Note: I would personally be hesitant about using anyone else’s process for journaling. I created my system from scratch and I think that’s in large part why it has been so useful for me.
I will explain these details chronologically, in sync with the main essay.
How I developed my practice: specific details
- My writing process is as follows:
- Whenever I have a new idea, I create a text document for it in a folder of ideas.
- Whenever I want to write, I go through my ideas folder and add sub-ideas to each note.
- Over time, a few of these notes coalesce into essays which seem like they could be coherent to others if I posted them publicly.
- Occasionally, I review essays that I have already posted, and revise as wished.
2020 Fall - 2021 Spring
Taking notes on individual people
- During this period I also started taking notes in the conversations I had with others. I was in my first year of university, and for the first time I was meeting plenty of people, and I took notes to keep track. I also began to take notes on paper during the conversations I had (most were over Zoom, anyway). I would then reference these notes next time I spoke to that person.
- At this point in time I had only a few dozen files total: one for every season, and one for a couple of topics. However I found the topical notes difficult to manage.
- Near the end of this period I began to notice that there was structure to my chronological journal entries— they seemed to factor into a few core topics: individual people, courses, health, exercise, and a few others. I also found my current journaling format frustrating: everything was in a massive chronological markdown file, one file for each season— I wanted instead to be able to scroll by date and by topic.
- In order to fix that frustration, I looked for journaling apps and found one that allowed me to organize by date and topic.I now use Obsidian, which I prefer over alternatives because it’s local-first.
- Note: I believe that fancy apps are mostly useless! Don’t get stuck!
- Note from 2022: I first started using this app because I thought linking was cool, but the real utility for me is that Obsidian makes it easy for me to have many notes, as I can easily view multiple at once, not forget about all of the notes I have, and cross-reference content between notes. I just checked and apparently I have more than 2,000 notes.
- I find links to be very useful, but backlinks to be almost useless. Links are nice because they remove the need to remember the name of files, so I can have more files than I can remember names.
- I started making a new note for everyday (Daily Notes) and journaling accordingly. Within these daily notes, I also started linking to topical notes (e.g. specific people; specific ideas; and, later, specific emotions). It was quite messy though, so I improved this system later.
On Personal Knowledge Management
- Context about writing: Outside of my essay drafting, I don’t journal for research purposes or knowledge management. (And I don’t archive articles from the internet or do lots of things with book notes.) I say this only because I know some internet people go wild about this.
- At this point I had a note for every person who was significant in my life, but I had only been taking notes on conversations and interactions with said people in my daily notes. I found this messy, though, so I began to journal information about person X on person X's page.
- How I organize people pages:
- The top of each page would contain background/other information about the person. For example, I tag the cities in which my friends live.
- Each person page has a level-1 markdown heading called “stream of interactions”, with level-2 subheadings for each time I interacted with that person, e.g. “[[2022-01-05]] we spoke (irl)”.
- During this period I also began to enforce that every journal entry be in bullet format. (Bullets play nicer with some of Obsidian's features. Before now I would use an arbitrary amount of line breaks to separate topics.)
- I took analogy from how I journal about people and started journaling in stream-and-date format in notes like the following. Here are some of the notes I currently find helpful with introspection:
- Some notes I use a few times a week, most of them I use rarely.
- I occasionally (a few times a month atm) decide to make new notes like the above, but I’m not sure how to describe my process for that.
- I also have notes on everyone I talk to, and many other notes pertaining to my website and idea drafting.
- A month before I wrote this essay a reader spontaneously reached out to me and explained her eerily similar journaling practice. She sent me her index, and I find it cute. © Aria Lakhmani:
- When I write a journal entry that fits into multiple topics, I use my writing app to cross-link it.
- E.g. Recently I wanted to an entry with the header “[[2022-04-13]] I think I have a fear of following my intrinsic motivations” into a new entry in the note [[my personal development]], so I used the embedding syntax for Obsidian: “![[my aesthetics and enjoyment of experience and life#2022-04-13 I think I have a fear of following my intrinsic motivations]]”.
- (The cross-links are what created the connections in the graph (see final image) on the main essay.)
- I also often use Obsidian’s ability to cross-link individual bullet points across notes.
- I briefly stopped using daily notes during this time, however this led to an incident of confusion where I didn’t know where to put thoughts that I didn’t already have pre-existing categories for. My solution was to still occasionally use daily notes, and also to create a fallback note called [[notes about me that I don’t yet know how to articulate and am confused about]].
- I think the YYYY-MM-DD date format is the best date format.
On sharing journal entries with others
- Since 2019 I had had a strong rule of never sharing my journal entries with others— I knew that if I knew my future self might share something that my past self had written, that I then might be unwilling to be completely honest with myself now. Still, I was experimenting with an abundance of “vulnerability” at the time and experimented with sharing a large amount of my journals with others. These experiments were locally somewhat helpful, but not something I would do again.
- Moreover, at least one of these sharings was overeager and I regretted it later. (But, hey, for the first time I understood why others seemed nervous about being vulnerable.)
- I also saw this influence how I journaled: I began to censor and skew my writing in case someone else read it later.
- In 2022, I often send friends short, individual entries from my journals as a way to sync.
Warnings if you try this yourself
- There’s a way of reading an essay like this and then concluding “Ok, I will journal now.” But “journaling” isn’t real— I think what’s real are the intentions like caring for, paying attention to, and listening to yourself. Journaling is just one way that I carry this out, and maybe for you this looks completely different.
- I also expect that one day I will outgrow journaling; I would not be surprised if I later decide that this was a temporary crutch for me.
- I don’t know how to journal about most of the conscious experiences that I have. I do not know how to write most of what I see. I try to make sure that what I journal does not come to define what I think my experience is. There’s a lot more that I don’t know that I know.
If this essay influenced your journaling practice, I’d like to hear from you! And maybe I can add one of your examples to the main essay:)
© 2020 – 2022 Chris LakinThanks to Jason Benn for suggesting that I create this page.