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Chris Gore: Journaling

I have been keeping a daily journal for years now, and I think you should too. It is one of the best forms of meta-cognition available to man. You can't just think, you need to think about how you think in order to do so well. That is what meta-cognition is, by the way, 'thinking about thinking.' Keeping a journal every day for years allows you to look back at how you actually thought, instead of the rewiring our brains do every day.

Why Keep a Journal?

One of the best uses of a long-term daily journal is to see how you actually thought about something at the time. You might think that you can just think back, but you can't: your brain will often intentionally mis-remember motivations and emotions to protect it's self-view, making you seem better than you really were for most people, or worse than you really were if you have a self-esteem problem. Often it is even worse, you just forget your previous viewpoints: it can be difficult to remember how you used to think.

You can see original estimates for projects and goals, and see how well you or how poorly you did at meeting them. You can see patterns in the things you take interest in and then lose interest in, only to take them back up again. You can keep track of your progress towards personal goals too, not just work-related goals: weight loss, personal fitness, diet, life-long learning, personal development, and all of many other things you make for new-year's resolutions and then forget about by mid-February. You can remember them because the paper doesn't forget. You will look back at your goals from January 1st sometime in April and hopefully get back to work.

Diaries versus Journals

An important distinction should be made between what are typically called 'diaries' and what are typically called 'journals'. Their format is very similar but their purpose and their content is typically quite different. A dairy is a daily record of your emotions and your relationships with other people. A journal is also a daily record, but it typically focuses on tasks, research, your job, your goals, and other such stuff, and mostly avoids emotional content. Both diaries and journals are daily, but they serve different purposes. If you want to keep a diary then I don't have much advice to give you, because I haven't ever done so. But even if you do keep a diary I would still recommend that you keep a jounal in addition, as a second book. Journals are useful in their own right.

A good way to explain the difference between the two is by examples. Diaries are usually considered deeply private by the people who write them: imagine one of those locking diaries that teenage girls sometimes have. If someone were to read the diary, the diarist would be typically greatly distraught, as attested to by many a sitcom episode where the teenage girl's diary is discovered by her brother/father/mother/boyfriend. Journals, while typically private, are not so in that sense of the word. Someone reading my journal is unwanted, but is more along the lines of them rifling through my desk. I'll occasionally photocopy a page or two out of it and give that to a coworker, the notes to a meeting he missed or some useful information about how to do something work-related, whereas I have trouble imagining Betsy Sue photocopying pages out of her diary and passing them out in class. It is more an exercise in note-taking than soul-spilling.

Paper or Electronic

I am one of the biggest fans of computers in the universe, and I am a professional programmer. Someone like me is probably the most capable of using an electronic journal, but I don't, I use paper. I think that electronic journals are vastly inferior to paper journals in many of the most important ways, and while there are some advantages, they just aren't that big.

The biggest advantage to paper journals over electronic ones is that you can quickly put anything in them: doodles, charts, diagrams, quick notes, to-do lists, anything you can represent with ink on paper. You don't need to worry about how to get your tables lined up correctly like you might with a word processor, you don't need to worry about how to include weird foreign characters, you don't need to worry about a different program/app/whatever for your to-do list, you don't need to spend hours on some diagram, you can just put pen to paper.

One of the biggest advantages to electronic documents is that they are easily changed and edited. This is why word processors so quickly eliminated typewriters: if you mis-spelled a word, just backspace a few times and fix it. Want that section in the middle somewhere? No problem, just cut and paste. But, these are things you never want to do with a journal. A document in a word processor is the ultimate three-ring binder and pencil replacement, but you want the opposite, a pen and a hard-bound leather book. You don't want to be able to edit, you want a permament written word. You want to be able to see your mistakes forever, not erase them. Because those mistakes might be useful information to you later. This isn't a document that you polish until it is perfect, there are no draft copies, this is a once-off thing.

I use a nice leather-bound journal and non-erasable ink for my journal. I would recommend a good quality journal, it serves as a trick on your mind to encourage keeping the journal. Since the journal is nice, you'll be more likely to use it. My current one looks like this:

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I recommend going with an acid-free archival-quality paper. If you don't, it will yellow like an old newspaper in a few years. Make sure the binding is sewn, more specifically what is known as 'smyth-sewn', like you will see in a high-quality Bible. You should have this journal with you most of your day, and it will fall apart if it isn't well made. Make sure the pen uses a waterproof ink.