What do John D. Rockefeller, Benjamin Franklin, Marie Curie, Albert Einstein, Marcus Aurelius, Winston Churchill, and Leonardo da Vinci all have in common?
Besides being monumental figures in their respective fields, they all made time to jot down their thoughts and daily musings into a journal. So why were they all dedicated to this simple exercise?
Journaling is simply one of the most accessible tools at your disposal for accelerating your personal growth.
While you may think that a journal is no different than a diary for recording life events, when used at its full potential, it accomplishes so much more. Specifically, keeping a journal can improve your thinking, help you solve difficult problems, and serve as a personal record book for tracking your progress.
“Journaling is one of the easiest and most powerful ways to discover new truths. By getting your thoughts out of your head and putting them down in writing, you’ll gain insights you’d otherwise miss.”
— Steve Pavlina
Improve Your Thinking
Some ideas are difficult to grasp when you’re only thinking about them in your head. They’re difficult because you’ve restricted yourself to only thinking about it with a first-person perspective. A journal improves your thinking by externalizing your ideas so you can put them through careful examination.
“Externalization is most useful if you use it as a tool to examine your plans, goals, and actions. Jotting down the events of the day in a diary format is useful for later review, but using a journal or confidant as a problem-solving tool is even more useful.”
A journal is the easiest way for you to capture ideas, plans, and tasks. It takes the raw ideas in your head and puts them on paper to be organized and reviewed. When you review what you’ve written, it shifts your thinking to a third-person perspective so you can disassociate yourself from your ideas.
The disassociation lets you distance yourself from any emotional attachment you have to your ideas so you can bring yourself closer to seeing the truth. You create a mental shift from playing the role of the devote follower trying to protect their sacred cows to playing the role of the astute observer looking to make a rational decision.
“The first principle is that you must not fool yourself — and you are the easiest person to fool.”
— Richard Feynman
Seeing your ideas on paper will also expose any gaps in your logic that were otherwise overlooked when left floating around in your head. Writing requires you to tighten up your thinking by addressing these hidden flaws in your understanding. It’s the difference between knowing the name of something and actually knowing what it is.
Solve Difficult Problems
Some problems are too difficult to solve in your head. Only when you record the problem and then re-examine it from multiple angles does the solution start to become apparent. There are also specific techniques you can use for exploring those trickier problems: Inversion and First Principles Thinking.
Most of our difficult problems stem not from having too few choices but from having too many. We struggle with decisions such as how to pick the right career, how we should spend our free time, and how to decide who we should spend the rest of our life with.
In a world filled with seemingly infinite options, sometimes the best approach for making the right decision is first to determine what you don’t want. Make a list of things you want to avoid, and the right decision will slowly begin to reveal itself.
“There are two approaches to applying inversion in your life.
1. Start by assuming that what you’re trying to prove is either true or false, then show what else would have to be true.
2. Instead of aiming directly for your goal, think deeply about what you want to avoid and then see what options are left over.”
For example, if you’re trying to decide what career path you should take, it helps to create a list of what you don’t want in a career. Here are some questions you could ask yourself:
- Do you want a job that requires a lot of travel?
- Are you willing to relocate for your career?
- Do you want to work for a large employer that can offer more stability or work for a small company where your effort is going to get noticed but expose you to more volatility?
- Do you want to devote most of your time toward your career or be slightly underemployed so you can spend more of your time with your family, hobbies, or other income-producing ventures?
Often, the best way to solve your problems is not to seek out new solutions but to reduce your mistakes by learning what areas, situations, and people to avoid. Focus on what you shouldn’t be doing, and the path to success will soon become clear.
“Think about not only what you could do to solve a problem, but what you could do to make it worse — and then avoid doing that, or eliminate the conditions that perpetuate it.”
First Principles Thinking
First principles thinking is one of the best ways to reverse-engineer complicated problems and unleash your creativity. It’s a tool for finding the most efficient way to solve a problem by separating the underlying facts from any assumptions you have about the problem.
There are two techniques for cutting through the noise so you can get to the underlying principles: Socratic Questioning and the Five Whys.
Socratic Questioning. Similar to the scientific method, Socratic questioning follows an evidence-based approach for challenging assumptions. The process follows these steps:
- Clarify your thinking and explain the origins of your ideas. (Why do I think this?)
- Challenge assumptions. (How do I know it’s true?)
- Look for evidence. (How can I back my ideas up?)
- Consider alternative perspectives. (How do I know I’m correct?)
- Examine the consequences and implications. (What are the consequences if I’m wrong?)
- Question the original questions. (Was I correct?)
Socratic questioning stops you from making rash decisions with your emotions by giving you a framework for building a disciplined approach.
The Five Whys. A simple technique where all you do is repeatedly ask “why” until you reach a “what” or a “how.” Once you have reached a falsifiable fact (a statement is falsifiable if some observation might show it to be false), you know you have reached a first principle. If your questioning reaches a “because I said so” or “that’s the way it is,” then you know you’re dealing with an assumption.
For example, you can use the technique for solving a problem such as, “My car will not start.”
- Why? — The battery is dead.
- Why? — The alternator is not functioning.
- Why? — The alternator belt is broken.
- Why? — The alternator belt was past its service date and needed to be replaced.
- Why? — The car was not taken in for its routine maintenance schedule. (Root Cause)
Track Your Progress
An underrated benefit of keeping a journal is re-reading past entries to observe the progress you’ve made. I find this particularly useful during times of frustration when my progress feels stagnant. Reading old entries broadens your perspective past the day-to-day minutiae to see just how much real progress has been made through the years.
Old journal entries also serve as a type of external hard drive for preserving memories that otherwise are susceptible to becoming distorted in your head. Each entry serves as a mental mile-marker to showcase how your thoughts and interests have evolved.
Reading your thoughts as you went through difficult stages in life can also help you learn from past mistakes. Writing down your past failures and what you learned from them can keep you from repeating the same mistakes. Failure is a part of life, but not learning from it should never be tolerated.
“We conveniently forget to record our mistakes. But they should be highlighted. We should confess our errors and learn from them. What was my original reason for doing something? What did I know and what were my assumptions? What were my alternatives at the time?”
— Peter Bevelin
How to Build A Journaling Habit
Finding the time and energy to keep a journal can feel challenging. And for some of you, journaling may not even be the best method for recording and reflecting on your ideas. But if you’re serious about accelerating your personal growth, then there are some strategies you can implement right now to turn it into a habit.
- Use time blocking. Have a dedicated time and place to perform your daily journal ritual. Knowing in advance when and where the habit will occur will make it easier to stick with. I prefer using this framework: “I will journal at [TIME] in [LOCATION].”
- Be realistic about expectations. In other words, start simple. If you have never journaled a day in your life, then begin by committing to writing just one or two sentences per day. Once you become comfortable with doing that, then you can bump up your output.
- Choose your style. Decide what you want your journaling process to look like. Will you be writing in a physical journal, note-taking app, or on your laptop? Determine what works best for you and stick with it.
- Use writing prompts. This strategy isn’t necessary, but if you feel uncertain about how to start, then consider using writing prompts to get those creative juices flowing. As a free bonus, I’ve included a list of 30 daily journaling prompts that you can access at the end of this article.
There are also some great tools to help make your journaling habit stick. And while the tools won’t build the habit for you, they can be beneficial for keeping you on track. I recommend you experiment with a few tools to figure out what works best for you.
- Five-Minute Journal. The first journal I used to build the daily habit. I recommend it for beginners looking for an easy way to get started.
- Moleskine Notebook. For those of you who want full creative freedom with your journal, I recommend a good notebook. I prefer Moleskine notebooks since their dedication to quality makes the journaling ritual more enjoyable.
- 750words.com. For you digital-first people, this is a great free tool for helping you build a writing habit. It currently has almost 500,000 users.
Regardless of what tools or journaling method you choose, the key is just to pick something and get started. The sooner you start exercising your mind through journaling, the sooner you will reap the benefits of gaining clarity in your decision-making.