Using a catch-all journal and journaling the way I think

First, this is a little all over the place, because I tried three different times to write it, and between the start of it and the finish, I searched for and found a way to get what I wanted from my journaling. I also learned a little self-acceptance along the way.

At the start of the year, I decided to change the way I used my journals. I wanted to find a way to organize them, to group stuff together, and to make all my little notes much easier to find in the long run.

So I spent a few weeks jotting down ideas but I couldn’t come up with anything that might actually work for me.

My original idea was to use separate journals for the different parts of my life. That really didn’t work. Although the parts of my life can be organized into categories (writing, publishing, reading, hobbies, family, etc), the way I think about those things is pretty messy. I never seemed to be able to settle on which journal to use for which thing and all my messy thoughts kept bleeding over from one journal / notebook to another.

I wanted to fill separate books with separate things, but every time I tried, my mind started reminding me how I really think.

I have seven eight journals / notebooks on my desk right now that are in various stages of being filled. What’s inside is a mishmash of thoughts, lists, and ideas. There is no rhyme or reason for what goes in one or the other even though I intended for there to be when I started filling each one of them.

One such journal was meant for my goals. It now has notes on edits inside it, along with a Do Not Watch list for TV shows that keep drawing me back even though I’m disappointed every time I return to give them another try. It contains a few quotes from a book I was reading at one point (never finished reading that one), a list of things to remember, some longish journal entries, and a list of things I want to learn. And about fourteen different ink colors and even a few things written in pencil. (About a third of one of those pages is a color test for the ink that looks best on the pages that are a darker cream paper than I’m used to.)

In other words, it’s a mess. And that’s just twenty pages of a two-hundred page journal. The rest of the pages are still blank.

But when a thought needs capturing, I need to write it down—and in a hurry, too. I can be remarkably forgetful about some things while other things stay stubbornly in place inside my brain (like the fact that Shawn Spencer in Psych is played by James Roday whose actual last name is/was Rodriguez and he played Chad in the episode “Lights, Camera… Homicidio” in which Detective Lassiter doesn’t know how to say anything in Spanish except “I like cheese”). On the other hand, I don’t remember my grandmother’s birthday. It’s a day in August. That’s all I remember. Every time I check, I remember it for a few minutes, a day, and then poof!, it’s gone again.

I do not journal in well-separated chunks of ideas and topics, that’s for sure. It’s not even in somewhat independent topics. Writing about one thing inevitably leads me into something else and before I know it, I’m scratching out a to-do list beside my earnest attempt to work out why I hate my current book and what I ate for breakfast (and possibly why I never want to eat it again).

On the day I started this post, I had just run across a few articles about journaling (I searched for them, okay) and was skim reading one of them when the word catch-all jumped out at me and snagged my attention.

“After all, there’s a long tradition of writers and artists treating the journal as a glorious catch-all.”

Catch-all. Now there’s a glorious word for someone like me. ;-)

The link in that article led me to an article about Janice Lowry’s illustrated diaries. It is there that I discovered something that ultimately changed my entire view of how to approach getting what I want out of my journals.

Screenshot from Smithsonian Magazine of Janice Lowry's journals
Screenshot from Smithsonian Magazine of a page spread from Janice Lowry’s illustrated diaries.

I’m not a visual artist—most of my journaling is very long-form, with some lists and a very few drawings—but I didn’t see Lowry’s journals as something to try to copy. What I saw was a way to treasure the disorganization of my thoughts—a way to create something beautiful despite them.

All I really want from my journals is a way to keep up with the thoughts I’m afraid I’ll lose, a place where I can work through things that are bothering me, a place of discovery.

I’ve always been one to write down my thoughts to help me comb through them and find what matters. My journals have also given me a place for a lot of random things (that maybe only matter in the moment, but they matter then): to-do lists, work logs, random realizations, personal reflections, daily records, goals, or even a picture or two that I don’t know what to do with because I stopped keeping photo albums years and years ago and yet I keep finding myself with photographs that need putting away.

And yes, I really wanted to keep all those things in some central place because that’s just the way my mind works. I don’t have structured days and I most definitely do not have structured thoughts. I backed off the idea of organizing my journals and decided a catch-all journal was the way to go.

But again, unfortunately, when I tried it, I had problems. Finding things later isn’t easy when you use a catch-all system like this. I couldn’t remember what stuff was in what journal. And hoo-boy, I am really one with that out of sight, out of mind disorder. :D

Then I read “Why You Should Keep a Journal (But NOT Every Day)” and realized I had a big hang-up that was holding me back and I hadn’t even realized it! For years I’ve been trying to make journaling a habit, but really, it’s already more than a habit for me—it’s a way of life. After reading that article, I became suddenly very aware of just how much of a box I was trying to put myself into.

Daily journaling isn’t sitting down and writing an essay in a pristine little book full of nothing but other daily entries. It’s exactly what I’ve already been doing for almost my entire life, for at least as long as I’ve been able to string a few words together on paper and make them make sense.

I journal plenty! I’m writing things down—my thoughts, my dreams, my lists, my ideas—all the time! I’m recording things, tracking things, thinking things through on paper and in digital form day after day, and whether that makes it into a long-form essay-like journal entry matters not one little bit.

After that realization, the only thing I really wanted to do differently than I was already doing was to put more of those thoughts and lists and ideas onto paper. Because again, out of sight, out of mind, and the one important thing I’ve discovered from flipping through some of my older journals, is that I need to flip through my journals on occasion to revisit some of those thoughts and ideas and I want to do that away from my computer or phone or tablet (practically speaking, I also want notes that will exist outside my computer for other reasons too).

So I started carrying around a tiny little journal that’s mostly a hardback notebook the size of my hand (one of these little ones, in fact). I’ve been writing everything in it; it is without a doubt my catch-all journal of choice, and then—here’s where it all comes together for me—then I move what needs to be moved into another journal when I have the time. Touching things twice, sometimes three times, really helps me remember it.

Seeing my notes, flipping through them all, and then expanding some when I transfer them into other journals, makes a world of difference.

Having this catch-all journal as a layover between my thoughts and my permanent journals is just the thing I needed to bring it all together.

I now have a journal that contains ONLY my list of fiction readings for 2019. (I’ll probably use it for 2020 forward too.

I have a journal for annotations and quotes: basically just somewhere I write down quotes from nonfiction books and articles I’m reading and thoughts I might be having about them.

Then I have a journal for simple, long-form entries where I talk about things that I want to write about, and I’m no longer worried that sometimes I go weeks or months without writing one of those, and then maybe write three in a row. That’s where the photos will end up, because some things don’t change.

I have a journal for my story notes—any story I happen to be working on.

And then I have two more general notebooks and journals that I write all those notes to self into and expand on them, or make plans that I’ve touched on in the small notebook.

Finally, there are some things that won’t ever get transferred from the small notebook to a more permanent home, because those thoughts or lists were ephemeral and they served their purpose.

It’s been about two weeks since I started doing things this way, but this has the feeling of something that’s going to stick.

Office 365 issues, OneNote, and my local notebooks

So… I mentioned canceling Office 365 and uninstalling? Turns out it wasn’t as easy as that. I still use OneNote, so I reinstalled it after uninstalling Office 365.

OneNote is supposed to be a freebie these days, although who knows for how long, but right off it started giving me little error-like messages about my local notebooks and how I needed an Office 365 subscription to keep using them. Most of my notebooks are local notebooks, meaning they’re stored on my computer’s hard drive instead of on OneDrive.

These local notebooks and the free version of OneNote are pretty much incompatible. It was allowing me to use them, but only when I twisted its arm. In trying to diagnose what might be going on, because at that point I didn’t know, I chose to “switch” my license. I didn’t realize that meant that the entire Office 365 suite would reinstall itself on my computer in the background, but that’s exactly what happened.

The next day, I clicked on one of my spreadsheet files and Excel 2016 opened. At which point I said: “What the hell?”

I did a little research but didn’t turn up anything to explain why it had reinstalled itself so I uninstalled Office 365 again.

Then I closed one of my OneNote notebooks—a local one. Then I changed my mind and tried to reopen it. The freebie version of OneNote absolutely would not let me reopen the notebook. The error-like message was back, telling me I needed to sign up to Office 365 to use that notebook. It was the same message as before, only before, I could close it and still access my local notebooks. But I absolutely could not reopen a local notebook, at which point I realized it wasn’t a glitch at all but an actual limitation of the freebie version of OneNote. Local notebooks aren’t supported.

At that point, I thought about the licensing issue and what it might have meant and how I might be stuck with Office 365 if I wanted OneNote to work the way it had worked before.

So I “switched” my license for OneNote again, assuming I would wake up to the entire Office 365 suite on my computer again, but at least I’d have the ability to open my local OneNote notebook.

That happened, and I successfully reopened my closed (local) notebook.

So yay for that?

I’m still going to allow my subscription to expire, and I’ve left the recurring billing turned off. What I’m hoping will happen is that my OneNote install will continue to work normally even after the other programs deactivate themselves. I’m not at all confident that this is what will happen, but that is my hope.

There are three reasons why I don’t want to stop using OneNote for my notes.

  1. I can paste bits from my spreadsheets into a note and have it retain formatting as a table with no extra work at all. Everything just works. I don’t want to embed the spreadsheet because I delete the bits that I’m pasting. That’d be useless. I just want it for reference. That’s all.
  2. All my notes are consolidated in one location and accessible from one file (essentially).
  3. I can search through all my notes easily at one time.

I debated the issue with myself but ultimately I decided to move my local notebooks to OneDrive so I can keep using OneNote for most of them, with the exception of my journal. I exported that to a Word .docx, imported it to Writer and saved a copy as an .odt file.

I’ve already started using it for my journal. There are some definite benefits to it being an .odt file and I’m happy that I did it.

There’s also one drawback: I can paste bits from my spreadsheets into LibreOffice Writer, but I have to paste it in as HTML formatted text and then manually apply table styling to it so that it looks like a table. I tested it a few times and I can imagine getting really good at it, but it’s not instantaneous like it is in OneNote.

So that my notes continue to look the same, I added a few styles that are easy to apply.

  • Note Title
  • Note Meta
  • Note Paragraph
  • Note Indent
  • Note List

That seems to be all I need for most of my entries. But I like how neat it all looks. And now I have text statistics. My journal for 2015–2018-to-date is just over 93,000 words. That makes me sad. I just barely managed 126,000 words of fiction last year!

I have to say, it definitely makes me feel like I’m falling down on the job.

But the beauty of this is that if I get tired of one font (it happens!) or a particular layout style, I can easily change it for my whole journal with a simple style edit. :-) Doing that in OneNote is pretty much impossible without some kind of weird hack, because changing the note font even in options doesn’t apply to old notes.

What does it take to be a productive writer? A journal!

I read an article today that caused me to rethink the differences between my really productive Sunday and my less productive Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday (and Thursday, so far). It was the title of the piece that drew me in—interstitial is just that kind of word.

Replace Your To-Do List With Interstitial Journaling To Increase Productivity: A new journaling tactic that immediately kills procrastination and boosts creative insights” promised not to be just another article on productivity journaling (boring) but something more and I decided I really had to know what the author of the piece had to say.

(Note: you do appear to need a Medium account to read the complete article.)

I wasn’t disappointed, even though I saw right away that this was exactly the kind of journaling I already do on my more productive days. In fact (from the article):

During your day, journal every time you transition from one work project to another. Write a few sentences in your journal about what you just did, and then a few more sentences about what you’re about to do.

The author talks about this as journaling in the “interstitial moments” between projects. For me, I journal when I take breaks between sessions. The example the author showed of this kind of journaling is very close to what I do in my private journal (even down to putting in the time) and I’ve also done it some here on the blog, although not lately.

It’s also very similar to what I did Sunday, and what I didn’t do Monday through Wednesday (or even Thursday, so far).

Since I journal in so many different places, it’s been hard for me to go back and check just how many of my more productive days involved this kind of journaling and how many didn’t, but my gut tells me this has been a significant determinant of whether or not I’ve ended up having a successful writing day.

The problem I have measuring this gut feeling is that I currently log all this stuff in any of three active paper journals (not counting my cheap spiral notebooks), this blog, and my OneNote journals. Some days I write in OneNote (today) and some days I write in my hardback journal, or my 5×8 softbound journal, or my BlueSky spiral notebook (that I adore). And some days I just post to the blog and do no other journaling at all.

I might have a hard time writing a lot of fiction, but let me tell you, I write a shit ton of everything else. ;)

In the “journal everything” section of the article, I saw so much of my own journaling habits that it was a little spooky. I also suspect that many of those days were the days when I successfully overcame procrastination.

From one of my own private journal entries (November 4, 2015):

9:49 am: Started my break. Although my numbers started out low, they’ve improved a bit and the goal of having a record breaking day doesn’t look out of reach so I’m going to keep aiming in that direction.

I’ve been yawning so I hope that doesn’t turn into a problem. But I need do only two more sessions before lunch so it’s not that bad! I can nap then if I really need it.

12:02 pm: 2,021 words

I’m disappointed I’m not further along but I did hit a bit of a wall when it comes to energy earlier. I got through it though. Now I need to have a quick lunch and get back to writing. I think the story is going well and I’m looking forward to where it might go.

My pace is only 622 wph this morning, and I’m 5 minutes short of 4 full 50 minute sessions. That means that I wrote for 3.25 hours out of about 4.25 hours. That’s an average of 20 minutes between every session. Not bad. Better than I have been doing at any rate! Improvement is good. :)

Caught up with Pulp Speeders, now getting to lunch! 12:27 pm.

1:28 pm. And of course, lunch took longer than I expected. My battery isn’t changed yet either. I think I’ll take a short nap. If I can. Just a quick little eye rest. :D

1:53 pm. My quick little eye rest didn’t turn into a nap, but I do feel better and ready to get started again.

3:48pm. 2,498 words

Of course, none of that ended up here on the blog as my only November 4, 2015 entry proves.

I’ll be honest, this article came at an opportune time. I’ve been wishy-washy today about whether or not I wanted to go back to using timers to keep me focused on writing, but I kind of really don’t want to do that, not yet at any rate. This journaling could be the key to keeping me productive during the transition, and could also explain some of my former productivity.

Even the month I posted nothing here and maintained my most consistent writing pace ever (February 2013), I wrote in my private journals. I’d love to go back and read them, but they’re the ones I deleted in late 2014 and I still could kick myself for doing that. I have a note to myself at the top of my OneNote journals notebook. It says simply: REMEMBER – Do not delete journals again!

Funny, but I dare not get rid of that reminder. I also moved to expensive paper journals for the same reason. I’m much less tempted to tear out pages and throw them away when the cost is $9+ for the journal versus the $0.25 I paid for the cheap spiral notebooks I used to use. :D

Know thyself, as they say.

The thing is, this is something I’ve been doing for a long time, but not every day and not deliberately. I think it’s time I give it a deliberate place in my writing day.

Since today hasn’t been great (so far), it’s the perfect time to put this into practice and see if it leads to me writing more words tonight. Because I really need to write, and the 315 words I have so far are nowhere near where I’d imagined this day ending up when I got started this morning.

So thanks, Tony Stubblebine! Your article has made a difference in someone’s life today. :D

Why I now write my notes in high-quality journals

No writing yesterday. I was out and about and at the localish Books-A-Million came across a good deal on some very pretty journals I can use for my writing.

In actuality, this one has a gold bookmark (both have two strands so I can mark two spots!).
This one has a pale pink ribbon for a bookmark, not this bright pink reddish color, and it also has two strands so I can mark two spots in the book. :)

I looked up the publisher (flametreepublishing.com) to see just how good a deal I got and was very pleased. :) Plus, the journals are so worth it. They’re unlined and labeled as sketchbooks but the paper is so smooth and nice, and I’ve been wanting to try an unlined journal, so I couldn’t pass them up. They’re beside me right now and I keep touching them because I think they’re so gorgeous. ;D

(The images link to Amazon because they’re less expensive there than on the Books-A-Million website. Even at Amazon, they’re still not as good a deal as what I got in store.)

The fact is, I love writing my notes in pretty journals. It took me a while to get there, because I’ve used cheap little tablets for years, and the few quality journals I’ve bought, I’ve hoarded and never could work up the nerve to actually scribble notes in them. I always felt like I should only write important things in the pretty journals and notebooks. But I’ve finally overcome that feeling and I’m glad. I like having these things on my bookshelves and I’m much less likely to rip out all the pages and toss them, which is what I’ve done in the past with many of my cheap notebooks.

I want to keep these things on my bookshelves so I can look back at what I was thinking and feeling and noting when I worked on a particular book. :D

If you’re tempted to do the same, give in. It’s so much easier to justify hanging on to what feel like silly little notes to yourself when they’re written in beautiful or high-quality notebooks. :)