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Should You Journal Physically or Digitally?

Woman writing in a travel journal on a table covered in photos and travel documents.
Rawpixel.com/Shutterstock

Thinking of starting a journal? One of the biggest decisions you have to make is whether you want to do it with a physical journal or using a digital service or app. Let’s look at the pros and cons of each option.

A Physical Journal

An actual, paper journal is the purest form of journalling. It’s how everyone from Leonardo Da Vinci to Charles Darwin did it in the past. All you need to get started is a notebook and a pen.

There are a couple of advantages to this approach:

  • Journalling by hand is simple. You don’t need a smartphone or computer, battery life or an internet connection. It’s just you and a piece of paper.
  • Using a physical journal is also much more distraction-free. You can really focus on getting your thoughts down on paper without fear of an email interrupting you.
  • Writing things down is slower. It forces you to think about how you’re feeling, rather than just getting everything down quickly.
  • With a pen, you can easily doodle, draw, add graphs, and the like. Your journal doesn’t just have to be words on a page.

There are also a couple of disadvantages to using a physical journal.

  • You can lose or damage a journal—and then all your journalling is gone for good. No backups, no replacements, gone.
  • If you don’t have your journal with you, you can’t journal. Or if you do, you have to use a scrap of paper that you then copy or paste into it.
  • It’s inconvenient to sit down at a table and start writing. It can be hard to get the motivation to do it when you’re tired, sad, or stressed. And those are times that journalling can really help.

A Digital Journal

Dozens of different digital journalling options are available. You can start your own with a text file or Google Doc, or use an app like Day One. Most digital journaling options will work across all your devices.

Digital journaling has a lot going for it:

  • You can journal any time, as long as you have your smartphone or computer. You don’t even have to get out of bed.
  • Since most digital journals sync between your devices, you can’t lose them. They’re totally backed up. If your phone ends up in the toilet, your thoughts are still safe.
  • Digital journals can easily include extra information, like where you are, the weather, photos, links, and whatever else.
  • At least if you use a computer, digital journaling is fast. It’s easy to type out long, involved stories.

With that said, digital journaling is not without its disadvantages:

  • Digital journals can be less personal. All the text is in the same perfect font, not your handwriting.
  • Physical journals pick up wear and tear that show what they’ve been through. You can’t tear stain your smartphone.
  • It’s easy to get distracted when you’re journalling on your phone or computer, especially if you’re trying to work through something difficult.
  • While backups are easy with digital journals, be aware of proprietary formats—if you can’t actually back up or export your journal and an online service you use shuts down, you’re out of luck.

Choosing Between Them

Whatever way you look at it, journaling is awesome, and it’s something you should start now. Choose whichever option you think will work best for you and, if you need to, you can change it up. I’ve flip-flopped between digital and physical journals for years. Right now, I use both: a simple physical journal for day-to-day stuff and a digital journal for permanently recording my thoughts.

Harry Guinness Harry Guinness
Harry Guinness is a photography expert and writer with nearly a decade of experience. His work has been published in newspapers like the New York Times and on a variety of other websites, including Lifehacker. Read Full Bio »

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