I often suggest journaling to my clients, to which I usually get a sigh. I get that it feels like a “should” or something only good writers can do. The pushback is usually around not knowing what to write down, believing you must have “the” answer before you write it. Or simply not understanding how journaling can help. I’ll rebut both these points and show you why journaling is a tool you’ll want to start using today.
I want to first acknowledge that writing is not easy and to writing well is hard. Any writer you enjoy reading has put a lot of effort into it. For me, writing this newsletter can at times be a painful process, and when I’m done, I feel a huge sense of relief; but only briefly, when I realize the entire process will start all over again to get the next month’s out! I endure the writing process, however, because I know it makes me a better thinker and improves my work. The act of putting thoughts and ideas into the written word so I can organize and articulate my ideas better means I can then share them with clients and you, the reader, in a clearer form. It’s a challenging process, but that’s the point.
Thankfully, you don’t have to send your written words out into the world to get the benefit. Today, what I mean by journaling or writing (which I use interchangeably here), is to just write things down, hopefully with an expressed purpose. I’m not talking about writing well for the purpose of others to read. To journal, you don’t have to be a great writer, you don’t have to let anyone else read what you wrote, and you don’t need to keep what you wrote after you’re done (although you may want to, in order to identify patterns).
Lots of Journaling Types
Not all journaling is the same. Meaning, you can get different results from journaling depending on the type of prompt. To get the result you want, it helps to have clear intentions.
If you want to train your brain to see more reasons to be grateful and to counter the negativity bias you have, you may find Gratitude Journaling helpful.
If you want to process a particularly emotional event, you may find Emotional Processing Journaling helpful.
The journaling I’m focused on is to gain clarity. If it’s clarity for the answer to a question such as, “What do I want to do next in my career?” or to figure out what to say in a difficult conversation, or to simply solve a problem you’ve been struggling with – journaling will help you gain clarity in whatever has you mentally stuck.
Journal to Activate Your Analytical Mind
Your mind is not so smart, at least not all of it. The mind can be easily tricked and misguided. If you want to find out all the ways this is true, check out You are Not so Smart by David McRaney. Without getting too philosophical (because lots and lots of books are written about this, so forgive my oversimplification), you have 2 systems in your head/mind/brain (I use these terms interchangeably for simplicity) that determine your thinking.
System 1 and System 2 thinking are terms originally proposed by the psychologists Keith Stanovich and Richard West, but that Daniel Kahneman wrote about extensively in Thinking Fast and Slow, that are briefly defined here:
- System 1: Our brains’ automatic, unconscious, and emotional responses to situations and stimuli. System 1 thinking takes little or no effort and no sense of voluntary control, which means it also takes less energy to operate. Think of this as the system of the brain that is always running in the background, so it can do things that are second nature to those that have done it a lot. Examples include tying a shoe, driving home from work, or walking down the street and avoiding dog poo.
- System 2: Our brains’ effortful mental activities, including complex computations. System 2 thinking takes more energy and is often associated with concentration, choice, and logic. This system often needs to be “turned on” otherwise System 1, which is quick to respond, may not be correct. Examples include when you need to do math in your head (assuming you don’t do this all the time) or parallel park in a very tight space or look for a lost item.
System 1 is your emotional and lazy part of the brain. By lazy, I mean that it makes quick and easy connections and stories, it doesn’t go deeper, because that takes more brain power. In order to become more analytical, you must wake up and turn on the System 2 part of your brain so you can analyze the thoughts spinning in your head. One way of doing this is to write. The process of moving things from a thought and then articulating it in words by writing it down, can turn on that part of the brain.
Writing also allows the brain to engage in deeper thought. You got your shitty first draft down. Now your subconscious can work on draft numbers 2, 3, 4, and 5. You must keep writing to get there. To get deeper, to get to the authentic and creative part of you, some people call this the authentic self or the soul (and I don’t mean this in a religious sense). As Palmer Parker so aptly explains in A Hidden Wholeness, the soul is quiet and shy and needs space and time to speak without someone else interrupting (hence why writing alone is better than chatting it through with someone else).
Writing Allows Deeper Thinking
The Cultural Tutor so perfectly captured in the newsletter how the act of writing encourages even deeper thinking:
Thinking is difficult – really difficult. Thoughts appear in your mind seemingly at random sometimes, and constructing coherent patterns of thought requires a great deal of effort. Even when you manage to think clearly and thrash out a few conclusions, they’re easily forgotten. And most of the rest of the time our thoughts are contradictory because we’ve barely had the chance to analyze and understand them.
No wonder we’re all so prone to saying stupid things!
That’s where writing comes in: the practice of putting your thoughts into words. Or, more tellingly, the act of taking those thoughts out of your head.
You can write a few words, read them, leave them, come back to them, and reconsider them. It’s much harder to do that with thoughts, which are intangible and changeable.
But if you take those tangled, complex thoughts out of your head and write them down, you’ll see them much more clearly. And you can see the contradictions and inconsistencies, you can find out where you’re stuck and where you’re certain – you can deal with them, edit them, reword them, and make things clear. In the end, you’ll figure out what you actually think.
All of this to say that writing is an effective way of thinking. So, when you’re faced with a problem – it could be professional or personal, a complex project at work or a struggling relationship – writing down your thoughts will inevitably help to solve that problem.
Journal Prompts to Get You Started
Depending on what you need clarity on, choose the appropriate prompt to get you started. Or just get started writing down your latest thought on the area you’re stuck.
- What do you love or hate about the work you do (or have done)?
- What gives you purpose and meaning in work?
- What do you want more or less of in your work or life?
- What causes or problems in the world interest you?
- What do you want to contribute to the world?
- What do you want to learn or develop?
- Describe a day in the life of your future ideal self.
- What am I grateful for today?
- What mindset do I want today?
- What am I excited about?
- What am I feeling?
- What do I need?
- What do I need to let go of?
- What beauty am I either creating, cultivating, or inviting in today?
- What will I focus on or do today?
- What accomplishments can I celebrate?
- What challenges am I having?
- How am I making progress toward my goals?
- What decision do I need to make?
- What am I avoiding that I need to address?
- Am I showing up as the person I want to BE?
More Benefits of Writing
Besides writing, writing helps you think better and get clarity. The act of long handwriting, not writing on a keyboard helps with brain development and learning in children which means it can help in adulthood as well because our brains never stop developing; the concept of neuroplasticity.
Get started writing today!
- Grab a notebook. I like spiral notebooks or legal pads so I can rip pages out and not be too attached to what I wrote.
- Get your favorite pen.
- Find a place you won’t be interrupted for 12 minutes.
- Pick a prompt or just write on the topic and write as much as you can, without stopping for the full time.
- What did you learn?
- Repeat tomorrow or in a couple of days (after your subconscious has worked on it) to go deeper.
If you need a partner to help you get unstuck, I’m here for you.