Diarly (and Day One)

I started writing a journal in the 1990s, when I tried, and soon valued, spending a few minutes every evening to jot down what had been important in the day, that I might want to remember. I had systems to keep track of work and projects in my very busy job, which included automatic and manual progress notes and updates, but I found less tangible, but maybe more important things, becoming a blur. At the time, I felt like work was taking over and I wanted a way to make sure I attended to other things and also a way of processing what would otherwise be just "one thing after another". It's not something I've ever shared. It is strictly private and strictly for me, but I now have more than 5,000 journal entries.

Inevitably, once the habit was formed, it grew and I soon had a personal journal with at least one entry every single day, a nature journal and some more occasional journals for special trips and holidays, to keep note of what was happening in my house and garden and in my main hobbies.

Day One

Quite early on, like a lot of people with iPhones, iPads and Macs I bought the  "Day One" app. It feels more natural for me to write on devices rather than on paper, especially as I was often using them anyway and it took a moment to pull up the app and just write. There is no finding the notebook, the right page or looking for a pen. I can edit to my heart's content, copy in things from the web, email or other apps and can rely on the app to look after noting the correct date and time, location and weather and keeping everything in order, as well as the vital task of synchronising and keeping everything secure in the cloud so even if I manage to destroy one device, I lose no part of my journal. There are some bonuses too: it's very easy to add photos, video and audio to journal entries when I want to and I can search everything I have ever written, or look at what I was writing on this day in previous years or see what locations I have written most.

I have to say that Day One has been reliable and worked well for me, at least on the whole. There have been occasional glitches and I have lost some entries now and again (but have always been able to restore from my back up) and so have lost nothing. Like a lot of software companies, they moved from selling an app to selling a service with a recurring subscription. As part of that, they've fallen into that common software as a service trap where they don't really develop it rapidly into an exceptional and always improving system, but they can't stop adding new features because of the fear that people will no longer wish to subscribe or jump ship to competing products. They've also followed the software as a service model of making it less than trivial to move your data out of their service in a useful form, so that inertia and fear of losing your writing tip the balance into paying up for another year when renewal comes round. They temper this by providing add-on services (e.g. to print your journal entries into books) for additional cost. The lock in is subtle, but real. In the case of Day One, it is not difficult to export your journals, but exporting them in a useful form (e.g. for a new app or system) is much harder. There is a place for exporting a journal as a pdf, but that's fixed forever, not a living document. It won't export, for example, with every journal entry as a separate text or markdown file.

In short, Day One was for me, for years, not something I loved but which I used every single day and, especially with the difficulty of moving, carried on using and did not think much about. Part of this was due to their market dominance. There were few convincing alternatives,  with what had once been competitors not developed for years, alongside a range of clever but cumbersome personal solutions (e.g. using evernote or writing markdown documents, programming convoluted shortcuts and scripts to get some wider functionality) and some alternate (and a couple of quite good looking) services trying to take a small part of their market share, and those did not look different enough to bother or had a fatal flaw (like using Google Drive to synchronise). It was a classic market strategy of locking you in for ever and I went with the flow. The bigger my journal collection, the harder to move as it is much easier to stay.

Time for Change

Recently, though, this has changed. I think the final straw for me was a lot of emails about a new addition to the Day One service which would allow me to receive text messages prompting me to write a journal entry and to send messages to my journal. I had precisely zero interest in this service. Moreover, it was US only for now. It was another one of the surprisingly long list of things that my Day One subscription was paying for, but which did not serve my needs. It was time for a change.

That meant trying to define what I really wanted. It boiled down to the sense that I owned and controlled my data rather than the service owning me. This meant liberating my journals from Day One without losing anything, and then being able to enjoy writing Journal entries, that were synchronised across all my devices and which could be available easily in common formats when I needed them. I wanted a system that would still do the housekeeping, and allow easy search and organisation, so that ruled out just using text files, but it did not need to be too complicated: there were a lot of Day One features that I simply never used and more and more services and features so that the pretty good, but not perfect, syncing and basic functionality was feeling more and more like bloatware. I was willing to pay, even a subscription, provided that I was no longer locked in and had a journal system that worked for me.


I have not found a perfect solution, but I am now using Diarly. You can get it free if you only want one journal on one device or pay annually (significantly less than for Day One) to access synchronisation across iPhone, iPad and Mac, multiple journals and more configuration options. It does not provide the synchronisation service (It uses iCloud Cloudkit to sync), storing journal entries in a database (buried but accessible in the system) on each device, but entries are plain text markdown within it, so recoverable without the app unless you (optionally) use end to end encryption. On top of this, there is an "export to markdown" function. 

Miraculously, I was able to to use Day One's "json export" and Dairly's import to faultlessly move my entire journal collection. It took about 2 minutes on my Mac. The only "gotcha" was that that Diarly does not allow multi-word tags (with spaces) and Day One does, so some tags were truncated, though the second word is still present as text if I want to edit and correct those into one-word tags. There is also a difference in how the two apps represent weather data (temperatures most noticeably) so what was 4C in Day One might end up being 3.8898954331C in Diarly. What Diarly creates does not show this conversion error.

Then the breakthrough moment came. I exported from Diarly in markdown format which took less than a minute, expanded the zip file it created and there I had what I had wanted for years: my entire set of journals, organised in folders, with every entry as a separate markdown file, along with all the attachments, all faultlessly linked and working. 

It took me a little while to get Diarly looking and working as I wanted it to. There are lots of themes that colour text and backgrounds and it took me a while to decide which to live with. It took a bit of experimentation to get other settings right for me too: there is much less documentation and I could not find any real tutorials for Diarly, but there was enough there to figure it out eventually and most of it was changing a setting and seeing whether I liked it or not.

It would be fair to say that Diarly is much less polished that Day One. Things like the layout and display of images is just a little "clunky" compared with how smooth it is in apps like Craft Docs or even Day One and the styling of the underlying markdown journal is not fully polished. There are a few things (like how "prompts" work) or aspects of how the entries are styled, that I wish I had more control over. 

For example, you can automatically include entries from your calendar in Diarly, but each of these comes across as a separate entry within the day, inserting a horizontal line with the time of the event, with the event name as a heading and with too much white space. Trying to edit this within the "prompt" or entry template does not work well because you can't control the style the shortcode inserts. You can edit once it has inserted, but it's quicker to simply type a short list of events for the day. Similarly, if you want entries to have times, these come in as a horizontal line with no choice at all of layout or size. There's a long list of unix-type format strings for the date in the timeline, but no option for "custom". I ended up having to ignore the helpful features and just type and organise stuff by hand.

I love writing in this app, as I love writing in any fast, responsive markdown editor. Thought to document in the shortest possible line so the app gets out of the way and you can focus on what you want to say. It's great. I also wish there was a forum (or at least that the blog said more about actually using the app and its features instead of being mainly about philosophical and lifestyle approaches to journaling); a collection of "how to" videos and better documentation with more detail, but I was a able to figure out pretty well everything I needed. 

The sync is fast, effortless and clean and so far I have not found any glitches. The data is mine. I know where it is (in an open database buried in the Library). I can access it there without using the Diarly app (unless I have encrypted it) and, more sensibly, simply back up with a regular export of everything into markdown files and I am not, and never will be, locked in.

I am ambivalent about the annual subscription charge for the "pro" features that are essential to me. On one hand, the subscription is not providing any ongoing "service" that it costs to run (e.g. sync or web access) so it purely is an annual rent for some additional features instead of a purchase. It's not entirely clear what happens if I stop the subscription at some point. On the other hand, the subscription is reasonably priced, there is a free trial as well as a free, single-journal, single-device version,  and it looks, from the version history, that the subscription is paying for work by a very small, independent, developer on what is still an emerging and improving app. If I ever get fed up, I have all my journals as a collection of organised, highly portable, markdown files all ready for another app.

What now?

I have a month or two before my Day One subscription has to be renewed. At present, it looks like that won't happen, though I have time to make sure I want to make the final switch.

A set of personal journals is important. It's what I have seen, felt, thought and experienced over many years and how I have tried to make sense of it all. That matters and the choice of how you do it needs to be made with care. 

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Update on Diarly

Since writing about my move to Diarly from Day One, a few things have happened and it might be worth an update. Diarly itself has had a couple of versions. These fixed minor bugs I mostly had not come across, but it has also fixed the issue I mentioned about Day One imported temperatures. These now come across rounded to…