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The Right and Wrong Way to Journal

I used to be a regular journaler, but no longer am.

I wasn’t getting much out of journaling, so I dropped it as a regular habit.

While I don’t journal every day anymore, I haven’t completely given up on the practice.

I still get an intermittent itch to crack open my journal and put pen to paper. I usually get the urge when I’m facing some sort of challenge or dilemna that I need to work through.

And thanks to my conversation with Tasha Eurich — an organizational psychologist who has spent her career researching how self-awareness can help individuals in both their professional and personal lives — when I do journal, the way I journal has changed dramatically.

Now when I journal, I get a lot more out of it.

If you’ve felt like your journaling hasn’t been doing much for you, below I highlight some suggestions from the world of cognitive science that might help.

The Journaling Trap

Given that we all journal for different reasons, it can’t always be said that there’s a right and wrong way to do it. If, for example, you journal by writing just one or two lines about what happened each day, or use set prompts to explore different subjects, that’s great. If you enjoy it, keep it up.

However, if you’re like many people in that you journal to work through life’s big existential issues — questions related to work, family, love, meaning, tragedy, and so on — then there is indeed a better and worse way to go about it.

While we typically think of journaling as a way to gain more insight into our interior landscapes, one of the most surprising findings in Eurich’s research is that regular journalers (generally) have no more self-awareness than individuals who don’t journal.

What gives?

Eurich argues that the way most people journal isn’t conducive to gaining insight and self-awareness and instead leads to blinkered self-absorption.

When most people journal, they sort of vomit their thoughts out. Their journal is like a metaphorical toilet bowl in which they discharge all their mental and emotional waste.

But Eurich and other psychologists posit that thinking of your journal as a psychological crapper will lead to having crappy, unproductive thoughts. It might feel good to cathartically release your pent-up angst and anxiety on paper, but there’s a danger that you’re just stirring up more stress instead of resolving the issue that’s causing it.

When I journaled regularly, this was the trap I found myself in. I would vomit out my thoughts on paper in a William Faulkner-esque, stream-of-consciousness torrent. All my entries were just emotive ruminations. Sure, it felt good to release those feelings, but nothing ever got better. I finally realized that journaling like this on the daily wasn’t doing anything for me, so I stopped.

How to Journal to Get the Most Out of It

If you’re journaling to sort out your thoughts and feelings and work through life’s big questions and issues, then consider trying these research-based suggestions for getting more out of the practice:

Ask what instead of why. This is the shift that had the most ROI for my journaling.

Many people ask a lot of “why” questions when they journal.

“Why is this bad thing happening to me?”

“Why don’t people like me?”

“Why can’t I lose weight?”

“Why would she do that to me?”

As we’ve discussed before, asking “why” questions isn’t constructive for mining personal insights. It puts you in victim mode and doesn’t often lead to prompts towards action. Instead, asking “Why?” gets you stuck in a labyrinth of self-absorbed rumination.

Rather than using your scribblings to figure out why something happened, use them to explore what is happening and what you can do to resolve the issue.

If I’m feeling all angsty and I’m not sure of the source of these feelings, I’ll bust out my journal, ask myself a series of “what” questions, and jot down the answers.

“What’s going on in my life that could cause me to feel angsty?”

I’ve gotten behind on work lately, and I haven’t been able to exercise as much as I usually do. Other than that, things are pretty good.

“What can you do to resolve these issues?”

There’s not much I can do about the work right now. It’s just a season I’m going through. It will be tough, but things will settle down in the next week. I’ll try to get in at least a 30-minute walk outside every day this week. That’s helped me feel better in the past.

Instead of allowing “why” questions to lead you around in ruminative circles, journaling on “what” questions will help you get answers that are more rational, specific, and actionable.

Bring facts into your emotions. When you journal, you should definitely explore your emotions, but make sure to combine your feelings with facts.

Part of doing that is, again, asking “what” questions to connect your inward emotions with the outside world. You might feel down, but what’s going on in your life that’s creating your feelings? Are you stressed? Are you not getting enough sleep? Did you experience a status defeat at home or at work?

Interrogate your feelings too by looking for evidence that challenges the conclusions you’re drawing from them. Try to look at the situation through the eyes of a more neutral third-party observer. So you feel angry at your girlfriend because you think she intentionally slighted you; what evidence is there that you shouldn’t be offended, that she didn’t mean to hurt you, that you’re taking things the wrong way?

An ideal journaling session is like an ideal trip to a therapist. A good therapist won’t just let you wallow in emotional self-absorption. They’ll listen to you describe your emotions and then ask questions that hopefully give you a more detached and holistic view of what’s going on. Good journaling and good therapy combine subjective and objective perspectives.

Journal when you feel like it would be helpful. James Pennebaker is a psychologist who has spent his career researching the power of writing in helping people sort through problems. His research has found that writing in your journal every day doesn’t provide any benefit and, in fact, can hurt more than help. For the same reasons we’ve discussed: it bends too much of your focus back onto the self. As Pennebaker puts it, in journaling daily “[you] risk getting into a sort of navel-gazing or cycle of self-pity.”

So you don’t have to write in your journal every day. Pennebaker suggests writing every few days instead. If that works for you, do it.

Personally, the thing that I’ve found works best for me is to simply journal when I think it would be helpful to journal. If I’ve got a big hairy problem that’s causing me a lot of emotional turmoil, I’ll crack open my journal and try to untangle things by asking and answering some “what” questions. When I’m done, I usually don’t need to keep journaling about that topic.

Keep your writing sessions short. Pennebaker also recommends not spending more than 20 minutes on your writing. There doesn’t seem to be any emotional/psychological benefit to continuing beyond that stretch.

Looking back at my journal, I only made two entries in it in 2021. They were short and weren’t the usual angst-filled wallowings of my journaling in years past. Instead, they were filled with finding facts and generating next steps.

So that’s how I journal these days: Rarely and with a focus on perspective and action.

For more advice on practices that will help you gain greater self-awareness, listen to our interview with Tasha Eurich:

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