Solve Your Toughest Problems With a Smart Journaling Routine

“I shouldn’t have yelled at him. But I was so frustrated…I couldn’t help it. When I went to bed I just felt so guilty, like I was the worst parent in the world…”

Let’s get one thing straight—my client Amanda is SuperMom. She arranges her life so that she can spend the most quality time possible with her children; she makes every sacrifice for them. But at the end of a four-hour homework marathon with her three boys, she vented on her oldest son Matt—he just wasn’t getting the spelling lesson. A day later she was still racked with guilt.

So I asked her if she had journaled about the experience.—Ehh, not so much. And that was a problem.

Why journaling is so important

Journaling is the perfect combination of self-acceptance, encouragement, and problem solving. If you make a mistake, or if you do anything that makes you feel bad, journaling is how you come to accept yourself for it. It’s also where you come up with the solutions.

For Amanda, I told her to write about what led up to the event so she could empathize with herself. She’d actually done four hours of homework straight with her kids, and didn’t have any time for her self-love routines. I told Amanda that I’d probably blow up on her if I did four-hour sessions without any time for self care. So she came to accept and forgive herself for making the mistake with Matt.

Then we immediately jumped into problem solving.

I asked her what the solution was. She said that she told her kid to let her know when she was being too much…and then she’d stop. Lame, I said. We needed to get her in a place where she was relaxed and calm enough not to blow up. That four hours of tutoring without a break, after a whole day of cleaning and cooking and organizing? That was the problem!

I told her that she was not a slave to her children, and that she needed to dictate the flow. If she needed to take a ten-minute break every hour to sip a cup of tea outside and read a book, or meditate, or do any number of de-stressing activities, that was not only her privilege as an adult, but her obligation to herself and to her children. She didn’t blow up at Matt because she was a bad Mom. It was because she didn’t schedule any breaks to blow off steam.

That was an Aha! moment for Amanda.

She actually hated tutoring, she said. But she did it because she wanted to spend quality time with her kids. So I went to the next level of problem solving with her: why didn’t she just hire a tutor for a couple hours a night? That would give her the time to work on her passions of photography and writing, and to spend quality time doing things she loved with her kids, like playing games.

Brilliant!, she said. She’d actually wanted to do that for several years! But if I hadn’t problem solved with her, Amanda said, she never would have done it. We ended up scheduling an hour every afternoon for calling and interviewing three tutors a day till she had the right one. Once we did that, she went on and on about how happy she was and how much of a relief this was. Then I broke it to her…

“You realize that this is a result of your impossible-seeming problem with Matt, right? All we did was look at the problem rationally, forgive yourself for making it, figure out why it happened, and come up with a solution. That’s something you can do on your own every night with your journal!”

Journaling is how I help each of my clients to become problem-solving coaches for themselves. And if you master this technique for yourself, you won’t have to spend thousands on personal coaching to transform your life.

Here’s a quick 5-step instruction for a life-changing journaling habit.

1-Write down the good things first.

Starting from the beginning of the day, write about all your good decisions. Write about choosing positive thoughts, and rejecting negative ones. Write about sticking to your routines. Write about accomplishing your goals and giving your best to whatever you did. Write about things that made you proud.

Encourage yourself for these things! Write about what you were grateful for—people, things, events. Write about every positive thing from your day. In detail! (It’s best to journal at night, and with a blank journal.)

2-Write about your problems.

Everyone has problems, and everyone does things that make them feel bad. But you’ll do much less of these things when you solve the problems on a daily basis. So write about the factors that influenced your bad decisions—like when Amanda didn’t give herself any personal time during her marathon homework sessions. Then forgive yourself. Accept yourself. Eg.-“I really biffed it, but I still love me just as much, and I know I’m going to do better tomorrow.

Then move quickly into problem solving mode.

3- Solve your problems.

Most people’s solutions sound something like this:

Try better tomorrow.

But that’s not a solution. That’s an intention. Problem solving involves examining the underlying causes behind problems; it demands attention to detail. That’s why you’re writing about all the factors and influences surrounding your poor performance. And from that information you will pick a specific action step to overcome your challenge. For me two years ago, that might’ve been, “Got sucked up into Facebook all day. Didn’t do nearly as much work as I’d’ve liked to.” The solution was simple: no Facebook. Or, for Amanda, it was scheduling breaks in her homework sessions and/or hiring a part-time tutor.

4-Load your action steps into your plan for tomorrow.

Insights are only valuable when you act on them. So after your journaling session, make sure to plan your solutions into your next day with a daily planner. Having your planner handy while journaling will remind you that your not just journaling to journal—you’re journaling for action steps.

5-For the recurring problems you haven’t been able to solve, pick someone else’s brain.

Journaling can be the greatest problem-solving tool in your self-improvement arsenal. But still, some problems are so entrenched that you have little to no objectivity on how to fix it. Bouncing your biggest problems off of a friend, mentor, or, as in my case with Amanda, a coach, will prime your mind to solve problems more objectively in your day-to-day journaling practice. Find a trusted friend or hire a coach.

Written by Daniel Dowling
Hi! I'm Dan, founder of Millennial Success. When I'm not getting six-packed--that's "hit in the face" in beach volleyball--or reading Jane Austen's novels for the fifth time, I'm helping people make every day a breakthrough as a writer and coach.