Film director Walter Hill is quoted as saying, “I tend not to look back. It’s confusing.” Don’t listen to him. Yes, there’s merit to the myriad of quotes that encourage you not to dwell on the past so much that you miss the opportunities that lie ahead of you. Those quotes, like the one from Hill, oversimplify things, however.
A more appropriate bit of advice would be an utterance attributed to George Washington: “We ought not to look back, unless it is to derive useful lessons from past errors and for the purpose of profiting by dear bought experience.” In other words, you can’t learn from your past and grow into your future if you don’t put in some time to study and draw upon its lessons. That’s where journaling can be helpful.
What is Journaling?
Does the term journaling evoke images of an adolescent diary kept under lock and key? If so, we need to hit pause on this conversation so we can dispel the myth that journaling is about pouring out angst, wishes, and dreams in a notebook. Good leaders journal. Board chairmen do it. CEOs do it. Teddy Roosevelt and Nelson Mandela did it. Journaling is an opportunity to reflect and tap into new insights that can be gained from your experiences, your successes, and your failures.
Trust the Research
Not convinced? A study by Harvard Business School found that employees who set aside 15 minutes at the end of day to reflect and journal outperformed their peers who did not journal. Their experiment included a test about a particular customer account and found that journalers performed better by about 22.5% than their peers. One of the study’s authors, Francesca Gino, explained to Fast Company, “Rather than following the conventional wisdom to ‘get busy,’ our research suggests that performance is enhanced when we follow former IBM CEO Thomas J. Watson’s advice to simply ‘think.’”
Ink and Paper or Digital Journal?
Any journal is better than no journal, but the experts suggest you stick with paper and pen if you really want to reap the benefits. Writing something down by hand gets the juices flowing in the part of your brain known as the reticular activation system. In other words, holding that pen or pencil and forming the letters yourself on paper can improve your ability to focus on the task and retain the information.
Form a Habit
If you really want to reap the rewards of this simple task, make it part of your daily routine. Set aside 15 minutes every day to reflect and jot down your thoughts. Put this time in your planner for roughly the same time each day and stick with it. This isn’t a tentative appointment you can push aside and forget when something else requests a little of your time. This is valuable time that you owe yourself and your business. Don’t give it away. Commit to it.
You’ll find commentary from those that think you ought to journal in the evening. Others advocate for morning reflection. The truth is the best time of day to journal is the one you can commit to on a regular schedule.
Write What Moves You
There is no right or wrong when it comes to content in your journal. This is your opportunity to document the experiences, questions, challenges, and wins that will lead to insights that make you better at what you do as you reflect upon them. That said, we’ve all had that experience of staring at a blank page with no idea where to start. Try some of these prompts to get your thoughts flowing:
- What wild idea did I hear today and why do I love it?
- What went wrong/right today and what was the catalyst behind it?
- What challenges did I face today?
- What unusual events took place today?
- What patterns have I noticed?
- How am I feeling about myself, my leadership, my performance right now?
- What industry trend am I most curious about and why?
- What contributed to my happiness this week?
- What appears to be motivating or exciting my team?
- What appears to be distracting or overwhelming my team? What type of training, tools, or reassurance could I offer that would help with this?
- What is weighing most on my mind right now?
- What is one new thing I learned today? What is one new thing I want to learn?
- What surprised me today?
Just Do It
When all is said and done, the most important “rule” to practice when it comes to journaling is to just do it. Don’t get so caught up in the right way to journal that you build roadblocks to getting something down on paper. Find a quiet space, pull out a notebook, and write something down. Don’t worry about grammar. Don’t worry about eloquence. This isn’t for publication. It’s for you and only you. Just write. You’ll be grateful you did.