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IRL: Keeping a journal with Day One

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Trying to keep a journal has always been difficult for me. Before the age of smartphones, I tried to rely on text files or a physical notepad. If I wasn't forgetting to write down my thoughts, I was losing the file or my handwriting was so bad it would make a doctor jealous. I did the LiveJournal thing, too, except it fostered too many passive-aggressive entries. Finally, while browsing the App Store I come across an interesting-looking piece of software called Day One. The features, design and presentation prompted me to give journaling another go. And I'm glad I did.

If you've never heard of Day One, here's a quick rundown: It's a journaling app with an emphasis on ease of use. MultiMarkdown text allows for cleaner, faster writing, and you can import location, activity, music and weather data from the apps. More recently, the app added a Publish feature that allows you to share entries with Facebook, Twitter and Foursquare. Think of it as having a personal blog without every entry being public.

With the latest version, Day One made some tweaks to take advantage of some of the new features introduced in iOS 8. Previously, I would have had to go into the app to attach a link or photo. I can now share directly from any application where developers have taken advantage of Apple's new "extensibility" feature. I can now use Touch ID to unlock my journal. Entering a PIN isn't hard, of course, but using a fingerprint feels more secure over the standard four digits. Apple also added a widget option, allowing you to view two random picture entries as well as journaling stats for the last 50 days, all from the iOS Notification Center. For the most part, these aren't the kind of changes that make or break the product. Instead, they're the type of updates that help round out an already good experience.

When I first tried Day One, I had trouble making everything work. At the time I was using an Android phone, but unfortunately, the app is iOS-only. This proved to be an issue because I had no way of capturing thoughts or photos on the go. Sure, I could have taken a picture of that awesome graffiti I saw on the street and write about it when I got home, but without fail I would end up forgetting. The desktop client offers a notification option, but it's too easy to dismiss by telling myself "I'll do it later." Getting an iPhone is what really made using Day One a more regular part of my routine.

Creating new entries is an easy experience. Whether I'm writing an entry or snapping a picture, the app makes it effortless. One feature I didn't think I'd fully appreciate is MultiMarkdown. This style of text input allows me to write new entries with detailed formatting -- without HTML messing up the flow. Simply wrapping a word in an asterisk can italicize it, or if I want to create a link, I can use brackets and parentheses instead of writing a full HREF statement. The app even has a swipeable bar to quickly input different Markdown tags so I'll never forget how to bullet a list or insert a link. It seems silly to spend time discussing writing syntax, but it makes for more efficient writing.

Tagging -- a pretty standard feature in any archiving service -- is also present in Day One. This has always been beneficial with bookmarks, but I'm getting a lot of utility out of it with journaling, too. I use it for tracking potential medical issues as well as my hobbies. For example, I have one called "Invisalign" where I've been writing once a week about my experience with this alternative to traditional braces. Before my next visit, I can pull up the tag to quickly remind myself of any issues I ran into. I'm also a huge coffee fan. I enjoy trying out different roasters, but tracking the various bags can be time consuming. Using a modified Launch Center Pro action, I can quickly create an entry with pre-filled fields. Triggering the actions brings me to a series of boxes asking for roaster, origin, method, rating and tasting notes. All of this gets formatted into a clean-looking table, then auto-tagged for easy reference later.

With the help of If This Then That (IFTTT) and Launch Center Pro I can also automate some of my entries to make life a little easier. Using the two services, I can notify my phone of any photo I post to Instagram with the tag #dayone. Interacting with the alert will pre-populate a new post with the image and the text from the tagged 'gram. I also combine them with Strava to auto-create entries for any new activities I complete. This allows me to stay on top of my training log, something I've tried to do numerous times over the years to little or no effect.

The downsides to Day One? As I mentioned, there's no Android app -- it's currently only available for iOS and OS X. Unfortunately, Windows and Linux users are out of luck, too, though the team does link to a few tools for generating entries. As for Android, I've seen a few apps offering import/export abilities, but I personally haven't used them so I can't report on how well they work. Additionally, you may be turned off by the prices: $4.99 for the iOS app and $9.99 for the desktop client, or $15 total. That's something I questioned at first since there are cheaper journal solutions, but after using Day One for a while, I'm convinced the cost is more than justified.

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