My Journaling MVP
Engineers love beautiful solutions to complicated problems. We strive to build strong, robust systems that make lives easier, enable new experiences, and create value. The iterative software engineering process often begins with the creation of a “minimum viable product” or MVP, used to test hypothesis and validate the product-market fit before too many resources are invested into something that may not work long-term. For many engineering teams it takes the strong guidance of a product manager to prevent this first foray into a new project from ballooning in scope, with over-eager engineers desiring time and latitude to develop something that they see as truly perfect. I certainly have fallen into this trap a fair number of times already in my short career!
At many times over the years, I have attempted to adopt a journaling practice for myself. Mentors, influencers, teachers, and others whom I admire have driven home the value that journaling can have for reflection, self-analysis, and sustained personal improvement. I’ve started many journals: sometimes in luxurious notebooks, sometimes in more pedestrian physical papers, other times in elaborate digital journaling apps and systems; I have even attempted to build my own custom journaling applications a few times, only to have my motivation for the project fade as I tried in vain to make something indefectible. No matter which system I tried, I’d never been able to formulate a habit.
I’d always find a reason not to stick with the practice: I would fear that I’d damage or misplace any physical journal, and I’d never give enough effort to really learn how to effectively use a journaling app. On my most recent attempt to instill a journaling habit, however, I have found more success than any time previously (since starting in November 2019 I have made more than 240 entries). I credit my success in cultivating this habit to making the journal itself as simple and ubiquitous as possible: I substituted the pen-and-paper system for a digital one, this time using a simple Google Form with a single text field. Making the barrier to entry creation as small as possible has created situations where I have no excuse to procrastinate, no reason not to jot down my thoughts.
“Over-engineering” is a term that gets thrown around quite a bit in the software industry. I believe that all my previous failed attempts to journal have fallen victim to either over-engineered digital systems, or too much self-imposed ceremony around the process of physically writing. In both cases I had the barrier to entry too high and had allowed the pursuit of the perfect system to prevent me from starting. I am thankful to have realized this, and even more thankful to have overcome the mental block that I have related to wanting to use these systems by reminding myself that I can always go back and re-enter the content that I generate with a less-than-perfect system into some future “perfect” system. For example, if I do truly desire to have a leather-bound heirloom of a notebook containing my ramblings I can always copy entries into such an artifact; if I discover an app that I want to try out I will have a corpus of entries on which to put some of the more advanced features to the test. Having the entries, in either case, is the key: while searching for my ideal system I was squandering the opportunity to start creating the content that I really cared about. In hindsight, it was a classic case of letting perfect be the enemy of good enough.
Now that I think more critically about my simple MVP journal, I realize that for the time being it fits my needs perfectly. In addition to being simple I can access it from any and everywhere in seconds. I have the form saved as a bookmark in my browser, so it’s super simple to get to from my work laptop, personal desktop computer, phone, or anything else with an internet connection. I’m logged in to my Google account from every device I own, so with just a tap or click I can begin a new entry - be it a sentence, paragraph, or small essay. I can use the journal as a way to quickly take a note, save a link, or write down a quote - since the submissions are routed out to a Google Sheet, I can later amend and edit as needed. As an added bonus, every entry has a time stamp associated with it as well. This was the most important piece of metadata for me: I want to be able to track the progression of my thoughts over time.
As I think of the features that I might consider adding, the only real missing piece has been enabling image additions. I’ve gone back and forth on the value of this feature, the few times that it has been critical for me to include an image in an entry I’ve resorted to manually adding the image to a folder in my Google Drive alongside the responses sheet, then referencing it by name from the entry. If images invade more of my entries I’ll revise my current system and add a bit more organization and make the process less manual, but for now I’m comfortably biased towards simplicity.
So, if after reading this you find yourself considering starting (or restarting) a journal, let me encourage you to do so. I find that the act of writing provides me a great deal of mental clarity, improves my ability to recall events, and allows me to recognize patterns in my thoughts and behaviors over time. The most important step one can take towards gaining these benefits is to start. What do you start with? Write a summary of your day. Write down your thoughts, about anything. Write a letter to someone, or even to yourself. Don’t worry too much about where you write, you can always change it later: any time that you waste searching for a perfect system in which to capture your thoughts is time that you’re robbing yourself of the benefits that the practice of journaling provides.