It’s easy to get lost in heaps of advice coming at you from various blogs (hello!), videos, social media ads, free classes, and so on.
Back in 2015 I wrote an article called You already know enough – Tips to stop forgetting the important stuff. The gist of it is: you don’t need to learn more things—what you need is a system for storing the information you’ve learned, and reminding yourself to review it regularly. (I offer some practical tips on how to do that in the article.)
Information addiction is an effective procrastination method. Instead of doing what we need to do, we gather more information because it brings us a feeling of safety. 9 times out of 10, this source of information is just repeating what we already know, and we didn’t need it in order to get started.
The habit of turning to outside sources every time we need an answer trains us to lose trust in our own judgement.
Instead of building our own self-trust, we place our trust in others. It’s great to have mentors and teachers, but at the same time we need to be able to trust ourselves. How else will we know if we’re actually getting good advice?
So what’s the alternative? How do we find our own answers and become empowered decision makers?
Let me share my secret tool with you.
Except it’s not a secret. You probably already know about it!
Wait. Don’t go away yet. I will explain.
I know, journaling sounds like something only hippies do. Someone has probably recommended “morning pages” to you and you hated it. (That makes two of us.) I’m talking about something else.
The journaling I’m talking about has nothing to do with writing about your day, recollecting conversations with loved ones, or venting on the page—although you can certainly do that too.There are many ways to journal, and it’s important to choose the right method for the right situation.
The journaling method I recommend for finding your own answers can be called idea mining.
We have a question or a dilemma, and we need clarity. That means we know roughly where to dig, but we’re not sure exactly where, nor what we’ll find. This journaling process helps us to map out our own solutions.
The method is deceptively simple. So simple that it’s difficult to write an article about it, because there’s not much to write. You just need to try it for yourself.
This is the entirety of the method:
- Open a fresh page in a notebook and write today’s date.
- Write down your most pressing question.
- Sit in silence with the question.
- Write down any and all thoughts and follow-up questions that come to mind.
- Optionally doodle circles, boxes, arrows, stick figures... whatever makes sense for your problem.
- Stop when you feel like you’re done and have nothing more to write. (Whether you have found your answer or not.)
I would recommend always trying this method first, before jumping into an information gathering rabbit hole. You can always look up information later!
The trick is to ask the right questions.
Asking loaded questions such as these will not yield useful answers:
- Why do I keep making this mistake?
- Why am I so bad at this?
- What am I missing?
Instead, ask productive questions such as these:
- What do I know about this issue?*
- What do I need?*
- What do I really, really, really want?**
- What has worked well in past situations similar to this one?
- What strengths and resources do I have to resolve this?
- Who can support me with this issue?
- What am I actually worried about?
- Is there anything I can do differently next time?
The “want” and “need” questions are especially important, because we’re not often asked those questions, and the answers that come up might surprise you.
If you look up “journaling prompts” you’ll find many, many ideas for potential questions to ask. I write my favorite questions on sticky notes and put them on the inside cover of my journal so I can turn to them when I’m stuck on what I want to ask.
What if I don’t find an answer?
It’s OK. You won’t always find the answer on the very first try. You can come back to the question tomorrow, or a few days later. Maybe your answer is not ready yet.
What if I do find an answer?
Write it down! Immediately. Or you might forget it.
What if I don't like the answer?
This is where things get really interesting.
If we commit to building inner trust, we're bound to uncover some dissent. Our inner rebel will offer a point of view that goes contrary to what we've been taught and the dominant public opinion. This is scary—and exciting!
Several times when I was looking for a solution for a particular situation, the answer was simply: “I don't need to do anything.” I was not satisfied with that answer because it made me feel powerless about something I wanted to be different, but the answer was correct. The issue was not mine to solve. I'd be wasting my energy trying to change something when the best course of action was to give up thinking it was my problem.
Sometimes the answer suggested patience, and continuing to do what I've been doing so far. That one is also a bummer, because I get itchy to switch things up if I don't see results right away.
And sometimes the answer asks for a big change that I don't think I'm ready for. No one can make us do anything we don't want to do, and we're allowed to sit on that answer for a while and get comfortable with it. Knowing something doesn't mean that we have to act on it immediately.
Your answers can change, too. If you learn about something truly new, it may change your perspective and open up new options you haven't considered before.
Can it really be that simple?
Yes. People always expect some big complicated secret, but honestly the method is not the difficult part. The difficult part is taking 15 minutes to silently sit with a question and allowing whatever needs to come through, no matter how silly it may seem.
I know that, because on most days I don’t do it either. I have to get my back all the way against the wall in order to remember that oh right, I can try journaling about this problem. And then I do it, and I discover something useful. I find it magical, but on the surface it seems like very boring and mundane magic that no one wants to do.
You can make it elaborate and aesthetically pleasing if you want, but that is not the point.
Some of the pages I share on my blog are full of color, doodles, and fancy lettering because that’s what I happen to like. If you look up “visual journal” or “visual journaling”, you’ll see many gorgeous examples of pages that include colored backgrounds, collaged images and magazine headlines, stamps, patterned washi tape, and more. Please do not let this intimidate you.
You’re not doing journaling “wrong” if you just write in your most plain handwriting on lined paper with a basic ballpoint pen. A lot of my journal pages look like that too—I just don’t share most of that since it’s personal.
If you think including color and imagery would help you feel more engaged in the process, by all means do that. But be careful not to use it as yet another method of procrastination.
Do not overthink this. Simple is good.
Sit with the question. Let the silence speak.
It’s so simple and so accessible. Anyone can do this. You don’t need to be “talented” because it’s not about beautiful writing or drawing, it’s about problem-solving.
I really wish more people gave it a chance.
I got some of my best ideas through journaling.
In July 2020 I was sitting on my patio with a sketchbook, and wrote down a question that was weighing on me for a while:
What do I want to teach?
Then I listed all the things I don’t want to teach. After that, I wrote:
Teaching by example
I started writing the truths I live by. I saw some interesting patterns and connected them to some other ideas I’ve been thinking about. One idea led to another, and in less than an hour I had an outline for a new book. Two months later I completed the first draft of the book.
All because I sat down with my sketchbook and asked myself a potent question. Magic, I'm telling you.
Another more recent example
About two months ago I was brainstorming how to balance personal creativity and paid work in my journal. I was writing and doodling for about 10–15 minutes, and then wrote the clarifying question:
EASY way to awaken inspiration?
I got an idea: Portal. Entry ritual. I remembered reading about it from Havi, and I went back and re-read some of those posts to see how she does it, and then created a list for some of my own inspiring rituals. If you want to know the rest of the story, read about it in my article Doorways of inspiration.
Whenever I need to figure something out, I turn to paper.
I love working on paper more than on any digital device, whether it’s writing or drawing.
When I had to write new content for my brand design services page, I was feeling too tired and unfocused to type on the computer. So I started writing notes in my journal because that seemed easier. Lo and behold, I wrote a lot of text that I used in the final page. It’s a great way to get started on any project.
Do you journal in this way?
If you’re not doing it yet, are you interested in trying?
I’d love to hear your experiences, thoughts, and questions about journaling—feel free to share them in the comments.