Elegant and powerful journaling app: Day One for iPad

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IMG_0563I’ve been keeping a journal since 1990, all digital, all stored in date-named .txt or .rtf files, one file per date. Much has been written about the benefits of journaling, in many places, over many years. Because this is an iPad-centric blog I’ll only say a couple of words about journaling as a life practice, then get to the app review. When you write about what you’ve been doing, and how you’re feeling, revelations appear on the page that never would have surfaced in a year of ruminating. Some people say it’s like free therapy. And really, who do you know that couldn’t do with a good dose of therapy? It’s also fun and informative to go back several years and see what you were doing on today’s day, say, 10 years ago. You’ll be amazed at how much you’ve grown in some cases, and how much you haven’t in others. For most folks, the benefits of journaling are pretty clear. Finding the motivation to do so, however, is just really hard sometimes. When you add up the hours for working, sleeping, exercising, interacting with loved ones, and the day’s mundane chores, being motivated to spend a few minutes in your journal as opposed to playing the latest cool iPad game or watching the new episode of Mad Men can be a tough sell.

So how does Day One help? It reduces the behavioral friction from journaling. Using a text or pen-and-paper techniques, you’re presented each day with a blank page, and start filling it up. Sure, you can say where you happen to be, like vacation in Rome. Or you could write about the weather. In a digital journal you could paste in a photo. In a hardcopy journal you can make a little drawing. But you have to do all entry manually. You also have to have your paper journal with you when the inspiration hits, or for us .txt-journal types, you need to be by your computer. This all adds to the effort of making a journal entry, and therefore the behavior friction, or what those of us with a psychology background call response cost. To reduce this friction you need to make journaling as effortless as possible, and this is where Day One shines.


Day One works beautifully on your iPad, as if it was made for it. There are also Mac and iPhone versions of the software, so they all sync, but Day One really looks best on the iPad. If you’re like me you almost always have your iPad with you (and probably an iPhone as a backup), so when the inspiration to write something in your journal hits, you can just tap once and Day One is ready. I’ll cover the basics of using Day One below, but the interface is very well thought out specifically to reduce the response cost I described above. When you open Day One, the first thing you see is a prominent plus sign (+). Tap it and the day entry pane opens, labeled with today’s date. Your iPad fills in your location and the weather automatically. If you use healthkit, Day One can also automatically import your activity data. If you’re listening to iTunes, Day One can import the info and add it to your entry. You can override this info if you want, but I never have. You can add a photo from your iPhoto library or take one from within the app. This level of automation makes journaling basics so easy: all you have to do is open an entry pane, wait a second or two for the automatic information to populate, and save the entry, and you’ve got a lot of info about your day.


As you would expect from an app this well thought out in terms of user needs, the interface is simple and elegant. When you open it, you tap + and you’re presented with an entry pane for today, which is the most likely action you’re going to take. A lot of info is already populated for you as described above. You can add a photo with the big camera icon, either from your iPhoto library, or from your iPad’s camera. When you drop in a photo, you have the option to use the location and date info from the photo rather than today’s date. This would be useful if, for example, you were describing a vacation you just returned from. And then you can just start typing your thoughts, events, whatever your journaling technique, into the text-entry pane. You can select a number of fonts depending on your preference, even mixing it up day by day if you, for example, want to use something less formal for weekend entries. (My personal favorite is Hoefler typeface, a real revelation. With its text (dropped) figures and old-fashioned upper-case M’s and W’s I was sure I’d stumbled on a hundred-year old typeface designed by hand-cutting lead. No such a thing: it was designed in 1991 by Apple.) You can also create and use tags for any entries, if you want to later group all entries with the same tag, or search by tag name. When you’re done, you just tape “Done.” The app then shows you your entry, completely formatted including the photos and automatically entered info.


The menu on the left offers several ways to view past entries: by date, by tags, by photo, or even by year. The settings menu offers several useful options, without overwhelming you with choice. If you use Day One on more than one device, the iCloud sync is super-valuable. You can write on the iPad and view or edit later on your iPhone or Mac. You can passcode (or touch ID) your Day One which is useful if you share an iPad. There is an option to set a reminder to write in your journal, which I found to be a nag and turned off, but YMMV. The Settings menu is where you’ll set the font. There’s also an option to export your entries as PDFs. This may seem like a trivial inclusion, but for many, including me, it’s what allows me to use a proprietary format for journaling. Even today, I can immediately access my 199o plain-text journal entries. What if I had left them in WordPerfect 2.0 format? The best I could hope for is to get an app that extracts the text for me, but then the formatting characters show up on the page as hexadecimal (nonsense) characters, and I’d have a mess. And that’s if I could extract them at all. By offering PDF, an image format that I bet will be around as long as .txt, I feel confident in giving Day One my journal contents.


With so much going for it, Day One has some real quirks for a personal-journal app. Its writing/viewing metaphor is publishing as a two-step process: you put together some photos, auto-loaded into, then add some text, press a button and then it looks formatted. (And you can actually publish your journal entries to a web page if you want.) When you’re entering formatted text, you have to use a non-intuitive syntax called “Markdown.” For example, if you want to make something bold, you have to type **text** and then later in the reading pane it will appear as text. (See the example below from Markdown’s Wikipedia entry.) Markdown was created by John Gruber of Daring Fireball, a writer for whom I have the most respect of perhaps any Apple-centric writer working today. But Markdown is not for the average user. Markdown is great if you want to write in plain text then publish your writing for others to read nicely formatted. But in Day One you’re the writer and the reader at the same moment: you need to see things formatted as you type them. Why the creators of Day One decided to use Markdown for a mass-market journaling app is baffling. Apple has been offering WYSIWYG (what you see is what you get) word processors since 1984; Day One should at least come with a WYSIWYG mode and small formatting pallet like every other iOS writing app.

markdown example

Are these quirks fatal? Probably not: in the end I think the behavioral advantages, cross-device compatibility, and otherwise-elegant interface will win out for me. My advice? If you’d like to journal but are having trouble because of the behavioral friction, it’s worth the cost to try Day One. Here’s an App Store link for Day One. It’s priced at $4.99, a steal for an app this well designed and executed. That price gets you the iPad and iPhone installations. If you want a Mac version it’s available as a separate purchase for $9.99.

Marc Luoma

I'm an iPad, and iPhone enthusiast, Mac user since '84, world traveler, dog and cat lover, living in Kigali Rwanda for a year.

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