8 Ways Journaling Can Help Simplify Your Thoughts

I know for sure that what we dwell on is who we become.

– Oprah Winfrey

Do you often end up thinking yourself in circles? Whenever something is bugging me, especially something that’s causing me worry, stress or anger, I end up thinking in an endless cycle. I think about what I should do, what I shouldn’t do, what drastic change should I make, and why I shouldn’t change anything or rock the boat. I argue in my head as I walk, and I do it so well that I end up frustrated and with no solution.

Or at least this is how it used to be for me (sometimes, it still is) but on good days, now I remember that I have a solution.

You need to get through the thinking process, there is no question of that. Unless you are a super-evolved person, who’s managed to control their stray thoughts, you need to move past the Fog of Confusion and make your way to clarity.

You could do this in your head, but that’s bound to make you more confused. You could try talking to someone else, but it might be a private issue, or your listener might get fed up, having to listen to the same thing over and over again. But there is a better, more effective way, and you don’t need anyone else to make use of it.

You can use your journal to make your way to clarity, and simplify your thought process.


  1. Make a list. At the top of the page, write your main problem in capital letters. Then, underneath it, make a list of everything related to that problem. Write fast, for at least 7-10 minutes. Don’t think about what you are writing. Don’t worry if you end up repeating things.
  2. Draw a mindmap. Even if you aren’t a visual person,  try this techniques. Use colourful pens. Make branches, and draw images. You don’t have to be an artist, you can draw stick figures. Just go with the flow, and let some creativity in, and see if you come up with anything different.
  3. Focus on feelings. Just for this exercise, forget about the facts. Journal about how this problem makes you feel. You are allowed to be as unreasonable as you like. You don’t have to justify anything, or prove anything. Just be honest with your feelings, and admit them on the page.
  4. Focus on the facts. Now, it’s time to be objective. Write down all cold, hard facts related to what’s troubling you. Be ruthless about focusing on facts. If you find your subjectivity creeping in, cross it off. Immediately.
  5. Free write. Don’t try to worry about a topic or anything. Just write what comes to your mind, and your brain will automatically focus on things that are troubling you. Let your subconscious take over.
  6. Focus on other people. Make a list of everyone you think will be affected by your decision. How will they be affected. These are the people who are influencing your decisions. Are you stuck because you are trying to please everyone, and make sure everyone is happy with it?
  7. Look to your past. Have you faced this particular problem before? How did you deal with it then? Did you make a choice, or did you just ride it out? How did that work out for you? What can you learn from the past to either do now what you did before, or do something different?
  8. Project yourself to the future. Write in your journal, as if you are writing one month, or six months, or two years from now. How do you think has your choices affected you? If there are several avenues you could go with, do this exercises from each of those choices point of view. What do you think your life would be like if you went down Road A, as oppose to Road B?
When you journal, and especially when you journal with a focus on particular aspect, you will break your thought pattern. You will come up with things that you either did not think of before, or had relegated to the back of your mind.


Pick the one issue that is troubling you the most right now, and try some of the above exercises. Try them all if you are up for a challenge, but at the very least, pick a handful that resonate with you, and you will end up with insightful results.




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31 thoughts on “8 Ways Journaling Can Help Simplify Your Thoughts

  1. Great list – I spend a lot of time in the “Focus on feelings” zone, since I am really good at not letting emotions get to me, I want to make sure I still have a safe way to express and work through them privately.

  2. Dolly,
    I love the variety of approaches you give to addressing something that is distressing you. There are so many perspectives to get a new view on a situation in our journals. And I love the visual aspect too, with the mind map. I think collage would make a great addition as well. :)

    I have chosen your post, 8 Ways Journaling Can Help Simplify Your Thoughts, for the #JournalChat Pick of the Day on 7/10/12 for all things journaling on Twitter; I will post a link on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, my blog and website Refresh with Dawn Herring, and in Refresh Journal, my weekly e-journal: http://tinyurl.com/bsycylk.

    #JournalChat Live is every Thursday, 5 EST/2 PST for all things journaling on Twitter; our topic this week is Your Journaling: Powerful Purpose.

    Thanks again for such a practical, varied perspective and approach to simplifying our thoughts. Love it!

    Be refreshed,
    Dawn Herring
    Host of #JournalChat Live and Links Edition on Twitter
    Author of The Birthday Wall: Create a Collage to Celebrate Your Child

  3. This gives a whole new purpose to a journal. These exercises would certainly lift the fog and encourage some real introspection. I would be tempted to do all the exercises, but I like your point about doing a few that resonate. I think I’m off to go make a journal entry right now!

  4. I journal each morning to unclutter my thoughts. I usually free write or occasionally follow a writing prompt. I look forward to trying a few more ways to journal.

  5. Love it, Dolly!

    Journaling is such a great way to downplay a situation and find an effective solution to a problem – one that is in alignment with our inner guidance.

    I very often recommend this self-helping activity to my clients and friends.

    As of writing, I realize I’ve been troubling myself with a difficulty for a couple of days. Now is the time to walk my talk, get that journal, and write!

    Love and blessings,

  6. Hi Dolly,

    Is mind-mapping a form of journaling in your book (pun intended)? I guess it’s a thought exercise and journaling, to me, is a thought exercise too.

    But the approach to mind-mapping and the output from it feels really different than journaling. I just wanted to ask your expert opinion on this.

  7. No! I refuse to listen! I enjoy stress, anger, brain fog, and headaches!


    I don’t think there’s anything that needs simplifying in my brain, although I’m sure that there actually is, and I just can’t recognize it.

  8. Lori,

    It’s a good skill to have, not to let emotions get to you. Especially negative emotions. But you are right. You still need to express them, otherwise you end up repressing them, which would only result in a big blow-up eventually!

  9. Rosie,

    You can always give them all a try, and then continue with the ones that resonate with you the most.

    Often, it works out that at different times you would want to use different types. There are no rules, so experiment, mix and match, and create your own style :-)

  10. Priska,

    Journaling is an excellent way to clear mental clutter. Morning journaling certainly puts things into perspective at the beginning of the day. Enjoy new journaling experiments!

  11. Joel,

    Everything is a form of journaling in my book. Journaling, to repeat what I’ve written here multiple times, is an extension of my personality, and a part of my life. So that includes narrative journaling, free form, mind mapping, goal setting, doodling, lists, and whatever else comes to mind.

    Journaling is a thought exercise – but it’s not just about thinking things. It is also about getting results from it.

    To define for myself, whatever I do in my journal, is journaling. So for example, a mind-map I draw in my journal is journaling. A mind-map I create on my laptop, is not. But that’s just me. And journaling is nothing if not personal.

  12. Amit,

    As you are clever guy trying to find life’s answer for happiness, I can say with confidence that from time to time, you do have thoughts that need simplifying. All people do.

    Do you ever think yourself in circles? Do you doubt yourself against all logic? Do you ever reconsider a decision that you spent ages making?

    Simplifying could be defined in two different ways. One is the zen like way, where one trains one’s mind to shed unnecessary, unproductive thoughts. (I think very few people get to this). The other is to deal with all those thoughts and come out the other end with an increased awareness, learning experience, and clarity.

  13. I never considered using journaling as a tool to solve problems, I usually try to meditate to find the solutions to my dilemmas. I think I have to be more adventurous with using my journal.

  14. I love the variety in the exercises you’ve suggested here, Dolly. You have really opened my eyes to how amazing journalling can be,

    Thank you

  15. Such wonderful ideas Dolly! Making lists and mindmapping are among my personal journaling favorites. Projecting into the future, I have to try that!
    I hope you are having a wonderful summer…journal on!

  16. Yes, yes, yes!

    As for the thinking in circles — I’ve been guilty. One of my worst “stopping points” is “I should have said . . .”

  17. Thanks a lot(!!!) for putting up my requested post!

    As to your ways to write, I really like the way you put it all out there, and did not just the out-of-the-box thing, but also the box from every perspective.

    Also, this is sort of a weird thing I do sometimes, but is listening to sad songs or something along the lines. It’s an easy way to calm myself, plus if I listen to the lyrics and watch the video, I can see how different people react differently to situations and how I am reacting. For me, I don’t care what ethnicity, what religion, any of that stuff, I just focus on the person and their feelings and how they affect how I’m acting.

    I listen to a LOT of Bollywood music, and I love listening to music by A.R. Rehman, or older songs like O Saathi Re, Do Lafzon Ki Hai, Tere Bina Jiya Jaye Na, and more. I find that ANY culture has sad or meaningful songs that really help to see the situation in a broader perspective.

    Ok, that’s enough talking(;D), but I really like this post and I will be sure to try all of these!

  18. ” One is the zen like way, where one trains one’s mind to shed unnecessary, unproductive thoughts.” Can you do that!?

  19. Ciara,

    Journaling definitely can be a practical tool for problem solving. Yes, I heartily encourage you to be an adventurous journal keeper :-)

  20. Claire,

    Glad you found it useful. I like coming up with new techniques and methods for journaling, as you never know what ends up being productive.

  21. Yvonne,

    Thinking in circles is a nightmare for most people!

    For me, it’s more likely to be opposite, as I do speak before I think :-))

  22. Amit,

    No I’m nowhere near it. It’s a works-in-progress, and from time to time I succeed. With my tendency to keep thinking, I doubt I would ever achieve actual zen like state or even quite meditation state. But the awareness helps, and from time to time, control can be acquired.

  23. Jan,

    Glad you found it useful. It’s amazing how many different things work for different people with journaling. I rarely journal to music, but usually I don’t have any specific requirement for journaling. Happens any time, and at all times :)

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