Ideas for Easier Journal-Writing

I love our church’s emphasis on journaling, which is hypocritical because I totally suck at it. I enjoy writing, and I see the value in documenting my life, if only for myself. But when it comes to sitting down and writing a bit, I’ve always had a terrible time getting into a routine.

I totally buy into the importance of it. Cataloging my spiritual experiences helps me remember them. Remembering them keeps the foundation of my testimony top of mind, and comes in handy during those moments when I need them. If I don’t record them somewhere, specific spiritual moments leave my memory so quickly.

Thomas S. Monson seems to remember every spiritual experience he ever had. Specific hospital visits in the mid-60s, for instance—how does he recall them? Does he have an assistant who makes a note of every spiritual prompting and its outcome? Has he told the stories so often that they’ll stick with him forever?

I’m not sure, and I’m not sure I’ve even had the kinds of spiritual experiences that would warrant inclusion in Pres. Monson’s capacious long-term memory.

But what spiritual experiences I have had should be noted somewhere. As should all the experiences that have shaped who I am. To find a journaling system that works, I’ve tried a few different hacks, which might come in handy for you as well.

The first is one I adapted from Lifehacker about a year ago. Create a Google Form that you fill out each day, and your results are tracked in a Google Spreadsheet. Basically, you’re taking a survey every night, and you’re the only one with access to your responses, which basically serve as your diary. If you need a reminder prompt, attach the Google Form URL to a calendar invite that alerts you every night.

In my case, the “survey” is three simple questions:

  1. What did you do today?
  2. Whom did you meet today?
  3. How did you feel today?

I’m thinking of adding a fourth question: What did you learn today? Filling out the survey takes just a couple minutes, and forces a bit of reflection and introspection at the end of each day. Healthy, right?

The other idea just came to me last week, but I’ve been trying it out and it seems to be working. The problem I’m trying to solve: I need a central idea repository. Whenever I have a good idea, I write it down…somewhere. In whatever notebook is close at hand, or the Notes app on my iPhone, or as an email to myself, or as a scribble on my tablet. You’d think this haphazardness would mean I’m constantly surrounded by my own ideas, but actually, the opposite is true. I write the idea down to save it, and don’t see it again until months later, if ever.

My solution was to create a private Twitter feed that only I have access to. When something comes to me—and idea, or an impression, or someone I need to visit (to continue the Pres. Monson theme)—I’ll tweet it to myself, which gives it an automatic time stamp. Perhaps I’ll Favorite the tweets I still need to pull off, and un-star them once they’re done. I’m expecting good things from this system, because my phone and thus the Twitter app are always available, and easy to get to. It might be the lowest possible bar for both recording and reviewing the ideas that come to me.

So we’ll see if that works. If I become prophet in 40 years, it’ll definitely be because of Twitter. What journaling system works for you?


  1. I also love the Church’s emphasis on journaling and love to keep a journal. As a YW this was particularly emphasized, especially the idea of keeping a positive, upbeat, spiritual journal, one my posterity would be proud to read some day. I feel this is is not great advise and one that I wish I had not followed. I wish I had been more open about what I put in my journal with the goal of being authentic and genuine. I struggled as a teen with my testimony, but so desperately wanted to be strong in the Church. I guess I focused only on positive spiritual experiences so that I could become stronger in the Church. That didn’t really work. I still struggle with “cog dis” and wish my 18 year old self would have kept those thoughts and ideas in a journal. At the time I felt that was wrong. Now I write down as much as I can about who I really am, my daily life, my children, etc. I don’t hold back anymore and I find journaling much more easy to do and much more enjoyable to read past writings. So don’t hold back and don’t follow anyone else’s “rules.”

  2. Karen H. says:

    Journaling was the first Mormon commandment/recommendation/lifestyle expectation/emphasis that I jettisoned at the tender age of about 15. I was keeping a journal fairly regularly then, talking about the things I was doing–including youth conference where I learned how to play strip poker. A few months later my mom was in my room and claimed that my journal fell off the dresser and just happened to open to the strip poker page. I was in big trouble. It became clear to me then that leaving a clear chain of evidence was a bad idea. And then I grew up to be a lawyer. The end.

  3. That is awesome. Thank you!!

  4. Also, have you used Evernote? It’s a great way to store notes, thoughts, lessons, articles, etc.

  5. My journal writing actually began with a YW personal progress goal when I was 14. The goal said it takes 3 weeks to make or break a habit, so if I wrote in my journal every day for 3 weeks, I could make it a lifetime habit.

    My mom bought me a nice bound journal, and I started writing. It’s now been 18+ years and I’ve kept it up every day. (Which is weird as no other YW goals had that lasting of an effect on me.) I think there were two main keys for me. The first really was to make it a habit. It’s the very last thing I do before going to bed, and I keep my journal and a pen in my nightstand for easy access.

    The other is I give myself perfect freedom – that’s been huge in keeping it up. Basically, I allow myself to write anything from 1 sentence to as many pages as it takes. (The 1-sentence thing helps a lot on boring days or days when I’m really tired.) I can be positive, negative, whatever, regardless of who may one day read it (this can be very therapeutic). I make sure to write for myself – whatever helps or is the most benefit to me – which keeps it from feeling like a chore. And although I go for honesty, I don’t force full disclosure. So if I don’t want to write about something, for whatever reason, I just don’t – guilt-free. This has worked really well for me. It may or may not be helpful for others.

  6. I suck at traditional jounaling and always have. I don’t care much about the details of my daily life.

    Blogging has filled my own journaling need perfectly. I care much more about “the things of my soul” than about the events of my days. Thus, my personal blog is a compilation of the ideas and concepts about which I care passionately.

    I started my personal blog in September 2007. I wrote once or twice a week until July 2008, three times a week until September 2008, then daily (excepting Sundays) for the last 4.5 years. I started linking to posts I love from others about that time, and I have linked to two posts each week for approximately the last four years.

    Some of my posts are lengthy; many are quite short; all of them are what I want my children and grandchildren and others to know about me long after I’m gone.

  7. J. Stapley says:

    This is awesome Kyle. I have a huge love for journals and journaling and am simultaneously terrible at it.

  8. Bryan H. says:

    +1 for Evernote.

    When I was on my mission I hardly ever got any correspondence from home so when my kid brothers went I made sure to sit down and fire off an email every Sunday. I knew that when i was a missionary I didn’t really care what was in the message; it was just nice to have something different to read and know that someone was thinking of me. So I would basically write to them what was going on in my life that week. Sometimes I would write about things I had learned or was thinking about. After they got back I realized my weekly letters to them doubled as a journal, and since then I have made it a point to find a missionary to write to every week.

    I also have a sort of “Small Plates of Bryan” where I record those sacred spiritual experiences just for me. Elder Richard G. Scott once said in a local fireside that he keeps his written down in a password protected file on his computer, and I do the same.

  9. I’m working on my computer 10 or 12 hours every day, or more, anyway, so I keep a word processing document open in the background all the time. When I meet someone interesting in the library, or read something notable, or have an email exchange or pull something from Facebook, it takes only a moment to enter a few lines or paste some text or images in my journal. That takes care of all the “what did I do today?” stuff, and some time during the day, either the evening or the early morning when I can’t sleep but can be more thoughtful, I make a longer entry about whatever trouble I’m working my way out of, or record a more reflective spiritual or intellectual insight. For me, the trick to keeping a journal is to do it in small, frequent bits rather than making a long, difficult chore of it.

  10. Here’s another +1 for Evernote. It’s my primary database of everything I have related to the Gospel. I keep PDFs, blog posts, lesson outlines, thoughts, talks, articles, books, and images in there. I always have it with me, since I always have my phone, tablet, or computer at hand. It has proven to be invaluable to me. In sacrament meeting, I can pull out my phone and begin typing away if I’m inspired to do so, and it will automatically be available on all my other devices. In a lesson, I can quickly search for anything and find it, and it helps me have a richer church experience. On those occasions where I find myself listening to an uninspiring lesson or talk, I can pull out my library of notes and re-read them and still have an uplifting experience. I also share some of my notes with friends and family members, so that we can enjoy the fruits of each other’s discoveries and preparations. It’s wonderful! (And well worth the money I pay for it)

  11. I’ve started using Day One to journal. It helps.
    As for note keeping, check out my three part thoughts.
    Links to part 1 and 2 are in part 3

  12. Every Sunday I write down the important things I remember from the week during the Sacrament. I figure I’m supposed to be reflecting on my week anyway, and it’s something I can keep working on throughout the meeting if the talks are boring. Another +1 for Evernote for jotting things down, and I also have a small notebook where I write down funny things my teachers or friends say.

  13. I was a little more down with Evernote until they got hacked and everyone’s passwords done got leaked.

    Also, journals used to be more interesting than they are today. Nobody wants to hear about my day-to-day adventures with Costco, Home Depot and schlepping to work. OR DO YOU?? VOTE HERE!

  14. I will want to read about those things in 2113, Steve. Maybe not before.

  15. Heck even I don’t want to read about those things for another hundred years. Though I did go to a tile store today and it was FASCINATING.

  16. Um, journals aren’t supposed to be a record of that stuff Steve. Even a hundred years ago, people who wrote (worthwhile) journals didn’t write, “Today I went to the store and got flour.”

  17. Sometimes we wish they did, MCQ. Those casual, trivial references to things that aren’t in themselves very interesting can sometimes be the key to a puzzle — because someone else was known to have gone to the store that day so they might have met, or because it’s evidence that he hadn’t yet broken his leg that would later keep him away from something important, or whatever. Never underestimate the warped workings of the historian’s mind …

  18. The mundane is often the key to understanding economies, social mores, the propagation of disease, the transmission of technologies, religion and a thousand other things. Details.

  19. MDearest says:

    I love to read my grandpa’s meticulous financial records/jottings, but they’re 75 years old, and he’s my grandpa.

    I used to be a semi-diligent journaler when I was young and struggled to keep up with all I was told to do and be. I tapered off and quit after the second baby, when daily life became too complicated for what I perceived as self-indulgent whining. (It was.) Instead, I put a sketchbook in my bag with the details of things I wanted to remember: Doodlings during boring meetings, scripture (or other) references that pierced my soul, Christmas gift lists, cool things that made my eyes bug out in museums, driveway moments on the radio, and some detailed notes of the best sunday-school teacher ever. Later I found my college-age daughter had absconded with one of my old journals from the days when I dumped my angst there. Now I think about my (theoretical) grandkids reading it before I commit anything to writing.

  20. Antonio Parr says:

    This comment by the inimitable Frederick Buechner reveals the best reason that I can think of to keep a journal:

    “If I were called upon to state in a few words the essence of everything I was trying to say both as a novelist and as a preacher it would be something like this: Listen to your life. See it for the fathomless mystery that it is. In the boredom and pain of it no less than in the excitement and gladness: touch, taste, smell your way to the holy and hidden heart of it because in the last analysis all moments are key moments, and life itself is grace.”

    Amen and amen.

    (For those of you unfamiliar with Buechner’s writings, begin with “Sacred Journey”, the most beautiful spiritual memoir I have ever encountered. His follow up volumes, “Now and Then” and “Telling Secrets” are equally insightful. Ditto for his books of essays. Ditto for his fiction. Buechner should be a household name in Latter-Day Saint homes.)

  21. Kristine says:

    Everyone who thinks their day-to-day activities are not worthwhile as journal entries needs to read Laurel Ulrich’s _A Midwife’s Tale_. The trip to Costco might be really fascinating someday.

  22. Steve G. says:

    I’m not great at journaling either. I used to be extremely disorganized, but now use Evernote for all my note takinge etc.

    I have a dumbphone and a android tablet. I don’t carry my tablet around everywhere, so when I have something I need to add to evernote I can text a note to myself or if I can’t text I can leave a voicemail to myself that gets transcribed and sent to evernote automatically. Evernote doesn’t do this out of the box, though, I use (Ifthisthanthat) to do it. Its a free service.

  23. Great ideas, Steve G. is awesome.

  24. Try just importing the pics from your phone with maybe a few notes about what you saw and did that day. Your pictures are worth a thousand words you will never write.

  25. My brother got me onto a rather handy journal keeper called Oh Life (ohlife(dot)com). It sends you an email every night asking you how your day went and keeps track of them in a private, free, online account. I use this one to capture the quick or mundane things of the day– or sometimes I use it as my gratitude journal (you know, all those studies about the benefits of writing positive reflections for five minutes a day). It’s also nice because following that question, it pulls up a random past entry, and it’s a fun way to revisit various memories or days. Then I write in my physical journal every few weeks when I am in the mood–and then I keep a series of Google docs that are loosely called “musings” or “thinklings” or something or other, where I can cut and paste things I read or come across or am thinking about at work–similar to Ardis’s word doc. I also keep a little notebook for church meetings, conferences, lectures, etc., since I have an archaically huge laptop and no iPad. A rather scattered system, but it works for me! I love the picture idea, Hagoth. That’s an awesome idea and I think I’ll try it. It’s so true.

  26. I’ve been a devout journal writer for about ten years now. I felt a strong spiritual injunction to do it and now it’s a total habit. I write in the morning. I used to buy note books but for the last 4 years I write in a Word document. I seriously pity any ancestors of mine that decide to read grandpa’s journal. My life seems pretty mundane. But I’m really glad that I do it. I like having everything documented. For instance, this is what I did 2/3/11 “Up early to get Lee to the airport. Distracted after, didn’t run, leg still hurts. Home with Meggie, has a cold. To the park some, then took a good nap. Read on early mysticism, some of Givens also. Got the kids at one, planned for scouts, exercised then went to scouts at 4. Did some drawing and games. Went to Costco after and got a chicken then had it for dinner. Chores and family night (read Genesis 1), then the kids watched a movie while I did dishes and Bridget read. Read after the kids went down, bed at 10.” Riveting!

  27. Steve, I’m currently editing a diary that is almost exactly like that, sentence for sentence, except for the fact that it was written by a middle-aged Englishwoman in St. George, Utah between 1884 and 1899, so of course the author doesn’t say Costco or airport or movie, but otherwise the content and style is very similar.

    I’m fairly sure that this diary will not be a literary masterpiece like A Midwife’s Tale when I’ve finished with the transcription and annotation, but it will be a valuable source for the history of early St. George, since she identifies people and dates and mentions economic and social and religious interactions and since the story of the women of early St. George is largely an untold tale.

    On the topic of the original post, one major area of concern that I have about digital journaling is technology changes. My father has been keeping a digital journal in the form of weekly letters to his children for decades now. At some point he had difficulty converting old formats over to something more modern, and as technology changes, it will continue to be an issue. I don’t even know where my letters are from 15 or 20 years ago, although they are probably backed up on a CD somewhere. And now, of course, I’m using Evernote for many of these purposes, password scare or not, so hopefully that will continue to be around for the long term.

  28. I am a passionate lover of journaling and did marvelously as a young adult until my marriage, when it generally got pushed aside for the busy tasks of young motherhood and frequent moves and building a happy marriage. I would still jot things down in a journal, but nothing like my thoughful musings of the past. For me, much of the joy in a journal comes from the handwritten pages, but this year I finally sat down and assessed my life and decided that for now, I would have to go digital. Longhand writing simply requires more leisure time and devotion to it than I have right now. So I decided to create a Google Drive doc to save my journal (after my laptop ate my first draft up ten pages in…) I try to put something in it every day — copies of facebook exchanges, transcripted text messages, emails, notes from lessons, silly conversations, and summaries of my thoughts and experiences of late. Every so often I print it out, put the pages in plastic covers, and put them in a big binder. I keep extra plastic page covers in there to shove notes, cards, kids pictures, anything special that I’d like to look back on and enjoy. What a change this method has made for me! It is lazy and unpretty, but I have forty single spaced pages documenting the hilarious, sad, challenging, and joyful moments of the last several months — none of which I would remember without my little journal binder. My kids and I sit down and leaf through it often. Love it.

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