Thom Behrens

April 11, 2021

How I Journal with the Apple Notes & Shortcuts Apps

This essay was originally published on the “old” on 12/19/2020.

I’ve never been able to keep a journal. Like, I literally cannot keep them in my physical possession. I lost my last journal in a cab in New York City. The journal before that I set on the roof of my car, forgot about it, and it blew off when I drove away. My first journal ever fell into a lake while I was canoeing. These accidents have always happened within a few weeks of my starting a new journal. Eventually, I took it as a sign that God doesn’t want me to write down my thoughts. This made sense; unstructured rumination is, for me, more often destructive than creative. And neglecting to keep a written record of my life also pairs poetically with my absolutely terrible memory. I have a hard time remembering events or conversations that happened even a month ago - soon (if it hasn’t happened already) Liz will have a more complete recollection that I do of everything I’ve done and said in my life.

Over the summer I was diagnosed with sleep apnea and have since started sleeping with a CPAP machine. Being properly rested has done absolute wondersfor my mental health. My anxiety has completely evaporated, and while the jury is still out on seasonal affective disorder, early signs look good. The CPAP has also inspired me to explore other ways of taking care of myself, including a serious commitment to a daily meditation practice. Meditation, in turn, led me back to journaling. Where meditation helps me to be present in each moment, journaling brings me into fuller awareness of the events, thoughts, and feelings that pass through me each day. I found journaling to be a really simple habit to pick up again, and it is already had a noticeable, positive impact on my mental health and wellbeing.

Given my history with the medium, I am tempting fate by having started a new journal. But in a year where the days have blended together more than ever, it makes sense to take that risk. I also structured this journal to be a “gratitude journal,” which keeps me from writing bad poetry or lists of grievances by providing positive, wholesome daily prompts.

I want to share the “how” of my new journaling habit in case someone else could use encouragement or resources for starting their own practice.

This time around I’m keeping a “virtual” journal. I’m faster at typing (on computer and phone) than I am at writing things down, and typed characters are far more legible than my chicken-scratch handwriting. I also already carry my phone around with me all the time, so using my phone as my journal means I am always carrying my journal. It’s great to be able to capture quick thoughts when I’m on my phone, and to also have the option to sit down and process an idea on my computer in longer form (but in the same document). The other benefit is that, since it’s device-synced and stored on the cloud, it should be impossible for me to “lose” this journal.

There are tons of note-taking apps and journalling apps out there. They all offer slightly different layouts, sorting/tagging systems, reminder options, and philosophies: but at the same time they’re all about 95% the same. Finding the “best” journaling app is a rabbit hole that I started to fall down, but was fortunately able to pull myself out of when my sister (hi, Theresa!), during a non-journal related conversation about note-taking, told me she uses the Apple Notes app for taking notes at work. I had no idea there was anyone who used that app, but I gave it a whirl and it turned out to be the perfect journaling tool for me. It’s already on my MacBook and my iPhone, it’s free, and it has built-in cross-device syncing. I actually enjoy that it doesn’t come with it’s own philosophy, reminder system, or anything else: the fact that it’s vanilla lets me focus on writing.

But on top of providing a basic notes app, iOS also provides a way to satisfy my deep need to automate & optimize the way that I use … basically every tech tool in my life. For my journal, I do this through through Apple’s Shortcuts app. For those unfamiliar with Shortcuts, it’s an app that offers users ways to string together & kick off sets of common functions, or sequences of events that can involve multiple apps, all on your phone. One can also set them up to run at certain times, or under circumstances: these are called Automations. (If you go into the Shortcuts app, there’s a “Gallery” with examples of what you can do.)

So when I set up my journal, I created a folder in Notes called “📝 Journal” (emojis are important!), and I then set up an automation to run every day at 12:00am which runs a shortcut*. The shortcut it runs creates a new note in my journal folder, with a today’s date as the title. This midnight automation only saves me about 10 seconds per day, but it means that as soon as I want to write something down, there’s already a space for it, and I don’t have to do any manual set up just to record a thought. And starting each day knowing there’s a blank page to be filled definitely compels me to write.

As a convenient way to run a shortcut manually (outside of an automation), you can choose a custom icon for a shortcut, and add it to your Home Screen next to your apps. I’ve created a shortcut that, when you tap it, just opens today’s journal page (by searching Notes for the note that has today’s date as the title). Again, it’s a super small action, but I put the shortcut in my iPhone dock so that whenever I want to write something down, it’s only one tap away.

With these really simple tools, I have a space where I can put small reflections or interesting thoughts throughout the day. But, as I mentioned before, I also designed this to be a “gratitude journal” that helps me stay prayerful, positive, and peaceful. For that, I first put together a note outside of the “📝 Journal” folder, which contains a list of positive writing prompts that I borrowed from a few different sources. I set up an automation to run at 7:00pm every day, which runs a shortcut that does two things: first, it takes a random prompt from that list, and appends it to the end of my daily journal page. Second, it creates a reminder in the Reminders app (another app I refer to throughout the day), which tells me that it’s time to answer today’s reflection prompt. I then do it any time between 7:00 p.m. and when I go to bed and mark the reminder complete.

Boom! That’s my journal.

Thanks for indulging a programmer and reading through a post about nerdy automation stuff! This blog has vaguely themed itself as an examination of the benefits and dangers of human interaction with computers & the web; which makes sense, because that’s what I spend a lot of my time thinking about. But I’m trying to keep things a balance of depressing and uplifting, and it also may be a mix of technical as well as theoretical 🙂. Thanks also to Theresa for encouraging me to do more “whole self” writing.


*if you’re reading this on an iPhone or iPad, clicking on the shortcut links will open them in your Shortcuts app, so you can look at them and use them if you so desire. In order to import them, you’ll first need to go to Settings > Shortcuts, and then select “Allow Untrusted Shortcuts”.