Editor’s note: This is a guest post by Ali Luke.
Do you ever find yourself going over the same problem — again and again — inside your head?
Maybe you’re in your 50s and you’re still worrying what you’ll be when you grow up.
Maybe, once again, you’ve said “yes” to something when you wish you’d said “no”.
Maybe your workspace needs some tweaks, but you never find the time for them.
It’s easy for these things to turn into an undercurrent of frustration. You find yourself in a bad mood because you’ve just spent the past 20 minutes thinking about how your life doesn’t seem to be amounting to anything, or seething with resentment about that commitment you got talked into, or struggling to focus in your less-than-ideal office space.
The solution is not to spend more time thinking about your problems.
If you just keep thinking about the problems, you’ll carry on going round in circles. You’ll focus on how you’re feeling — irritated, upset, annoyed — and on the problem, rather than on the steps that will help you find a solution.
The solution is to write the problems down. (Tweet this.)
When you write things down, you can process one thought and move on to the next. You’re recording everything, so you don’t need to keep going back over the same thought again and again.
Writing Works Better than Just Thinking
Many studies, going back a number of years (here’s one from 1999), suggest writing has particular benefits for people in all sorts of circumstances. Whether you’re looking to overcome past trauma or whether you simply want to reduce stress, writing can help.
Writing therapy has become increasingly mainstream over the past couple of decades. Many people are turning to writing as a personal outlet or a way of working through things, and a number of books by authors such as Gillie Bolton explore different ways in which reflective and therapeutic writing can be helpful. This type of writing can lead to new insights or highlight patterns that you might otherwise have missed.
Here’s what a few advocates for writing things down have said:
“As a coach and writing facilitator, I’ve found that writing is a great productivity-boosting approach for me. That’s because the act of writing is inherently mindful, bringing people into a state of awareness of their thoughts and of the present moment.” — Nancy Seibel, Productive Flourishing, “7 Ways to Start Writing to Improve Your Productivity”
“I was a math wiz. I used to hate it when my teacher told me to show my work. But as impressed as I was with myself, it’s easier, more reliable, and equally correct to work out problems on paper. Some math and life problems are too complicated to solve in your head.” — Stephen Guise, StephenGuise.com, “4 Reasons to Solve Your Life Problems on Paper”
“When you write, you are sorting out in material form the messy and complex web of thoughts that exists solely in your mind beforehand. Whether by way of journaling, blogging, or academic writing, the act of writing puts your own thoughts under a critical lens that can then be evaluated, assessed, and critiqued. Writing actualizes thought. It makes the theoretical and internal a little less abstract and thus more manageable.” — Nathan Sexten, Writing Cooperative, “Writing is Thinking”
When you’re stuck, frustrated, or struggling, writing can help you untangle your thoughts and work toward a solution.
Different Ways to Write Problems Down
I’m a writer, so it’s easy for me to say that writing things down is a great way to move forward. If you’re not someone who particularly enjoys writing, you might be resistant to the idea.
Perhaps you’ve tried some type of writing before, like journalling, and found it hard to stick with. Morning pages, which many people swear by, are fairly time consuming (30-45 minutes every single morning) … so they might seem like way too much for you right now.
That’s fine. There’s no one “perfect” way to work through things, and different writing methods suit different people at different times.
Here are five ways you can approach writing about a problem:
1. Stream of Consciousness
You might have come across stream of consciousness writing as “morning pages” (from Julia Cameron’s popular book The Artist’s Way). With morning pages, the idea is to write three full pages each morning, spilling out your thoughts — however mundane, however huge — onto the paper.
Even if you can’t commit to writing three pages every morning, this type of writing can still be hugely helpful. If you feel that you’re stuck in a rut, or if you’re struggling with stress, you can simply grab a notebook or open up a document and write about how you’re feeling. You don’t need to aim for any sort of deliberate structure — you’ll often find the writing process itself helps you move forward.
(One tip: You might find it helpful to capture key action items that come out of the process by highlighting them or by writing them out into your planner.)
2. Questions and Answers
Sometimes, stream of consciousness writing can seem intimidating or confusing. How do you decide what to write about? If you struggle with stream of consciousness, you might prefer to try out a “questions and answers” technique, where you select a set of existing questions and write out your answers.
An alternative approach is to write the questions yourself, either in advance or as a conversation between two parts of you. I like Mark Forster’s approach to the question-and-answer format in his book How to Make Your Dreams Come True, where he has conversations between his “present self” and his “future self.”
Some great sets of questions to try are:
101 Incredible Coaching Questions (Julia Stewardt, School of Coaching Mastery)
33 Powerful Self Coaching Questions To Ask Yourself For The Year Ahead (Ian Hutchinson, Life by Design)
36 Powerful Coaching Questions That Will Help Unstick You (Annette Earl, Finding Balance in a Stressful World)
If you don’t like writing much, or if you’re a slow writer, you might prefer to use a mindmap in order to do your thinking on paper. This can be a great way to get lots of ideas down quickly, as you don’t need to write much for each idea.
You might find it’s helpful to start your mindmap with a single word or phrase in the center that represents the main issue on your mind. This could be something like “finances” or “family” or “summer plans.”
Next, jot down all the ideas you can come up with — a word or two for each is fine — around the edges. You can draw lines to connect ideas, or have more ideas branch off core ones.
4. Plan (with Numbers)
Another approach, particularly if you’re working through a practical problem, is to write out a plan that involves numbers, dates, or times.
For instance, if you’re stressed because you’ve taken on lots of freelance work and you’re worried about meeting deadlines, a stream-of-consciousness style of writing might lead you to some solutions (e.g. “ask Julie if we can push back the deadline”). An actual plan, with time estimates, though, could give you a lot more clarity on your position. You may find that, written down, things aren’t really as bad as they feel.
5. Blog Post
While the above types of “problem solving” writing are intended for your eyes only, there’s nothing stopping you from working through a problem or issue in a way that’s intended for others to read.
I’ve been blogging for over 10 years. (As a freelance blogger, I’ve written for dozens of different sites.) The process of planning, researching, writing, and editing posts has helped me work through lots of different ideas and problems. By synthesising what I’ve learned into a form that someone else can read and learn from, I find myself inevitably getting more clarity about that issue myself.
Is there a particular struggle or problem on your mind today? Spend 10 minutes writing about it, using any of the techniques above that you like. If you don’t have 10 minutes, try five, or even two. You might be surprised how far you get with identifying, working through, and solving problems.
Nancy Seibel says
Ali, this is a great post. It’s informative, with useful resources and practical ideas for using writing to problem solve – even if you’re someone who doesn’t usually write. I’d say this even without the shout-out, but thanks! It’s an honor to be quoted here!