Keeping a Journal: Digital or Analog?

Photo courtesy Sean MCGrath.
Photo courtesy Sean MCGrath.

I have been keeping a hand-written journal for a really long time. My first notebook was a Christmas gift from my grandmother. On the cover was an image of teddy bears having a tea party. I would have been around nine at the time. What does a nine-year-old have to journal about? I have no idea.

I journaled all through middle, high school and college. And about ten years ago, I read The Artist’s Way, and discovered the Morning Pages. Since that time, fairly consistently, I’ve been writing three pages each morning in a pocket-sized Moleskine notebook that lives in my purse. The Morning Pages are my daily meditation. Completing them feels like scratching an itch, or scrubbing my brain. I have a stack of them in my closet, covering the good and bad parts of many relationships, my professional growth, the three years I lived in Korea, and other misadventures. I do not typically go back and read them, but knowing they are there gives me a strange sense of comfort, a reminder that my life actually happened.

I say that Morning Pages are a form of meditation. And just as we cannot repeat a meditation, we do not need to review our Morning Pages. I often joke, “First cremate the pages, then worry about the body.” I have had people burn, shred, and bury their Morning Pages. Speaking for myself, I saved my Morning Pages for many years, saying “If I ever write a memoir, I’ll need them.” However, when I did write a memoir– Floor Sample– I found that I didn’t consult the Morning Pages. My memories were vivid, probably because I had written Morning Pages. I believe the pages render us present in our life. Obsessing over our pages renders us self-centered– so I believe in “write them and let them go.” — Julia Cameron

In 2006 I read about another form of journaling — the 10-Year Journal. In this journal, each date of a year (even Leap Day) gets its own page, with five or so lines for every year in a decade. So January 1, 2010 is on the same page as January 1, 2011 and January 1, 2012, et cetera. This journal is simply meant to be a record of your life, and it’s fun to see what you were doing on a certain date three, five or seven years ago. I started a 10-Year Journal on New Year’s Day 2007 (which I spent in Seoul) and am looking forward to finishing the final page next year.

For a while I’d been hearing people sing the praises of about an app called Day One, a feature-rich digital journaling program with a hardcore and loyal following. As my own journaling was on a down slump, I wondered if switching to a new format might inspire me to pick it up again. So in July, I started journaling with Day One.

Is keeping a digital journal better than keeping an analog journal? Here’s what I’ve learned.

Digital Journal: Pros and Cons

Day One is pretty great. It ticks all the boxes in what I’d want in order to give up paper journaling. It supports tags, is searchable, can be backed up to iCloud or Dropbox or can be exported to PDF, which you could later print into a book, if you wanted. You can embed photos in your entry, which is pretty cool. In one entry I included a photo of a particularly moving work of art I saw. It has other awesome tweaks like location tagging and weather, which would be great for travel journaling. It syncs across devices so you can update from your laptop, iPhone or iPad (note: Day One is currently only available for Apple devices). It can be password protected, which is probably better security than the lock on your old paper diary.

However: I am not super excited about adding even more screen time to my day. I am not sure how future-proof the program is — will I lose all my posts if a new technology comes along? And while I can definitely type faster than I can write, lots and lots of evidence shows that writing by hand stimulates parts of the brain that typing simply doesn’t. Besides, as Julia Cameron, the creator of the Morning Pages says, velocity is the enemy. There is also a tendency when writing online to go into “edit mode” instead of “dump mode”, and if the Morning Pages are about anything, they’re about getting thoughts out without judgment.

As for writing by hand, I have this irrational fear that if I don’t make it a habit I’ll someday forget how to use a pen. Plus, I have nice handwriting and I like seeing it. The slowness is a plus — I can process my thoughts as I go instead of stopping to pretty them up with a judgmental eye. My Moleskine notebook takes up less space than my iPad or laptop, and works even when I have no electricity.

However: paper notebooks are not search-able or archivable. Once you fill a couple, they take up a lot of space. They are not future-proof — paper crumbles, ink smears and fades. There is no way to password-protect a notebook, and there’s no way to back them up unless you are willing to scan or photograph each page (which I’m not).

I’ve had notebooks ruined when my water bottle leaked in my purse. I once had my car broken into, and my purse stolen, and the perp called me at work to request the $20 reward I’d written in the front of my notebook. (Presumably he got my work number from the business cards in my wallet.)

It worth noting that some of the “cons” regarding the ephemeral quality of journaling by hand are actually pros. Here’s an awesome essay from a woman who burned 40 years worth of journals.

My Completely Unscientific Study

After three months of using Day One, how many entries have I written? Twenty-three. Not exactly a daily habit. And I found I was dreading writing because being on my laptop all day is exhausting, not to mention distracting. I typed a few entries on my iPad mini, but I don’t love using the digital keyboard, especially not for 750 words (the rough equivalent of three pages).

I did like the ability to add images and tags to entries, but when I’m barely journaling at all, what difference does that make? Overall, I felt disconnected from the journaling process. When I did type my Morning Pages, it didn’t feel as therapeutic as writing them by hand.

Incidentally, another blogger did a similar unscientific survey in which 12 journalers reported their experience using both digital and analog formats, and overwhelmingly, the journalers reported feeling more connected to their thoughts and emotions and more productive as journalers when they were writing by hand.

The Outcome

As of this week, I am back to journaling in my pocket-sized Moleskine. And it feels goooood to put pen to paper again. I can journal first thing in the morning, without distractions. (I keep my journal by my bedside and a lap desk under my bed so I can literally do it first thing in the morning.) And because I still love the features of Day One, I’ve come up with a compromise. I have a reminder on my phone set up for 10 pm each day in which I can record notes of that that day, along with pictures and tags, in the event I ever want to go back to digital.

If you are interested in starting a journal, I highly recommend the blog NaJoWriMo. The next National Journal Writing Month starts tomorrow! If you already journal, do you have a preferred format?

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