It might feel like an extra to-do on your list, but a symptom journal is important both to your own personal understanding of your health patterns and for sharing with others like doctors and disability reviewers to help them get what you’re dealing with. Your journal will help you look for correlations between your symptoms and things like weather, activity levels, menstruation, and more. But how do you get started?

First Steps

First, it’s important to understand that everyone has different needs when recording their health history. Some of this has to do with what you plan to do with your data, some with the type of data you need to enter, some with the medium you most prefer, and some with your habits and rhythms (you’ve gotta find a routine you can follow through on consistently).

Setting up regular health logging is not only something that should be deeply personalized but also something that will change just as much as you and your condition do. So as you look through this advice and get started on a plan, do consider that things can and will change. Be ready for that by building a flexible system and not getting too married to one approach. Be on the lookout for signs down the road that it might be time for a change—, for example, you’re skipping days, having trouble keeping up, or resenting the practice.

Anyway, let’s get on to all the exciting options there are out there!

To get started, do a little brainstorming with these questions in mind:

  • Goals – what do you want to get out of this journal?
  • Audience – who is this data for? What information do they need from the data?
  • Accessibility – can you access this easily and as regularly as you need to?
  • Viability – is this something you can keep up with consistently? On a bad health day?
  • Data output – how can you summarize and share (if needed) the data you’ll need from this method?
  • Legibility – is this data easy to understand for you? For anyone else who needs access to it?
  • Fun component – will you enjoy using this enough that you’ll keep it up?

Next, consider what medium will work best for your needs. Here’s a partial list of some options, and we’ve left some comments on the pros and cons of each:

Digital Collection 

Digital media make it easy to collect and review your data, can feel more official or fun, accessible via your phone or laptop, more private if password-protected; can be less flexible, less accessible depending on your conditions and data connection

  • Spreadsheet* – ideal for lots of data that needs to be organized into charts; less flexible and can be overwhelming
  • Survey* – doesn’t require structuring your thoughts day-to-day, standardizes data collection; less flexible, requires extra work ahead of time
  • Text document – allows a more narrative, free-form journal; more difficult to skim or pull solid numbers from
  • Private blog – works for multimedia narratives and expressions; more difficult to skim or pull solid numbers from
  • Pre-built apps – easy to access and use, requires less planning, can automatically generate summaries; requires research, less personalized and flexible

*Interested in the survey & spreadsheet options and how they can be combined? Check out this post on using Google Forms & Google Sheets to create a comprehensive health logging system!

Analog Collection

This can feel more physical and creative, allows for a number of different media and great for folks with an artistic bent; less private, more difficult to copy and share

  • Standard journal – small and portable, allows for free-form, multimedia, and narrative expression; requires a lot of page-turning when attempting to summarize data, more difficult to skim, can be lost or forgotten, can cause anxiety for perfectionists
  • Whiteboard/chalkboard – great for motivation and short-term tracking, hands-on, constantly visible; not portable or easily shared
  • Pre-printed survey – doesn’t require structuring your thoughts day-to-day, standardizes data collection; lots of pages, requires extra work ahead of time

Capturing Your Data

Now that we’ve drilled down a bit, it’s time to decide how you want to collect your data with the method you chose. Here’s a list of some ways you could express your symptoms:

  • Checkboxes
  • Rating scales (i.e., 1-10)
  • Colors
  • Emoji
  • Numbers
  • Descriptions

This post has some great advice on making sure you capture the most important information about a symptom, especially when you need it for communicating with your doctor.

Finally, here are some things that you can measure in addition to symptoms, if you want to look for correlations:

  • Emotions
  • Mood
  • Functionality
  • Overall quality of your day
  • Whether or not you took your meds correctly
  • Water consumption
  • Food consumption
  • Exercise
  • Sleep

Phew, that pretty much covers it! Now go ahead and sit down and get creative —and have fun!

This post was originally published on Spoonie Living and has been edited and reproduced with permission.

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