Journaling Techniques to Master Balance and Grow Faster

Using the paradigm of the four elements, I learned how to use specific journal techniques to re-balance my life.

Sílvia Bastos
Feb 5 · 18 min read
All images by the author.

Balance is one of the most sought-after states to achieve—and one of the hardest. You might finally break through laziness into a phase of high productivity, only to take it too far and tip into burnout. You strive to become a better listener and spend more time with friends, but end up neglecting yourself.

When a friend introduced me to a new paradigm of balance based on the four elements, I immediately saw its value as a tool to help me evaluate what was off-kilter in my life, and what I could do to get my equilibrium back.

I grabbed this concept and started developing it as I experienced it in my daily life and experimented with it. Ultimately, I needed more than just recognizing what was out of balance. What I came up with was a way to integrate this new paradigm into my journaling habit. In this article, I’ll show you how to do that, too, with specific exercises you can add to any journaling system you might use.

Balance as a System
Fire: Power, Action
Water: Emotions, Subconscious
Earth: Structure, Grounding
Air: Wisdom, Consciousness
Creating a Keystone HabitJournaling Practices For Daily Balance, Resilience and GrowthFire: Power, Action
1. Set Goals
2. Affirmations
3. Celebration
Water: Emotions/Subconscious
1. Dream journaling
2. Evening questions
Earth: Grounding/Structure
1. Planning and High Impact Actions
2. Habit Tracking
Air: Wisdom/Intellect
1. 30-Second Lessons
2. Morning Pages
Balance Is a Verb, Not a Noun

Balance as a System

It’s relatively easy to get momentary balance by making some quick adjustments. But takes regular effort to maintain it.

It’s like making a lot of effort to push a really heavy ball up a tall hill, only to let it fall to the other side once you get there.

You try to push the ball up the hill, and life always seems to bring it back down.

Instead of thinking of balance as a single point at the top of a hill, I learned to think of it as an interactive system.

A while ago, a friend of mine showed me an image that changed everything:

She told me this quadrant is called ‘the medicine wheel’, a system used by indigenous tribes for centuries for guidance and prayer. She explained to me how each quadrant corresponds to one of the four elements, which in turn correspond to specific qualities of life:

  • Fire → action
  • Water → emotions
  • Earth → structure
  • Air → wisdom

My friend wasn’t sure about the accuracy of her explanation as to the origins of this quadrant system. In truth, this idea transverse many cultures: some call it elements, others geographic coordinates, others seasons, or colors, or planets. But what was important to me was how she said to use it:

“When you feel out of balance, check which quadrant is in excess. Then, do an activity that tips the wheel to the one diagonally inverse.”

That was the birth of a new ‘balance’ paradigm for me. If I thought of my energy or mood as it related to the four quadrants of the wheel, I could understand how to rebalance by moving it towards the center. The quadrants are directly interconnected and diagonally complimentary, and I can move between them by consciously choosing my actions.

Here is my current wheel, and how I define each quadrant:

Here is how I experience each of the four and the activities that bring me closer towards each quadrant:

Fire: Power, Action

When in balance, I feel productive, energetic, in control, highly motivated; a “high-vibe” state.

When this quadrant is in excess, I feel exhaustion, burnout, agitation. I might feel pressure to overachieve—a sort of addiction to action.

Activities that intensify this quadrant include:

  • physical exercise (especially yoga, running, and dancing),
  • watching motivational videos,
  • lying in the sun,
  • breathing exercises.

Water: Emotions, Subconscious

When things are in balance, I feel inspired, connected to my own emotions, and connected in my relationships and community. I feel creative!

If this quadrant is in excess, I feel overwhelmed by my emotions. I may feel incapable of thinking logically—brain fog. I become overly emotional: angry, anxious, sad, crying, etc.

Activities that increase the energy or weight of this quadrant include:

  • sharing my feelings with loved ones/being vulnerable;
  • creative activities such as writing, drawing, etc.;
  • observing my emotions in meditation;
  • doing acts of kindness towards other people.

Earth: Structure, Grounding

If my earth quadrant is balanced with the others, I feel safe and stable; organized and comfortable in a good way. I feel in tune with my environment and the world around me.

But if this is in excess, I feel lazy, stuck, lethargic—frustrated and powerless.

Activities that give me more sense of structure and grounding are:

  • Planning;
  • Organizing and cleaning my space and things;
  • All kinds of rest;
  • Conscious self-care activities.

Air: Wisdom, Consciousness

When this quadrant is in balance with other elements, I feel extreme clarity and direction; I become a quick learner, and I feel a connection to God/higher-self.

If this is in excess, I am prone to overthinking and being stuck inside my own head; I have difficulty in tuning in to my emotions and become overly pessimistic.

Activities that can pull me towards this quadrant are:

  • reading good quality content,
  • going for long walks on my own,
  • spending time in open spaces,
  • writing/processing my thoughts and ideas.

The more I applied this paradigm to my experience — especially when I felt out of balance — the more sense it made, and the easier it became to know how to return to balance.

However, doing those activities as a momentary fix is not always practical. Sometimes I feel too tired to go for a run. Other times, none of my friends are available to listen to me when I feel emotional.

Also, I wanted more than a solution to “fix” my lack of balance. After all, getting the ball to the top of the hill is easy, right?

What I wanted was to make sure that the ball stayed on top for longer. If possible, I wanted that balance to become my everyday status quo.

Creating a Keystone Habit

Charles Duhigg’s book, The Power of Habit, defines a keystone habit as one that serves as a trigger for a lot of other habits to form on top of it.

Imagine someone starts meditating every day. Suddenly, they feel less angry, and their relationships improve. They also feel more in tune with their body, so they stop overeating, and they quit smoking. They begin to feel the need to exercise, and suddenly their whole routine has changed — just because of one habit.

I figured that I could apply the same principle to reaching and maintaining balance as a daily routine.

Journaling turns out to be a perfect vehicle for achieving and maintaining balance because:

  • It’s something that I already do every day—I don’t feel resistance in adding it to my routine.
  • It’s flexible and customizable—as you’ll see below, there are multiple ways to address each of the four quadrants through journaling.
  • It functions as a keystone habit — it brings balance to my awareness every day, supporting other habits and expand it to other areas and activities.

Journaling Practices For Daily Balance, Resilience and Growth

Ever since I adapted my daily journaling routine to fit my new paradigm, and included in it short but effective practices that bring my awareness to each quadrant of the wheel every day, immediate changes started happening in my life.

The practices I mention below are probably not new to you, but what makes them powerful is that you can combine them to cultivate optimal balance, awareness, and resilience.

Every day, I include at least one practice within each of these categories in my journaling routine. You can choose one or more — or add your own if you feel it contributes to your own idea of balance.

Fire: Power, Action

If we want to grow and evolve, we need… well, to take action. In order to do that, we need motivation, purpose, and energy. That’s what the practices in this section are all about.

1. Set Goals

“If you want to be happy, set a goal that commands your thoughts, liberates your energy, and inspires your hopes.” — Andrew Carnegie

One of the things that will keep you the most motivated to move into action is to know that you are acting with a purpose, with an objective in mind.

Here’s an exercise to help you get that:

  1. Think about 3 or 4 main different areas in your life (mine are Self, Relationships, and Work);
  2. Choose one goal you would like to achieve for each of them in the next 3 months (such as exercise 4 days a week, improve your sex life with a partner, or get promoted);
  3. Write them down on a page of your journal.

Then, every day in the morning, take a moment to look at your goals and write something about each one. Write about how it feels to read over them, ideas you have to help you get there, the reasons behind choosing those goals, and what motivates you about each one.

You might discover that you’re not happy with your current goals. Write about that also; you can also use this time to revise them.

2. Affirmations

“If you don’t know where you’re going, you’ll end up someplace else.” ―Yogi Berra

According to Stephen Covey, affirmations can be an extremely powerful tool if they meet the following criteria:

  1. They are personal,
  2. They are positive,
  3. They are present tense,
  4. They are visual,
  5. They are emotional.

Every day in the morning, I write down an affirmation that is either directly related to:

  1. My goals and tasks (example: if I want to write 3000 words that day, I might write “I am an inspired, brilliant, effective writer”), or
  2. Something relevant that I feel that day (example: if I wake up feeling anxious, I might tell myself “I have absolute power to change my current circumstances”).

After I write it down, I let it sink in and power me for the day. I usually try to keep it in mind throughout the day.

This works really well not only to keep me motivated, but also to build trust in myself, and therefore act according to my own expectations. (Writing and repeating the right affirmation while listening to psytrance before I start my daily writing usually gives me more stamina than a cup of espresso — all the words you read so far in this article were written in one sitting.

3. Celebration

Have you ever noticed that when you look at yourself in the mirror and you really like the way your body looks, you feel much more motivated to work out that day?

According to Dan Sullivan, a lot of entrepreneurs fail because they have the habit of focusing on the gap between where they are and where they want to be, instead of focusing on the gap between where they started and where they are now.

Acknowledging where you are and what you already have can be some of the most powerful ways to give yourself a strong boost of motivation.

Sullivan says that in order to stop focusing on the wrong, we should write down the 3 major wins of the day, every single day. Since I started doing this at the end of every day and reading it in the morning, I realized that I am actually much better than that crappy anxiety I was feeling before—I can’t wait to move on with my day and become even better.

Another great way to celebrate what you have right now is to practice gratitude. Every morning, write down a few things you currently feel grateful for. Seriously, gratitude has some amazing benefits that might surprise you, such as improving your physiological functioning, increasing goal achievement, and reducing materialism.

Water: Emotions/Subconscious

A lot of what blocks us from achieving our full potential is our inability to manage our feelings and our reactions to emotional trauma from the past. This creates disconnection from ourselves and in our relationships.

One of the ways to access our emotions — as well as boost our creativity — is by tapping into our subconscious mind. These exercises are about doing that.

1. Dream journaling

“Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate.”
C.G. Jung

When we dream, our subconscious mind is in control. Therefore, dreams are a great opportunity to learn about stuff that our conscious brain suppresses when we are awake.

Ever since I started writing down my dreams in the morning, I have gained more understanding of my emotions.

For example, I often wake up feeling very anxious, and I never knew why. When I started paying attention to my dreams, I noticed that they often reflect stressful events from the past few days (a fight with a family member, my need to be appreciated by someone, a health issue I wasn’t even consciously aware of).

As soon as I write those down, followed by some reflection, I am able to put them in perspective and not let them negatively affect the rest of my day.

Dreams are also a great source to get creative insights. Salvador Dali used to take a nap with a heavy object in his hand so that as soon as he entered REM sleep, he would drop it and wake up with a vivid dreamscape in his mind that would give him inspiration for his art.

Mendeleev’s discovery of the periodic table, Descarte’s road to the scientific method, and James Cameron’s ideas for The Terminator are said to have been inspired by dreams.

In the past, I have used my dreams for creative purposes, but instead of waking myself up like Dali, I just write them down.

How to keep a dream journal:

  • Every day, first thing after you wake up, write down everything you remember from your dreams.
  • Don’t worry if you can’t remember anything at first. The more you practice and reinforce the intention to remember, the more your dream recall will improve.
  • Eventually, you will start remembering a lot of details. If you don’t have time to write it all down, just take note of the main point and focus on the feelings you felt during the dream.

2. Evening questions

“Never go to sleep without a request to your subconscious.” — Thomas Edison

Every night before going to bed, ask yourself an important question or make a request to your subconscious.

It can be related to a current problem you are facing (example: “Why have I been feeling so angry lately?”), or to a goal that you want to achieve (example: “Tomorrow I want to wake up full of energy and motivation.”)

Doing this will allow your subconscious to process your intention during the night, increasing your chances to actually come up with an answer or to act upon your request the next day.

This technique has often allowed me to wake up with creative insights after days of writer’s block. One night I created such a strong request to connect with my subconscious that it ended up showing itself in a lucid dream as a wise old woman who answered a lot of my existential questions.

Earth: Grounding/Structure

“Rest is not work’s adversary. Rest is work’s partner. They complement and complete each other.” —Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, author of ‘Rest—Why You Get More Done When You Work Less’

When we think of personal growth, we tend to think about productivity and action, but we often forget about its counterparts: our need for rest, for structure, and for organization.

The following practices are all about creating structures that will give us the stability we need in order to be more spontaneous and to take more effective action.

1. Planning and High Impact Actions

This is where you transform your bigger goals into bite-size actionable steps.

In this article, Rafael Sarandeses explains that goals should be broken down into High Impact Actions (HIA), which are actions that are predictive of our goals and 100% within our control.

An example: if your goal is to lose 5lbs (not totally under your control), one HIA would be to run every day for 30 minutes (completely under your control, and directly impacting your goal).

Think about the goals you defined, and come up with at least one HIA for each.

Every night, review the HIA that you have planned for the next day, so that you wake up the next day feeling clear on what do do, therefore removing stress before you go to sleep.

This is not only applicable to HIA and goals, but also to everyday tasks that you need to get done, such as visiting the doctor, paying the bills, replying to emails, etc.

Tim Ferriss recommends that your to-do lists shouldn’t have more than a few items, ideally fitting in one small piece of paper, so that you don’t feel overwhelmed and frustrated for underachieving.

Keep your to-do lists short.

Other ways to organize your tasks and HIAs include connecting them to different fields of your life, placing them on your calendar, estimating how long it will take you to do them, prioritizing, etc.

Since I started planning things in advance and prioritizing tasks, I have considerably increased my productivity and focus, and I got significantly better at managing my time (I no longer over-schedule my days, so I feel more accomplished seeing that I can almost always complete all my tasks). This has given me a huge feeling of safety and peace, as well as increased trust in myself.

2. Habit Tracking

“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” —Will Durant

“You can’t manage what you can’t measure.” —Peter Drucker

Arguably, the only way to truly improve ourselves is to cultivate the daily habits that will lead us there.

One of the best tools to eliminate bad habits and create new healthy habits is by tracking them.

Habit tracking not only gives you clarity over the progress you have made so far, but it also shows you the areas on which you should work next.

If you’re new to habit tracking, I recommend starting simple. Minimalist Journaling, developed by Michal Korzonek, is a great tool to track only the essentials while making the process effortless and fun:

  • take a look at your goals (to make it easy, start with one for each area of your life);
  • create daily/weekly habits (some will be High Impact Actions) that will contribute to each of them;
  • create a spread in your journal and fill it with squares, with each square corresponding to one day of your life;
  • choose a symbol for each habit;
  • every day, check if you did that habit and if so — mark the square with the corresponding symbol.
This is what my habit trackers look like recently.

You can track your habits in any way you want, but I personally like this one as it lets me see over 60 days in one glance, and its simplicity allows me to very easily scan for the info I’m looking for.

Ever since I started tracking my habits, I have:

  • felt greater self-esteem;
  • improved my memory and processing power by using the trackers as a visual aid;
  • radically improved my consistency in building new habits: I quit coffee, started meditating for 45 minutes and writing at least 1000 words every single day, and built a consistent weekly workout routine, among many others.

Air: Wisdom/Intellect

In order for our actions to have real impact, we need to act from a place of wisdom. These tools will help you formulate clear, intelligent thoughts, as well as consolidate knowledge for accelerated learning.

1. 30-Second Lessons

For a long time, whenever I learned something new, I struggled with knowing how to take note of the lessons and organize them in my head so that I would retain the information. I often felt put off from reading non-fiction just because I felt the resistance to take notes all the time.

Then I read this article, where the author shares the best piece of advice she ever got in her life:

“Immediately after every lecture, meeting, or any significant experience, take 30 seconds — no more, no less — to write down the most important points. If you always do just this, said his grandfather, and even if you only do this, with no other revision, you will be okay.”

Now, instead of pushing myself to take note of every single insight while reading a book, I take 30 seconds to write down the main points covered after each reading session.

This changed completely my ability to organize the information, and since then I have been able to retain the most important information, instead of cluttering my head with useless facts.

Research shows that writing things down helps you retain information. If you combine that with practicing your summarizing skills by taking only 30 seconds, you will train your brain to learn faster and to focus on the crucial things only.

I started doing this after events, important meetings, and at the end of every day as a reflection exercise. The results? My ideas for writing are endless. My mind became much more malleable and flexible, and the very way that I juggle and build concepts has deepened a lot.

Even if you don’t change anything else in your note-taking/knowledge consolidation, do this. This single practice will revolutionize the way you learn. I incorporated it into a 2-page spread:

Every week, I prepare a spread for the next 7 days where I include a big part of my journaling practices (source)

2. Morning Pages

The method developed by Julia Cameron has been one of the most life-transforming journaling practices for me.

How to do it? It couldn’t be simpler: in the morning (first thing or after dream journaling), open your journal and commit to filling up 3 pages with whatever comes to your mind: how you feel, what you want to achieve that day, things you remember, things you’re worried about, etc.

A while ago I noticed that I was out of balance, consistently missing the “Air: Wisdom/Intellect quadrant”; I lacked clarity, my brain was foggy, and I struggled to think.

Creating time in the morning for morning pages was a game changer.

Research shows that the moments after we wake up are the time of the day when our brain is the most active and creative; therefore, it’s much more likely that we will get our best ideas then.

Since I started doing this, I started coming up with realizations that never even crossed my mind before (such as the next steps to take in my business, how to improve my relationships, making connections between apparently disconnected things in my life, etc.)

So every morning, even if you only have 5 minutes, open your journal and let your thoughts flow onto the page. If you don’t know what to write about, write down a question or a prompt the previous day and answer that when you wake up.

Balance Is a Verb, Not a Noun

“Life is like riding a bicycle. To keep your balance, you must keep moving.”

—Albert Einstein

In this article, I showed you the journaling routines that have worked the best for me for the purpose of reaching a sustained state of balance every day.

This doesn’t mean that there aren’t hundreds of other ones out there that might be equally good or even better for you. For example, I have been excited about trying interstitial journaling for a while, but never got to it, so I didn’t mention it above, but it could be a way to give you structure and grounding if you feel lacking in the earth quadrant.

Secondly, I want to bring your attention back to the fact that this four-dimensional paradigm can — and should — be about so much more than journaling. These journaling practices work as the first domino piece, a compass to guide you as you begin the process of bringing more balance into your everyday life, activities, relationships, decisions, routines.

That’s what happened to me. After I gave attention to balancing via my journaling practice, I started craving a more balanced mix of other activities in my daily life.

Nowadays, if I spend a whole day indoors, I will know that I need to go outside. If I don’t move my body for a few hours, I will know that I need to dance or run. After a full day at work, I crave a long walk, a meditation, or time spent with friends. When I feel stuck inside my own head, I know intuitively that the key is to paint, or draw, or have a cold shower. Coming back to balance has become an automated behavior — intuitive, effortless and obvious.

Like any good keystone habit, paying attention to balance and choosing journaling techniques to foster it has created a greater sense of balance in my life in general.

Also, I want to point out that what I mean by balance is not feeling happy all the time, or making all problems go away forever.

What I mean is that this practice gives me a sort of head-start on things that do come up. Problems and ugly emotions still surface, but balance becomes my default state, the one that I always come back to at the end — or beginning — of the day.

And the point is not to remain in balance forever, but to make the periods of balance longer and longer every time. It’s like with meditation: your mind will always wander, but the more that you practice, the quicker you become at bringing your attention back to the breath, and the longer you manage to remain there.

I would love to hear about your own journaling practice, and if you feel that the tools you use fit within these four quadrants.

Actually, I would love to know your current strategies to bring balance into your everyday life, to grow, to live life fully.

Whether you wish to apply the tools in this article to your life or not, remember that the most important part of living a balanced life is to accept that you will inevitably fall for the extremes once in a while.

And it’s not the fall that matters, but how long it takes you to stand up again.

Better Humans

Better Humans is a collection of the world's most trustworthy writing on human potential and self improvement by coaches, academics, and aggressive self-experimenters. Articles are based on deep personal experience, science, and research. No fluff, book reports, or listicles.

Sílvia Bastos

Written by

Journaling my way to happiness. I’ll show you how here:

Better Humans

Better Humans is a collection of the world's most trustworthy writing on human potential and self improvement by coaches, academics, and aggressive self-experimenters. Articles are based on deep personal experience, science, and research. No fluff, book reports, or listicles.

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