Ben Crowder

Blog: #journaling

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Low-effort journaling

This is almost certainly not novel, but the idea came up when I was talking with my friend James the other day and I figured I’d write it up in case it helps someone somewhere.

The idea is this: you set up a new email address (or use filters with your existing email, whatever works for you) and then make a shortcut on your phone so you can easily add to your journal by emailing that address. A private email blog, basically.

It’s low effort in that you don’t have to open, say, a Google Doc and find the right spot to start to write. The corresponding disadvantage is that you can’t see what you’ve already written that day. (That said, this method would also work fairly well as a lightweight way to take notes during the day, to be written up into a full journal entry later somewhere else and then archived.)

I made a sample shortcut for doing this in iOS (and I’m sure there’s a way to do something similar in Android):

low-effort-journaling.png

From left: the shortcut (using the Text and Send Email blocks), the running shortcut, and the resulting email. The shortcut can be saved to the home screen or used on an Apple Watch or put in a widget.

With this setup, I’d recommend regularly downloading your mail to your computer, through a local mail app or something like offlineimap, so that you have your own copy you can use for exporting or printing or whatever.

Note that I don’t use this myself because I already have a homegrown journaling solution (with Gate and Vinci), but I’m planning to use a variant of this shortcut for emailing notes to myself from my watch.

Anyway, if you try this out, or if you have an interesting system for journaling, let me know and I may do a followup post.


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In reading my journals this morning, I realized that what future journal readers — my grandchildren, etc. — would probably benefit from is a dramatis personae, an index to the people in my life.

I imagine it as a simple flat list with each person’s name along with a short note on how I know them and any other relevant information — whether they’re a mortal enemy, for example. Or, more seriously, the years I knew the person, any name changes or transliterations, etc.

Building the index will mean skimming through all 10,000ish days of my journal. Whew. Names are easy to spot, though, which will hopefully help it go quickly.


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For the last year or so I’ve been rereading some of my old journals each day, to remind myself of my past. My memory tends to focus almost entirely on recent personal history — the last year or so — and if it weren’t for this ritual, I honestly don’t know that I would really ever think about my life before that, except for when my kids ask me stories about my childhood.

I’m learning some things about myself I’d completely forgotten about — apparently I was very interested in art right after my mission, for example, and even almost majored in it. (I’d thought I didn’t really get into art until ten years ago. Whoops.)

The other thing I’ve noticed is that the parts of my journal that mean the most to me now are the little bits about the other people in my life, friends and family, particularly those I don’t much interact with anymore and those who’ve passed on. It’s almost magical to me how fondness from the long ago past can be resurrected with a mere word or a phrase.


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Productivity in small slices

Over the past few months I’ve been getting Cal Newport’s newsletter, the focus of which has been largely on deep work (go figure) and the need to block out enough undistracted time to do truly great work.

That’s the ideal situation, of course, but for me — where my creative pursuits aren’t my day job, and where I want to spend time with my wife and kids — I end up having to work mainly with small slivers of time here and there. It’s not perfect, but you can get a surprising amount of work done in small chunks over time.

I find that three of the things that help me be productive in those moments are:

Think. More specifically, I try to spend some of my downtime (shower, walking) thinking about and around and through current projects. This is especially useful in pushing through problem spots. For me, the work goes far more smoothly when I take time to think through things first.

Journal. As a close counterpart to thinking, journaling about projects helps me talk myself through what needs to be done and how to go about it. A month or so ago I started doing a daily brain dump journal entry where I talk to myself about what I’m working on, and it’s been really, really helpful, especially because I now have something external I can look at to remember where I was on a given project (important when I’m not able to work on every project every day) (I tend to work on several projects at a time).

Next actions. One of the main things I took away from David Allen’s GTD methodology, identifying next actions is an integral part of how I work. My available creative time often comes in chunks of two or three minutes, which is just about the right length of time for a concrete next action. My daily journaling has turned into the best time to identify these.

There’s nothing groundbreaking here, of course, but hopefully these are somewhat helpful.


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Scanning journals

I’ve recently begun scanning my journals using my iPhone and the Scanner Pro app, and it’s working out fairly well. My process:

  • Using the built-in iPhone camera app, I long press to lock focus and exposure (this saves time so it doesn’t have to autofocus each time), then photograph each page of the journal. It’s not as high quality as it would be if I used an actual scanner, but it’s much, much faster, and far more portable.
  • After I’m done photographing, I open Scanner Pro and select the images from the camera roll, then use the Black & White Document setting to process them into a PDF.
  • From Scanner Pro, I export the PDF to Dropbox.

The resulting PDF is nice and clean and easy to read, and the files aren’t too big (150 pages is usually between 80 and 200 megs — for me, very much worth the space to preserve important documents).

A concocted example:

input.jpg

That’s before (the image is straight from my iPhone camera, no postprocessing), and this is after Scanner Pro is done with it:

scanner-pro.jpg

I should add that ordinarily, with actual journals there wouldn’t be as much empty border around the content.

One hitch I’ve run into is that Scanner Pro chokes on anything larger than around 150 pages (it crashes), so I do long journals in chunks.

For that reason and a few other small annoyances, I’ve been looking into replacing Scanner Pro with a desktop-based script that takes a list of photos and processes them into a nice black and white PDF. Imagemagick gets me part of the way there with this command:

convert input.jpg -threshold 50% -blur 1x1 output.jpg

Here’s what it looks like for the above note card scan, at 30%, 50%, and 70% threshold, respectively:

imagemagick.jpg

At some point I’ll try writing a Python script that dynamically evaluates each page and adjusts the threshold as necessary to get the best result. Until then, though, I’m still using Scanner Pro.


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Some small scripts

Migrating to Day One has resurrected my efforts to scan and transcribe my older paper journals. As I’ve been doing this, I’ve run into the need for a couple small shell scripts to automate things.

On several of these journals I’m scanning the full two-page spread because the whole journal fits on the scanner platen, which means splitting the resulting image out into two (one for each page). Splitimage uses ImageMagick to do that nicely. There’s some overlap, but for a fully automated solution it’s not bad, and it saves me a lot of time cropping.

I prefer taking these split images and renaming them sequentially using something more meaningful (“journal-2009.005.jpg” rather than “IMG_0034.JPG”, for example). I used to do this with OS X’s Automator tool, and it works quite well, but I wanted a quick command-line tool to speed things up. Enter dub, a zsh script that simplifies the batch renaming process. Now I can just type:

dub journal-2009.X.jpg *.JPG

And then it’s just a matter of dumping them into Unbindery and transcribing them.


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For the angels to look upon

“What could you do better for your children and your children’s children than to record the story of your life, your triumphs over adversity, your recovery after a fall, your progress when all seemed black, your rejoicing when you had finally achieved? Some of what you write may be humdrum dates and places, but there will also be rich passages that will be quoted by your posterity.

“We hope you will begin as of this date. If you have not already commenced this important duty in your lives, get a good notebook, a good book that will last through time and into eternity for the angels to look upon. Begin today and write in it your goings and your comings, your deeper thoughts, your achievements, and your failures, your associations and your triumphs, your impressions and your testimonies. We hope you will do this, our brothers and sisters, for this is what the Lord has commanded, and those who keep a personal journal are more likely to keep the Lord in remembrance in their daily lives.”

President Kimball Speaks Out on Personal Journals (Dec. 1980 Ensign).


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