“We do not learn from experience. We learn from reflecting on experience.” — John Dewey, philosopher and psychologist
For leaders and high performers stepping up into more senior roles, it takes some time to learn and think about what translates into early success for them and their organisation.
A newly promoted middle manager, for example, may feel sandwiched by the pressure from senior management to meet unrealistic expectations but at the same time, find themselves struggling to keep their team motivated and engaged.
While these challenges are sometimes unavoidable, what we can do is control how we react to situations like these—both now and in the future—when we reflect on what we did. And journaling can be a powerful tool to do so.
What happens when we journal?
From people like Barack Obama to Oprah Winfrey, Leonardo da Vinci to Albert Einstein, what they all had in common was that they kept a journal. They’d religiously pen down their day-to-day thoughts and reflections, which allowed them to develop their self-awareness, combine ideas and find new ways of thinking.
We learn and gain insights about ourselves when we write down our thoughts and experiences. Journaling then becomes a window into how we could have better responded to people and situations. It can also reveal hidden biases in our thinking. Hindsight, as they say, is 20-20.
But journaling also does good for our foresight when we chronicle our ideas and potential solutions in our journal. When we encounter similar situations in the future, we’re better prepared.
Lastly, journaling also presents good news for both our mental and physical health, as recent studies suggest that not only does journaling reduce stress and anxiety, it also boosts our immune system—who knew!
Yet with many benefits for leadership, why don’t many of us keep a journal? Well, according to Harvard Business Review, some reasons include:
- Journaling takes time, a precious resource for the busy manager.
- Some leaders are just inexperienced with reflecting well or don’t enjoy it very much.
- While we want immediate results from any leadership tool, it takes some trial and error to find a journaling style or method that works for each of us.
However, these are minor drawbacks that can be easily overcome.
We can kickstart our leadership journaling practices by asking ourselves some reflective questions every day.
Whether you’re having a coffee break or winding down at the end of the day, block out some time to pen down your thoughts around these questions:
- “What did I learn today?”
- “What significant event stood out?”
- “What were three things I did well today?”
- “What was one thing I could have done better?”
The best part is you can spend as little as 3 minutes or as much as 30 minutes to reflect on these questions.
Apart from that, there are many other journaling formats and prompts you can experiment with. Sticking to those that truly inspire you or challenge your thinking will make journaling more enjoyable and worth it.
And if starting and maintaining a journal still sounds like it needs a lot of willpower from you, try using the “paper clip strategy” from James Clear, author of Atomic Habits. It’s a helpful framework to make journaling a routine habit.
Writing Your Future Self
As Jennifer Williamson, former attorney and politician once pointed out: “Journal writing, when it becomes a ritual for transformation, is not only life-changing but life-expanding.”
Use your journal to make new discoveries about yourself, identify your strengths and work on your shortcomings. Journaling is one of the most effective and cheapest leadership development tools at our disposal.
When we journal, we’re not just writing about our past, but also who we’ll become.