The Importance of Keeping a Journal: A Few Tips

Decades ago, while on the faculty of the Annenberg School for Communication at USC, the late Professor Richard Byrne convinced me to use a journal. In have never regretted that decision. It is an easy and powerful tool for managing information.

When I met Richard, he was the Associate Dean, who helped found the Annenberg School of Communication with his friend and colleague Frederick Williams, and later served as an Acting Dean. When he was not teaching, or directing the School, Richard taught time management and information management to executives through a firm he created, called Springboard! In university, Richard studied drama, and he used his skill set from acting in his teaching, and to present captivating keynote speeches for executives around the world. He was intense and engaging. He led an incredibly full life until he died from the complications of skin cancer at a young age, 53.

Richard did talks occasionally for students around various time management issues. I was sitting in on one of his tutorials when I learned his simple lessons on keeping a journal, which have stuck with me for decades. So easy.

First, get a journal you that is the size that is best for you to carry with you as often as possible. I like a small 5″ by 8 1/4″ Moleskin® journal. I always prefer plain, blank paper, but lined or graphic blank pages are fine, whatever you prefer. But use high quality paper so that you can write with different pens or markers without the ink bleeding through the pages.

Of course, it can have any color binding. I prefer black, but changing colors is helpful in keeping the journals identifiable. You’ll want to keep past journals accessible, so anything you can do to keep them in sequence is helpful, such as shifting colors. [Needless to say, you should have a pen or quality writing tools that you like. I always use a fountain pen with a medium nib.]  img_0867

You must wonder why you would want anything on paper. Is it not easier to do this on your computer or smart phone? I’ve tried to find digital media to substitute for my paper journal, but have never been satisfied that they are as flexible and user friendly. Just as the book remains difficult to beat electronically, I find the paper journal more creative, flexible, and private.

Secondly, start keeping notes immediately and start at the very first page of your journal. Date your entries, and take notes on anything. If you are listening to a lecture, keep the lecture notes in the journal. If you come up with an idea, sketch it in your journal. If you have thoughts on anything, reactions to a movie or play, an article, an observation, put it in the journal, dated, and in chronological sequence.

Chronological notes are key to being findable. Any other organization gets overtaken quickly with new topics or ideas that don’t fit a predetermined system, and you’ll find it very easy to quickly find the notes you are looking for if they are in a chronological order. No matter what the topic, enter everything chronologically, starting from the front and moving through, and you will be able to find everything by thumbing through the pages. Instead of having notes scattered everywhere, important as well as unimportant things are centralized in the journal. In fact, you don’t know what will be important or unimportant over time, so don’t worry about whether something makes the threshold for being in your journal, just add it. This is particularly critical in getting started. You’ll want to start with something significant, but it is more important to simply start.

There is an exception. I normally leave the first two pages of my journals for references, such as phone numbers, my address, or anything I don’t want to memorize that I often need. So your journal becomes an aide memoire in more ways that one.

Third, be as comprehensive as possible. For every meeting, phone call or conversation, take notes in your journal. Any thoughts that you believe to be worth taking notes on, or any information you want to remember, enter in your journal. That means you should carry it with you as often as possible. You want it to be a habit – both having and using the journal.

Fourth, I find it helpful to use a variety of note taking methods. I enjoy mind mapping, and I use mind maps often such as for taking notes on a lecture, or sketching notes for something I plan to write. But I don’t use only one form. I sometimes do simple lists, write out text, draw images or create typologies. By varying the form of your notes, they become easier to find, and the exercise avoids becoming too mechanical.

So get your first journal, starting filling the pages, and see for yourself how valuable it can be.



Some Tips for Students on your Final Exam and Term Paper:

In preparing for and sitting your final exam, keep the following in mind:

  • Answer the question, and make sure you read the question carefully and not answer the question you thought would be asked;
  • Show that you were engaged in the course by bringing lectures, discussion and readings into your responses;
  • Demonstrate an understanding of key concepts, ideas and research by using and explaining them in your answers to questions;
  • Marshall facts to the degree possible to show that you can provide concrete evidence and illustrations of general statements;
  • Avoid offering your opinion as an answer to a question since you are not (yet) an expert and even experts need to develop the arguments behind their views and not just state their conclusion;
  • You might offer your conclusion, such as why you agree with one line of reasoning, rather than another. However, you must then indicate why you reached this conclusion, such as by referring to the data, methods, or theoretical basis for one versus the other line of reasoning.

In completing your term paper, keep the following in mind:

  • Follow a clear structure. This is not a mystery novel, but an interdisciplinary paper in the social sciences. Follow a structure, such as clarifying the problem you are addressing, the question(s) it raises, different perspectives or theories of relevance to the question, your approach and methods, findings, conclusion and discussion of limitations and further research required. As is often advised: tell the reader what you are going to do. Do it. Then tell the reader what you’ve done;
  • Avoid anchoring your term paper in your opinion(s), as noted above with respect to exams;
  • You may quote interviews, authors, other research studies, but always make sure you cite this work precisely and carefully to avoid any question of what are your own words. Putting ideas and research into your own words is valuable – showing the instructor that you are aware of key work and its relevance to your topic – but always be sure to error on the side of referencing the source or inspiration for your points. Remember you get credit for bringing the work of others into your paper as long as they are properly cited and credited;
  • Use words and sentences, data, relevant documentation, such as a photo or chart, and your text in general to make your case, and in the same spirit, avoid flowery templates, fonts, and binding to impress the reader;
  • Draft your paper, revise it, and revise it again and again. Spending time in getting the structure, argument, grammar and spelling and clarity of your paper right will take time. There is no shortcut to spending time in crafting your paper; and
  • Write a paper that you would be proud to use as an illustration of your writing, such as for your application to a graduate program or a job.

That is probably enough to think about, but please let me and your colleagues know whatever I’ve forgotten. Best of luck with doing your best on all of your exams and term papers.

Quote from Mark Twain
Quote from Mark Twain