Zettelkasten Forum

Journaling to Process Thoughts

An important aspect of any workflow system seems to be the aspect of Journaling, which I will define here as the loose form of mental unloading without adding structure or complex organization ahead of time.

@achamess brought up a similar question in the post about the Zettelkasten boundaries. @galen mentioned using org-mode to house this kind of messiness. (In contract @sfast mentioned org-mode for cleanliness, i.e. organizing project management.) @ctietze mentioned using Day One journal to log quickly what's going on and to vent off steam. @ChrisJohnson argues for keeping it ALL in the archive no matter how messy. And even the "greats" like Cal Newport mentioned this technique for his weekly planning sessions in his post on Freestyle Productivity.

Having a space to mentally dump your thoughts and emotions is a simple enough concept to grasp, and is clearly an important part of any workflow.

But I'd be interested in exploring you all's techniques or patterns for adding structure on top, however broad it may be. For example, do you keep a personal vs. work journal? Do you add any metadata to entries? Do you run one long document, or keep each entry it's own file? Do you use digital vs. written notebook?

Also, what about the aspect of reviewing? How often do you go back and re-read these entries to pull out themes or reflect on your past? This concept is particularly interesting in understanding if it is the act of writing itself in the moment that is most useful, or if there is added value in reviewing your past. Perhaps there is argument to be made that once it is written and processed, it can be deleted as your time is better spent staying focused on the "refined" than looking back on the messiness.


  • As time goes by, and I try all sorts of programs and techniques, I come to have less and less use for recommendations made by other people. Yes, I often find them interesting, and sometimes there are ideas that trigger something in me. But I am slowly realising that trying to adapt my methods to techniques that work for other people is often not good for me, or for my productivity. The journey is my own, and I believe it is the journey -- the process of discovering what works -- that is important, not the destination. Other people may have written hundreds of books and articles using a marvellous method -- but that doesn't mean that it will work for me. Indeed, the more personalised the method, the less likely it is to work for someone else.

    I am also slowly coming to think that there is an interaction between person and technique. If you constantly use a particular method, I believe you unconsciously train your mind in its use, and your mind adapts to it. I have used mind maps since about 1970 (thank you Tony Buzan!) and I now find it difficult to work without them -- I'm not good at dealing with lists any more. But while I think mind maps are intrinsically good for certain things, I suspect that my mind has adapted to having information presented in this way (or organising material like that) and has become less adapted to dealing with material presented in other ways -- therefore, what works for me would not necessarily work for someone who has not had that long period of adaptation to the technique.

    I think it might be fruitful to think of "student/researcher + material + technique" as a system in which the component parts interact. There is no ideal method for study because of the variability of the elements of the system and how they interact with each other. I have said something like this before, but I believe that anyone who tells you about the method they are using is really telling you about themselves just as much as they are describing the method. Perhaps they are really telling you more about themselves than they are about the method.

    I suspect that there is no method that works. Instead, there is a system of student/researcher + material + method that works -- but probably not all the time, and not in all circumstances. Whenever I feel the need to change my methods, I think it is usually because of a crisis in confidence -- I feel anxiety that I may have missed something or may not be doing as well as I could. It would probably be better for me to have more confidence in my own methods instead of diverting myself in a constant search for something better -- which probably does not exist. But that is my problem!!

  • @MartinBB I agree with your analysis that methods are highly personal, although I believe that learning about others' methods creates a nice toolbox to pull from when we are creating our own.

    The purpose of this entire blog, in fact, was written on the precept of sharing a method to the world on how to store reference data. Each person who reads it has made their Zettelkasten their own I'm sure.

    By downplaying the importance of learning how others interact with their own information and workflow, it can be taken to the extreme of downplaying this entire website or understanding any "best-practices" or "personal best-practices" at all.

    As time goes by, and I try all sorts of programs and techniques, I come to have less and less use for recommendations made by other people.

    One could argue this may be the result of your own personal toolbox becoming more sophisticated and developed, and you wouldn't have gotten there if you didn't have a toolbox to work from in the first place. And any toolbox you started with, even the usefulness of a notebook and pencil, started from someone else telling you how they used one.

  • I'm reminded of the Japanese martial arts concept: Su Ha Ri

    Shu: Learn the form
    Ha: Master the form
    Ri: Innovate from the form

  • I suppose what I had in mind, without being aware of it, was that one can find oneself in a situation that can be summed up by a quotation from T. S. Eliot:

    "We shall not cease from exploration
    And the end of all our exploring
    Will be to arrive where we started
    And know the place for the first time."

    (Four Quartets, Little Gidding, lines 239-242)

    I tried to make the point above that it is the exploring that is important, and that is what allows us to "know the place" where we started. I am constantly exploring, and this site has been an interesting part of that exploration. I have linked to some of its articles and discussions at various times. But I think I have fallen into the trap of trying to find "the best solution" for various things, and I guess I was just saying -- in a roundabout way and not very clearly -- beware of doing what I have done. I pluck ideas from everywhere, but I've found that this is not always a good thing to do.

  • The purpose of this entire blog, in fact, was written on the precept of sharing a method to the world on how to store reference data. Each person who reads it has made their Zettelkasten their own I'm sure.

    I'm super happy to see that the spirit in which we tackle problems on this blog seems to work out. There is no canned solution. I guess you can get a good head start by following the stuff you find on this blog and in the forums, but in the end you will need to adapt the technique to suit your demands. You cannot become a competent producer when you stay in the first imitation stage.

    @MartinBB's quote applies to very important books, too; while our general advice is to process a text so that you don't have to consult the original a second time, this does not make sense for "primary" works in your field. Like Kant's Critique of Pure Reason for me, who downgraded philosophy to a mere hobby :)

    Author at Zettelkasten.de • https://christiantietze.de/

  • Just to add to this interesting discussion.

    We will always use the methods created by others, you can use them as steps to build your own stair, or as bricks to build a wall and change the course of your path, either way, the foundation is there.

    I personally use DayOne, where I have a long-term journal, with my goals for 20 years, 15 years, 10 years and 5 years. I also have a short-term journal, which is good for a year.

    Within the short-term journal, I'll set goals for a year, 6 months, 3 months, 30 days, 15 days and weekly goals. The idea is heavily based on the system described in the book The One Thing.

    To keep track of my tasks I use mainly a paper calendar with weekly goals. I use OmniFocus to dump the details of my projects.

    By nature, I'm a chaotic person trying to be disciplined, which is boosted by ADD. I don't want to use drugs to control it, so I decided that I would grab the bull by the horns and make discipline be my drug of choice.

    I found that this system greatly improved my productivity.

    I also have a personal journal -- which lives inside DayOne, where I write impressions of my day. I'll never write less than a 1000 words because this way I'll force myself to give a more detailed description of the facts.

    DayOne is nice because you can add pictures and even the geolocation. I think is a nice feature.

    I revise my Goal Journal every Sunday, taking notes on what was accomplished or not and adjust it for the next week, to include tasks to which I felt behind.

    There is no perfect system, but I've been using the one above for around 2 years and it works fine.

    I'm trying to be the best version of myself, and I need to improve my discipline, do things because they need to be done, not because I like or feel like doing it. I'm trying to kill my hedonist side. Journaling is definitely a good tactic to improve yourself.

    You can read a little bit about this discussion here

  • @wolff thank you for your detailed response. It's interesting to understand your use of DayOne.

    For both you and @ctietze , whom I know also uses DayOne, I'm curious about your rationale for using an app vs. a plain txt file?

    Do the same concerns for longevity and data silo still not apply to your journal entries?

  • When Day One v1 was still new, I just liked to use it. It felt fun to write in there, and I could capture moments on my iPhone, too, which I thought was great. -- Nowadays I don't use the app on mobile devices anymore, and the changes to v2 made it feel less playful and more serious, somehow. Or I just got older, I dunno.

    I wouldn't enjoy journaling from the command line, no matter if it's vim or emacs I'd be using :) Then again, when I need more space to journal about a puzzling event, I fire up a distraction free editor like Byword anyhow. Being able to have a timeline of images is still nice. I like the visual anchors far more than a table of text entries. I mark important points in time with screenshots, photos, and the like. That works well for recollecting what I've been up to. Even with a simplified pipeline from writing in Byword to storing the entry as plain text, which would totally work for the text part of journaling, I would miss the pictures.

    Author at Zettelkasten.de • https://christiantietze.de/

  • The only time I have ever kept a journal was for a limited period while I was undergoing psychoanalysis. Now that I am training to be a psychotherapist I may have to do so again. But I never thought of it as a potential part of a working method, and I have written a 560-page history book and an 80,000-word thesis in my time. I sometimes jot down thoughts about where I am or what I am doing, but never in an organised way. I might do it in Drafts on my phone or in Byword on the Mac, but it doesn't really matter. I also make mind maps, if I want to know where I am and what I ought to do next. I make those either on paper or in iThoughts if I want it on the computer. But journals have never been important to me. I probably ought to be keeping one now for my training, but it just never enters my head -- only once every couple of months when I remember that I should be doing it, whereupon I forget again for another couple of months.

    I don't set goals, either, beyond very vague ones like "try to complete your training". This is probably not a good idea, as goals do seem to be useful (See Daniel Kahneman's Thinking Fast and Slow and Baumeister and Tierney's Willpower). But I'm getting older, so my horizons have changed.

  • @zwhaley I do use pen and paper, I actually love notebooks and the smell of the paper, a nice fountain pen will complete the scene. Nowadays I use mostly DayOne for practical reasons. I travel quite a lot so it's a PIA to keep carrying extra weight.

    I carry a small notebook to jot down some ideas when I'm on the run and later I will input that on my DO, sometimes I'll take a picture of my writing and add it to my digital journal.

    I spend part of my time in Brazil, which is a dangerous Country, I would hate to see all my entries disappear in case my backpack gets stolen, that's why I keep it with DayOne.

    I think journaling is a great way to keep accountability to yourself. Memories are flexible, and our brain will bend them, maybe @MartinBB could elaborate on that, I would like to know.


  • @wolff said:
    Memories are flexible, and our brain will bend them

    It certainly will. Elizabeth Loftus is one of the best-known researchers in this field. Read anything by her and you are likely to be surprised. You could start with this:


  • I think the journaling thing is mostly for the effect of free writing. I do it in two ways:

    1. I write in physical notebooks. One is besides my bed and another in my backpack.
    2. On my table are loose papers.

    I process a couple of those entries in the beginning of my deep work days. So it goes through a review process and is then integrated into my archive. There is a selective element to it. I often write true garbage when I just write half-sleeping in the evening and think I am thinking. :smile:

    I am a Zettler

  • I like a journaling app that allows me to create multiple notebooks, so I can separate some of my areas of thought. Currently I am using a relatively new app called Lifecraft. It has a clear interface, which appeals to me. I like having the option of tagging entries, but I do not like having tags being the primary organization method.

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