Journaling as a Problem-Solving Tool

One the most powerful personal development tools is simply to keep a personal journal.

I’ve been keeping paper journals since 1996, and two years ago I converted to journaling software, which I find much faster and more convenient. The program I use is called The Journal. I just bought a second copy of the program for my wife to use, since she’s getting into journaling herself. Although you can certainly keep a journal on your computer with just a word processor, what I like about this dedicated journaling software is that it has a built-in calendar to make it easy to instantly view entries by date, and you can also search past entries for specific keywords.

What do I do with my journal? Although many people use journals or diaries to keep a record of life events, I don’t normally bother with such entries, and I rarely even go back and read past entries. For me it’s primarily a problem solving tool, a way to think through complex decisions until I reach the point of clarity. I average about 5-10 journal entries a month, and I usually begin a new entry by typing a question or a problem I want to solve. Then I proceed to explore the possible solution space of the problem. Sometimes the problems may be very simple, such as “What topic should I select for my next speech (or article)?” But other times I explore much broader subjects, like “Where do I want to be in 2010, and what do I need to start/stop doing now in order to get there?” Sometimes I’ll just brainstorm possible solutions, while other times I’ll write about a problem from different angles to understand it more fully. For example, I might ask myself, “How would Albert Einstein solve this problem? Leonardo da Vinci? Jim Carey? Captain Picard?” Or I might ask, “What’s good about this problem? How might I avoid even needing to solve this problem? What would the optimal solution to this problem have to look like?”

I find these kinds of exercises very valuable. When I try to solve a problem in my thoughts alone by thinking it through, I often meet success with simple problems, but thinking things through often fails to solve more complicated problems. Either I won’t find a satisfactory solution at all, or I won’t understand the problem well enough to feel good about the solutions I do find, or sometimes I’ll find a solution that I feel good about, but after I’ve slept on it and looked at it fresh the next day, it doesn’t seem quite so intelligent anymore. So instead of thinking things through in my head, I tackle those big, hairy problems by writing them through. Thinking can often become circular, and our brains have a tendency to overgeneralize; i.e. we’re always looking to simplify things by classifying them according to patterns. However, sometimes it’s important to consider the raw facts of a problem without trying to prematurely pattern-match it to a previous problem we’ve already solved. For example, if you run your own business and experience a temporary sales drop, which happens to be a problem you experienced and overcame once before, you may still need to consider the possibility that this sales drop has a unique cause and cannot be overcome by re-applying the previous solution.

By exploring problems on paper, I avoid circular thinking, and it’s also easier to identify gaps in the possible solution space that have yet to be considered. Once I’ve written about a problem from a particular angle, I can put that part to rest and move on to exploring the next part, and the written record makes it easy to consider the problem from a sufficient number of different perspectives to leave me feeling confident that I understand it fully enough to make an intelligent decision. So essentially, journaling allows me to overcome some of my brain’s functional limitations, effectively expanding the mental working memory that’s available for solving problems.

Some problems are by their very nature just too big to fully understand in our thoughts alone. We can only focus our conscious minds directly on a small part of any given problem. Our brains are fairly powerful, but our conscious minds are still extremely limited in their ability to hold onto multiple simultaneous thoughts. For example, you can close your eyes and visualize an apple tree, but can you visualize that tree from one hundred different angles all at the same time and thereby select the one with the most apples visible? Even a question as simple as, “What should I have for dinner?” is enough to run us up against our mental limits. To truly make the best possible decision, we would have to consider all possible dinners we might eat, prioritizing their taste, texture, nutritional value, cost, convenience, etc. Now for a relatively simple decision like this, we might consider a mere three or four options and then pick the one that seems best to us in the moment. But what if we’re faced with a much more significant decision with far-reaching consequences, where it’s much more important to feel confident that our choice is at least close to optimal?

Life is full of these kinds of choices. What career should I choose? Where should I live? Should I get a divorce or remain in an unhappy marriage? These are all major life-changing decisions. You can certainly choose to make them haphazardly and without careful consideration, but you’ll be the one who has to live with the consequences. If you fail to put forth the effort to apply the full extent of your intellect to making the best possible choices when the stakes are so high, then what does that say about the value you place on your own life?

While even journaling can’t overcome the major limitations of our conscious minds to systematically consider solution spaces with millions of possibilities, writing things through is at least a step in the right direction. We still have to delegate a major part of our decision-making to our subconscious minds, to our intuition, and to our emotions. But the more of this process we can pull into our conscious minds (by using either paper or a computer screen as an extension of our consciousness), the more clarity and focus we gain in knowing that our decisions are the right ones. And in the long run, after years of exercising the mental discipline to make more conscious decisions, we reap the harvest of far greater results.

Update: For more tips on using journaling for personal growth, including some excerpts shared from my own journal, see the article Journaling.