Last week, I told the story of how life taught me the importance of journaling and note-taking the hard way.
It turned out longer than I had planned, so I decided to write a separate article outlining the structure of my diary and the processes that power it.
Here's how my diary works - it's quite simple, actually:
Two years ago, it started with a simple note to keep track of the events in my life.
Today, my diary has become more complex, but at its core it's still a single note that's divided into days, weeks, and months via simple headers.
Its main purpose is to keep track of the three* main areas of my life:
- The events in my life.
- My thoughts.
- The things I'm reading.
There are also three** main processes I use to keep the diary going:
- Daily recap.
- Weekly retrospective.
- Monthly review.
It's simple, and that's what allowed it to become a habitual thing.
First let's look at the main components in a bit more detail.
The Plus Rating System
It didn't take me long to realize that some events are more important than the others, and that I need a way to highlight them.
This would allow me to pick out the important parts of my life by simply skimming my diary instead of having to re-read it. But it had to be a simple way.
That's how I came up with my Plus Rating System***.
Nothing fancy, actually. I simply replaced my regular bullet lists with lists marked by + symbols. The more important I considered an event to be, the more pluses it had:
++ really enjoyed meeting up with a good friend
+ it was a sunny day
To make it even more useful, I started bolding and highlighting the things I considered noteworthy.
And that was it! Ain't it neat?
Events vs thoughts
I started the diary as an event and thought tracker from the outset for two reasons:
- Thoughts are as important as the events, if not more.
- And you can't really separate them as easily anyway.
It just happened naturally. At the end of the day, I would sit down and spend 10 minutes describing the day in free form writing. Then I'd create a bullet list (later the Plus List) of the most notable events of the day, and that was it.
At that time, I was still in the midst of my depression, so keeping my journaling process as simple and effortless as possible was crucial if I wanted it to become a habit. And this was the simplest thing I could come up with.
This year I've finally outgrown this concept.
It worked great, but it was pretty event-centric. It was about the events of my life first, and if I felt like it, I'd add a few thoughts about them in the free form section.
Two problems with this approach:
- If I didn't add my thoughts to an event, I'd have no way of remembering how I felt about it, which is often as important as the event itself.
- Or I'd have a thought that wasn't connected to any event at all, and these thoughts would not make it into the diary altogether.
It became a larger problem when I started writing daily a few months ago.
Daily writing has changed the way I interact with my thoughts. It made me more mindful about them, and it made me start collecting my thoughts into a separate Writing Prompts note for later use.
But I quickly realized that:
- Thought collection is a relatively high-effort, deliberate process. Don't write it down immediately and the next moment you've forgotten it.
- Putting them into a separate note outside of my diary made them lose the context completely. And thought without the context are way less useful.
Eventually, I put two and two together and started using my diary to keep my thoughts separate from my events. What I have today is an additional bullet list on top of my events where I dump my thoughts into. No categorization, no nothing, just the raw stuff straight out of my mind that I consider valuable.
A month of life gives me hundreds of writing ideas, which makes sure I'll never again run out of things to write about.
Set for life!
My reading log
There's one more tweak I did to my diary this year.
I started keeping a log of the things I'm reading online, articles for the most part.
For a while now, I've been saving the things I'm reading into Evernote, and highlighting them there. But there was a problem: I wasn't really reviewing them. And saving the things you don't plan to review kinda defeats the purpose of saving them in the first place.
In addition to my thoughts and events, I'm now also saving the things I've read during the day into a separate bullet list. This surfaces them during my weekly and monthly reviews, which makes them that much more useful.
There's one additional benefit:
If I ever get a newsletter going, I'll have plenty of useful content to share at any given week without having to scour my notes.
Process: Daily recap
The daily recap is the core process that powers my diary.
And it's exactly what it sounds like. At the end of the day, I sit down and spend some 10-15 minutes writing down the things I've experienced today:
First, I do my free-form writing. It's basically a brief outline of the events of the day and of what I thought about them. Just an answer to "How was your day today?". I try to keep this brief, this section is at most a few paragraphs long.
Then, I dump my thoughts for the day into a separate bullet list called "Thoughts". For now I'm doing it at the end of the day only, but I might start populating this section during the day at some point not to lose some of the more subtle thoughts.
Finally, I list the things I've read today that I think deserve to be remembered. It's a simple bullet list with either URLs or links to Evernote notes, sometimes with a few words of my own commentary.
Recently, I've been experimenting with a separate section called "Recap" containing the "keywords" of the day. It's basically a comma-separated brain dump of everything I can remember about the day, and I've been using it to make sure I'm not forgetting the tiny events that aren't worth mentioning elsewhere. I feel like this adds a bit of richness to my daily records.
Note that I'm not classifying anything at this point. The main rule of the daily recap is simplicity: I need to get everything out of my head quickly and without having to think about the organization.
The organization comes later.
Process: Weekly retrospective
I do my weekly retrospectives on Sundays, which officially ends the week.
First, I classify:
I go through each of my daily records and classify the events using my Plus Rating System. This gives me the list of the main events for each day of the week roughly classified by how noteworthy I thought them to be.
This is also when I bold and highlight some of my free-form passages to make sure they stand out the next time I'm reviewing the diary for any reason.
Then, I combine:
- I select the most noteworthy events from each of my days and combine them into a single list called "This week's events"
- I do the same for all of my thought lists and reading logs, leaving me with "This week's thoughts" and "This week's reading".
This way I can get a high level overview of my week later without re-reading it.
Then, I reflect:
Once I have my three "This week's" lists, I spend some time looking at them, reflecting on my week, and creating a free form summary of it, similar to my daily summaries. It's usually a few paragraphs of me reiterating some of the events and exploring certain thoughts in a little more detail.
Finally, I review my goals:
I keep the goals themselves elsewhere, but I use my diary to put my weekly goals into one of the three buckets at the end of the week:
- Not done
I then include a few sentences about each of the goals, and decide what to do about the unfinished ones. At the end of my goal review, I plan the week ahead, but that's outside of the scope of my diary.
Depending on how I'm feeling, my weekly retrospectives can take anywhere between half an hour and a few.
Process: Monthly review
My monthly reviews look almost exactly like my weekly retrospectives.
At the end of the month:
- I roll up every week's events, thought lists, and reading logs into a monthly one.
- I reflect on the month and summarize it in a few paragraphs.
- I review my monthly goals, as well as my plan for this year.
This officially ends the month and lets me start a new one from scratch.
Later, these monthly records make it easier for me to do my annual reviews.
Process: Annual review
This isn't exactly part of the diary, but I'll cover it briefly nevertheless.
The year 2021 was the first one that I did a proper retrospective for. I went through the whole year, almost day by day, week by week, month by month, and highlighted the main events, thoughts, and takeaways.
I then assembled all of them into one big list, and used that to write my "2021 in review". And to wrap this up, I gave every month of 2021 a score:
It took me a couple weeks to get this completed, but I'm really happy with how it turned out. I now plan to keep doing these kinds of yearly reviews every year.
That's my diary in a nutshell.
It's not a perfect solution, of course. The text format is one of the big drawbacks. I like to take pictures, and they're completely missing from the diary. There's almost zero visual information in it.
At one point, I thought about using a diary app to keep my thoughts together with my pictures, but ultimately decided against it. Additional tools add complexity, and it just didn't feel worth it. Perhaps I'll come up with something at some point.
The text-only format leaves me without some of the other things I could be doing. I know people use diary apps to track their moods, stress levels, activities, locations visited. Those are all neat features, and I even used a few apps briefly for this purpose, but it didn't last long.
If there's one takeaway about using tools that I got from my diary experience it's that starting with the simplest possible solution is the way to go. You can always switch to something more complex down the road if you decide you need more features, but simple tools make it easier to start and to keep going.
Finally, accept the fact that you'll have days when you'll have exactly zero desire to touch your diary. I've had days and weeks like this, especially early on while I was still overwhelmed by life.
It's fine. It will happen. Just make sure to get back to it when you feel better. I always tried to backfill the missing days and weeks after my periods of falling out of my journaling routine.
It's not about being perfect, it's about keeping going.
And one more thing.
Diaries are useful and fun
It's not just about keeping track of stuff, being organized, and being practical.
I don't even think about my diary as a tool, it's just part of my life. It's a detailed account of my life, of everything I've experienced, thought, and felt. It's all right here****.
Revisiting random days in your diary can be a fun thing to do. I do it once in a while, and it always brings back memories that I would have zero recollection of otherwise.
My diary is my own little time machine. And I can't imagine my life without it now.
* I also use my diary to reflect on my goals, although I don't track them here.
** This year I also started doing annual reviews, but I'll cover this separately later.
*** I don't actually call it that, but why not?
**** If I ever become famous enough for an autobiography, it's where I'll go first.