My paper journaling system

8 min.

Why paper?

Because sometimes "good enough" is better than "perfect". I've written about my struggles with journaling tools before. I've been experimenting with journaling on paper for more than a year now. This post will describe the third iteration on my system. I'm building on Bullet Journal ideas, so if you're familiar with it, you should feel right at home.

There's no lack of note-taking apps on any platform. Most smartphones and operating systems come with note-taking apps out of the box. Still, there are aspects where no app can come close to the analog experience.


Best tactile experience possible

No app I've tried can mimic the simple joy of writing the task on paper and then crossing it out once it's done. This might not seem like a big deal, but you will probably be spending more time writing notes than reading them, so it makes sense to optimize for best writing experience.

Built-in personalization

Experiment with the format all you want. Write sideways, draw flowcharts if you like. You have the freedom to make the notebook fit the way your brain works, instead of trying to fit your thought process to the specific application. I'm currently on my third notebook and each iteration fits me better.

Built-in discoverability and review process

Since there's no search feature for paper notebooks, and indexing can only get you so far, sometimes you just have to scan your notes looking for something specific. While this is inefficient, and can be frustrating when you're in a hurry, it can also lead you to some unexpected discoveries. And other times it's just plain fun to skim through the notebook when you have nothing better to do.

No batteries, no subscriptions, no upgrades

Unlike most digital tools, it truly "just works".


Ok, I'll admit, this point is a bit tongue-in-cheek, since I don't think many people should care about it. Still, I'd argue that if you were a person of high interest and had some secrets, it's better to have them stored in paper than digitally. Physical security is much more straightforward and it's something we all have to manage even with digital devices. Digital security can be much more difficult to get right, and the attack can be conducted from anywhere in the world. Of course if you're concerned about keeping secrets from your family, and not some hackers and state actors, this doesn't apply :). As a general rule, just don't have anything in writing that would make you look bad if it was made public.


Now for some major drawbacks to paper journaling:

No search

A well maintained index can do a great job (more on that later), but it still cannot compare.

No backups

You could scan your notes, but that's a major inconvenience.

Reduced portability

No matter how small or light your notebook is, it's still another thing you have to carry.

Limited storage

Almost any personal digital device made in the last decade has enough storage to last you a lifetime. Not so with paper notebooks. What's worse, once you need a new notebook, you're literally starting from scratch and leaving all the notes behind. You can carry the old notebook with you for a while, but that's inconvenient.

Limited editing capabilities

No way around that - you can't really iterate over paper notes like you can on a digital document.

Still worth it

These drawbacks will be instant dealbreakers to many people. However, I'd like to argue that they are not as serious as it might seem.

The main theme behind most drawbacks is permanence and availability. It's the idea that all your notes should be accessible to you at all times. While this seems totally intuitive, in my experience it's just not that big of a deal.

First of all, personal notes usually become outdated in as little as a few months. Anything older than 1 year seems like ancient history and is only useful as entertainment. I have my digital notes going back to 2014. I never look at them.

Second, personally I spend much more time writing my notes than reading them, and that's great. The act of writing is the main goal in itself. By getting the ideas out of the head and into the paper, I make space for the mind to do some actual thinking.

It all comes down to using the best tool for the job. If you have ideas that are at least somewhat evergreen and would benefit from editing, there's a good argument to be made that it should be public - for me that means a blog post (you're reading one now), short snippet in notes, a documentation in company's wiki, etc. If it's really private and something you cannot afford to lose, it should probably be stored in your password manager, or some other encrypted and secure form.

Paper is best for getting your thoughts out of your head. That's why for me it's the best choice for daily planning and journaling, regardless of all it's drawbacks.

I'm not writing it down to remember it later, I'm writing it down to remember it now.

The tools

You're gonna need a notebook. Anything will do, but it's best to pick something you will enjoy using. I'm using an expanded version of Moleskine Classic. It's good enough and widely available. Don't get hung up on pricing and just get what feels best to you - 20-30 euros for a notebook might seem excessive, but you're gonna be using it daily for at least 6-12 months, probably more.

You're gonna need a pencil or a pen. Again, anything will do, but try to pick something you will enjoy using. For the longest time I was using a plain pencil, which worked fine, but carrying a sharpener got annoying. Then I discovered Pigma Micron pens. They hold archival ink (regular ink can fade out after a few years), are cheap and widely available in all imaginable sizes. Keep in mind that moleskines have a pretty thin paper, so don't go bigger than 0.3 mm to avoid bleeding to the other side. My favorite size is 0.25 mm.

The setup

First thing you do when starting a new notebook - go through it and number the pages. You could do it as you're writing, but I prefer to get it done initially and then not worry about it. To save time you can write number only on the right-side page (left if you're left-handed, I suppose). Use top or bottom outter corners - depends on how you're used to turning pages.

The notebook will have 3 parts:

  1. calendar
  2. notes
  3. index

Turn the fresh notebook to the first full spread. Divide it into 12 equal parts, write a month name in each. This will be your calendar for appointments and tasks, all 12 months in a single spread. You can use two spreads if you need more space.

I prefer to use the end of the notebook for the index, but you can put it right after the calendar if you wish so. I'm using a single full spread for index, but you can use two if you feel like it.

You don't need to dedicate a separate and equal space to each alphabet letter, since words are not distributed equally in any language. To keep it simple and neat I divide the spread into 12 blocks, pair most common letters (AB, CD, EF, GH, IJ, KL, MN, OP, RS, TU, VZ), which results in 11 pairs, and leave 1 block for the rest.

The system

Let's plan your day.

Write a date on the page.

Mark tasks with a square. Once you complete the task, put a checkmark into the square. If you move the task to another day, draw a pointer to the rigth in the square. Cross out the square if the task was cancelled.

Mark events with an empty circle. Put a checkmark into the circle after the event.

Ideas and observations can be marked with a simple dot or dash.

You can use a question mark for something you wanna come back to.

You can use exclamatory mark to mark something as especially important.

If you wanna expand on idea that's not specific to that day, start writing it on a new page. When completed, think of the main concepts and words behind this idea. It has to be something specific enough to be useful in the index (keyword with 10 page numbers next to it is not useful) and yet obvious to you. Usually it's one of the first words that comes to the head. It's fine to have multiple keywords. Once you have them, now add them to the index with a page number.

Write any future events or tasks in the calendar. Don't forget to review the calendar every day or so.

That's it! I'm not taking any pictures of my notebook to serve as examples specifically so that you could use your own imagination and come up with the system that makes sense to you. That's half the fun anyway.

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Est. 2011