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How Journaling Puts Leadership in Action

Key Takeaways

  • Having a good purpose, your personal “why,” is key to making and keeping journaling a habit. It may change over time.
  • The science behind journaling includes research on psychological flexibility and involves modern leadership competencies such as awareness, prioritization, mindfulness, and clarity.
  • There is no one-size-fits-all journaling, yet you can benefit from other people’s experiences. They can serve as inspiration for you to experiment with in your writing practice.
  • If journaling feels like a burden, use this as a helpful nudge to take some time to inspect, appreciate, and adapt your reflective practice.
  • Intentional friction as well as visualizing your thoughts and feelings might appear scary at first—yet intentionality, self-reflection, and emotional intelligence are capabilities we dearly need, especially in today’s business leaders.

Have you ever wondered how keeping a journal (or a diary) and business-related topics go together? Maybe you have already tried some journaling since Ryder Carroll’s book The Bullet Journal Method seems to have caused some hype. 

This article can help you get started with journaling, I am glad you found your way here. Welcome! I’ll share with you my own vast experience with different journaling variants and techniques, as well as some science and meta-level views. 

After reading this, I expect you will find that you are already doing it (regular, structured writing for the sake of reflection and learning), or you are keen to explore your very individual path and giving journaling a try.

How journaling works, and what purpose it serves

First, you might wonder: do I really need to write daily? “Diary” and “journal” somehow imply that. Relax! You don’t need to, but of course, you may.

From my experience with clients as well as my own, I advise you to:

  • Write regularly, i.e., roughly five out of seven days a week
  • Start small, e.g., start with three minutes in the morning and three minutes at the end of the day (instead of a 10-15 minute block every single day)

The second thing people often ask me is, do I really need to physically write on paper? Can I use a keyboard? Sure you can, yet you get the full benefits when writing manually. Manual writing can be on paper, or with a pen on a tablet using a notepad app.

Overall the regular practice of manual writing on paper leads to an uncommon but healthy friction. It’s this intended friction that helps us to slow our usual speedy and busy lives for a small period. This small period is your space to reflect on the experiences you are making daily; reflecting on your thoughts and emotions, learning, and gaining new and deeper insights.

After we clarified that writing manually on paper is the most effective option, I sometimes then hear the concern that there are many (pre-printed) journals and options out there, so what should I choose?

Basically, there are three variants to choose from: 

  1. Semi-structured (pre-printed) books
  2. Guided freestyle journaling methods (e.g., Bullet Journaling)
  3. Freestyle journaling practices

Semi-structured journaling usually caters to an easier start for journaling newbies. Such a book’s purpose and framing usually are pretty clear, so a semi-structured journal doesn’t need so much of your precious mental capacity in the phase where you are establishing your writing habit. Also, these pre-print books offer you some variety.

Guided freestyle journaling is my term for “using a blank book with some lightweight structure.” This could be your very own structure or e.g., Bullet Journaling. Guided freestyle journaling is way more flexible than using a pre-print book. So if flexibility is more valuable to you than saving mental capacity, then this would be the one to try first. It’s also great for people who are advanced in journaling as they can always evolve their practice further and adapt it directly within the next blank page.

Full freestyle journaling means that you use a plain blank book that serves you for writing whatever is on your mind daily or using various occasional reflective writing exercises (e.g., the best-possible self-exercise or writing so-called morning pages). Full freestyle is usually for more advanced writers who have already been on the written self-reflection practice path for some time. In other words, I recommend it for people who already have made journaling a habit.

If you would like to know more and get links to concrete options, read my description of three different variants of journaling.

As a purpose, “reflecting and learning” sounds nice and is pretty accurate, of course. Yet more practical purpose susually make creating your new habit easier. Every individual has their own “why” when they start journaling, even if it’s just curiosity. Also, everyone I have met who keeps their journaling practice going has an evolving purpose. 

Here are some common “whys” people start with when journaling:

  • Some journal to get organized; some to get even better organized.
  • Building new habits is also a great motivator to start. This could range from living a healthier life by cooking fresh food, doing sports, building new habits that benefit your business life, e.g., evolve into a new responsibility or role. 
  • Getting rid of old habits that were once useful but don’t serve you well anymore is another very common “why.” Getting rid of or changing habits you acquired often over long periods in your business/life is a tough nut to crack. Examples could range from long-time seasoned managers wanting to give their teams and people more space to tech folks who consider themselves “bad at communication” but need communication skills, e.g., for mentoring junior developers or for collaborating with customers. Both of these groups, managers and developers alike, often start with journaling to mainly reflect on their communication abilities (e.g., listening skills and asking powerful questions) and celebrate the small, important first steps of raised self-awareness about their current communication styles; all change starts with and is fueled by awareness.
  • Last on this list is “debugging” difficult situations, e.g., conflicts with other people that keep on re-occurring. A book of blank paper, like a freestyle journal, is then a pretty safe space to start reflecting and debugging one’s mind. Often people tell me that this bar is lower than asking a professional coach or mediator for support.

The science behind journaling

One could easily write a whole separate article on just the science that is involved in the journaling process and practice. For this article, I’ll only briefly focus on three main areas that are relevant for every one of us as human beings:

  • Training the mind 
  • Self-efficacy 
  • Willpower

Journaling is useful to train our minds, especially to tame our “monkey-minds” as mindfulness practitioners like to call the mind when it wanders around past experiences or future thoughts. By deliberately slowing ourselves down regularly for manual writing, we establish a practice of being in the here and now which helps us to focus better on things that matter to us. 

With journaling, we also focus on all the helpful small steps when achieving bigger goals. By regularly engaging in structured reflective writing we see the progress we are making. Visualizing our path and our progress raises our sense of self-efficacy. And once we feel self-effective, even in hard or uncertain times of life, this adds to our mental health even on the physiological level of brain chemicals.

Journaling to reflect on our experiences and take deliberate action helps us to use our willpower wisely. Willpower is a limited resource for all people, so it’s a good idea to mainly use it in areas of life that matter to us. Using it there and seeing the progress we are making, in turn, raises our sense of self-efficacy.

Also, journaling is very helpful and effective for developing and growing as a leader. In leadership roles, you especially need to invest in your psychological flexibility and be aware of the concept of psychological capital (PsyCap). Very briefly, both of these concepts involve mindfulness and reconnecting to one’s true values as well as living up to them—things that are already an ongoing challenge for many of us, being leaders of our own lives. It often just gets one level harder when we are in a leadership role at work. So a decent not-too-scientific starting point for reading more about leadership, journaling, and mindfulness is The User’s Guide to the Human Mind (by Dr. S. T. Smith) or A Liberated Mind: How To Pivot Toward What Matters (by S. Hayes, Ph.D.). A good starting point for a scientific paper isThe role of mindfulness and psychological capital on the well-being of leaders (by Roche, M., Haar, J. M., & Luthans, F. (2014)).

Why journaling is still rarely used in the business context

Over time and while working with individual clients as well as in organizational contexts, I have learned there are a couple of reasons why written self-reflection techniques are still rarely used in the business context, despite all the benefits for leadership described above.
The four main reasons are:

  1. People are often “ too busy” to consider improvement.
  2. Writing “a diary” is often categorized as private, touchy-feely stuff.
  3. Journaling certainly requires effort and willpower, as the outcome only emerges throughout the journey, so there is no instant gratification that triggers shots of dopamine (our happy brain chemicals).
  4. Visualization and intentional slow-down can appear scary (and sometimes it is). 

First, people being too busy is a classic obstacle in the business context which isn’t limited to written self-reflection techniques. Especially when we are close to being overwhelmed, we tend to do only the most necessary things (e.g., cutting trees) instead of taking a step back, inspecting, and adapting how we work (e.g., sharpening our saws). Especially in complex domains where people are expected to be creative while having a high cognitive load, this can be detrimental to achieving great outcomes in teams.

Second, business people often have certain mental pictures in mind when one mentions the word “diary” or even “journal.” Our mental connections to a diary lay more in the private area, and some people also believe it’s touchy-feely stuff. They are partly right: of course, a journal is something private, and the fact that you journal (also) in the business context by no means makes your journal a public tool! It still is just for you; it’s your tool for self-improvement, self-regulation, and resiliency. So you decide which outcomes of your reflections you share with whom and at which granularity.

On the touchy-feely prejudice: sure, if you practice written self-reflection seriously, you’ll get in contact with your emotions and needs—at least if you are a human being. This is where substantial outcomes of written self-reflection are to be harvested. We are all whole human beings and can’t leave our “private humanness” in the wardrobe before entering the office. This becomes even more obvious nowadays with remote working—mostly from our private homes—and sometimes not even having a choice because of the ongoing pandemic.

Third, written self-reflection certainly requires some determination, i.e., willpower resources. Willpower can already become depleted when people need to make many decisions (as managers do) or when you experience certain levels of stress over time. By nature, the outcomes of a journaling process only emerge on the go. This leads to a certain level of uncertainty in us. Uncertainty again needs volition for committed behavior and to avoid taking the easier route of behaving avoidant.

Lastly, self-reflection can be scary, like introducing agile collaboration in systems where people used to work in “classical siloes.” Written self-reflection makes things visible (e.g., guided freestyle techniques like the so-called Logs from Bullet Journaling). By deciding to write manually, we intentionally slow ourselves down. This opens up time and space to finally get in contact with some of our fears or to become aware of all those stories we keep telling ourselves (and believing them as truth) just because we have a human brain.

Using journaling techniques to reflect and experiment

I started almost 20 years ago with freestyle journaling now and then, and with heavy usage of dedicated freestyle exercises—either during coachings I received during my early career or in other leadership development coursework. The only difference back then was I didn’t call it “journaling,” as I only became aware that regular, structured writing for the sake of reflection and learning was actually “a thing” during my BSc studies in psychology.

Four years ago, I started experimenting with different semi-structured journals (e.g., the 6-Minute Diary which is developed on a scientific basis). Soon I learned about the Bullet Journaling method. Trying it out and combining it with my other experiences inspired me to develop what I call guided freestyle journaling (described earlier in the article). For three years, I carried a blank paper book with me. Changes to my ongoing journaling practice mostly emerged naturally. Additionally, I have my retrospectives every four to six weeks where I not only reflect on and adapt my work and life in general but also inspect and adapt my journaling practice itself.

Benefits I have experienced from the experiments

The benefits of my extensive experimentation with journaling usually fall in one of these three categories: 

  1. Being more intentional, i.e., in my ability to create a small-but-essential moment between a stimulus and (re-)action
  2. Tapping into new sources of energy 
  3. Greater efficiency and effectiveness

Let’s start with the last one: greater efficiency and effectiveness. The lightweight yet profound structure I have with my guided freestyle journaling practice enables me to get more (and particularly “the right”) things done. Analyzing this, I have concluded that a yearlong written self-reflection practice contributed quite largely to my seemingly easy successes.

Experimenting with different sorts of semi-structured journals and freestyle practices (such as, “three things to be grateful for today”) has raised my awareness to feel grateful for “what is.” Being generally grateful by acknowledging all the little things around me, leads to having more energy to focus on what is really important. To put it another way: less complaining about things we usually can’t change anyway just means having more energy to spend on truly valuable actions.

Sometimes people ask me if I still have bad days. Sure, I do! On such bad days when I feel lots of stress or things go wrong, I am still grateful for the things we take for granted—e.g., having a roof over my head or living at peace (and not at war). Whether you want it or not, humbleness will develop with this practice. Over time, I have developed more joy in life in general, even on bad days or in truly hard times that are part of life.

All in all, I have gained more intentionality during decades of my journaling journey so far. Intentionality (more than reactivity) is a powerful mental tool to have at your fingertips nowadays. It’s the ability to create these small-but-essential moments between a stimulus and (re-)action. To pause, to breathe, to think, and then to decide which mental path you take: that standard route of behavior which is potentially already a big neural highway—or nurturing, trying, and exploring one of the new paths. 

Being intentional grew and continues to grow over time; through the constant practice of reflection, I am more aware of what’s going on in me and this provides me with real options to choose from—in business and beyond. Having real choices isn’t only useful when you have to make decisions, but also when you collaborate with other people—when you lead others—and it’s a benefit in everyday life. 

What I have learned

Condensing my decades of experience and those from clients, there are three key takeaways. 

First, journaling should not feel like a burden. Once you are in the habit of self-reflection writing (usually after two to four weeks) you shouldn’t have to push yourself to do it. If it starts feeling like a burden, then it’s time to sit down, reflect on those feelings, and adapt something in your practice. 

I would often switch between or combine the three different journaling variants or make adaptations in my guided freestyle writing routine to actually serve my purpose and bring back the lightness and experiencing many tiny useful moments.

Regarding the phrase “like a burden,” think about the relationship you have with brushing your teeth; the same is true for journaling. It isn’t always pure fun and joy either, yet it should feel more helpful and valuable to you than being a mere duty. It should feel more valuable to you especially after you have managed to sit down with your pen and paper for those five minutes once a day.

Second, there’s no one-size-fits-all journaling. That means you have the full freedom to try-out different variants of journaling and experiment with each of them for a while. Also, there is no “one Bullet Journaling” way or “one guided freestyle” way of journaling. This can be both freeing but also overwhelming, especially for newbies in this area. Having a conversation with a coach or someone who has more experience in the journaling practice path can be helpful to you finding your way.

The third learning is that a sound “why” makes it easier and more fun to start. Having your “why” makes your journaling journey way more sustainable over time—both with regard to your process and to the outcomes you can harvest from that written self-reflection habit. By a “sound why,” I mean what your best hopes are for the period you commit yourself to keep a journal.

A couple of years ago, my constant daily journaling practice started with a two-fold “why”—my best hope was to:

  1. Become more intentional about what I focus on, both in business and in private matters
  2. Raise my awareness of all the small things I can be grateful for. These small things can be stuff that we typically value only when we lose them, like good health, a stable relationship, living in peace and freedom, or abundant food on the table. 

This first “why” evolved very quickly when I discovered working with and toward one’s values (see the section on science, especially psychological flexibility for more details, and read my preferred kind of freestyle journaling exercise on values). Meanwhile, I journal, reflect, and adapt toward my core values like courage, gratitude, connection, authenticity, and personal growth.

Suggestions for getting started with journaling

Here are my top three suggestions for people eager to experiment and take the first steps in their journaling journey:

  1. First of all, get clear on why you want to try journaling, i.e., what you would like to achieve with a regular structured writing practice. I can’t stress this enough. Common “whys” I have seen people start with include the motivation to change a habit, work toward being more focused and less distracted, gain more presence and mindful moments, or generally slow down from a busy hamster-wheel (business) life.
  2. Once you have found your first “why,” decide on the type of journal to start with. For this, you can ask experienced people for their advice, go with your gut feeling (it’s usually more powerful than we are taught to believe), or have a look at the three variants of journaling described in the first section above.
  3. Then commit yourself to journaling for at least four weeks, no matter what. You might also want to find yourself an accountability buddy.

With these three points, you have already made three big steps on your journaling path. Here’s an additional tip: allow yourself to adjust/reflect while you are on the journey. To make this happen, schedule at least one appointment with yourself right now. Plan it roughly for the middle of your four-week liftoff phase.

Suggestions for taking your practice to the next level

In case you are already an advanced practitioner of regular structured writing for the sake of reflection and learning and you want to spice up your journaling, here are two main areas that I suggest advanced journalers try out and experiment with.

Mixing in regular retrospectives is the first one. It could be as lightweight as a 4L-retrospective that you might already know from working with or in teams. Personally and with clients I continue experiencing great results from value-based retrospectives. This means retrospecting on how well you lived up to the values you intended to focus on in a certain period (sidenote: my retro cycles vary between a week and up to a month). Of course, I also suggest deriving one or two small, actionable experiments (or even just plain adjustments to your journaling practice) from all your retrospectives.

A second area to spice up your journaling practice is mixing in freestyle journaling exercises that you find useful in your current context or for your current challenges. Here are some examples that I see and recommend:

  • Doing morning pages for a couple of weeks and seeing what emerges from there
  • Writing a letter to your best possible future self (e.g., in six months from today)
  • Dedicating some time to deliberate value-work and deriving next steps from that (my preferred kind of freestyle journaling exercise on values can give you a kick-start)

Wrap Up

I appreciate the time you have spent mentally walking with me through selected parts of my vast experience, gathering tiny bits of science, and getting a couple of meta-level views and information. If you are new to the field, this might appear overwhelming at first. However, I hope some of this appeals to you and motivates you to give it a try, always considering your current context, all the resources you have right now, and envisioning what you would like to have happen next. Now that the time has come to travel on, remember: “There is no road, the road is made by walking”… and by journaling (inspired by Antonio Machado’s words from Campos de Castilla).

About the Author

Cosima Laube is an experienced independent coach, consultant, and trainer with a proven track record in a variety of industries (automotive, finance and banking, healthcare, travel and tourism, public sector). In the IT field since 2004, she has been building her expertise on a strong foundation as a developer and people lead in software engineering. Over the last 10 years, she has continuously enhanced her portfolio with solid coaching skills and completed BSc studies focused on I/O and Health Psychology. More on Cosima and her contact details can be found  here.

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