why you shouldn’t journal

If an AI could give you personal insights about yourself, would you trust it?

As a long-time advocate of journaling and a seasoned journaler myself, I was excited to see that these questions are starting to get explored using the scientific method.

AI journaling for everyone

I recently checked out Hutmacher, Schlager and Meerson’s 2023 entry in Applied Cognitive Psychology.

This paper studied two groups.

It was actually like two studies in one, but both studies were a bit light which is probably why they were condensed into one paper.

In the first study, the popular AI journaling app Day One was given to journaling newbies (N=12). After two weeks, they were interviewed on the perceived effects of using the app on their memory.

In the second study, a small (N=4) group of participants experienced with different journaling apps were interviewed on their experience with their respective apps.

emerging risks

I struggled to find relevance in the primary results as the sample sizes were pretty small and the outcomes were subjective assessments of memory. For example, whether the subjects thought the use of journaling apps would improve their memory.

However, periphery to these results were some interesting insights on the potential risks when using a smart journaling app specifically and the practice of journaling broadly.

Before diving in, in case you’re wondering “where are the benefits?”, the usual suspects to the benefits of journaling like “learning from past experiences”, “extensive archiving” and “opportunities for re-experiencing” were evident.

The benefits of journaling have been extensively covered elsewhere and, as a result, aren’t really that interesting.

So let’s dive into some of these somewhat surprising insights.

#1 my phone, my keeper

One objection specific to the smart-journaling app is that it yet another activity tied to a screen.

With so much of our modern lives conducted through screens, it’s easy to see why paper journaling (or any other off-screen activity, for that matter) remains popular.

#2 data management

Surprisingly, only some users were concerned about the management of their data.

I already have a fairly mature journaling practice that doesn’t involve smart-journaling or AI. However, even if I was starting from scratch today, I still don’t think I would opt for the AI route.

This is because I know that my data will be sent from my device, through the vendor’s servers and then routed through any other servers they may have outsourced to.

Either I would be really worried about where in the world my most intimate thoughts would be routed to, or I would bypass that whole concern and place limits on my disclosure.

And when I start placing limits on the disclosure of my journaling, much of the benefits are lost.

Thus, the many benefits of smart-journaling apps like their convenience and comprehensive experience collecting and integration need to be balanced with the above two concerns.

#3 losing the moment

One of the big benefits of journaling for me is the practice of helping me re-experience life’s simple pleasures.

I found it interesting when one of the objections to the smart-journaling apps was that it can take you out of the moment.

Indeed, this is likely applicable to any type of journaling practice.

In journaling, you are doing some work for your future self by pointing your mind at the past.

While this is all happening in the present, it is true that you may be missing delightful moments as you are documenting other delightful moments.

And, unfortunately, we can’t be pointing our attention everywhere all at once.

Sometimes you want to double-down on the peaceful memories where you sat in a park and watched like unfold in front of you by jotting some quick notes on your walk home.

Sometimes, you want to enjoy the walk itself.

It comes down to what you want to prioritise.

When you do this intentionally, the risk of losing the moment through journaling is greatly reduced.

#4 total recall

Some participants in the study had specific concerns that generalised to the idea that sometimes, we don’t want to remember things.

For example, we may not want to recall a particular challenging or traumatic time in our lives.

However, one of the benefits of these smart-journaling apps is their comprehensiveness.

They collect everything and they do it effortlessly without you needing to do anything.

As I write this in early 2024, I am mending my broken heart from the ending of a romantic partnership.

The late stages of that partnership ending were challenging and I sometimes find myself descending into a negativity spiral of anger and sadness when I remember it.

Part of the grieving process has been following a journaling practice by James Pennebaker that involves writing about the facts, emotions and relationships to present and future of the challenging incident.

Even though the wounds are still a bit raw, revisiting these challenging moments have allowed me to integrate them into the narrative of my life and find meaning and insights in the experience.

After doing a round of that protocol, I find myself going into fewer negativity spirals.

How much of this effect is “time healing all wounds” and how much is down to the protocol is difficult to disentangle.

However, the practice itself felt satisfying and cathartic overall, even though certain parts were emotionally intense and uncomfortable.

While the revisiting of challenging or traumatic experiences can be uncomfortable, sometimes revisiting it is the best way to make the best of a tough situation.

For more information on this practice, see this Hubermanlab episode

so, should you journal?

The concerns should be addressed for anyone maintaining a journaling practice. Fortunately, there are easy fixes. Here’s what you can do:

  1. If you find you are spending too much time on your device, you can switch to traditional paper journaling, or you can become more intentional with your device use.
  2. If you’re concerned about how your data is handled, you can opt for a digital journaling app that doesn’t use AI and that saves data locally. I recommend pairing this with an regular data back up plan.
  3. If you’re concerned that a journaling practice will take you out of the moment, try low friction ways of capturing the moment like taking a photo or a short video. Then, at a particular time of the day, for example, just before going to bed, you can expand on the moment.
  4. If you’re concerned that a journaling practice will bring more negativity into your life by reminding you of challenging times, try to adopt protocols and mindsets that reframe these challenges as growth experiences.

If you’re starting a journaling practice, I hope you will take these on board and start enriching your life through the life-changing art of writing things down.

References

The Huberman Lab Podcast: A Science-Supported Journaling Protocol to Improve Mental & Physical Health

Hutmacher, F., Schläger, L., & Meerson, R. (2023). Autobiographical memory in the digital age: Insights based on the subjective reports of users of smart
journaling apps. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 37(4), 686–698.
https://doi.org/10.1002/acp.4033