Keeping a journal

There are some things I always carry with me – keys, wallet, phone, and a bright yellow A5 notebook.

I like to think of the notebook as an analog download of my brain. I follow the bullet journal system, which means it’s a combination of a journal, a planner, a collection of lists, and basically anything else I feel like writing down.

I highly recommend keeping a journal. Writing down your thoughts can be a good way to work through problems and relieve stress. Plus, years later you can look back at it and laugh at what an embarrassing idiot you were. It’s a gift to yourself that keeps on giving.

My journals: a history

I’ve written in journals on and off throughout my life. But there were a few prolific periods which stand out.

First, there was 3rd grade. My teacher made us spend the last 15 minutes of every school day writing in a notebook, a task which I resented enormously for some reason. The notebooks were kept in a locked cupboard in the classroom and she promised not to read them. Clearly she kept that promise, because otherwise I’m pretty sure my parents would have gotten a phone call about my original short story in which she murdered and ate the President.

Photo of old journal saying 'All right, these boys are definitely very very CRAZY! I am getting quite mad at these boys. In fact I'm FURIOUS! And I really mean it'. Furious is spelled wrong and all the letters have little faces.
Mad at these boys.

My next long stretch of journalling was the summer I turned 14, just before I started high school. I decided to write in my journal for an hour a day so I could find myself and “create a snapshot of my life”. I also started every entry with “Quoth Iris:” so re-reading it now makes me want to crawl into a hole and die.

And, of course, there were the LiveJournal years. These were intermittent and less confessional, but spanned from when I was 13 (mostly surveys and Neopets drama) all the way through to university (mostly drinking and housemate drama). My LiveJournal was hidden from my real life friends but open to some internet friends, which means it’s full of “t3h r4ndoms~” and in-jokes I no longer get.

As an adult, I tried several times to get back into journaling, but it never stuck. I’d keep it up for a few weeks, then slowly fall off the wagon and end up with another half-finished notebook. Every time I felt more guilty that I’d failed to keep the journal properly. At least 50% of my entries would start with apologising to the journal for not writing enough. It was not satisfying.

Getting back into journalling

I can’t remember where I first heard of the concept of bullet journals. If you’re new to them, have a look at this overview of the system. It’s pretty simple – just a method of structuring a notebook.

The big draw of bullet journaling for me was its flexibility. I was used to a very strict format of journaling – date at the top, followed by pages of deep thoughts. But the bullet journal could be whatever I wanted, or whatever was useful to me at the time. It was a to-do list, a calendar, a tracker, and an excuse to blow too much money on cute stationery.

It was also very low tech, a good thing when I already spent way too much of my life looking at screens. Sure, my phone could do all this stuff. But the notebook had a lovely tactile appeal, and it wouldn’t distract me with notifications and the option to watch YouTube.

Like any good developer, I started with an alpha phase – I bought a cheap 40-page notebook and used that for a few weeks. When I realised the system was working well for me, I upgraded to my first Leuchtterm1917.

Initially my journal was mostly lists – weekly tasks, recommended books, films I’d watched, New Year’s resolutions. But then a funny thing started to happen – I started properly journalling again. Because I was constantly writing in the notebook, it felt natural to start dumping more and more of my thoughts into it. And because I was using it in multiple ways, I didn’t feel guilty if I went a while without a traditionally introspective journal entry, because I was still using it for everything else.

Inside the journal

Aside from all my very important thinky thoughts, there are several types of pages I regularly make.

Monthly spreads

I set up the same four pages at the start of every month. The first two pages are a calendar of all the important dates and events. I try to keep this up-to-date as new things get added so I’ve got a record of what I did.

The third page is the tracker. Every day I rate my mood and log a few other things, like exercise, or any habits I’m trying to make or break. What I actually track varies from month to month.

The fourth page is my gratitude log. Every day I try to write down a few things I’m grateful for, like “cannellini beans” or “that dinosaur asteroid did not obliterate all life”. When I first heard this idea I thought it sounded incredibly cheesy, and honestly I still find its earnestness a little embarrassing, but it can be a good way to make me appreciate the positive things in life (especially when I’m in a sour mood).

At the end of the month, I write up a retrospective (wow, so agile) of what went well and what did not go well. This goes next to the calendar.

Sometimes I add stickers.

Setting all this up can be a little time-consuming, but it’s a peaceful task and I like how it makes me feel prepared for the month ahead.

Weekly pages

I set this up at the start of the week (or usually on Sunday night).

On the left-hand side of the page, I make a little vertical calendar of every day that week and any events. The rest of the page contains a to-do list.

I’ve experimented with having other things on the page (like a mini tracker, or listing accomplishments I’m proud of) but nothing has really stuck yet.


Yeahhhhhhh, lists!!!!! I love lists. Some of my current lists are:

  • books I want to read
  • books I have read (including dates and ratings)
  • films I have watched
  • blog post ideas
  • gift ideas
  • runs (including distance, time and pace)
  • packing checklist for overnight trips
  • weeknight dinners
  • songs that got stuck in my head

There’s also a table of contents, which is kind of a list of lists.

Decorating the journal

Some people are really, really extra about their bullet journals. Go on Instagram and you’ll see what I mean – photo after photo of calligraphy, watercolours and collage. I found this a little intimidating when I started, but then I realised that I can do what I want because nobody else actually cares (obviously, which is why I’ve written this extensive blog post about it).

But I’m also not cool and minimalist enough to just go for ballpoint on paper. I spend a lot of time looking at this thing, and I get a kick out of making it pretty. I keep the daily entries fairly spartan so I don’t get distracted from writing, but other pages are a little more elaborate.

Zigzag decorative tape above the handwritten heading
The fruits of my office supply hoarding.

I got some cute Stabilo pastel highlighters, which I use for headings and calendar highlights. I like to play around with different handwritten fonts, but this highlighter and dropshadow combo is the one I use the most.

I also started buying little rolls of decorative tape, mostly from Tiger. This unexpectedly snowballed into a bit of a collection and now I have enough tape in my home to wrap a thousand years of Christmas presents.

Photo of lots of decorative tape
My strange addiction.

I definitely try not to be a perfectionist about this. My handwriting is messy and I regularly smudge the ink or let highlighters bleed through the page. The most important thing is that the journal is useful, not that it’s beautiful. But when I’m in the right mood, decorating it can be fun and satisfying.

The future of my journals

Right now I’m using my journal more than ever before. The first Leuchtterm I got back in 2016 lasted for 13 months. It only took me six months to blow through the most recent one.

But there may come a time when this system doesn’t work for me any more. Or maybe I’ll just get tired of writing. This is fine. At least I’ve definitely done what 14-year-old me also set out to do – create a snapshot of what my life is like right now. Maybe she and I aren’t so different after all.

Photo of an old journal.
She is, however, MOST DISPLEASED.

4 thoughts on “Keeping a journal

  1. I love this post – it made me laugh out loud several times. I haven’t been able to do the bullet journaling because it’s too much pressure – I am just not creative in that way. I just use my regular journal to do whatever I like without apologies. I, too, feel journalising is therapeutic so I am glad you discovered it again.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Really enjoyed reading this.
    How do you deal with home vs work tasks? Do you keep 2 separate journals, or are they in same one, or do you not keep a work bujo?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks! 🙂 I’m pretty strict about keeping work tasks out of the personal bullet journal as I really like having that separation between work and the rest of my life. I’ll write about work in my journal entries, and I’ve done a few pages for career decisions and professional development stuff, but “Finish building feature X” is never getting on the task list (although “Book annual leave” does).

      I tried keeping a separate work bujo for a bit, but I found the context switching between laptop and notebook didn’t really work for me. My current method of managing work tasks is just a rolling to-do list which I keep open in my text editor. Not nearly as pretty but it seems to work for me.

      Liked by 1 person

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