Journaling With Powerful Questions

I never cease to be surprised by the raw power of journaling.

The first thing I do every morning (after starting coffee) is to open my journal and start writing. This is best done when I am not thoroughly awake and still hovering in a dream state — a portal to potential revelations.

The process is absurdly simple: Open a plain text file. Add the current date. Dump whatever’s on my mind.

That’s it. Often I’m surprised by what comes through my fingers as I type.

Journaling in three dimensions

Lately I’m learning from Derek Sivers, founder of CD Baby, author, and speaker. He keeps a daily diary that documents what he’s doing and how he’s feeling.

In a separate journal, he collects his evolving thoughts on a variety of topics that interest him. In addition, Derek engages in Socratic dialogue by posing questions that prompt him to see things from a variety of perspectives.

I like this system a lot. I call it journaling in three dimensions — documenting what you’re doing, feeling, and thinking.

I’d like to build on Derek’s suggestions with two questions that can prompt life-changing insights.

How did I create this?

Whenever something breaks down in my life, I ask a bizarre and useful question: How did I create this?

Of course, part of me rebels against this question. I’d rather blame the breakdown on something or someone else. If I miss a deadline, for example, I’d rather blame it on the client, a technical glitch, the weather, an act of God — anything other than my own behavior.

Yet when I break through this resistance and tell the truth, I often discover a way to change my behavior and create new outcomes. Some ways that I can create a missed deadline are:

  • Agreeing to a deadline that was unrealistic
  • Neglecting to negotiate a new deadline
  • Taking on too much work in the first place

How did I create this? does not suggest that I bear total responsibility for every breakdown in my life. Sometimes they do result from factors I don’t control.

But life is messy, and many factors conspire to create any situation. How did I create this? prompts me to look for the factors that relate to me. Armed with this question, I can live the Serenity Prayer.

What does this experience make possible?

I got this from Michael Hyatt, who wrote about the experience of breaking his ankle after slipping on a set of stairs in his house. This accident forced him to take 10 days off work shortly after he was named president of Thomas Nelson, a major book publisher.

His first reaction to was to ask disempowering questions such as:

  • Why am I so clumsy?
  • Why does this have to happen now?
  • What did I do to deserve this?

Eventually he asked a better question, one that oriented him to the present and future rather than the past: What does this experience make possible?

And he discovered plenty of answers. Besides gaining time to catch up on sleep, Michael used his down time to set up a new blog and start posting — a side project that turned into a new career.

Something like this happened to me after getting diagnosed with prostate cancer. My first reaction was: Why me? But eventually possibilities opened up.

My diagnosis became a reset button for my life — an incentive to savor the present moment, celebrate what I have, and change my behavior in ways to prevent this cancer from spreading.

Links for learning more

There’s are so many good ideas for upgrading our questions.

Start with this list of journal prompts — questions to promote self-discovery.

Also see Josh Kaufman’s 49 Questions to Improve Your Results and How to Ask Useful Questions.

David Allen, creator of the Getting Things Done method, offers a list of questions for doing an annual review.

We can take this practice to deep levels. For example, there’s Naikan, a structured method of reflection developed by Yoshimoto Ishin. It’s based on three questions:

  • What have I received from others?
  • What have I given to others?
  • What difficulties have I caused others?

Yoshimoto described Naikan as developing “a thankful heart in order to prepare for death.”

Byron Katie, author of Loving What Is and other books, developed a method for releasing any thought that creates suffering. It’s based on four questions:

  • Is it true?
  • Can you absolutely know that it’s true?
  • How do you react when you believe that thought?
  • And, who would you be without that thought?

I like this one, too: What soothes you?

May you be blessed with a lifetime of liberating questions.