Journaling: Analog Respite in a Digital World

Nothing seems to catch the eye quite like a self-avowed technology geek writing in a paper notebook using a fountain pen. At least that’s the effect I seem to have when I do this in front of people who know me.

Few people understand how useful this habit can be. Even fewer realize I devote about ½ an hour every day to writing by hand. So in this blog post I’ll explain how I journal in the hope that this explanation illustrates why I do it.

To make this easier to picture, I’ve divided my habit into the right side and the left side of my notebook. These sides don’t correspond to any theories about the left and right sides of the brain. They literally are the left and right sides of every notebook I’ve been using for years.

Habits on the right side of the notebook

Over a decade ago, I read much of Julia Cameron’s book The Artist’s Way.

One of her recommendations is to write morning pages. These are three pages of whatever is on your mind. I’ve since changed my habit in ways I’ll discuss below. But if you’d like to know more about this habit, Cameron herself explains it in this video.

Each morning’s pages are already started the day before. I copy definitions from three separate vocabulary email newsletters. (I only get two on the weekend – one of them takes Saturday and Sunday off.) Check them out if you like: here’s A Word a Day, here’s Merriam-Webster and here’s There are probably lots more.

In the morning, I use each vocabulary word at least once in my journaling. Doing this every day helps me expand my vocabulary.

The morning’s journaling starts with three things I’m thankful for. I’ve read that people extend this written gratefulness habit over a whole page. Three things is enough for me.

From there, I continue on, veering positive and negative, from the mundane happenings of the past to potential matters in the future, from the concrete to the life of the mind, until I’ve written three full notebook pages. (In smaller notebooks, I may go on for four or five pages to write for at least 15 minutes.)

Sometimes I’ll come up with an idea that I’ll want to capture, so I put it on the fourth page of the day. Then I’ll return to journaling. That fourth page needs to contain at least ten ideas by the time I’m done. Sometimes ideas arrive quickly, sometimes they don’t, but they always arrive.

The ideas I have range widely in scope. One idea could be a solution for a national policy problem. The next could be how to schedule project obligations creatively. Then I might consider a new question to ask about a matter that puzzles me. I don’t need to be able to follow through on every idea. All that matters is that I encourage the ideas to flow.

I might have more than ten ideas in a day. When that happens. I start the next day’s ideas list to take some of the pressure off a morning when ideas might not flow abundantly.

At some point, I need to review the ideas and, in many cases, put them somewhere digital (most likely in my project management system) where I’ll find them again and follow up when appropriate. (I’ve been falling behind on this, so I’m going to tack this task onto the following morning’s journaling routine. Otherwise, I’ll periodically need to spend hours cleaning out my notebook.)

All of this happens on the right side of the notebook – except for the ideas, which start on the right, but if the text exceeds what the right page can hold, I continue on the left.

Habits on the left side of the notebook

On the left side of the notebook opposite the first “morning page” I write hour markers down the left side of the page. My current notebook goes from 7:00 to 18:00, skipping lines. This can vary depending on the number of lines per page in a notebook.

Then I copy that day’s appointments from my digital calendar onto this page.

On the next “left page” I list the tasks I need to do that day. At the top left of the page I write “Big Tasks.” At the bottom left, I write “Small Tasks.” Big tasks take an hour or more. Small tasks are the short phone calls or other easy, quickly done tasks. I list the small tasks starting at the bottom of the page so, if both lists grow long enough, they meet somewhere in the middle of the page, and I know I might need to put some of them off.

I learned the distinction when I read Stephen Covey’s Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. Here’s a short video that explains this concept in greater detail.

I might also use the left side of the notebook for miscellaneous lists.

Retiring a notebook

Once a notebook is finished, I make sure I’ve taken care of all lists so I don’t let anything slip through the cracks.  Then I label the notebook by start and end date and store it.

My journaling tools

I pick up notebooks on sale when I can. There’s a large bookstore near the movie theatre my girlfriend and I regularly go to. Their clearance section has a lot of marked-down notebooks. Most of them have kitschy sayings on them, ugly designs or other things that turn me off. But I sometimes score decent notebooks.

(After I wrote this post, I came up with the idea of using old journal covers I have to cover up notebook covers I don’t like the look of, so I can enjoy the good-quality paper inside. Score one for the “ten ideas” habit!)

My favourite design is the 5″ by 8″ black Moleskine-type notebook with:

  • good paper for fountain pens
  • a pocket inside the back cover
  • a bookmark
  • an elastic to hold the notebook closed

Notebooks last me anywhere from three weeks to a month and a half.

That fountain pen I mentioned is actually two pens, both Sheaffers, that I alternate between. If you write properly using a fountain pen, your hand doesn’t get as sore as it might were you to press the nib of a ballpoint onto paper. Anybody who has written three-hour history or English exams likely knows that soreness well.

Fountain pens can be finicky. You need to clean them between bottles of different-colour inks. One of my pens broke late last year, and I got a replacement that isn’t writing well at the moment. Fortunately, Frank at Laywine’s checked it out, aligned the tines, and counselled me to give it a good cleaning. Here’s hoping that’s all the pen needs. If not, I’ll visit Laywine’s again.

Why go to all this trouble for a pen? As I mentioned, writing for a while can do a number on one’s hand. But the practice can help me “break through” writers block. When it happens, I used to put my computer aside, pick up a pen and notebook and write about the thing blocking me. For some reason, writing using pen and paper seems to cause a difference in thought processes that unsticks whatever clogs the idea pipes. Sometimes the unsticking happens quickly. Sometimes it takes 4 or more pages. In the latter case, I’m glad I use a more ergonomic writing tool.

I only buy ink that shows up well when I use my pens to mark up black-and-white printouts of my work. I’m currently writing using turquoise ink in one pen and “royal blue” in the other. Green interests me due to the history of British ship’s captains of old who traditionally wrote their captain’s logs in green ink. And when Frank kindly serviced my pen at no charge – a pen that I hadn’t even bought at his store – I picked up a bottle of turquoise Lamy ink in what is arguably the most useful ink bottle ever created.

Concluding thoughts

This post turned into a deep dive into the current state of my “morning pages.”  The whole experience is a great way to get in touch with thoughts in a comfortable place each day.

Each change from Cameron’s morning pages habit came about as an idea turned into a (sub) habit. I may have more ideas in the future about how to use morning pages to jump-start my brain each morning, and those may or may not become habits.

Do you have a journaling routine, or any habits you think others might like to read about? Please share details in the comments below.

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