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Tracking your travels through time: The benefits of writing in diaries

Want to keep a diary? There's an app for that!

With the advent of so many social media outlets that keep us tracking our lives in cyberspace, it seems that we have less and less time to take advantage of that old-fashioned time tracker: the daily diary. However, even though social media can have many benefits to our psychological health, the diary seems to hold an edge when it comes to pouring out your deepest thoughts and feelings. After all, who is a better audience to listen to you than "me, myself, and I?"

There are many reasons that diary writing has fallen out of favor in addition to the rise of social media. For one thing, it takes physical effort to motivate yourself to write by hand. Studies have shown that we're losing the ability to write in long-hand. As our penmanship skills fade, we may feel less motivated to inscribe our thoughts for perpetuity.

Fortunately, there is an app for diaries- called "The Momento," this handy tool allows the writing- but not touch-screen challenged to jot down their thoughts whenever they come into mind. Not quite the same as sitting down and addressing a diary, but at least it's an option.

What if the problem is not one of how, but why? What if you would rather not admit to some of the less exciting or desirable facts of your life, even to yourself? Perhaps you lost a job, didn't get the promotion you were so sure you'd get one year ago, your child failed to get into or failed out of college, or you in general feel that you didn't have a particularly remarkable year that is worth commemorating. Or perhaps you're struggling with difficult personal news such as having lost a close relative or grappling with a major illness. If you write about your loss, disappointment, or failure, doesn't that make it more real?

The job is made more difficult by the news you may hear through Facebook or emails from friends and acquaintances who seem to have nothing but great things to say about their lives. A friend who holds down a full-time managerial job, bought a small mansion in a lush suburb, learned Mandarin Chinese, has three children ready to graduate from preschool with advanced degrees, and on the side has personally overseen the construction of seven quilts, three major charity events, and presides over the local school council. Or, if your friends are younger, the people who are off chasing down exciting job, school, or internship adventures all around the world. Reading about these exploits can only make you feel worse.

So it is possible that feelings of inadequacy, particularly when you compare yourself to your friends, makes you shy away from recording the facts of your life, even to yourself. Ironically, the worse your life seems to be going, the more you can benefit from keeping a diary. If you can convince yourself to start, you'll find that when diary writing becomes a habit, you'll actually feel better.

The test way to start is to start. Let your pen, pencil, or touch screen start moving, and see what comes out. Don't edit or censor yourself, just get it out there on the screen. In fact, you may find that after doing so, you actually feel better. A number of years ago, University of Texas psychologist James Pennebaker found that writing about traumatic events greatly helped relieve stress and improve physical health; here you can read his advice about the value of this kind of autobiographical writing.

The idea that you can work through the difficult events of the past day, week, month, or year by writing about them may give you the inner strength to help you confront tomorrow's challenges.

Taking stock of your life on a regular basis is an excellent way to conduct the kind of thoughtful analyses that will lead you to what I have called the Authentic Road. The pathway to fulfillment, no matter what your age, lies in examining where you have been and where you are going. When you don't like the direction your life is taking, you can use that opportunity to make changes that will get you where you want to be.

Keeping a diary takes only a few simple steps. Here's how to get yourself going on your travels through time:

1. Find the media that will motivate you. Fountain pen or iPhone app-- whatever will make you feel comfortable, treat yourself to the format that best suits your personality and lifestyle.

2. Don't censor yourself.The number one rule for diary writing is that it is unedited. But you may want to get a lock or password protection if you're going to be truly scandalous.

3. Use the diary for active life review. By using the diary for a bit of life review, you can see how much progress you're making toward your personal goals.

Traveling through time, both forward and backward, is one of the best ways to ensure your fulfillment in the present.

Follow me on Twitter @swhitbo for daily updates on psychology, health, and aging. Feel free to join my Facebook group, "Fulfillment at Any Age," to discuss today's blog, or to ask further questions about this posting.

Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D. 2009


Pennebaker, J.W. (1997). Writing about emotional experiences as a therapeutic process. Psychological Science, 8, 162-166.

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