The Journal That Everyone Has Time For
How you can write the story of your life in just a few minutes per year
You know you should journal. For some, it's one of those things, like drinking eight glasses of water each day, or not sleeping with your phone next to the bed, that you hear about, basically agree with, and then mostly ignore. Journaling takes time, the habit is hard to form, and you may feel like you should've started a while ago, so why bother now?
But what if there was another kind of journal you could keep that would cover your whole life and only take about 15 minutes per year to write? That's what the Long Journal is. I'll explain.
I started journaling intermittently (like, a few entries per year) around 2011 and grew more consistent in the practice over time. In 2020, I began tracking how often I journal and achieve other habits. Here's a look at the percentage of days I journaled over this period:
A small downward trend, sure, but not one I'm too concerned about. (For the record, I'm at 86% in 2023...but it's early.)
Here are a few of the ways I use journaling to make sense of my world:
Reflecting on questions I have
Keeping my thoughts organized
Chronicling my day
I hope the content that follows doesn't come off as a case against traditional journaling, because there's no replacing the many benefits that it brings.
But I did promise to tell you about a second type of journal that I keep — one that's much quicker to write and review. I call it the Long Journal.
Introducing the Long Journal
While reviewing my old journals allows me to dip into particular days and weeks, it's not the best for zooming out and piecing together patterns. (That is, unless you — or AI — are reading them cover to cover, which I've...never done.) I have about 20 journals from the last 12 years, and it'd be impractical to go through what's probably approaching a million words.
Enter the Long Journal, perhaps misleadingly named for the time span that it covers. Mine goes back to 1990, the year I was born, runs through the present day, and could fit on just a few printed pages. Not so "long," right?
In the Long Journal, each year of my life gets just one paragraph. I write that paragraph bit by bit, over the course of the calendar year. (My 2023 entry has four sentences so far.) This can result in some chunky paragraphs — my 2022 entry, for example, finished up at about 200 words.
The sentences are merely reports of events that happened that feel significant in some way. Struggles I had, successes I had, fun I had. ("Got stitches in thumb." "Started x job." "Hosted y surprise party.") They're purposefully short — just enough to jog my memory in the future. Here's what seven years in my Long Journal looks like, from 2023 back to 2016:
There's no pressure to keep up with the this on a day-to-day basis. Just add a sentence or two, here and there, when you think of it. And since the entries are so high-level, it's easy to backfill the years that passed before you started your Long Journal, either slowly or all at once, with some of the obvious highlights that come to mind. (My entries for ages 0-4 were particularly quick to write, as you might imagine.)
The Long Journal is not meant for in-the-moment reflection. I may note that I had a difficult March, but it's not the place to then write about why I think that is, how I could dig out of a rut, etc. That sort of exploring is better left for the roomier traditional journal.
Un-blurring the Years
My family knows me for my ability to remember events and when they took place — if not the year, at least the order in which they occurred. (A too-vocal minority sometimes questions my accuracy.) My secret is tying these events to school years and sports seasons and places and people.
For example: In late 2003, I was in eighth grade and had Mrs. Chadwick for homeroom; the Celtics had just acquired Ricky Davis from the Cavaliers (a move that possibly spurred our coach of three-ish years, Jim O'Brien, to quit soon after); and my Mom bought a new Honda Element that our family took on a trip to New York. That's a very easy and random retrieval for me, but I think others would find the practice unusual (and probably pointless!) But these artifacts of memory make it easier for me to pinpoint dates and arrange timelines — they help me keep things straight. It's not something I purposefully keep up, it just sort of happens naturally.
But after I graduated in 2013, the years started blurring together. Going forward, there would be fewer celebrated milestones of youth and no neat bookending of school years. Looking to orient myself a bit and not quite sure what I was doing, I started my Long Journal.
The Benefits of Long Journaling
After chipping away at my Long Journal for a few years, I started to notice patterns, progress, change. There's something about seeing your years side-by-side that helps contextualize them. In keeping a traditional journal, those years are hidden in notebooks, obscured over many wandering pages. In the Long Journal, you can see the curvature of half a decade on a single screen or piece of paper.
While the Long Journal can't capture every high and low and nuance of your lived experience, it's not meant to. What it can do is help you refine the story you tell yourself about your own life and make it easier to see where you've been and where you're going. Mistakes you've made and successes you've had. Times of joy, and times of sadness. Everyone has an interesting story, and this is, by my estimation, the easiest way to get it down on paper.
And though I can't prove it, I think the Long Journal may slow down my perception of time passing, just a little bit. That's worth the price of admission, right there.
Thanks for reading! This is the first of four internet essays I’m going to write for my third Season of Writing. They’ll all be out by the end of March, 2023. If you liked this one, please subscribe below, and you’ll receive my writing in your inbox.