Day One and the Journaling Habit

Day One Hero

“Once you are locked in the journaling habit, you will automatically see an increase in other positive life habits. Personally, I started to feel less worried about things. Before I journaled, I sometimes felt a big confusion in my head; now, all that confusion is resting on Day One, ready for me to analyze it when I’m in a calmer state of mind.”
Tulio Jarocki

Journaling, like many things, is a habit I've struggled to become good at. For whatever reason I just don't have a natural inclination to write down things that happen in my life or inside my head. It's a problem that has followed me all my life.

As a kid, the only journal entries I ever wrote were for English class—assigned topics, word quotas, the whole deal. I took no joy from writing them, nor did I understand why our teachers, who probably didn't even keep personal journals of their own, made us do so. It wasn't my job to know. My job was to do the allotted busywork at home every night, meanwhile despising whoever invented that concept too.

I also had this weird misconception that keeping a journal meant buying one of those frilly diaries-with-a-lock from the Book Fair, and those were for girls. (Let's just say maturity wasn't my forte either.)

Eventually I graduated and left the world of homework behind (thank god). A bunch of life happened between then and now, and here I am over a decade later, still not very good at journaling but trying to get better. I've allowed all kinds of memories in my life to slip away unrecorded, and journaling has become my way of fighting this process. You have to understand, my brain is superb at discarding information it doesn't find immediately useful. I don't even call it “having a bad memory” anymore. It demands a more active verb, like “cognitive super-disposal”.

It saddens me a little, thinking back on all the unrecorded events from my childhood and teenage years that I only dimly remember now—times when writing my thoughts down could have helped clear my mind rather than letting the mess accumulate like an old attic.

All those missed opportunities for self-reflection; valuable lessons I could have gleaned with the benefit of hindsight; chances to look at my past selves and actually see how far I've come as a person. Hell, there are things about the early days of my relationship with my wife that I wish I'd written down somewhere.

Above all else, I regret not keeping a better journal of my son's first year of life.

* * *

Although I'd heard great things about the Mac-and-iOS journaling app Day One several years ago, I still wasn't keeping a journal at the time and never gave it much thought. It wasn't until Shawn Blanc's review that I began to understand what it means to keep a journal, and how Day One could help me get the job done. He didn't just write about the app's features, he gave them context:

“Over the years, most of the major, monumental milestones of life were documented in my Moleskine. But not all. And that’s why I’m glad to have an app that let’s me easily and joyfully add a snapshot or a quick note about an important or memorable event. These are the things my family and I will look back on 20 and 30 years from now with great fondness.”

A few months after reading his review, on January 1st 2013, I finally bought the iOS app and wrote my first entry, oh-so-cleverly titled Hello World. 821 characters, 166 words. It wasn't much but it was a start.

From then on I forced myself to continue writing new entries. After a while the habit began to stick. Every few days or so, I would feel the urge to reach for my iPhone or iPad1, fire up Day One, and jot down whatever was on my mind. This had a curious side effect: a feeling of guilt would creep in whenever I lapsed in my journaling too long, as though I were letting myself down.

Even now I don't journal in Day One every single day, but I also rarely go more than a couple weeks without writing something in it.

“There's nothing quite like dumping my brain onto the page so I can have a better look at what's going on in there.”

As of this writing, I've managed to build up a modest collection of journal entries (about 170), ranging anywhere from tweet-sized to article-length. Some are mundane and of no interest to anyone but me, while others contain some of my personal favorite writing. I've written about every facet of my life—my struggles and successes; my fears and hopes; my dreams and goals; my interests and observations; my friends and family. It's all right there in Day One.

So yes, I've become a full-on journaling convert, and Day One is my tool of choice.

But Why Journal?

“In my life, writing has been an important exercise to clarify what I believe, what I see, what I care about, what my deepest values are. The process of converting a jumble of thoughts into coherent sentences makes you ask tougher questions.”
Barack Obama

If you're like my past self and can't see what the big deal is with journaling, I'd like to help you see the light. There are many excellent reasons to take up the habit:

It's better than human memory.
The harsh truth is, most of us don't have perfect recall. As time goes by our memories fade, precious moments lose their luster, and situational details are inevitably misremembered. Better to capture these experiences while they're fresh.

It's therapeutic.
Journaling is cathartic for the mind and soul, corny as that sounds. Whenever a tough problem needs solving, or if I'm being weighed down by mental baggage, I turn to my journal. I've discovered it's one of the best ways to clear my mind. There's nothing quite like dumping my brain onto the page so I can have a better look at what's going on in there.

It's versatile.
Journaling is so much more than listing things you've done on a given day. You can write about anything you want—a feeling you had, a glance you shared with a stranger, something about your boss that pisses you off, a book that changed your perspective about something, a film review, a strange dream you had…the list goes on and on.

Journaling is also versatile in another aspect: time. It can be the last thing you do before going to bed, something you do while having your morning coffee, or at any time between. It's all up to you—there are no schedules or deadlines, save the ones you set for yourself. Start an entry and come back to it later if you must.

It's private.
Unless you allow it, nothing you write in your journal ever has to see the light of day. Your journal is a place where you can be completely honest about what's on your mind, and how you feel about it. Your journal is your safe space.

Which brings me to my next point:

It's great writing practice.
Technically, any form of writing could be considered great practice, but there's something so freeing about having a private place to write about anything you want, in whatever way pleases you. Maybe you'll eventually decide to make some or all of your journal entries public—after all, what is blogging really, if not journaling out loud?—but until then, they can go unedited, unscrutinized, and uncriticized.

It's a way for future generations to know you.

Most people aren't famous enough to be the subjects of published biographies. A journal is a way to record your life so that, if someone wishes in the future, they can read and possibly learn from it. It's a great way to leave a legacy after you're gone.

“When you’re dust, many centuries from now, your permanent digital eulogy will still be there to speak for you.”
Sid O'Neill

* * *

Now, I haven't described anything that couldn't be accomplished with a Field Notes notebook or a simple text file, and there's really nothing wrong with either of those methods if they suit your needs. It's just that Day One is so well-suited to the practice, I can't imagine using anything else. It is the ultimate journaling tool for me.

Day One Review

Day One is one of those apps where, once I started using it, I wondered how I ever got along without it. It makes me want to journal. As I said earlier, I actually feel guilty when I neglect to open the app and write something in it once in a while. There aren't many other apps I can say that about.

It would be relatively easy for a developer to throw together a few lines of code that let you create text entries and save them to a chronological list, then call this product a “journaling app”. Bloom Built, the studio behind Day One, opted instead to craft a first-class experience, unequaled by all others in its genre.

Day One was built for the journaling habit. There are lots of little features throughout that individually might be easy to overlook, but the gestalt of them working together creates an experience more powerful than any pen-and-paper journal could hope to match.

The Journal of the Future

Take the creation of journal entries, for instance. From the main menu, tap the + button to start a text-only entry, or the camera button to start an entry that will have an attached photo. They're the huge buttons at the top, can't miss 'em.

Day One Sample Entry

Before you begin writing anything, take a moment to notice what's happening on Day One's extra keyboard row (which in my case is at the bottom of the entry since I'm using an external Bluetooth keyboard and the onscreen one is hidden).

You'll see that it's automatically filling in details about that specific moment for you: the date and time, your location, the local weather, and even the currently-playing song. If you're using an iPhone 5s or newer, an iPad Air, or the latest iPad mini, Day One will pull information from the built-in motion coprocessor chip (M7 or M8) to display motion-related information, like your step count.2

“You don't necessarily have to write anything at all for an entry to contain useful information about where you were, what you were doing at the time, what the weather felt like, and what music you were listening to.”

If you choose to upload a photo from the camera roll rather than take a new one, Day One will check its EXIF data and ask if you'd like to record the time, weather, and location of the photo rather than your current position. How cool is that? I don't always think to write journal entries during vacations, so I often use this feature for any entries written after the fact, as if I'd written them on the spot.

Day One Photo EXIF

Keep in mind that all this data-gathering has taken place before you've even added your own thoughts to the journal entry. You don't necessarily have to write anything at all for an entry to contain useful information about where you were, what you were doing at the time, what the weather felt like, and what music you were listening to. That is powerful stuff.

If you do decide to write something in an entry—and I always do—Day One doubles as a great Markdown text editor. Or more accurately, a MultiMarkdown editor, so you can use footnotes and tables to your heart's content. It doesn't have all the bells and whistles of an app like Editorial by any stretch, but after saving an entry written in Markdown you are treated to a beautifully formatted document in the reader pane. There are even special Markdown syntax buttons on the 5th keyboard row above the QWERTY keys.

After an entry is created, you can tag it for easy reference later. While viewing the text editor, either:

a) Tap the tag button on the extra keyboard row (you may have to swipe left or right to see it)


b) Simply pull down on the journal entry to reveal the tag entry bar at the top, where it will be ready for you to type a tag. Or, you can press the + button on the right to select from the list of tags you've used before.

Tags aren't the only way to find old entries either. From the main menu, you can also use the search bar, view a gallery of all photo entries, bring up a calendar view to see which days have entries (i.e. the ones in blue), view all 'starred' entries, or access entries by year. There is no shortage of ways to find what you're looking for, whenever you need to find it.

Whatever you think about digital-vs-analog journals, this is one area where Day One absolutely dominates.

I Feel Pretty, Oh So Pretty

Of course, we can't talk about Day One without mentioning just how lovely it is. It has eye candy for days, and it's got the 2014 Apple Design Award to prove it.

Going back and reading previous entries is a joy because Day One makes them look so gorgeous. It helps that you can choose which font they appear in, which also applies to the text editor itself. These are a few of the available typefaces:

  • Avenir (my favorite)
  • Hoefler Text
  • Snell Roundhand
  • Helvetica Neue
  • Futura

And there are another half-dozen to be discovered. Come to think of it, can one ever really have enough fonts? Maybe the developers should include a small in-app purchase to unlock even more of them. I'd buy that in a second.

On the topic of beautifying journal entries, something I enjoy doing with nearly all photos that end up in Day One is pass them through VSCO Cam for editing beforehand, just as I do with photos on Twitter and Instagram. Day One's entries are lovely enough on their own, but a little VSCO Cam editing really makes them pop. The latter complements the former quite nicely that way.

Day One Photos

Not all of my entries have photos attached, but I do try to use as many as possible. It's probably the best way to use Day One. Once your journal has collected enough of them, it turns into a kind of photo book of your life. This is especially true once you add starred photo entries to the mix, which are enlarged in the gallery and provide a collage-like appearance.

Day One Photo Collage

My quibble with photos is that Day One only allows one per entry. You can embed photos within entries using Markdown or HTML syntax, but I would prefer something a little more native. Maybe something like Squarespace's image “blocks” inserted between Markdown sections?

And, it would be nice if we could attach videos in addition to photos—though I can also see how this would cause weirdness with Day One's PDF export feature.


When I first heard about Day One's Publish feature, my first reaction was, “Why would I ever use that?” Just as I know I'll probably never publish anything on Medium if only because I prefer having complete control over my words, Publish initially seemed useless to me.

Then I had an epiphany one day. I discovered I could use Publish as a means of sharing personal stories and whatnot with my friends and family—things that won't fit into a tweet but aren't necessarily a good fit for The Spark Journal either. It's the ideal middle ground.

Day One Publish

Just to give you some examples, here are a few things I've published on…er, Publish:

  • A review of the film Chef.
  • A list of reasons I should stop procrastinating and start writing, for days when I'm feeling especially lazy and need to kick my own ass in gear.
  • A funny little story involving my son and my wallet.
  • A not-so-funny story about a fight I witnessed in a fast food restaurant. (Very NSFW language.)

Unfortunately, Publish does not (as of yet) display inline photos within entries, whether inserted with Markdown or HTML. I'm not sure why that is, but it does at least provide links to those external photos so you can still view them.

Forming the Habit

There are a couple of ways Day One can help you form a regular journaling habit. The first is built in: recurring reminders to write journal entries. Go to Settings → Reminders and you can add as many reminder notifications as you like, at whatever time-of-day and intervals you prefer (daily, weekly, or monthly).

The other method is a bit more convoluted, but effective for updating a journal regularly. It's a custom Launch Center Pro action that notifies me every day at 8am to take a short questionnaire. It flows like this:

  1. Do you feel rested? [Options: Yes / No]
  2. How many hours of sleep? [Options: 0-2 / 3-5 / 6-8 / 9+]
  3. Did you dream? If so, describe. [Blank text field]
  4. Any goals for today? [Blank text field]
  5. Anything accomplished yesterday? [Blank text field]
  6. Any other thoughts? [Blank text field]

This sequence of questions not only forces me to write words immediately upon awakening, it also has the added bonus of being a dream journal, task list, and a standard journal entry all rolled into one. When I'm finished, the action launches Day One and creates a new journal entry with everything filled in accordingly.

If you want to try out this LCP action, you can install it by clicking here.

A nice side effect of completing this questionnaire in the morning is that my writing muscles are warmed up and my brain is more alert. Once the ball is rolling, it only feels natural to hop over to Editorial and continue writing. It's all about inertia, baby.

Further Reading

If you want to read more about Day One and what you can do with it, or need ideas for what to journal about—after all, today is Journal Day—these resources can help.


Day One is more than a mere journaling app. It's a life log, a photo album, and a place for long-form expressive writing…are you getting it?

I would probably not journal nearly this often if my only option were pen and paper. Not that I don't enjoy the act of handwriting once in a while, because I do, but it simply can't compare with how easy and automated Day One makes the journaling process. Not only that, it's one of those apps that truly helps me on a mental and emotional level. How many apps can any of us honestly say that about?

Day One is available for iOS ($5 — Universal) and for Mac ($10).

  1. I don't have much experience with the Mac app, as I do not own a Mac. 

  2. On older-gen devices, one's movement status (stationary, walking, running, biking, etc) can be manually recorded by tapping the 'running man' icon.