Early last year, I wrote about my 2021 journalling setup - pocket notebook, project journal, page-a-day journal.
And then, late last year, I wrote about how my page-a-day habit fell off. At the end of that post, I mentioned how I thought it was important to let personal obligations go when they become a drag.
Which is why on January 2nd this year I went out and bought another page-a-day journal for this year. OK, I know, this is starting to sound like an abusive relationship, but hear me out.
There’s actually a couple of threads to this story, which come to a point in a lesson. But we’ll start at the beginning - or at least, as close to the end as we can for the story to still make sense.
I like the idea of journalling
I think this is true enough. The idea of journalling is what drives all those instagrammable fountain-pen-and-bullet-journal setups, perfectly-aligned Cornell notebooks, Traveller’s notebooks with Polaroid photos of the Eiffel tower sellotaped in, all that. It’s what drives me to make little cut-out fold-up zines asking how my day was or even taking photos of books piled on top of each other like that photo of balanced stones everyone uses when they talk about “zen”.
Of course, the idea of anything isn’t worth beans. If everyone who liked the idea of writing became a writer, there’d be no trees left for all the books we’d have. If everyone who liked the idea of being an entrepreneur actually went and started their own company, we’d have, well, a gazillion more failed startups I guess.
My point being: it needs a point. Now, the point can be to do the thing. That’s fine! The more I stumble through life the more I appreciate an atelic1 activity. But if the point of your exercise is to take some nice photos for social media, well, you may want to consider what that says about your values.
We’ll return here in a bit.
I’m a sucker for a picture
I abandoned my page-a-day journal mid-way through last year. And I kinda of forgot it existed for a bit. It sat in my draw along with all my other notebooks for a bunch.
And then we came to December. People started doing retrospectives. In particular, incurable journaller Austin Kleon posted his year in quotes, and linked back to a post he made in March about his five-year diary.
This immediately sparked my interest. I’d thought about doing something similar when it came to garden planning - allowing me to track when I planted carrots last year, that sort of thing - but never thought about doing it for journalling. And then I went, “We know how a page-a-day journal worked in 2021, let’s just accept that this is cool but you don’t have the time to do it.”
This problem is the application
Despite this, those retrospective posts made me take a break over the New Year’s period to read through my page-a-day journal and think over the year just been. And this made me realise what I’d been missing from my journalling habit: a point.
You need to journal for a reason. Your reason could be: I want to take a photo of each page, post it to Instagram, and be internet famous. Your reason could be: I’m going to be famous and I want people to know how I thought, how I approached each day. Your reason could be: I want to be able to look back on my years and recall how it was. But you need that reason.
If I’m being honest, my thought process had been:
- People I admire journal, and consider journalling to be productive and useful.
- I want to be like those people.
- So if I journal - even if I do nothing with it - I’ll become more like them!
If this isn’t peak cargo culting, I don’t know what is.
So let’s try again
And that explains why on January 2nd this year I went out and bought another page-a-day journal for this year. This time it’s different! Let me explain.
First, let’s lay out the goals of this journalling experiment:
- It needs to be low setup cost. Last year I shelled out money for a big thick Moleskine. This year I want to feel less guilt if I abandon my hand-crafted artisanal notebook halfway through the year.
- It needs to be easy to fill in. Most analogue unstructured journals fulfill this because it’s just write something down, but I want this to be one of the criteria.
- I need a way of closing the loop and actually absorbing what I write down. This is the crucial step that was missing last time.
So I guess if we’re framing this as an experiment, my hypothesis is that by adding in a step where I reflect on what I’ve written, I’ll build motivation to journal.
With this in mind, I took a very different approach to obtaining my journal. I didn’t grab a Moleskine or some other fancy brand. I didn’t even (and I was tempted) order an actual five year diary online. Instead, I made my own five-year planner.
I went to our local big box stationery store and found a $13 page-a-day hardback planner:
The construction quality on this thing is pretty good, given the price. It’s hardcover, has a nice blue finish, and minimal store branding. On the inside it’s got plenty of space for you to plan your day:
Turning this into a five-year planner is pretty easy: we take each day page, and divide it neatly into five.
So what’s the plan from here on out? Each day, I’m going to try to update the book with whatever made that day special or unique, or to be honest whatever’s on top of my mind for the day2. Every month I’m going to go over my daily journal and read through the entries for the month. This makes sure I’m closing my loop, identifying patterns and trends. And then at the end of the year I’m sure I’ll give the whole thing a read through.
And then next year I get to start again - but every day I’m accompanied by a ghost of myself next year. It’s like doing time trials in a racing game where you can see the ghost of your personal best flying out in front of you. I’m hoping that all these opportunities for check-in mean I’m more motivated to keep the habit up throughout the whole year.
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