Diaries and idearies

an example diary

We are said to be the sum of our influences—the people we encounter and interact with can shape the way we think about life more than anything else. This is why we need to know at every single moment what enters our minds and ask ourselves if it supports our goals or not. If it doesn't, it might be time to think consciously about something else or intentionally seek ways to collide what we already know with seemingly unrelated multi-dimensional perspectives to gain new insights. A simple way to record, track and later rewind what enters our mind is to keep a journal or diary of the new things we learn daily. I will try to share my experiences here with keeping an analog diary, since this is something I have used to a great extent in the last couple of years. Some people prefer using Evernote or their own website to organize their thoughts, so you may need to find out what works best for you—or even if it works—before you decide to commit to a particular method.

I have made writing in my diary a habit and I rarely miss a day without writing anything new or something that I have already forgotten. If I don't write anything, it might be a sign that I haven't learned anything new on that day. It keeps my thoughts fresh and allows me to even escape the current realities of the world when I want to. Keeping a diary has allowed me to evaluate and question many things, to reflect through my own experience and to even write a book. My diary contains various ideas, observations, methods or (some stupid) step-by-step guides, lists, insights, results of studies, small useful diagrams, quotes, fables, short snippets of code, design considerations, funny little things to increase the mood while reading, case studies of how people succeeded, short interviews, hobbies or things that might be interesting to me at a later point in time. Overall, I invest a lot of time in my diaries which is quite strange to many people around me. But if one single thing has transformed my life to be like never before, these are my diaries. The very act of putting something down on paper (even in the digital age!) and investing time in becoming more intimate with it had quite an interesting effect on me. When I read through my diaries, I feel exposed to a variety of different perspectives, that often provoke temporary emotions in me, like “Grrrr” (a moment of realization of the own limitations), “This is stupid” or “This person is wrong, but why actually?”. Nevertheless, it is a reminder to never get comfortable with paradigms in a world of constant change.

A diary can require a lot of time and thus has a clear cost. In order for it to become effective, it must be seen as a long term investment and not as a short term loss, which will probably become a problem for many people. Just sticking to it and learning something new every day, putting it down, connecting the dots to form part of the big picture, exploring ways how things can be useful for our own purposes can have a transformational effect. But an analog diary can only be a part of a system—one that is very likely to have digital elements too. It's interesting to be able to directly see how complements work better than any single solution.

Prescreening of content must precede the decision to include it in the diary or not. Since everyone thinks differently, we experience the same things with different intensity and that will determine their usefulness for us. How do we determine then what exactly to write down? Should we write it word for word as we hear/read it? To know this, we need to be aware of the big picture, which means that it's usually inappropriate to write down something seemingly important, when its context hasn't fully formed yet. When we clearly see the boundaries of the context, it becomes much easier to derive the meaning of what we heard in a way that allows us to put it down simply in our own words. So it's best to write down what we understood for ourselves (including the possible hidden/unspoken/unexpected signs) and not what we initially heard. But very often, due to lack of time, we might be tempted to extract quickly something of value, because we know that we won't stay longer on it. This can result in a wishy-washy diary that will be harder and slower to read, so we probably need to balance things again.

Some kind of ranking of the importance of content or a mechanism that will later allows us to skim through less important parts becomes necessary with the growing size of our notes. For this, I have chosen to keep space at the beginning of every line, so I can add up to three exclamation marks or maybe a flash or a lightbulb. You might find other signs more appropriate for you. I also try to write things as sparingly as possible, but at the same time without affecting the readability of the text, since doing the opposite will require having more diaries and more space to store them. We also need to consider that with time, our eyesight will probably get worse, so if we want things to still be readable, we have to account for this too. Sometimes we write down something, then something entirely unrelated temporarily becomes more interesting and after that we go back to add something to the initial idea (it's a non-linear process). In this case, the space I left for the exclamation marks can also be used to connect things with a simple line to indicate that they are related.

The quality of the paper used paired with the appropriate writing tool can determine how readable our written text is. Generally, I prefer a paper with higher than average brightness, which will lead to a better contrast between the written text and the background, thus improving readability. But for me price is also a factor (living in the poorest European country, ha!), so I try not to indulge into something expensive that will in any way threaten the sustainability of the habit. I have heard great things about Moleskines, but haven't used them personally yet. I saw a clean version (with no lines), which means that it can be also used for sketches/wireframes or other free forms of drawing. Another thing to know is that brighter paper often contains chemical substances to be made brighter and that black ink contain chemicals to be made more saturated. In the long term, they might be harmful to touch more often than we need, since everything can easily penetrate our skin, leading to harmful diseases. (That's not a joke.) I also take into account that I will use this diary for a longer time, so I must be comfortable with it. Usually, this means that it shouldn't have extra space for maps, important telephone numbers, dates taking part of the page etc. A problem I had is the way inks can penetrate paper and make writings on the other side of the page unreadable. Or touching the paper with slightly wet hands can smudge the ink and make letters unrecognizable. It might be a good idea (if you can afford it) to test which pen works with which diary in order to avoid surprises. Taking time to pick the best diary for our needs can make us more likely to use it with joy, which makes buying the first one you see in the store a wrong behavior that you might come to regret later when things start to fall apart. It's probably better to treat your diary with the same respect as you treat what you have learned so far and with the same respect as who you are.

I tend to avoid using color in my diaries in order to not slow down reading speed. Sometimes I may underline text, but do so sparingly, because it adds visual noise. Visual noise will burden and tire you once you return to older notes again.

I never bring my diaries to a place where I might regret it later. If I go to a seminar or conference, I simply take regular sheets of paper with me. It is small and light, can be folded as many times I need, and remains almost invisible, so it won't be that distracting to others if I put something down. Moreover, I can evaluate later which snippets on the paper are really important and not just spontaneously write something that hasn't crystallized yet.

Of course, there is no such thing as an "ideary". What I meant here is keeping a separate list of ideas that came through “aha”-moments you had while having time and space with your consciousness. It's important to not forget to take some time daily to let your mind flow freely in order to explore alternatives, although this is easier said that done and has been somewhat of a challenge for me. To have more and better ideas, we need to challenge ourselves to generate more in limited periods of time. For instance, the question “What hundred ideas can I generate in fifteen minutes?” will very likely defeat us, but will still allow us to explore our limit and then seek ways to expand it. This kind of training to stay alert to possibilities can with time improve our process to gradually take more and more value out of it. But no matter how many ideas we have on our list, we need to have the ability to prioritize at any moment in time the ones we'll pursue, which is again a very personal decision depending on the constraints we need to live with. A good idea has a proper balance between as low as possible downside and as high as possible upside (in that order), thus it often minimizes our risk, but not to the extent we don't take it. It is also integrative, so that our own nature can be embedded in it to form something unique, something that noone else would have the ability to do. Once we've made our decision, we need to be able to execute the idea (specific domain skills), preferably in a stunning way (big thinking, small acting). Otherwise it will become a needle in the haystack, lose its effectiveness and not lead to any profits that would allow us to continue ideating and executing. Without proper execution, ideas are of limited value, and our list will not progress into something tangible.

We can work on our ideas now or later, but only if we wrote them down. And because we never know when an idea will strike, it's useful to always bring some sheets of paper so we can write it down immediately. Later may be too late, especially when we are distracted in so many different ways, that we can't even notice.

We can refer to our idea list now or in ten years. Some ideas will have become more doable, others—less feasible. Their value changes over time, which is why timing itself can determine if they succeed/fail or what market share they reach. The diary is an instrument to keep and evaluate current practices in sight, ensuring we do not fall behind this timing. And the complementary list of ideas allows us explore and make use of opportunities as they arise, but only in a way that is consistent with what we perceive to be right in the long term.

If I knew initially how a diary could change my thinking, I would have only started earlier.