I've been experimenting with every self development tool and method I've come across for more than 15 years. And in all this time, the one tool that has stood out above all others has been writing.
As a way to gain clarity, solve problems, build self awareness, process difficult emotions and slay your inner demons, nothing beats writing.
Introspective Writing vs. Journaling
Writing is a powerful tool. And what you write with doesn't matter. Whether you prefer pen and paper or writing in Evernote or Notion or any other app doesn't matter. Use a typewriter, if that's what you prefer.
What does matter is what you write about.
All the benefits I'm talking about won't materialize the moment you sit down and write, no matter what. It's easily possible to spend a lot of time writing and get little to nothing out of it.
What I'm talking about here is not journaling (which can be great, but for different reasons). I like to call this specific approach to writing "Introspective Writing". It is writing with the specific aim to confront difficult issues you face, to gain a deeper understanding of yourself and to make better decisions.
What Does this Look Like in Practice?
Let's get a bit more practical. If you want to experience introspective writing, the best way to start is with writing prompts.
Here are the prompts we used for an introspective writing challenge in the ikario team:
Day in Your Life, 5 Years from Now
Describe a day in your life, 5 years from now, assuming that things go well for you.
This is about writing down an optimistic (but not unrealistic) vision for what you would like your future to look like.
Make this a positive, optimistic vision. Write about:
- What you want to spend your time doing.
- Where you live.
- Who you're spending time with.
- How you feel.
Write about it in practical terms, as a description of how you spend your day. Start with "I wake up in the morning..." and keep writing from this 1st person perspective.
At the same time, avoid writing things that are completely unrealistic. Yes, it would be very cool to be a billionare who live in a mansion on the moon, but that's not going to happen in the next 5 years. If you write about things that are too far out, it becomes an exercise in fiction writing rather than self development.
The purpose of this prompt is to create a clear vision of where you want your life to be headed. You may be surprised at some of the things you discover through this exercise. And it's useful to have such a vision to "aim yourself at", in your everyday life.
Process a Difficult Experience
Think about a memory that makes you cringe or makes you sad. Something in your past that you regret, for example. Then, process the experience with empathy and self forgiveness.
This one is a prompt with multiple steps. Here are some notes to get the most out of it:
- When you've chosen a memory or experience you want to process, start by writing out as objectively as possible, what happened. Include all the relevant details.
- Next, write down the story you tell yourself about this. This is the part that isn't objective - it is meaning you attach or interpretations you make. E.g. "I'm a terrible person because I did this" or "everyone there hated me because I said that".
- The next step is to forgive yourself. And forgive other people who may have been involved. This can be difficult to do. A good place to start is to literally write "I forgive myself" and even write it repeatedly.
- Finally, start questioning the story you've been telling yourself about this event. A good question to ask is "what else could be true?"
Conversation with an Older Version of Yourself
Imagine that you meet yourself, but from 10 years or more in the future. Have a dialogue with this older, more experienced version of yourself.
This might seem a bit strange at first, but it's worth trying. Simply imagine that you meet an older version of yourself and write out a dialogue. I recommend literally writing this out in dialogue format, like this:
Me: So, what's it like to be ancient?
Older me: Watch your manners, kid.
You can ask your older you for advice and guidance or just chat about whatever comes to mind.
The Principle of Introspective Writing
The above are just a couple of examples of writing exercises to get you started.
Introspective writing can work with writing prompts, but the real value comes from understanding the principle behind it.
And the principle is this: use writing to confront and dig into issues that you usually push away, try to ignore or simply put up with.
Everyone has fears and inhibitions. Everyone experiences conflict and tension in social interactions. Everyone has times when they feel down, overwhelmed and hopeless.
But most people don't have a way to work on these things.
We experience conflict with someone, we feel resentful and angry and we kind of just carry that around with us until it fades.
Through writing, you can process this and learn from it. You can examine what unfolded, explore why you felt hurt or angry or resentful and make a clear-headed decision about what to do next.
Writing, used in this way, becomes a light that you shine on the shadowy parts of your life.
Not every writing session is eye opening or leads to an immediate resolution of the problem you were writing about.
But make introspective writing a habit and you'll be amazed at how much of a difference it makes in your life.