How to use journaling to gain more clarity: 3 methods and a list of resources

As we have discussed in my previous post, Journaling (and free writing) have many benefits.

Today, we will explore and discuss THREE different methods we can use in our daily journaling practice to gain clarity and have a better understanding of our inner world.

If you have never journaled before, then first things first. Let’s discuss the logistics:

  1. choose your medium: pen and paper or fingers to keyboard. What works best for you? what comes easily? in my case, a simple notebook and my fountain pen are my go-to. I like to feel the connection between the paper and my hand. My writing experience feels more personal and more focused. Play with both and see which one feels better or comes more easily to you.
  2. choose the time of day and context: for me, it is always in the evenings, around 9 pm. I find that I am in a much more reflective state and ready to explore my thoughts and feelings at the end of the day, before going to bed. If you are a morning person, then carving some 10 to 15 minutes at the beginning of the day to write might be just what you need. Writing can also happen during lunch breaks, on trains and buses, at the kitchen table or in cafes. Again, play a bit with this practice and see what time of day better suits your current lifestyle, and what context allows you to better focus on your journaling practice. There is no wrong or right answer.
  3. choose the purpose of your practice: how can writing serve you best today? what does your soul, mind and heart need? is it to vent? to write down encouraging words/positive affirmations to yourself? to explore a deeper issue that you do not yet fully understand? make writing work for you and use different techniques to access your thoughts and feelings depending on the day’s need (more on this down below). Setting a time and context (that stays the same on a daily basis) is important because it turns it into a habit. Something we know we can rely on no matter what. However, WHAT we write and HOW we write it will turn our practice into a truly illuminating and rewarding experience.
  4. commit to the practice: once you have find out the best way, commit to it. Make it a priority. Go back to it regardless of what is happening in your life, and no matter how much time has passed since you last wrote or if days pass and you skipped some sessions. Go back to it. Again, and again, and again. Do not give up on the practice. From my own experience and that of others, to fully reap the benefits, journaling needs to become a daily habit. Life changes and so do we, with it. And some days, all we have to give to the blank page is a couple of sentences. Other days, pages. Both options are ok. Stick with it not matter what.
  5. start and end your writing practice the same way: no matter what you end up writing, starting it and ending it the same way will make the writing experience cohesive, reliable and consistent. This is also what Janet Conner recommends in her book, “Writing down your soul: How to activate and listen to the extraordinary voice within”, a book that has been highly instrumental in guiding me in my own journaling practice (I am currently reading the book for the second time). In my case, I start each practice by addressing my spiritual guides/my voice/my higher self, followed by writing down the things I am most grateful for that day, before diving into the issue at hand that I would like to explore. I end my writing by giving thanks for the experience and the space that has opened up to allow self-exploration. I allow myself to be open and receiving. I am endlessly grateful for the practice and the answers that come to me through it.

Now that we have our context set for writing, let’s discuss THREE METHODS that will help you gain more clarity:

1. Mental purge/brain and heart dump method

This method does exactly what it says: it will offer an emotional release to pent up feelings and emotions. It is very useful post-conflict or after negatively charged incidents. When we feel so overwhelmed that the only thing we can do is just sit down and write it all down.

How to:

a) grab a sheet of paper and a pen/open a word doc on your PC/a journaling app on your phone (options for your smartphone at the end of the post)

b) find a spot that is comfortable and offers privacy

c) write it all down. No censorship, no stopping to check your grammar, or even if what you’re writing makes sense. You don’t stop until all is laid out on the paper and a sense of emotional depletion is reached.

I find this method especially powerful after an incident that has been so upsetting that my mind cannot properly process it right away. Time and emotional purging are needed to address the feelings due to shock, trauma, or the high scale of the emotional state we are left in (for example, after a car accident; a fight with a significant other; an unsuspected negative encounter with a stranger).

Clarity and insight come later, when we review what we wrote and how we felt writing it. To be able to assign meaning and significance to the incident, to draw the lessons out and reflect, first we need to reduce the heightened emotional state in which we find. We need to bring ourselves back to the baseline, basically.

And to do that, this method is extremely helpful. This also comes in handy when “someone” other is not available in that particular moment to listen to us. We can help ourselves, though. Writing is an easily accessible tool, free of judgment.

2. The 5 WHYS Method

This is the method we use when we need, and want, to understand an issue on a deeper level. To get to the root cause. Finding and addressing the underlying cause will help us to successfully solve not only the effects, but the problem in itself. Celestine Chua has an excellent post on her website that talks about the importance of addressing the root cause (instead of the symptoms that bubble at the surface, as we so often do).

The 5 Whys Method does the same thing. Interestingly enough, it was first developed by Sakichi Toyoda, a Japanese inventor and industrialist that ended up revolutionizing the textile industry, as well as establishing the world’s largest automaker: Toyota (he is the founder of Toyota Industries). And although this method has been used, successfully, time and again as a management philosophy to solve problems in various manufacturing processes, we can adapt and use it to address the root causes of our emotional/social/relational issues.

How it works:

a) we choose the problem or issue that is bothering us. It could be the things we keep procrastinating on, our emotional eating, a memory that haunts us, or an incident.

b) we ask ourselves the first out of the “5 whys”: why has this happened? we want to explore and write down the first layer, the easier answer that comes to us and sits on the surface (no assumptions, though). Sometimes, more than one cause is the answer. In that case, we explore each through the same process.

c) we use the first answer to formulate a second question and keep asking why. Now, we start digging a little deeper. The next underlying layer is revealed.

d) we go through the rest of the “whys”, keep asking and going deeper, until we reach the root cause. Often times, what lies at the very bottom is a specific fear, boredom, or a strong belief. On asking ourselves “why” 5 times in succession, we are able to peel away the layers, one by one, until we reach the root of the problem. We repeat this procedure until we can’t answer anymore. Each answer forms the basis of the next question. Sometimes,  more than 5 questions are needed to discover the underlying root. Other times, less.

Of course, some problems may be too complex and this method insufficient to fully reveal the root cause. Even so, it can still be used as a powerful self-analysis tool.

Let’s see it through an hypothetical example:

I am constantly late for my yoga practice.

1. Why do I always seem to be late for my yoga practice?

Because I have a hard time choosing my workout gear.

2. Why do I have such a hard time choosing my workout gear?

Because it takes me a while to find an outfit in which I can feel comfortable.

3. Why am I not feeling comfortable in the athletic gear?

Because the tights and tops feel too tight.

4. Why are they tight?

I have gained weight and now they feel restrictive and unflattering.

5. Why have I gained weight?

Because the new job I started has been stressful and I have been eating more than usual.

This is a simple and pretty straightforward example. But as we can see, by keep asking questions, we get to the root cause of an issue. Obviously, I could explore this issue further by asking “why is the job so stressful?”, and so on, revealing, perhaps, deeper root causes related to stress management, confidence and self-esteem.

This method is fantastic in helping us explore (most of) our issues in a structured and revelatory way.

3. The Resources Method

When a problem or an issue seems completely daunting, we often feel helpless and powerless. Starting a new job, switching schools, creating a business or a project are all exciting endeavors but they can also feel overwhelming.

This is when this method comes in handy because it helps us identify and acknowledge ALL the resources that we have, that are within reach, as well as those that we have yet to discover. It helps you reflect and recognize resources (and sometimes solutions) that you wouldn’t normally do if you would just think about them.

By writing them down, and challenging yourself to think outside the box, you bring solutions at the forefront of your mind and regain the sense of personal control (that we often feel like we’ve lost when faced with something larger and out of our control; like divorce, infertility, breakup, debt, etc).

Here is how:

a) set aside a bloc of time and gather all your essentials nearby (pen and paper, a notebook, your PC). Tell your family, friends and roommates that you’d prefer not to be disturbed for the next hour or so.

I want you to create a safe space for reflection. Often times, when things are incredibly  hard to deal with, our sense of safety and personal power is shattered. So we need to contrive other ways to recreate it to allow the solutions and resources to reveal themselves to us.

Help yourself. Is something that I often tell myself, and I am saying it to you as well.

b) start writing and write down ALL the resources available to you RIGHT NOW

Here is a list of categories that I want you to consider:

*people: what people are available to you that can help you? you are looking for information, support, guidance. These people can be actual people that you know, that are nearby and within reach, but also people in the public eye that have faced, successfully, something similar or whose energy and values you resonate with and respect. Ask for guidance if the people that you think of seem unavailable. Ask for help and support, offering in return to help as well, if the need arises. Reach out and keep looking for the mentors and guides that will (inevitably) come. Sometimes, it is an article in a newspaper that you stumble upon, an interview, or a book. Be open and willing to receive guidance in many, varied ways.

*tools and instruments: what can you use to gather as much information as possible? what can you access and how? what is available to you: in your school? at your workplace? at your local church? at the library? in your community? How about books and journals? what can you use to aid you in this process? what information can you find out by researching on the internet? what have you not thought about?

*use isolated words to define and explore your topic/issue: write down, successively, all the words that come to mind when you think about your dilemma (for example, starting a new job might make me feel: excited, elated, worried, open, unknown, stressed, anxious, etc.) What do they tell you? is there a pattern? is there a pervasive feeling? how do all the words come together if you were to put them in a poem, or a story? what do they tell you about you and where you are right now? what do the words tell you about your needs, wishes and hopes?

*skills, behaviors and attitudes: what skills do you already possess? what skills are needed? and where can you learn and practice them? most importantly, what mindset is needed to survive/cope/thrive/succeed? what do you need to let go of, and what do you need to adopt? what thoughts, attitudes and beliefs? what do you have, right now, that you can offer? how can you achieve this by staying true to yourself and your values?

*environment: what can you change or modify in your environment to help you out? what is available to you? how can you use what you have to bring about the change that you need? identify and remove the triggers? organize and clean? use what you already have first.

*steps: how can you break this down so that you feel  empowered and hopeful? and feel like you can successfully tackle it? and in how many steps? what is the ONE small thing, that you can do right now, after you are done writing, that can bring you closer to your desired result? what can you do every day?

I believe we often underestimate the many resources available to us simply because we become so used to them that we end up overlooking them. This method enables us to SEE again all that is available to us, giving us back the sense of personal control over our environment and circumstances.

If you need more guidance,

Here is a list of Journals and Books that can help you on your writing journey.  They can also make great gifts for family members and friends:

*For a teenager (and not only):Start where you are: a journal for self-exploration” by Meera Lee Patel. Beautifully illustrated, whimsical and artsy.

*For couples: “One Question a Day for You and Me: Daily Reflections for Couples: A Three-Year Journal” by Aimee Chase

*For you: “Journal to Self: Twenty-Two Paths to Personal Growth – Open the Door to Self Understanding by Writing, Reading and Creating a Journal of your life” by Kathleen Adams

*With writing prompts to encourage self-exporation: “Soul Journal: A Writing Prompts Journal for Self-Discovery” by Kristal Norton

*To help you access your Voice/Higher Self: last but not the least, the book that has been instrumental in guiding me in my  own personal practice: “Writing down your soul” by Janet Conner.

*And here is a list of the 10 best journaling apps for 2019  for your smartphone

If you found this post helpful, please share it with others! Let’s inspire and support each other in this wonderful practice of self-exploration and finding clarity.

Once again, thanks so much for taking the time to read this!

See you next week, same time (9:00 am EST) to talk about the small and easy ways each of us can can do to make our world a better place for everyone.


*photo found on

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