person journaling
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Charley Kempthorne has been keeping a journal for more than 50 years. Every morning before the sun is in the sky, the professor-turned-painter carefully types out at least 1,000 words reflecting on his past, his beliefs, his family, even his shortcomings.

The prolific fruits of his labor reside in an impressive storage facility in Manhattan, Kansas, where his estimated ten million words are printed, bound, and filed. This project, Kempthorne says “helps me understand my life…or maybe,” he hedges, “it just makes me feel better and gets [the day] started in a better mood.”

But Kempthorne (along with any journaling junkie) might be disappointed to learn that his enduring exercise may not have actually improved his self-awareness.

At this point, you’re probably thinking, but everyone knows that journaling is one of the most effective ways to get in touch with our inner self! However, a growing body of research suggests that journaling has some surprising traps that can suck the insight right out of the experience. My own research has shown that people who keep journals generally have no more self-awareness than those who don’t, with one small but important exception.

In another study, students who reported keeping diaries showed more self-reflection but less insight—and to boot, the journalers were more anxious.

And yet, 35% of the highly self-aware people I studied reported keeping a journal. How can we make sense of these peculiar and seemingly contradictory findings? The resolution lies not in questioning whether journaling is the right thing to do, but instead discovering how to do journaling right.

Psychologist James Pennebaker’s decades-long research program on something he calls expressive writing provides powerful direction in finding the answer. It involves writing, for 20 to 30 minutes at a time, our “deepest thoughts and feelings about issues that have made a big impact on [our] lives.”

In the 30-plus years during which Pennebaker has been guiding people through this exercise, he has found that even though some find writing about their struggles to be distressing in the short term, nearly all see longer-term improvements in their mood and well-being.

For example, he and his colleagues found that people who engage in expressive writing have superior memories, higher grade point averages, less absenteeism from work, and quicker re-employment after job loss. Expressive writing has even been shown to help collegiate tennis players improve their games.

Intuitively, one might think that the more we study positive events in our journal entries, the more psychological benefits we’ll reap from the experience. But, this too is a myth. As G. K. Chesterton perceptively observed, “Happiness is a mystery like religion, and should never be rationalized”—that is, by examining positive moments too closely, we suck the joy right out of them. Therefore, the first take-home in seeking insight from journaling is to explore the negative and not overthink the positive.

Yet Pennebaker notes that journalers “who talk about things over and over in the same ways aren’t getting any better. There has to be growth, change, or closure in the way they view their experiences.” Mr. Kempthorne, for example, writes “short narrative scenes,” which help him make better sense of his feelings and experiences.

Another trap journalers can fall prey to is using the exercise solely as an outlet for discharging emotions. Interestingly, the myriad benefits of expressive writing only emerge when we write about both the factual and the emotional aspects of the events we’re describing.

Logically, this makes sense: If we don’t explore our emotions, we’re not fully processing the experience, and if we don’t explore the facts, we risk getting sucked into an unproductive spiral of rumination. True insight only happens when we process both our thoughts and our feelings.

But we also need to guard against turning journaling into an exercise in self-absorption.

Earlier, I mentioned that the journalers in our study were no more self-aware than non-journalers in every area but one: Where many people see journaling as an opportunity to explore their inner workings, the truly self-aware know it can also help them understand their impact on others.

One person in our study told us a story in which she and a friend had a difficult talk, which ended in her friend crying for reasons she didn’t understand. When she wrote about the conversation from her friend’s point of view, she gained immediate insight that helped her understand her friend’s reaction and gain a more objective perspective on her own responses.

The final thing to keep in mind about journaling should be welcome news to everyone but Mr. Kempthorne.

It’s probably best that you don’t write every day.

It’s true: Pennebaker and his colleagues have shown that writing every few days is better than writing for many days in a row. “I’m not even convinced,” Pennebaker says, “that people should write about a horrible event for more than a couple of weeks. You risk getting into a sort of navel gazing or cycle of self-pity. But standing back every now and then and evaluating where you are in life is really important.”

Of course, if you’re currently a prolific journaler, the right approach may require some restraint. So if you currently write daily, start by limiting yourself to every other day, then every third day, then try easing into just once a week. Mark the journal days in your calendar, and keep a few Post-it notes handy to jog your memory about what topics you want to tackle.

Reprinted (or Adapted) from INSIGHT: Why We’re Not as Self-Aware as We Think, and How Seeing Ourselves Clearly Helps Us Succeed at Work and in Life © 2017 by Tasha Eurich. Published by Crown Business, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC.

Updated 6/19/2020