Journalling: Phone, PC or Paper?

Journalling is a great practice for improving your headspace and mental health. The action of letting your thoughts take the form of words (on screen or page) is cathartic.

It helps you monitor personal changes, track recent habits and progress on goals, and kept me sane during lockdown. In the past month I’ve been trying out different journalling methods, and wanted to share my experience.

1. Smartphone

Image source: Mobile App Daily

I’ve used Journey the most, which is available for both Android and iOS (plus web-app browser version). I’ve tried numerous journalling apps and so far Journey is my app of choice: it has a simple UI, easy navigation, and just gets the job done. Journal entries can also be marked with a mood, attached with various files, physical activity data or GPS and weather data (for privacy reasons, not a great idea).

Image Source: Android Authority

Daylio is a different app I started using recently for ‘micro-journalling’ and mood-tracking. This one I’d recommend if you’re looking not so much to write thoughts and feelings down but more a quick way to check-in for your mood, habits and daily health activities. Mood icons are also customisable and the app is filled with minimalist but colourful UI.

Image source: Popsugar

Daylio is the perfect solution for those always on the go. The ‘journal’ entries don’t require any writing at all – it can essentially be used to exclusively track mood and habits. The data visualisation for mood tracking is vastly superior as well, with customisable chart, graph and calendar views. Journey is a different app that serves a different purpose: to write journal entries, with the ability to attach all kinds of data to them.

Image Source: That Helpful Dad

While both apps are free, this also means that there are ads – but at least they’re ads are for the app you’re using and not targeted ad campaigns. The ads aren’t too intrusive either: mostly just smaller UI pop-ups and the occasional full screen ad (no unskippable full screen video ads). The ads are also consistent with the visual design of the UI, so over time kind of just blend in with the rest of the app.

The experience itself of journalling on the phone can feel quite natural. Many of us use our phone for note-taking, and journalling can feel like an extension of that. The physical element of touching a screen as input is very distinct, especially if you have vibration feedback on.

The main difficulty on the phone is staying focused on writing a journal entry when being constantly pestered by notifications. The process of journalling should be to clear one’s mind and not open yourself up to more distraction. Give the black-and-white mode a try sometime. Turn off your notifications.

+ Pros: Most accessible, easiest to use, many additional features

– Cons: Blue light exposure, most distractions, ads

2. Computer/Laptop

Now and in the past, journalling on the computer has always felt a bit strange. I’ve recently tried it out again, this time using Journey’s browser web app. Something would always feel a bit…off. Not necessarily uncomfortable, but slightly unnatural.

Image Source: Journey

Maybe it’s the fact that writing on the computer is both the largest representation of your words – displayed on a large screen – and also the visual output you are most distanced from (compared to using a phone or writing in a journal). There’s something to be said about the quiet intimidation of a large, blank screen. The large screen also provides the benefit of ads being lot less intrusive (compared to how much screen space is taken on a phone).

For most people, typing on the computer will be the fastest and most efficient method of word processing. Whether it is also the fastest way to journal is a different question. While I feel at home on the keyboard and mouse, there’s something different about the mental and emotional acts associated with journalling on a computer.

Image Source: Pixabay (GDKSoftware)

Maybe it’s related to the fact that we spend most of our professional lives performing unavoidable word processing tasks on workstations. These days smartphones have replaced computers in everyday life, and it’s a lot less common to use the computer for chatting compared to phones.

I tried it about two weeks on the computer. It felt a bit too robotic and impersonal, especially for a process like journalling. While I was writing faster, it felt more like a mechanical process and less of an organic process. Depending on the speed at which you type, that can have a different relationship with the speed of your thoughts. Maybe the difference in ‘input speed’ is the reason why the experience felt so jarring.

+ Pros: Fastest, most efficient method,

– Cons: Feels unnatural, largest input speed to thought speed difference

3. Classic Journal Book and Pen

If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. The classic paper and pen combination is still my favourite way to journal. Using a fountain pen enhances the experience, and is usually faster than ball-point or gel pens. Sure it’s the slowest method, refilling the pen can be an inconvenience and it can certainly get messy at times – but there’s ultimately a more therapeutic, organic and natural flow from thought to paper.

Image Source: Pexels (Pixabay)

For the same reason that writing notes down commits them more effectively to memory, writing our thoughts down – etching them on paper and manifesting them through ink – can help with affirmation and learning personal lessons, converting our thoughts from the abstract to something more concrete.

Writing on paper also presents a more physical connection with our thoughts and feelings. When you write when you’re angry, you might tend to exert more pressure on the pen tip. If you write a new journal entry on the other side of the same page a few days later you may notice the force with which you pushed the pen into the page. You might reflect on what triggered your emotions and how they subsided.

Image Source: Free-Photos (Pixabay)

Time is likely the biggest trade-off for using the classic pen and paper approach. For journalling to play a role in self-care, it will take time. If you’re looking for a fun and quick way to track habits, phone apps like Daylio may suit your needs better.

But with any form of digital journalling, the data recorded is only what you specify: the mood you feel, photo or video attachments, water drinking counters and so on. While the digital methods are more feature-packed, a key consideration when choosing a tool is the purpose. What’s the tradeoff for doing it digitally?

A virtual journal entry is a file. It’s comprised of 0’s and 1’s, it’s a certain file format of a specific size. It can be edited at any time, can be doctored to remove all flaws and imperfections. In the real world, there is no physical representation of it.

With physical pages, you can’t undo mistakes, marks, or ink blotches. They become part of that page, part of that entry. When you only journal on devices, there’s a lot of you that becomes lost on the way to the screen. Without the imperfections, the mistakes, the frustrated profanity, the honesty, the ‘I really can’t write today’ after the fourth word is crossed out in the same sentence, what really is the point?

You always put more of yourself on a paper page than a virtual one – and that makes it more rewarding for journalling.

+ Pros: Most organic and natural process, stronger connection with self

– Cons: Slowest method, also most tiring


This article also appears on Medium.com.

Article feature icon image credits: Freepik (Phone & PC) & Fauzidea (Notebook)

Published by Tech Neck Nick

I'm a cybersecurity major postgrad student from Sydney, Australia. Support my fight against Writer's Block.

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