Start journaling with a simple text file

Photo by Cathryn Lavery on Unsplash

Journaling has many benefits, and for those of us that can’t remember what we did yesterday, journaling is also a way of keeping track of what we have done. In the future I’m hoping I’ll be able to use my journal to pass down my exploits to a younger generation.

My history of journaling

I’ve tried a few different approaches to journaling. For a long time (over 20 years) I’ve run a blog at This works for big ideas that I don’t mind making public, but there are always entries that I would like to keep private. So, for a while I was using an iPhone app. This was ok, but I didn’t like having my journal in some proprietary format.

I tried to use email. Google allows + aliases, so I could email to [email protected] and set up a filter to automatically label those emails as my journal. The problem with this was that if I didn’t email right away, the dates and times wouldn’t match the email. Plus, there was no way to edit past posts.

Next up was a private journal hosted on WordPress. This worked pretty well. If you want to journal, do check them out. When creating a blog, you can set it to private, so no one can see it except for you after you logged in. The P2 theme is very good for journaling. It shows a box at the top of the page in which to write your posts.

Where I am today

After experimenting with the above ideas, I settled on a simple journal based on a text file named after the year. The journal for this year is 2019.markdown. I write in Markdown, which is a way to write plain text but with formatting. Since the journal is plain text, I know I’ll always be able to read it, no matter what computer or device I use.

It takes nothing to try it out. Download a plain text editor such as Atom. Create a new text file named 2019.markdown and start writing!

I don’t enjoy using a full-blown word processor such as Microsoft Word or LibreOffice. Too much bloat to impede adding a journal entry. Plus, they are harder to save as a plain text file.

How I format my journal

Some people split off a text file for each day. This leads to a bunch of files (365 per year to be exact, 366 in a leap year). I prefer to keep the whole year in one file. My current journal for 2019 is approaching 28,000 words. Which seems like a lot, but the entire file is 166K. This is pretty small in the grand scheme of things.

I start each day with the date and the day of the week:

# 12/27/19 - Fri

(For my European friends, you’ll probably want to put it in day/month/year format.)

Each entry is one line, starting with the date and time:

2019/12/27 15:29 - Working on my journaling article for #blog

Yes, I am not consistent with my date formatting, maybe I’ll fix that next year. I also add hashtags to the end of the entry. These hashtags may be people’s names, or subjects of the entry. For example, when I write an entry about a movie I’ve seen, I’ll tag it with #media. If it’s a fact I’ve learned, it will be tagged with #til. An accomplishment is #accomplishment. These tags are there to help me find information in my journal.

Inserting a date and time

For Atom, there is a package you can use to automatically insert the date and time. Other text editors usually have the option to do the same.

Journaling from mobile

This is all well and good, but what about adding entries from your phone? To do that, you’ll need to save your text file in a cloud storage system such as Dropbox, iCloud, or Google Drive. Dropbox now has a limit of three devices on the free account, but that probably won’t be a problem for you. Save your journal in your cloud storage, and then edit it with any text editor on your mobile device. For the iPhone, there is Pretext (Free) and iA Writer ($8.99). Android users can use Markor (free) or iA Writer ($8.99).

2019 and beyond

I have never been this consistent with journaling before this year. Looking back at my past journals and notes, it looks like I get the journaling bug every fall, but lose steam and stop by spring. I’ve kept it up easily for an entire year.