketchbooks, which have big blank pages that I can use however I see fit.

Assuming that diary and journal are interchangeable, there are two other written records that confuse me from time-to-time. There is the notebook, which Merriam-Webster defines as “a book for notes or memoranda.” When I think of a notebook, I think of the notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci. The line blurs, it seems to me. Certainly some of his notes were memoranda, some were notes, some were reflections, some designs. Were these not really just “working”journals?

Lab books are another type of notebook. Lab books are supposed to be a scientists notes for their experiments and discoveries. They showed progress, evolution of thought and ideas, and ultimately provided a recipe for others to reproduce their results. That is how my “notes” are today, although they are digital rather than notebook form. But that is not how I was taught to keep a lab book in college. In college, the implication in my chemistry and physics classes was that you had two lab books. One for your raw notes, the other one, a “cleaned up” version that you turned in for grades. I could never afford two so I always turned in my messy, raw notes.

A commonplace book is perhaps the most interesting of these forms of recording, and yet Merriam-Webster gives it the shortest shrift: “A book of memorabilia.” I first learned about commonplace books reading a biography of Thomas Jefferson. Back in his time, a commonplace book was a kind of learning tool. He recorded passages from his readings in the book, along with his own notes. It seems like another valuable learning tool that I was never taught in any of my formal schooling. You don’t hear much about commonplace books these days, although there was recently an article about digital commonplace books in the New York Times.

Today, instead of diaries and journals and commonplace books, we have blogs and Twitter and Facebook. And yet I keep thinking about something Walter Isaacson wrote in his biography of Leonardo da Vinci:

HIs mind, I think, is best revealed in the more than 7,200 pages of his notes and scribbles that, miraculously, survive to this day. Paper, turns out to be a superb information-storage technology, still readable after five hundred years, which our own tweets likely won’t be.

If I’d had a commonplace book, I might have copied this passage into it, instead of just highlighting it in the book.

Journal in Obsidian Notes?

Once I got the hang of how Obsidian worked for me, once I realized the power of its linking capabilities, and that it really did everything I wanted a note-taking app to do, it was natural to consider what could go into my vault. Daily notes were a given, of course. All of my reading notes, and even a version of my reading list could go in there. Borrowing some concepts from Zettelkasten, it could become a kind of digital commonplace book, something I’ve always wanted. What about my journal? With all of the other information in one place, linkable and searchable, it seemed to make sense that my journal should go there as well.

The thing is, my journal has always been handwritten, going back to 1996. There were times when I experimented with it in a digital form, but I always came back to the handwritten form. In the current incarnation (since late 2017), they fill eight Moleskine Art Collection sketchbooks.

My collection of journals.
My collection of Moleskine journals

As it turns out, how I keep my journal lends itself Obsidian linking. Rather than an entry-per-day, I number entries, beginning at 1. Each discrete entry gets its own number. I date the first one of each day, but there may be two or three entries in a day, each of which will have its own number. I did this thinking ahead: if I ever wanted to index the thing, I wouldn’t have to worry about what volume or page and entry was on. All I’d need was its entry number. (I took this lesson from Isaac Asimov’s description of how he numbered entries in his Biographical Encyclopedia of Science and Technology in order to avoid the tedious work of tying index entries to page numbers.) Thus, I have 1,782 unique “entries” each with its own number. This makes it ideal for linking in Obsidian.

Several weeks ago, I decided to give it a try, and I began writing my journal entries in Obsidian, giving each entry a unique number, continuing from where I left off. I liked being able to link these entries to other notes.

Journal entries listed in Obsidian
Journal entries in Obsidian

Something nagged at me, however. I missed writing in my journal. I missed how the pages contain more than just writing. I paste pictures and clippings in the pages. Sometimes I sketch things. It just didn’t feel the same typing the entries rather than writing them out in my journal.

A typical multimedia page from my journal.
A typical “multimedia” journal entry

It occurred to me that I might have the best of both worlds with a little effort. At the end of each week, for instance, I could type up the entries I’d written in the Moleskine notebook, copying the entries into Obsidian. Then they’d be there for searching and linking. After a little thought, that felt like a monumental waste of time.

Last night, I decided not to keep my journal in Obsidian and to continue with the notebooks. I did this for several reasons:

  1. I still think there is a compelling argument for how long paper lasts. Digital media has been around half a century or so. Paper has been around centuries. Witness John Adams’s diaries or Leonardo da Vinci’s notebooks.
  2. I don’t actually search through my journals that much to make it worthwhile to put every entry into digital form.
  3. When I do search them, I enjoy the feel of flipping through them, seeking out what I am looking for.

But there was one other thing that occurred to me that sealed the deal for me. My Daily Notes in Obsidian serve as an index to my life. If I needed to know when I wrote about something in my journal, I need go no further than my daily notes. I can search them for the appropriate reference and then use the date of those notes to look up any entries in my journal. Moreover, if I write something in the journal and want to make sure I can find it easily, I can just add a reference to the entry number in my daily notes.

That seemed to satisfy me, and with that, I began this morning, transcribing those entries I made in Obsidian back to my Moleskine notebook. Going forward, the journal will stay in a notebook, but I’ll rely more and more on the daily notes as a kind of compass for finding what I need.

My Journal in the Days of COVID

Toward the end of 2017, I switched to a new format for my journals: nice big Moleskine Art Collection Sketchbooks, the kind with 96 pages of heavy paper in each volume. These are, by far, my favorites of all of the various journals I’ve used over the years, from simple notebooks, to the brick red Standard Diaries.

This morning, I closed out the 6th volume in this format and cracked open the 7th (I buy these Moleskein notebooks four at a time because I have this silly fear that they will stop making them). As I was closing out the 6th volume, labeling the front cover and spine, I noted the dates: February 6 – June 25, 2020. I started this volume just before the COVID-19 pandemic set its teeth upon us. I noted something else, too. The date range is small than most of my previous volumes of equal length. I wasn’t certain so I went back to check.

Charting my recent journal volumes by days per volume.
Number of days in each volume of my journal since 2017

Each volume has 98 usable pages. With the exception of my first volume in this format, where I was excited about the new format and writing more than usual, this most recent volume contains significantly fewer days than my average, meaning I have been writing more each day since February. Skimming through the volume bears this out. Indeed, my entries are considerably longer, often detailing the news of the day as it relates to the pandemic. Rarely in previous volumes do I report on the current news, other than to call out notable events to provide context for when they happen in my life. But in this most recent volume, events unfolded so quickly that I sometimes had to make bulleted lists of all that happened, like this example from March 13:

A list of current events in my journal

I also find that I used this most recent volume as a way to vent my concerns and frustrations about the pandemic as a way of relieving stress. Sometimes I go on for a page or more venting these concerns. I don’t generally do this in my journals, so this is an indication of particular stress on my part, I suppose.

This made me wonder how many other people are recording their experiences during the pandemic in a similar fashion. So much history is captured this way that rarely sees the light of day, I imagine. Sometimes, it finds it way into public view, often long after the face: John Adams and John Quincy Adams diaries paint fascinating pictures of life in Revolutionary and post-Revolutionary America; war letters from during the Civil War, World War I and II have a similar collective effect. I wonder if, a century from now, a Ph.D. candidate will make a study of life during the pandemic and turn to those journals that still exist for a look into what the world was like? Of course, digital records and journals may exist was well, but I’m still skeptical of their durability compared to paper.

I did make one interesting experiment in this most recent volume of my journal. Beginning on March 5, influenced by both the beauty of John Quincy Adams’ handwriting in his journals, and my desire to write more during the pandemic without growing tired, I switched from my normal mode of printing, to cursive entries. (see above). This experiment lasted until June 10th, most of my 6th volume. I stopped for one reason: I found it difficult to read my own handwriting at times. These journals are a reference book for me, and I sometimes imagine my kids (and perhaps, one day, their kids) reading through these. They need to be legible first and foremost, and try as I might, my cursive writing is less legible the faster I write.

Experiment tried, experiment failed.

LiveJournal archiving

This evening, I was doing some archiving of my journal in order to make sure that I had copies of everything locally. I also decided to write a script that would index my archive for better searching capabilities. In doing so, I exported all of my journals, by month to XML files, and then ran a wc -w *.xml on the resulting files. I was curious to see how many words I’d written in my journal this year. Here are the results, up to, but not including this entry:

Jan  23,503
Feb  20,731
Mar  16,587
Apr  25,476
May  19,481
Jun  12,321
Jul  23,941
Aug  25,917
Sep  27,164
Oct  29,976
Nov   7,770
232,867

To give you an idea, 20,000 words is roughly the equivalent of 100 manuscript pages. To give you a better idea, 233,000 words is just slightly shorter than John Steinbeck’s novel, East of Eden. It is roughly the length of Frank Herbert’s novel Dune. It is longer than The Grapes of Wrath and more than twice as long as Alice Sebold’s, The Lovely Bones. It is ten times as long as my 20,000 words novella, “Graveyard Shift”. It is a lot of writing.