Solve problems and renew your motivation with this amazing no-cost strategy

Focused journaling is an extremely effective tool. I journal every time I'm struggling with an issue and want to know the way forward. Here is the methodical approach I use: you don't need any fancy equipment or a lot of time.

Do you ever have ideas buzzing around in your head and you're unsure how to process them? Ever have a business problem that you can't see a way through? Do you ever feel that the answer is in your head somewhere and you're not quite sure how to get it out?

You yearn for change, but you feel defeated because you have no idea where to start. When everything feels stuck, when the task seems so huge that the only inner voice you hear keeps whispering "why bother?", how do you overcome the inertia?

Let me share with you a super simple strategy that never, ever fails to work: it lifts my mood and gives me clarity, but that's not all. It also brings tangible results, and I've stopped counting the many ways it brought me progress and answers when I felt completely, utterly, hopelessly stuck.


How about journaling?


If you don't already journal regularly, you are robbing yourself of a huge boost to your mood and your productivity. The key benefit of writing is that: you think faster than you talk and you talk faster than you write. Therefore, since you hand moves more slowly than your mouth and your brain, journaling gives you a chance to catch up and truly process your ideas.

Let me give you three times that I've suggested this to other people and it worked for them.

One was a Savvy Teen who came to me during one of our programmes, as she was really torn about a course decision. She couldn't finish a sentence - as soon as she started telling me about why she could do X, she would immediately disagree with herself and, even before she had made a case for X, she would argue why X was a bad idea. She was so torn, she couldn't let her points of view form. It's impossible to find clarity, let alone start implementing an action plan, if you keep turning from one option to the next.

Over the course of one lunchbreak, I guided her though writing her thoughts (through her tears). Initially she said "Susan, what's the point of writing down what I'm telling you? Isn't it the same thing?" By the end of the page, she breathed a HUGE sigh of relief and told me that it was clear now. I checked in with her a couple of months later and she told me that she was very happy with her decision. Her mother wrote to me afterwards to thank me for my intervention. I was delighted and responded that the answer was in her daughter's heart all along. It just didn't have the space to come out.


Writing as business strategy


Another time happened just last week! I met a woman for coffee who I hadn't seen in a little while. She left her job after twenty years and is now wondering what's next. Should she stay in the same sector or transfer her skills to another industry? She's taking some time out at the moment and I suggested making space over the next few days to relive ten of her most memorable experiences of the last two decades. My rationale is that if she took time to think back and relish the detail, she would remember each time more clearly and they would be at the tip of her tongue then, should she be asked to talk about a time when she overcame a problem, took the initiative, galvinised a team, blended cultures together successfully for a collective outcome, etc.

These are well-known interview questions, but they can throw you if you're not prepared - not because you don't have these experiences, but because you haven't taken the time to remember them, relive them, and understand their impact. Also, as she would take that time to write, she would spot patterns in her own skillset and passions. For example she might realise that three of her journal sessions might be about times when she brought the company's values to the fore... This might make her realise that she does have a talent for cultivating corporate culture. And culture is such a powerful force in a company: "the way we do things here" can often trump other decisions. After all, they do say that "culture eats strategy for breakfast" and so, maybe this is something she should look into.

Finally, I always incorporate a five minute exercise of this nature into our Resilience workshops. I invite the attendees to think about a time when they could really feel the meaningful nature of their work. Perhaps it was a compliment, a day they went home exhausted and exhilarated, the time they announced to their customers that they were moving department, or else a random moment in time that stands out. People can really get deep in this exercise and I have to work at bringing them back into the room! These moments, and there are many in our lives, can be instant triggers of renewed resilience.


How I journal for career and business insights


Journaling has done absolute wonders for my business, and all you need is ten minutes, a notebook and a pen.

I have lost count of the times I sat down frustrated and overwhelmed, butting my head against an issue that simply wouldn't be solved. Ten minutes later I look up from my notebook and I'm amazed at the ground I've covered in such a short time:

  • I worked through the emotional block and I'm in a much better mood as a result
  • I laid it all out on paper and I can see the issue with a lot more clarity
  • I've started to think of ways to overcome the obstacle, I've started to make a list of action steps I could take
  • I've even had completely new, game-changing insights, seemingly out of nowhere
  • As a result I'm ready to rock my day!

I read a great piece in the Harvard Business Review magazine recently about "Better Brainstorming". It prescribes an original way of grappling with a question. Say you're struggling with a question, and you want to brainstorm a solution. What you should do, according to the author of the piece, is - ask more questions about the question. In this specific exercise, you CAN'T write answers at first, and that's harder than it seems .

Let's say you're wondering how to get to the next level in your career. You might set the intention of writing about that in a journaling session. A question brainstorm might look like this:

  • If I earned double the money, would that represent the change I'm looking for?
  • Would I consider moving to a new country to seek an international experience?
  • What is it about this "level" of my career that makes me feel this way?
  • Who do I know has ascended the career ladder admirably, and what particularly stands out about them?
  • Who else might feel this way and how could I connect with them?
  • What characteristics might I recognize in others so that if I manage them, I can coach them through it to both of our advantage?

At the HayesCulleton Group, we're working on a new project at the moment where we're seeking to blaze a trail. I spent one hour working on two question brainstoms recently and I used that as the basis for an excellent session with our developer last week. The questions that I posed started a highly dynamic, motivating conversation that truly narrowed our focus on what really matters and in what order. This exercise on its own is very useful.

Now, before you settle into a journaling session, make sure you pick a conducive environment. As I write this, I'm sitting in a lovely apartment I picked on AirBnB while on a business trip. If you have a favourite nook in the house, or a favourite coffee shop, or any spot that never fails to inspire you, give yourself the pleasure of anticipation by planning a journaling session in that spot!


Sit down and write - it's really as simple as that


Whatever the issue you are facing, putting your thoughts down on paper will go a long way towards solving it. If you're afraid you don't have the time to journal, just set a timer for ten minutes. However busy we are, we all have ten minutes before the family wakes up, or when the children have gone to school, or when we arrive at the office, or before we leave the office, or late at night.

You could start by writing down three things that you are grateful for today, and at least one wonderful experience you had in the last 24 hours. This will set a positive tone and will help you move forward, instead of seeing only the depressing side of things (and sometimes it can seem like the depressing side is the only side...).

Then start by stating your feelings about the issue, why the issue frustrates you, and what you could do to try and start changing things. Don't pay attention to your handwriting, your spelling, or anything else, other than writing down your thoughts. It's ok if you veer off on a tangent mid-sentence or if you write in a kind of shorthand that makes sense only to you. We're not looking for polished prose here, and only you will ever read your words. Write as freely as you can and write down everything that crosses your mind, even if it is seemingly unrelated. The important thing is to get into problem-solving mode ("What can I do to improve this?") and stay in that mode.


Here are a few prompts to get you started


Ask yourself: "If this happened to a very good friend, what would I recommend? If this wasn't about me at all, what would I recommend? If I had some distance, what would seem like the best course of action?"

For example, if you would like to get to the next step in your career, get a raise or a promotion, but you're not sure where to start:

  • List your frustrations and your fears, and find your big reason for wanting to change: what is your "why"?
  • Write about what you would like to achieve
  • Write about somebody you envy at work, somebody you want to be like and who could be a role model
  • Make lists of things you could try to get to the next step (more education? Brush up on a skill? Network? Go to a conference? Speak up more often?)
  • Every time you're not sure about trying out a new strategy, write down why and find a way to work around the obstacle or to reduce the obstacle until it sounds totally doable
  • What habits, good and bad, have you developed in your work? What habits can help you get to the next level, what habits are keeping you stuck?
  • Write down episodes when you were frustrated at work, when you thought things were unfair, or when you thought you let yourself down (by not speaking up for example, or by procrastinating on a project that was then given to somebody else, etc.). Reflect on the lessons you can draw from the experience
  • Make "lists of 10" for inspiration:


  • 10 people you should get to know better in your existing place of work;
  • 10 skills you have that make you unfireable, or that your coworkers don't have;
  • 10 things you're not doing, but you know you should, to get to the next level;
  • 10 projects you loved working on and why;
  • 10 projects you hated and why;
  • 10 character traits or skills you would like to develop;
  • 10 good things about your coworkers;
  • 10 things you have in common with people you want to get to know better at work;
  • 10 things you should be aware of when you reach the next level, that you should prepare yourself for (if you don't know what they are, research them and ask people who have the position you want);
  • 10 people who can give you the inside view on skills you need to develop and opportunities you would like to be aware of;
  • 10 questions to ask to get honest, useful feedback on your performance at work and on your chances of promotion

Go get that lovely notebook and start scribbling - you'll be amazed at all the insights that are waiting for you! Expect to find clariy, solutions and tangible, practical action plans. Also, expect to leave behind you the uncertainty, anxiety about indecision and that feeling of going around in circles.





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