I’ve been journaling for four decades. I know what works. 

I started keeping an almost daily journal when I was eleven years old. I wrote in a “Five Year Diary” with lock and key, then graduated to hardbound blank books, then Bank Street Writer on a Commodore 64, then Microsoft Word on a PC (eew!), and then an online public daily journal for fourteen years, back before bloggers were called bloggers. 

Since then, I’ve kept journals in Mokeskines and Field Notes, flat HTML files, MacJournal, Movable Type, WordPress, Apple Notes, GoodNotes, Bear, Day One, Jour, Ulysses, and now Roam Research

Roam Research, a thought processor, is hands-down, the best journaling tool on the planet. Here’s everything you need to know to use it for journaling: my free ten-minute course on how to use Roam Research to keep a journal.

  1. Open Roam daily. Write. Repeat. Don’t over-think it. Roam opens to a dated Daily Notes page every day. Journal there.
  2. Check in twice daily. A brief morning entry clears your mind and aligns you with your goals. A brief evening entry captures memorable moments, lessons, and whether or not you met your goals. 
  3. Use a template. Eliminate friction with a template — a series of prompts you answer every day. Align the prompts with that matters to you, changing them over time (but not too often). 

    For a while, I kept my journal template on a page in Roam Research called [[Templates]]. Every morning, Job One was to copy the journal template from the Templates page, paste it into the daily page, and fill it out. 

    Now, I use TextExpander. When I type “zjou,” TextExpander replaces that trigger with my journal template. It’s quick and easy.

    The entire journal template is a bulleted list indented under the keyword #journal, so I can collapse the journal and write other things on the daily page without being distracted. 

  4. Capture what matters. A glance at the prompts in my journal template tells you what matters to me in this moment. As of this writing, my prompts are:

The Morning Check-In

  • Weight. I lost fifty pounds in 2017. I don’t want to gain all that weight back. Weighing daily makes me mindful of my weight, and, as my weight fluctuates, alerts me to patterns (like drinking beer) that conflict with my intentions.
  • On My Mind. A bulleted list of whatever’s on my mind: short, sweet, quick.
  • One Thing. Of all the things on my to-do list, this is the one thing I want to achieve today and a quick note about why it’s important to me. 

The Evening Check-In

  • Daily Score. A few years back, I started giving each day a score from one to ten. My average is a seven, which means I have a pretty good life. 
  • Stories from Today. Usually, three or four bulleted snapshots of events from the day. I try to make these things that will matter to Future Me — less “I ate pasta” and more “While circling the lake in the boat at sunset, I experienced a perfect moment: me, Clyde, and the dogs, steam rising from the water, the sky a riot of color, the hawks screeching overhead. I wish I could trap that moment in amber and carry it in my pocket.” 
  • Today I Learned. I take this literally. For example: “There are 900 species of figs, and each has its own dedicated species of wasp that pollinate it. When female wasps lay eggs in figs, entering the fig tears their wings off. Each time you eat a fig, you are probably also eating a mummified female wasp.” 
  • Habits. This is where I monitor habits I’m establishing — never more than three at once. Currently, the three habits are: Meditation Log (Did I meditate? What was the quality of the session?), Gratitude (one things I’m grateful for today), and Writing (Did I write something that mattered to me today?).
  • One Thing Achieved? Yes or no.
  • What Did You Notice? A meditative question I learned from working with a consultancy called The Ready. No hard and fast rules govern answers here, but I usually jot something I learned about myself or my life. 
  1. Make all prompts into Roam Research links. Doing so makes all my prompts into a Roam Research page of their own. 
  2. Write all answers to prompts in short bullets indented under the prompts. Doing so makes it possible for me to visit the page for a given prompt (like “On My Mind”) and see a long list of what was on my mind over time. 
  3. Have a morning ritual that includes journaling. My ritual is my religion. It’s non-negotiable. I get up, weigh, make a hot beverage, sit, review Readwise.io daily highlights and ten mastery flashcards, write in my journal, take the dogs out for a one mile walk, meditate for thirty minutes, and then eat breakfast. What’s in the ritual doesn’t matter. What matters about a routine is doing it, every day, day in and day out, rain or shine, whether you feel like it or not, even if it inconveniences others. (That last bit is important if you, like me, are hardwired to be a pleaser.)
  4. As you write in Roam, link liberally. Link names. Link places. Link topics. Link dream symbols. Add keywords (like #ToWrite or #ToRead or #ToBuy). Link, link, link.
  5. Do not worry about re-reading journal entries. Set them free. When you need them, they will come back to you. 
  6. Don’t stop. You will break a streak. You will miss a day. Maybe two. No guilt. No whining. No beating yourself up. Stop being boring and get back on the horse. 

Are there any “Journaling in Roam Research” courses that will give you more information than this? Yes. Will any “Journaling in Roam Research” course give you more than this in ten minutes? No. 

A proposal: steal my free system. Adapt it for your needs. Use it for three months. At that point, you’ll know much more about Roam. You’ll know much more about journaling. You’ll have learned by doing. You may not need a course at all. 

If you still have questions — that’s great. Questions rooted in experience are better than questions rooted in ignorance. With specific questions and goals in mind, you’ll be better positioned to shop for a course … and better positioned to get more out of the course you select. 

Thanks for reading. Thanks for journaling. Let me know how things go.


Photo by Paulina B on Unsplash

Mark McElroy: lives in Mississippi | is blogging again | is author of a dozen books | works as a professional storyteller | has a husband | is working on a novel | is an engaging public speaker | lost fifty pounds in 2017 | is a little obsessed with pizza.

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