The Nervous History of a Compulsive Journaler

When I first started journaling I thought that God would like me more and show up more frequently, more passionately there with me, if I used highlighters. If I took the time to make drawings. If I lugged around a full-size desk journal with yellow-tinted pages. As you can see, I only had two desk-size journals, so as time went on I either became less holy or more educated about the discipline of journaling. I hope that my story, my micro-journey into the discipline of journaling, can help you and your journaling. Because if you aren't journaling you should, but even if you are, you probably have this nagging feeling that you aren't doing it right.

My relationship with journals was misunderstood and overzealous, but I finally realized I was learning three distinct things: content (what to write down), structure (how to archive and retrieve data), and medium (pen and paper, or an app). My journaling began in middle school, but it really took off once I went to college. It is there this post begins.


I started off (in 2012) with a big desk journal. It was faux-leather, had big yellowed pages, and, yes, I drew in it some. Journaling at this point was just about learning the Bible. I only journaled when I had my Bible open. It was a vital part of my Bible reading plan. I was just trying to record important verses in creative ways so that they would stick with me longer. It was essentially a memory aid because I was so ADD.

Sometimes I would get more creative and try to find connections by mind-mapping the concepts a Biblical passage put forward. The Bible is full of connections and just creating an index with references seemed totally lame (i.e.: Salvation: Isa 12:2; Jon 2:9; etc.). The lower half of this page shows an example of a simple mind-map of wisdom and folly in the Proverbs that I made while reading Prov 12.

Other times my mind would reach a critical mass where concepts would rush together in new ways, providing new insight into the flow of things. I'd map these too.

At this point my journal started to be more than just a desk ornament, so I carried a small moleskine around in my pocket and would whip it out and jot down some inspired thought. Without knowing it, I was employing a centuries-old practice of keeping a commonplace book: one "journal" in which to keep everything you wanted to remember. Quotes, pictures, conversations, drawings, events, locations--it all gets put into a bound notebook for future review.

Just like PhD researchers collect all their informational nuggets on 3x5 cards, I was collecting data in regular life page-by-dated-page in my moleskine. It was great. To the right is an example of a note I took in sermon preparation class. Again, not a journal entry per se, and not class notes either (those were in a pages document on my Mac). This was just a nugget I wanted to review along with everything else. It stuck out and I wanted to own it forever. So I wrote it down.

While this can definitely be helpful, it is note-taking, not journaling. And I was losing touch with the distinction. Currently, I separate my research from my journals. If I come across information that is useful to me for some project, it gets put into my research database. The only time I journal is for me, my current self and my future self. I don't keep a traditional commonplace book, I just review my research notes. But more on my academic workflow in later posts.


Coram Deo means "Before the face of God." A great reminder.

Along with the struggle over content was the struggle over medium--how to capture my thoughts (i.e.: digital or analog). Digital journals are awesome in their flexibiltiy, but they lack the tangible quality of an analog journal. And since I was having a hard time dividing my thoughts between journal-thoughts and research-thoughts, this problem plagued me for years. I loved the information science of digital but the practicality of analog.

One of the strengths of analog journals is in their physical form. The main goal of a commonplace book is to be there to remind you it's there. "Out of sight, out of mind," is a truism, and digital technology makes their money on keeping things tucked neatly away until you want it. I would use the pages, the cover, the front and end pages--everything--as a reminder to me of the information. Apps can't really do that. Here are some examples:

The front paper of the desk journal

The other great part of analog journals is their flexibility. I was at the kitchen table one night and had an epiphany I wanted to capture. My phone was off, pens and journals in the room, so I grabbed the nearest thing--a Publix receipt--and scribbled it down. It became a permanent part of that journal, paper clipped to the cover.

But I began to realize there were quotes from professors and articles (and even tweets) that I wanted to save and flip through too. I wanted to capture all the goodness of the present moment and review it so that I could memorize it all and carry it around with me. I needed constant availability of capture and review. The app was great. I could copy and paste entire conversations from text messages, emails, and since the app was on my computer, I could copy in stuff straight from books, PDF's, etc.  I loved the app, but it lacked that pious feel of paper. 

So for years I just kept two journals. One in the app DayOne (where I copied and pasted in digital things) and one desk journal for long-form personal heart-to-hearts. Now, I use a notebook in Evernote to store all my journal entries. Each note gets a date, geo-location, and can hold photos, videos, and audios. If I have time and the craving to write long-form, I do so in a bound notebook, then take photos of the couple pages.  If you stay on top of that photo process, it's pretty seamless.


Early on the only structure I had was dated pages. But later I began to see the need for greater clarity, for easier information retrieval. I've organized analog notebooks by creating a table of contents for them and an index for particular information curating. Here is an example table of contents (almost all the entries are notes, because at this time I didn't have a workflow for research. It all got thrown in here.

At the end of each table of contents I would make an index which would pull together the main ideas. For example, the index page below lists all the writing projects I was currently working on and the page numbers that had relevant data.

Digitally, I organized my entires by date and tag. Each entry in DayOne would get a tag, and I'd star certain entries for importance to review later. But, with full-text search, digital storage was always far easier.

Now, I store all my journal entries in Evernote, so I let the physical journal exist without much structure. I title each Evernote note with the main ideas addressed and tag them with recurring concepts which I use to make connections across time, following the progression of my learning in some area. The main reason I switched from DayOne to Evernote was to have that super-powerful search engine. I never lose data anymore.

The Current Journaling Methodology

What changed my discipline of journaling was learning the discipline of research and information management. As I learned what research was and how to keep up with Big Data I realized the separation that must exist between research and personal journaling. I was expecting one journal to be my entire research workflow. One of the main things I learned was that one size doesn't fit all. I can't keep one or two journals and expect to stay abreast of all my note-taking needs. That is the beauty of Evernote. I do audio journals on the go with my iPhone, record video journals on my Mac, type long-form, write with pen and paper and take a picture of the page (which Evernote parses out into searchable text), jot stuff down on receipts and take pictures of those too. 

I will write about my workflow some day soon, but for now, the conclusion of my story is this: journaling is a discipline for you, about you. You can write about whatever you want, but if you want to get the most out of your time, you need to make a clear distinction between your work and your play. If you are an academic, you probably have a problem with information management, not journaling. When I journal, I journal strictly for myself, currently--to get free and clear from drowning emotions and muddy thinking--and for my future self. You have to separate the journaling impulse from the note-taking one, and when you do you'll find two things: you're bad at journaling, and you're bad at taking notes. IIt really hurts to sit down and express yourself, especially when you are trying to be honest, but that is the blessing of good journaling.

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