Guest Post: Journaling Techniques For Practical Problem-Solving

This is a guest post from the brilliant Tanja over at Crystal Clarity Copywriting! If you want more of her unsticking help, check out Write the Damn Blog Post.

Could journaling get your project unstuck?

Journaling is the process of regularly recording your thoughts, ideas, experiences, insights and feelings. It’s most often written – but for some folk, it can involve lists, mind maps, art of almost ANY kind, audio, and even video.

Journaling is a mainstay of personal development and of many types of therapy.  It’s an unequalled tool for helping us to understand ourselves more deeply, and exploring and discovering what we think or feel about a given issue. But it can also be perfect for solving the kinds of practical problems that end up grinding our progress to a halt in the middle of a project.

A step-by-step approach to problem solving

There’s a lot of research and theory on problem-solving methods. I’ll acknowledge that I’m not formally trained in any of them, but I have figured out what usually works for me. My favourite process involves breaking down problem-solving into four distinct steps:

  1. Clearly understanding the problem
  2. Identifying potential solutions
  3. Evaluating the options and choosing best one
  4. Implementing the solution and assessing its success

I’ve also found that specific journaling techniques can help me with almost all of these steps.

Step 1: Understanding the problem clearly

Clearly understanding a problem is sometimes easier said than done. Granted, occasionally something is every bit as simple as it appears on the surface… but some issues have a vast array of contributing factors. A technique that works wonders for me in figuring out what’s really going on with any given problem is Stream of Consciousness writing. To do this:

  • Write the problem (as you initially understand it) as a heading at the top of your page.
  • Set a timer for however long you’re willing to spend writing.
  • For the duration of that time just… write.  Write whatever comes to mind: no editing, evaluating or judging. Follow your mind wherever it wants to go.
  • When the timer goes off, read back over what you’ve written.  What insights does it open up for you?

Step 2: Identifying potential solutions

Once you clearly understand the problem, the perfect answer may well jump right out at you. If so, go straight to Step 4 and start implementing!  But if not, it’s time to identify a few potential solutions.

For me, the ideal journaling technique to generate ideas is Brainstorming. Brainstorming works on the basis that the more ideas you come up with, the more likely ONE of them is to actually solve the problem.

To brainstorm you again set a timer, then try to list as many ideas as you can that even peripherally relate to solving your problem. Again, no editing or judging: write every idea down, regardless of how weird, crazy or impractical it may be.  The aim is quantity, not quality – you can explore and evaluate your ideas in the next step.

Step 3: Evaluating those solutions

Next it’s time to check through the potential options you’ve generated, and figure out which one’s most worth trying. Here, I like to use the Question and Answer technique.

To do this, I start by shortlisting the three solutions that seem most likely to solve the problem and get my project moving again. Next I figure out a set of 3-5 questions to ask myself about each option. Example questions might include:

  • What are the benefits of this solution?
  • What are its drawbacks?
  • What would I need to do/have/organise to implement it?
  • What other problems might it solve for me at the same time?
  • What extra hassles might it create (and how could I avoid those)?

Then, for each shortlisted option, I try to answer each question as fully I can.  The act of writing helps me to explore each potential solution from far more angles than I could if I repeatedly chased it around in circles inside the walls of my mind.

Sometimes I’ll discover a solution that initially looked ideal would probably create more problems than it would solve. Other times, I’ll realise I have a perfect answer – but I need to do or get something else before it’ll work.

Ideally, by the end of this step, I’ll see a clear “best option”. But even if I don’t, I’ll still have a better idea of what implementing any given solution would involve.

Step 4:  Implementing a solution and assessing its success

After I’ve chosen my solution, I try it out for a while before assessing whether it’s worked for me.  If so – great – I pat myself on the back, consider my problem solved, and move on with the project.

If not, I go back to one of the previous steps: either picking a different option to try, brainstorming more ideas, or trying to get a better understanding of the problem overall.

And even though I don’t use a specific technique here, it can still be seriously valuable to journal my thoughts, ideas and insights.  For example, I can:

  • write about what I’ve learned: about that specific problem, about what worked and what didn’t,  and about problem solving generally. That can help if I want to share my knowledge later, or just remind myself that I’m better at this stuff than I think.
  • vent my frustrations during the process: especially useful for keeping me sane if I have to try several solutions that don’t work before I find one that does!
  • celebrate and acknowledge myself: for the progress I’ve made and for being willing to take responsibility for moving my project forward, not just staying stuck.

How about you?

Do you have a specific problem-solving process that you kick in when your project comes to a grinding halt?

If so, how could you use journaling to support you in that process? If not, how could journaling help you with more freeform problem-solving?

About Tanja

Tanja Gardner is a professional copywriter, word weaver and story spinner at Crystal Clarity Copywriting Ltd.   She helps difference-makers like you write with concise, creative clarity that your readers intuitively “get”.  That means they understand EXACTLY what you offer – so you can make more of a difference in their lives.

To connect with Tanja, say hello on Twitter, Facebook or Google+, sign up for her monthly newsletter, or follow her blog.

Plus, you can now download the first four chapters of her e-book, Write the Damn Blog Post!, totally free of charge.

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