My journal is in some ways similar to what ratfactor has described, only its not a hybrid analog/digital system. When I have time I will publish the second part, which describes how I implemented this workflow in Obsidian.
Without further ado, here is my workflow for keeping a digital journal:
- Have a daily note, that logs what important things have happened that day. One thing per dash. I don’t bother to log the time, because it’s information I do not use (it also prevents redundancy). NB: I sometimes have only one or two things logged for that day. Logging too much just drowns out the actually important stuff.
- If there is more to say: Instead of writing paragraphs about the thing in the daily note, branch it out into its own note and leave a link at the dash.
- This is basically a special case of point 2: Always create a note for ongoing projects: Write down what you’re doing in the project note. Use headings that link themselves back to the dailies - and link from the daily note to the project note: In this way you can see the progress made per project and don’t clog up your dailies, while at the same time retaining a list of the things you did that day.
- At the beginning of the next week, you do a weekly wrap-up: Last weeks weekly note gets populated by the important thoughts, projects, observations, ideas, etc. that occurred that last week: This often doesn’t take very long, because more often than not, you can copy and paste your most important bullet points from the dailies to your weeklies. You may want to add an extra comment to those here and there, or an extra thing, like an observation for stuff that didn’t get logged in the dailies but is deemed important enough to be remarked upon for the weekly.
- This pattern of taking the most important stuff from the dailies and putting it into the weeklies is repeated for each periodic note: The monthlies get populated by the weeklies, the quarterlies by the monthlies and the yearlies by the quarterlies. The most important stuff gets distilled even more the longer the timespan is the note covers. In this way the workload is kept relatively small, although the first round of wrap-ups every year can take a while, since you have to do a weekly, monthly, quarterly and yearly wrap-up all at the same time. But even then: It shouldn’t take longer than maybe an hour.
This little workflow is not too time intensive and at the same time gives me peace of mind: I do have a kind of journal of my life, which I can use to look back on what happened in my life.
I have been more or less doing this kind of journaling for two years now and can really recommend it. A word to clarify something important though: A journal kept in this way is not going to be a literary delight. Individual thoughts and observations might rise to that level, but the journal as a whole is much more utilitarian. If this is not a problem and you’d like the idea of distilling what’s been important this might be for you.
My note taking system consists of three different pieces:
- Timeless notes: Ideas, thoughts, etc. that are interlinked and are not time sensitive. These are often literally the base of knowledge from which I work. Here I try to distill what I have learned and try to push myself toward the new and the more generalized.
- Project notes: Status quos, todos and thoughts related to ongoing projects or tasks that have some kind of momentum but are more ephemeral than timeless notes.
- Journal notes: Notes that record what is happening or has happened so that I have a written record of aspects of my lived life.
Types 2 and 3 are very much related, although different in the sense, that a type 2 note is not necessarily interesting enough to be mentioned in a type 3 note. And a type 3 note is not so concerned with creating or maintaining momentum, but more with creating a record of what happened.
Type one notes are different in the sense that they should be more interlinked and add up to trees of notes that in turn act serendipity-enhancing on the interface between thinking and writing (including coding). You want to treat those kinds of notes differently and keep them separate. This is where the good stuff lives. Insights from type 2 and 3 notes might end up becoming a type 1 note.
A type 1 note is not the place to keep a record, though. It represents my latest stance on a topic, the latest formulation of an idea. They exist to be refactored and to be changed in any way that seems appropriate.
I had toyed with the idea for a while now: I have joined the ranks of the people who have their own newsletter!
Mine is called Notes On Notes and it collects and comments on a handful of links about notes and note taking that I found interesting in the last little while.
The thing is free and the first issue will go out tomorrow. I would be super thrilled if you‘d sign up.
In order to do this, you have to be interested in what you are doing. You will also notice how the definition of “better” is likely to change with time. In this sense having a notes system won’t lead to perfection. But it will lead to improvement.
There will be ebbs and flows. As you change, your note taking practice is likely to change. Some things might fall into disrepair. Other’s become important. Your note taking system might fall dormant for a while. It happens.
Is this good? Bad? Otherwise? Reflect upon why you want to do it, if evidence tells a different story. Be kind.
Why would you do that work? Do you want to do that work? Why? A note taking system can only be good if you are motivated to work on it. And the question that will drive you is this: Why?
Reflection is one of the most important tools here. Be attentive to what actually keeps you engaged with your notes. And then figure out the why behind the why. The notes will flow by themselves in this way.
In order to connect notes you first have to write them. If you have notes you can start to link them.1 Why linking? Why indeed! Have a reason. Maybe you have concepts that are connected in some way? Maybe you track gift ideas for the different people in your life and need an overview? Maybe you have a journal and you’d like to link yesterday’s page with today’s page and today’s page with tomorrow’s page?
Connecting notes helps to organize and structure your notes in a way that only ever requires a “local fit”. In comparison to tags/categories that have to work for the whole of your notes, a link only needs to make sense for the linking note.
If it is not obvious why the link exists, make the reason explicit. You want to explain links more often than you might think.
Writing a new note can include writing links to other notes. ↩︎
A note-taking system without notes doesn’t make much sense. You have to accumulate notes. Do they need to be good? Do they need to be perfect? No. They won’t be. Not on the first try.
But they do have to be written. What gets them written? In order for them to be written by choice, they have to be interesting enough - or the process of creating them has to be. You might be forced to write them, then maybe find a way to make it interesting.
In any case: Do start by writing notes.
(One of my favorite internet people is Merlin Mann who writes this on the first page of all his paper notebooks. This is the right approach to digital notes as well. Get it down first. Make something out of it later. This is a flickr-embed of Merlin’s photo. No copyright intended. See his Album for more.)
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