Journalling vs. reference?

I guess I can make a case for this being an akrasia question: this is something I want to do better, and I’m sure I can, but I don’t, yet. I guess on that basis I could say questions about anything I don’t know how to do yet are akrasia questions… all I can say in my defence is that it was too tempting not to ask this, with the expertise and shared mindset of people here: maybe somebody here has some wisdom on this?

I’ve been journalling things more often over the past few years. I find it useful, not least just because you don’t have to think about how to organize it: it’s “append-only”. Really I’m talking here about organizing my thinking and incoming information about a subject over a long period of time (weeks / months).

But I’m sure I’ve not nailed yet how to balance time-based append-only journals with records that I keep on updating.

Some other good things about journal-structured notes:

  • It makes things easy to find if you have a vague sense when they happened – which is often the case.
  • It makes it easy to see how out-of-date something is likely to be.
  • It lets you see what you think are current problems as of right now, rather than things you thought were important some time ago.
  • It brings those things back into active memory and lets you think them through in the current context with your current understanding.
  • You don’t build up an enormous backlog that you won’t work through.
  • You don’t end up laboriously maintaining reference material that you’ll never use: if something becomes irrelevant, it just stays there in the history.
  • There’s no tendency to invent an increasingly-elaborate-over-time (and increasingly-failing) hierarchy of categories in which to file things
  • You don’t lose the record of your earlier understanding as it was: can work well with episodic memory to bring back that understanding and to understand why it was you came to a conclusion in the past
  • It lets you motivate yourself by seeing your progress

Some bad things:

  • When you need to frequently refer to some particular aspect of knowledge that has evolved over time, you end up with messy duplicate information
  • If you don’t associate something with an approximate date, it’s harder to find things
  • When you need to make sure something gets done eventually or before other event happens, it can get lost – but often with big projects, a lot of what you’re doing is working out exactly what DOES need to get done, and that’s a thing where your understanding evolves over time – so I find this a tricky choice

Right now I feel like it’s not bad as a default for long-running projects, but that I need a more consistent ways of identifying and pulling out select parts that do need to be maintained as reference material.

Is that how other people see this? How do you choose what to pull out? When you spot something like that, how do you do that? Tagging? Separate file/note/page/whatever of some kind? Links to/from journal entries?

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By the way, as always I have a feeling tags should help me, but I don’t think I’ve ever got into the swing of doing it consistently enough for anything even remotely like this for it to actually help me (“remotely like this” includes task lists). Is that just me?

e.g. today I had the thought it might help for some things if I just tag certain entries in a journal as “reference”. Then I remembered my unbroken record of failure with tags :frowning:

What I do for my journals (all leather-bound paper and pen) is to index and cross-reference them, so I can refer back to a specific date. Like in the front of mine I leave about 20 pages blank, and I use that as a place to index anything I might need to refer to. So if I have expense logs on 5/21, 6/2, and 6/6, I’ll just make a note of those dates in a line on one of the front pages.

Well, yeah - journals aren’t good for that. I need both - a journal to log what happens, and a separate system to log all the things I need to do (I use GTD for that, also with paper and pen).

So if there’s something that needs to be done with a given item, I need to make sure to put that item in the GTD system, which I do by writing it on a piece of paper and putting it in my “inbox” (a tray next to my desk). And I need to make sure to go through my journals regularly and add anything that needs to be added.

You might find these bidirectional linking tools pretty interesting.
Roam Research, Obsidian, RemNote which you can use as both journalling but also note taker and link between ideas you have had over time.
Roam and Obsidian have gtd setups, some good youtube tutorials and lively communities which can also help.


Yeah, I do do that – but I refer you back to the issue I mentioned about big projects where I’m working out what is important to do over time. But I’m not sure there’s any mechanistic solution!

Thanks @bizzle – I’m pretty wedded to org but I might try something like (or maybe I’ll just write a function to add links in both directions based on heading text)

Do you think it’s basically bidirectional links that’s what makes those tools helpful with this, or other things about them too?

I think I’d vaguely thought about bi-directional links as something that might help but hadn’t acted on it – thanks.

So basically you want to keep a log of your understanding of the project as it evolves over time?

I see a few good solutions:

  1. Index all dates where you wrote about it in your journal
  2. Keep a separate project planning file for the project, and add new entries to the top so it’s in reverse-chrono order like a blog. Each time you add a new entry just rewrite the whole thing.
  3. Keep separate “version” files so you have “project plan v1,” “project plan v2,” etc., all as separate files (or use more sophisticated versioning software that does it automatically, or use something like Evernote that keeps backups of all previous versions).

Org-roam is moving really fast.

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Well I can see I have emacs “work” to do now