A dream journal can take a lot of shapes other than a book with lined paper. Some people record their dreams with voice recorders; some type or speak their dreams on to their phones; and some transcribe them on to websites that run analytics on recurring people, places, and things. Each person has his or her own goals, priorities, and time constraints and may find a certain method of recording dreams works best.
Personally, I‘ve been writing my dreams down by hand every morning for a year and a half. It can seem quaint, but legibility concerns force me to record my words slowly and deliberately, which helps me attend to the process a bit more mindfully. In some ways, it makes little difference how your dreams are recorded. In other ways, it most definitely does. I’ll be frank about some of the drawbacks and the features that I’m missing out on journaling my dreams by hand, and what I intend to do to address these shortcomings.
I like the slow and deliberate rhythm to recording my dreams by hand in the morning; I feel it gives me a slightly more mindful start to my day. It’s a great practice if it’s realistic for you, but I recognize what a luxury it is. Western society affords few people the opportunity to have slow and deliberate weekday mornings.
Furthermore, I would be cautious of claiming that journaling by hand has proven advantages over electronic methods. The closest thing to evidence of this that I’ve found is a study by Mueller and Oppenheimer that suggests college students who take notes by hand retain more lecture information than students who take notes on their laptops, even when the laptop users are focused and not distracted by websites or social media. The connection between writing and memory consolidation is a field ripe for further study, but it’s still best not to jump to any conclusions about the superiority of journaling dreams by hand for the purposes of remembering them or getting lucid.
For one thing, making notes on a lecture is a process of internalizing outside information and trying to commit it to memory. Journaling dreams, in contrast, is a process of transcribing information and experiences that originate from the dreamer’s own imagination.
What To Include
If you are in a position where writing your dreams down by hand is realistic, I have several suggestions on how to best journal your dreams. If you are using a device or program to journal instead, try and find one that will record all of the following information, or at least allows you to do so manually. First, prepare the page you will write your dreams on at night before you go to sleep. I usually date the page (using the date it will be when I wake up in the morning) and write down my intentions to become lucid, to stay lucid, to remember my dreams, and any other specific goals I may have for that night.
One important detail I have been neglecting until recently is my lights out time. It’s not possible to record the exact moment when you fall asleep, but it is useful to have this rough estimate so you can see approximately how much sleep you get each night, and if there is an ideal amount of sleep for remembering your dreams better and having more lucid dreams.
Underneath this I write anything I may have done during the day that may have a positive or negative impact on my chances of becoming lucid. I list how many times, and for how long, I meditated; if I did any yoga; if I played any music; and if I did any creative writing. I’ll also record factors that can have a negative impact on lucidity: if I went to bed much later than usual, if I got drunk and ate a lot of food before bed, or if I had a stressful argument with someone.
I make note of the time of any awakenings I have throughout the night and immediately record the dreams I had prior to those awakenings if they can be recalled. If it’s noteworthy (if I read something lucid dream related, took any Galantamine, or meditated for a few minutes) I’ll also record how I occupied my time before going back to sleep.
I’m a fan of Ryan Hurd’s recommendation to pick a symbol to represent lucidity and to draw it in the top corner of any page that contains a lucid dream, as well as drawing it at the point in the dream where it becomes lucid. Ryan uses an eye as his symbol and it’s worked well for me too. My own innovation has been the addition of a halo to the eye in the top corner of the page if the lucid dream was particularly powerful, meaningful, or stable. Roughly 20% of the lucid dreams I’ve had to this point have gotten the halo treatment.
This is a quick visual shortcut that I favour, but Dr. Stephen LaBerge made the salient point that powerful, meaningful, and stable can all be independent qualities of a lucid dream. Someone with a strong interest in tracking these qualities of their lucid dreams maybe be better off using separate scales for each. For example, last night’s lucid dream may get a 5 out of 5 for powerful, a 1 out of 5 for meaningful, and a 5 out of 5 for stable. This could represent an incredibly vivid and lengthy lucid dream with no dips in lucidity, but a dream that really did not speak to you about your current situation in life or inspire much introspection.
On the whole, what I’ve described is a rich, mindful, and connected practice that has given me a great deal of familiarity with my dreams and undoubtedly laid the foundation for the lucid dreams I’ve had. It does, however, come with a major drawback when compared to recording dreams in an electronic format: performing large-scale statistical analyses is incredibly time-consuming. If you record your dreams in programs like Lightened Dream or websites like lucidipedia.com, your dreams can be sorted by categories like genre, mood, and degree of lucidity. The frequency that specific people, places, and things show up in your dreams over a period of time can also be calculated quickly by these programs and sites. In contrast, this is painstaking work if your dreams have all been recorded by hand.
Last year I tried to re-transcribe my dream journals into Lightened Dream. This went on for two days before I gave up. Even for someone as dream-crazed as I am, the whole project was only marginally more appealing than refiling my taxes. It’s a shame, because I think there is a tremendous value in something like being able to quickly confirm the kind and frequency of dreams you had over the past two months of the person who just admitted they have a crush on you in waking life. Checking if you had any dreams about someone getting on your nerves in waking life can also be useful. If you do find any dreams about this person, you can see if those dreams had any creative ideas embedded in them that you could experiment with when interacting with the irritating person in the future.
Again, I’m sharing this to get you thinking about the methods of dream journaling that will work for you and not because I think I’ve found the right way to do it. Don’t let the fact that you have a limited amount of time most mornings (or that you don’t enjoy writing very much) stop you from finding a way to record your dreams that fits with your life. I promise that commitment to a dream journal will enrich your life even before the lucid dreams start flowing, and finding alternative ways to record your dreams is just a google search away.
 Mueller, P. A., & Oppenheimer D.M. (2014). The pen is mightier than the keyboard: advantages of longhand over laptop note taking. Psychological Science, 25, 1159-1168.