A ‘Digital Garden’ Approach to Travel Journaling

tl;dr: I’ve started keeping track of my travels in an interconnected system of notes. This helps me remember more, and to better connect the dots. Here’s a bit more on what that looks like and why I’m trying this.

Ephemeral Consumption

So much of our daily lives revolves around what I call ephemeral consumption. We endlessly scroll social media, veg out in the front of the tv, and plow through books and documentaries. And by doing so, we ensure that much of the value of what we consume is fleeting. We quickly forget things and don’t get to make proper use of them in the future. Memory is a choice, and too often we don’t proactively choose to remember very much.

There is another approach. It involves some work, but its value compounds over time, making the endeavor more and more useful over time. It is the simple effort of taking some notes about what we learn, and linking those ideas together in an interconnected system.

I’ve started to deploy this strategy in various parts of my life, including in my travel. I spend an outsized portion of my free time and money on travel experiences, so it just makes sense to try to get as much lasting value out of those expenditures as possible.

Some call a system like this a “digital garden” (see below for some introductory links to the concept), though I named my own public version my “Ideas Notebook.” You might also think of it as a sort of personal wikipedia.

The beauty of this approach is that my notes are not static files I never look back on again, but are instead linked to and updated over time as I learn new things or gain new insights. Because they are interconnected, it’s easy to build upon my earlier knowledge and experiences, while making new mental connections. This helps shift tourism from passive consumption to active learning. It’s easy to start connecting the dots between places I visit and the things I learn about. And because they’re written down, I can easily revisit them whenever I’d like. Simply put, I don’t forget what I had learned on that trip.

What does this look like for travel?

I’m still in the “test drive” phase of using this, so I expect ongoing changes and improvements. Initially, I’ve divided my notes into three main buckets, though rich links connect all these notes no matter where they reside.

Places

First, there are places. Each place that I visit gets its own separate note. This note has some basic information, including when I visited, and some basic journaling about the experience I had there.

If there are interesting facts I learned, or insights I gained, I’ll keep track of them here too. I also add questions raised or things I might want to follow up on. The intent here isn’t to write a full report on the place, as much as it is to capture things that are interesting to me personally.

Here an example from a recent stop at Homestead National Historical Park in Kansas.

Trips

Second, there are trips. Again, each trip gets its own separate note. This note contains both some basic information (similar to my trip dashboard) about when I went, with whom, and links to the specific places (see above) that I visited.

In addition, the trip note serves as home for my broader travel journaling. Specific experiences are already captured in the places notes, so the journaling here focuses more on the overall trip than on specific destinations.

Themes

Finally, there are themes. This is the most fluid and flexible part of the system. It’s also where the system really shines. I’ll write a theme note when a connection between multiple places strikes me as interesting. Themes help connect ideas, or observations, places, experiences, or even trips themselves.

Theme topics can be broad or specific, so there’s quite a bit of leeway here. One theme might focus on the decline of rural America, another might be observations about the migration of former slaves after the Civil War. Another might be small town ballparks, or roadside attractions along Route 66, or how local craft breweries often reclaim historic downtown buildings. Another theme might connect various trips I’ve taken.

Themes are the heart of the system because they foster mental connections, help you see larger trends, understand things better, and possibly even gain insights into yourself. They connect things you already know with the new things you’re learning; they allow you to update your understanding of a topic.

Themes also allow you to add some notes before your trip. If you’re doing any research in preparation for upcoming travel, you can capture some of the ideas you encounter in theme notes. For instance, I just started reading a book on Icelandic culture in preparation for my upcoming Iceland trip. If there are interesting topics I might want to explore more, I can add a theme note for it. Then, when I’m journaling about the trip itself and run across that idea again, I can easily link it to the note I had started prior to traveling.

In the screenshot above, you’ll notice several links that point to various theme notes. Here’s a graph view of what that looks like for this specific note:

Initially, themes will be a bit sparse until I visit more places and generate other notes. As my base of notes expands, each of these nodes will connect to multiple places, trips, and even other themes. But even after one trip, I’ve started to see the potential of thematically connecting my visits together.

Other benefits

There seem to be three main benefits of this approach.

First, I notice that I pay closer attention to where I’m at, and process what I learn a bit more fully. Even in places where “learning” isn’t the primary goal, such as a brewery, I find myself interacting with the place in a deeper way. It’s like my brain knows that I’ll need to write a note about it, so it’s a bit more diligent and more present in the moment.

I’ve also noticed, especially in museum-like settings, that I find myself being more curious. Having a specific place to mark down a few of the “hmm, I wonder” thoughts makes it easier to have them.

Lastly, I definitely remember more. The “Generation Effect,” which posits that you remember things better if you rewrite them in your own wording, may play a role in this. But also because I find myself revisiting older notes, updating them when I come into contact with new-but-related observations or experiences.

I’m still early into testing this note taking journaling strategy, but I’m pretty excited about it so far. I’ll report back after more testing.

If you’re interested in exploring this idea more, shoot me an email. If you’re looking to experiment a bit, check out the free Obsidian app.

If you’re interested in how I came across this idea, read this. If you want to learn more about the idea of digital gardening, I recommend this post and this essay.