Keep a Journal to Solve Tough Problems


The common idea of a journal is a slightly more masculine diary. A book where that stores what you did each day, and how you felt about it. While this method of journaling is fine, it completely ignores the real benefit of keeping a journal. That benefit is being able to solve tricky problems.

I first heard about the idea of keeping a problem-solving journal from Steve Pavlina, when he wrote about his system in this article. That was a few years ago, and I’ve amassed hundreds of pages in word documents since then.

Journaling to Solve Problems

If you were trying to solve a difficult math equation, which would you do?

  1. Move to an area free of distractions and focus on the problem.
  2. Sit in the middle of a crowd of people, turn on a television and hop on one foot, while trying to determine the answer.

I’m sure most people would agree that the first situation would enhance your thinking. It’s hard to solve a problem when you’re in a noisy environment. When you can completely focus on a problem you will get better answers.

Journaling enhances your thinking because it eliminates the mental noise. Few people would sit in a noisy room to do serious thinking. But if your mind is cluttered and disorganized, how can you expect to arrive at the best answers for tough problems?

Writing as a Concentration Booster

Writing forces you to organize your thoughts. Instead of having a jumbled collection of ideas, you are forced to put down your ideas in a sequence. This added step makes it far easier to think through any big challenges you might be facing.

Writing out your ideas into a journal also gives your brain a “save” function. Normally, your short-term memory can store roughly 5-9 items at a time. That isn’t a lot of RAM for solving tough problems. Career choices, deciding to stay or leave a relationship or planning a big project may have dozens of factors you need to consider.

When I write out my ideas in a journal, I can quickly type the main points into a short list and then expand on each point individually. By writing out the ideas, I save my precious short-term memory and can think without clutter.

What kind of problems can you solve through journaling?

I use journaling as a way to solve bigger “life” challenges. Usually this isn’t fixing a crisis, but simply reorganizing my thinking on an issue. A few recent problems I’ve solved through my journal are:

  • Creating an action plan for my summer. I have almost complete freedom with my time this summer. Journaling helped me think about what my ideal schedule, mix of activities and projects I’d like to take on. Without the several pages of writing I devoted to this problem, I probably would have wasted the next four months.
  • Reviewing my strategy for this website. Coming up with a complete direction and strategy for this website isn’t something I do haphazardly. By thinking it through in text, I can avoid settling into bad habits.
  • Keeping my finances healthy. By deconstructing my spending I can get a better picture of where I need to limit spending and places where I should stop being so cheap.

Many of the articles I’ve written for this website have been a direct by-product of writing in my journal. Solutions I’ve come up with for a particular problem I’m facing turn out to be general enough to write an article about. In fact, you could probably consider this entire blog to be a more formal version of a journal.

Journaling Techniques

If you’re new to journaling, you’ll probably start off as I did. Staring at a blank screen, rambling about your day without reaching any specific conclusions. It takes practice to start writing your ideas on paper instead of keeping them inside your head.

There are a few techniques I’ve learned that can speed up the problem solving process. Most of these methods only work when you have a source to write on, which is why using a journal beats inner dialog.

  1. Split a problem into components. If you have a big, vague problem like “what should I do with my life”, I suggest starting by breaking it into different sections. Break the problem into parts: “where should I live?”, “what career should I have?”, “what am I passionate about?”, etc. If you keep applying this breakdown method, you can usually hit a root level where the problems are easier to solve.
  2. Enumerate and expand. Write a list, then expand on each point. This method helps when you have dozens of ideas that you don’t want to forget. By writing out the list first, you can save those ideas so you can easily get back to them.
  3. Place and sort. If you have trouble organizing your thinking, try placing all of your ideas on paper first. Don’t worry if they don’t have any order, or even if they make complete sentences. Then go through this pile and sort them into better groupings. This can be useful when a problem is large in scope and you aren’t sure where to start.

These methods are just a few of the thinking-enhancing powers of keeping a journal. If you don’t already keep one, start a word document and keep it in a place that is easy to find. You don’t need to compel yourself to write constantly, just when you have a tough problem. It’s amazing how much easier it is to think when you aren’t limited by your brain.