Recording our daily activities provides a window into our past. It allows us to relive life’s significant events as we read those entries in subsequent years.
Diary or Journal?
We often hear these words used interchangeably to describe a bound book for recording our thoughts. More recently, computer programs are available to take the place of these bound books. But the terms are not the same.
- Diary entries are date-specific and typically are compilations of activities which occur on a given day.
- Journals, on the other hand, are not date specific. Journal entries might include ideas, plans, random thoughts, song lyrics, doodles, pictures or anything else that comes to mind.
Personally, I do both and have them combined. I’ll explain that later in this article.
In a recent article, writer Sadie Holloway provided this chart for comparison.
For simplicity in the rest of this article, I will use the term ‘journaling’ to refer to both types, unless it is necessary to differentiate for a specific point.
‘Paper’ journaling precedes paper itself. Several ancient civilizations recorded events on wet clay tablets which became permanent when the clay hardened. Others wrote on animal skins or carved characters in rocks. The invention of paper merely eased a process which was already in place.
Every great thinker has kept a journal3. Their notes not only helped them craft their philosophical ideas, but also serve for later generations to understand their methodology.
Diaries – notations arranged by date – appeared later, but still have been around for a long time. One of the earliest known is Τὰ εἰς ἑαυτόν (To Myself), today known as the Meditations. Written in Greek by the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius in the second half of the 2nd century AD, it already displays many characteristics of a diary.
Samuel Pepys (1633–1703) is the earliest diarist who is well known today. Pepys was among the first who took the diary beyond mere business transaction notation, into the realm of the personal.
The Strap-Lock Diary
Ah, we remember them. At least those of a certain age do. The diary. A book with page edges gilded in gold. The obligatory strap with a key lock to keep its contents safe from prying eyes. Maybe even a leather cover – or at least one that looked like leather.
The diary. Every young girl had one – and every brother of a young girl did his best to try to read what it contained.
For most of us, at least, the diary with the strap and lock has gone the way of the eight track tape. That doesn’t mean we don’t have an internal need to record events of our lives. In fact, it may be more important today than it was in the days of that ubiquitous strap-locked book.
Modern Paper Journals
Modern journals take many forms, but most are bound books with either lined or dotted paper. One exception is the Day-Timer series. These dated diaries are available as bound books, but the looseleaf format for ring binders has been most popular4.
For the journal format, Amazon lists the Paperage journal book as their most popular. It features a hard cover and lined pages.
A similar notebook, also available from Amazon, is the Moleskin series of notebooks. I have used older versions of Moleskin books and still like them. One advantage to Moleskin is that they are available in a format which includes stickers easily read by Evernote, a favorite document storage application I use.
They are a little more expensive, but if you don’t need the Evernote system, regular Moleskin books are about the same price as Paperage or other bound journals.
If you are more interested in paper journals which provide a more directed journaling experience, Daily Greatness has a great collection of themed journals. They also carry several types of more generic bound journals.
The Benefits of Paper Journals
Even in this age of electronic everything – including writing correspondence and calculating finances on a computer – many experts believe handwritten journals have distinct advantages.
Kay Adams, a licensed psychotherapist and the founder/director of the Center for Journal Therapy in Denver, Colorado, listed these.
1. Writing By Hand Can Make Learning Easier.
Neuroscientists are strongly opposed to the decline in teaching penmanship, or cursive writing, in public schools, “When we write, a unique neural circuit is automatically activated,” said Stanislas Dehaene, a psychologist at the Collège de France in Paris. “There is a core recognition of the gesture in the written word, a sort of recognition by mental simulation in your brain. And it seems that this circuit is contributing in unique ways we didn’t realize. Learning is made easier.”
2. Writing By Hand Can Improve Memory.
A research study comparing college students who took notes on laptops and those who took notes by hand found that students remembered lectures better with handwritten notes. It seems digital note-takers tend to transcribe a lecture rather than assimilate it. Manual note-taking requires discernment about ranking information according to its relative importance, allowing the hand-writers to remember core learning more readily.
3. Writing In A Journal, By Hand, Helps You Achieve The Maximum Benefit Of Journaling.
My anecdotal research as a journal therapist suggests that clients who write by hand are much more likely to have positive attachment to their journals and sustain the practice longer than those who write digitally. The handwritten journal, which is portable and accessible, is what therapists call a “constant presence.” It’s deemed by clients to be a more intimate, personal and relatable experience than writing on a phone app or computer; thus, the results tend to last longer and embed more deeply.
4. Writing By Hand Can Have Similar Benefits To Meditation.
In an article called “The Simple Joy of Writing by Hand,” Barbara Bash writes, “It is something about the physical act—the holding of the hand and pen—that is meditative, bringing me into the present.”
5. Writing By Hand Can Help Enhance Creative Expression.
According to British novelist Jon McGregor, “Pen and paper is always [at] hand5. Writing on the page stays on the page, with its scribbles and rewrites and long arrows suggesting a sentence or paragraph be moved and can be looked over and reconsidered. Writing on the screen is far more ephemeral. A sentence deleted can’t be reconsidered.”6
Disadvantages of Paper Journals
- You must carry a bulky book and writing instrument (pen, pencil) wherever you go. Smaller versions often don’t have enough writing space.
- You can lose it, and there is no backup. Your records are just gone.
- Paper books may be damaged or destroyed by water or fire
- They can become messy with frequent updates.
- There is virtually no security. Others can flip open your journal and view your information (unless it happens to have one of those trusty straps and locks)
- It is difficult to compare information from previous years with today
- Bound books require large amounts of space for storage as journal books amass
Computer Journal Apps
Those of you who know me, know that I am a fan of computer apps. I was never great at keeping a handwritten diary or journal, except for work. So when I found applications, particularly those dedicated to journaling, I was on board.
Advantages of a Computerized Journal
- The ability to make entries on a small device – your phone – which you always have with you.
- Entries are safely stored in the cloud, so even if you lose your device, your entries are easily recoverable.
- Entries are neat – there’s no need to scribble out an entry to replace it.
- And entries are legible. Handwriting can be difficult to read but that’s never the case with computer type.
I started using Evernote during the latter years when I was teaching. Evernote, at its core, is an application for storage and retrieval of documents. However, pundits also touted is as an easy way to keep a journal.
I tried using Evernote for journaling briefly. But I found one major drawback – there is no real method to use Evernote as a diary. It is possible with a little manipulation to have consecutive dates stored, but not as easy as I had hoped. This is particularly true if you miss a day and are trying to write a diary entry for something that happened in the past.
Evernote is good for journal-type, though. If that is solely the direction a person wants to go, I would still give it my recommendation7.
Life Journal was the first program that I found dedicated to journaling. The app is still available, although their primary product is a relatively expensive subscription model. They also offer a standalone model, which only works on a Windows platform.
I used Life Journal for probably a year or so. While, I don’t give it a negative review, the format just did not suit my style. I considered moving to the cloud platform even though it seemed expensive. But in the end, I decided that I really wanted a different format.
The Journal, by DavidRM Software, still has my vote for the best layout of the programs I’ve tried. It has a very user-friendly interface, with good company support.
One feature that I like best about it is that the program allows you to create both diary and journal format files. So, with a simple mouse click, you can switch from making a “today entry” to writing in a topic-named journal.
As I used The Journal, I started to develop more of a diary habit. Not that I would write every day – I don’t do that even today – but I was writing more often. And, especially, I like having journal notebooks because they allowed me to keep random or directed notes sorted by theme or topic.
However, coincidentally with my improved dedication to journaling, I also moved exclusively to an Apple based environment. Most unfortunately, The Journal is only available for Windows devices.
I tried for a while to keep entries by using a Windows emulator on my iMac. However, the process of switching from the Mac environment to the Windows emulator just to make a journal entry proved to be too tedious.
While I have moved on from The Journal8, if they were to develop a Mac OS/IOS version, I might consider going back. I was that happy with the format.
I had actually tried Day One several years ago when it first came out. The interface was good but my major problem with the program was the way it stored entries. Entries were stored simply as text files on your computer. They could be readily accessed outside of the app environment. Finding no way around that, I decided that Day One was not for me.
About three years ago, I discovered that Day One9 now had new version which not only could sync entries to the cloud, but also used end-to-end encryption.
Additionally, Day One is designed for the Mac OS/iOS operating systems. Therefore, it would unburden me from the necessity to switch to a Windows operating system every time I want to make a journal entry.
The downside is that Day One does not have the ability to create journal-type documents. Within the Day One program, you can create multiple files – they call them journals – but Day One only supports a diary-type format.
At first, I considered keeping my journal-type entries on The Journal while doing diary entries on Day One. However, after some consideration, I decided that the distinction really wasn’t a major problem.
Even with a strict journal – paper journal books, for example – you make entries at different dates and times. You may not make a date or time notation on the entry, but they are still made at varying time intervals. I realized that I could actually use a journal – Day One’s file structure – even if it had a diary-type entries. I just look at the flow of the entries and ignore the exact recording date and time.
So with that, my current Day One structure is one diary-type ‘journal’ for the current year, actually named “2020.” Then, I also have ‘journals’ named “photography” and “impressions.”
In the first, I jot down notes of ideas for future subjects for photography, possible locations that I might like to visit, or photos of someone else’s photography layout that I admire and may someday try to replicate.
In the second, I keep random notes of how I’m feeling about a particular subject, a memory that might come to mind, or other “stream of consciousness” types of notations. Again, the fact that Day One assigns a date and time to the particular entry is of no consequence when I simply read through them.
On This Day
One of the features that I like best about Day One is called “On This Day.” If you click on that filter, the program automatically presents all previous entries made on the current date in past years. For example, if I were to click on On This Day on September 18, I would be presented with a list of all entries I had made on September 18 – including those from the photography and impressions folders – in previous years.
This is a great feature for reviewing what you might have been doing on a particular day in previous years, how you were feeling, and what your expectations might have been.
Of course, by having entries stored in a cloud – Day One uses its own cloud server – I can make entries from any of my devices: iMac, MacBook, iPhone, iPad or even my Apple Watch. I found that extremely handy when I want to be sure to capture a bit of information.
Additionally, because of the GPS built into phones, each entry is tagged with the location10.
Disadvantages of Computerized Journals
- All entry devices require power of some sort. Without electrical or battery power, entry and retrieval of information are impossible.
- Entry devices are expensive. Compared to a book and pen, computers and phones are expensive. This is somewhat offset by the fact that these devices have many other uses, whereas the journal book has only one.
- Multiple backups are recommended for data security.
- Journaling programs don’t have a function for drawing or otherwise creating illustrations, as you can on paper. Drawings must be created outside the journaling program, then photographed and imported into the journal post.
What Journaling Method Do You Use?
Do you keep a regular diary or journal? If so, tell us in the comments below what you use and why.
- Louise Pistole has a great article on how to get started in journaling.
- It’s often good to seek out a quiet writing space for some types of reflective journaling.
- Some claim that the great philosopher Socrates never wrote anything. But it may also be that we have just never discovered any of his writings or that they were just lost to time.
- I used a Day-Timer for many years to record work-related events, meeting notes, and to-do items. I have since scanned all of those pages and store them in Evernote.
- I would challenge this assertion, especially in the modern day. When I was regularly keeping business notes in my Day-Timer, I always had the binder with me. But it wasn’t something I carried at all times, especially away from work. On the other hand, for electronic entries using Day One, my iPhone is, in fact, always with me.
- Adams, Kay. “Pen, Paper, Power! Five Benefits of Journal Writing.” Paper & Packaging, 2020, www.howlifeunfolds.com/personal-productivity/pen-paper-power-five-benefits-journal-writing. Accessed on September 14.
- I still use Evernote to store electronic copies of important documents. Its built-in optical character reader and great search capabilities make finding documents quite easy.
- With each change of programs, I copied previous entries from the old app to the new one. It was a tedious process since they don’t “talk” to each other’s formats, but the time was worth it in the end.
- Both Day One and Evernote are listed in my article on my five favorite apps for iPhone/iPad.
- Day One has suffered recently with accuracy of its location tagging, but as of this writing, it is being worked on.