Journaling is a simple and accessible way to reflect on your professional life and to enhance your performance and wellbeing.
In 2014, Fast Company named classic notebook manufacturer Moleskine one of the world’s top productivity companies (alongside Google and Dropbox), “for delighting creatives with digital collaborations”. This surely indicates the timeless value of journaling.
The practice goes back millennia and has been embraced by visionaries throughout history. Marcus Aurelius, Leonardo da Vinci, Marie Curie, Albert Einstein, Frida Kahlo. All these, and Adrian Mole, have used journaling as a means of clarifying their goals and thinking.
Journaling facilitates reflection
Journaling can help you to reflect on and interpret your experiences across all areas of life, and has been proven to enhance physical and psychological health. Research conducted in New Zealand even showed that it helps the body heal faster.
The study found that people who wrote emotionally about past stressful events two weeks before having a biopsy saw their wound heal faster than those who wrote about factual day-to-day activities.
“We think writing about distressing events helped participants make sense of the events and reduce distress,” reported Elizabeth Broadbent, professor of medicine at the University of Auckland and co-author of the research. She explained that emotional upset can increase the body's levels of stress hormones, which impedes the immune system.
If we apply this to the world of work, we can see how regular expressive writing about challenging aspects of our professional lives might help protect our wellbeing and resilience. At the very least, journaling provides a safe space in which to vent, relieving tension and anxiety. Meanwhile, synthesising and learning from good and bad experiences can yield vital insights that improve productivity and performance.
Reflection versus obsessive thinking
Reflection should not be confused with simple rumination, a word which derives from the Latin for ‘chewing the cud’ and refers to repeatedly pondering a thought or feeling without resolution. Mulling over a particular issue without examining it in a bid to understand it is a bit like trying to untie a knot by staring at it rather than twisting the cords to unravel it.
Research shows that people who ruminate are much more likely to develop depression and anxiety. In one community survey of 1,300 adults, ruminators were found to develop major depression four times as often as non-ruminators.
By contrast, reflecting on work in a structured way allows you to explore what has or hasn’t gone well – for example, in a client meeting or presentation – to acknowledge associated reactions and emotions, and to evaluate your actions in order to develop. It can enhance self-awareness and personal growth, enabling us to spot patterns of behaviour, track progress, embrace our creativity and capture ideas.
Reflection aids learning – and performance
In today’s fast-paced ‘knowledge economy’ we are all under constant pressure to learn new skills and to hone existing ones. However, to quote the American philosopher, psychologist and educational reformer John Dewey: “We do not learn from experience...we learn from reflecting on experience.”
Supporting this, research by Giada Di Stefano and his colleagues focused on how individual learning can be augmented when people can not only ‘do’ but also ‘think’ about what they have been doing. Its authors conducted a range of field studies, concluding that “reflection is a powerful mechanism by which experience is translated into learning”.
Specifically, they argue that:
- learning from direct experience can be more effective if coupled with reflection;
- reflection builds one’s confidence in the ability to achieve a goal (self-efficacy), which in turn translates into higher rates of learning.
Similarly, David A Kolb's experiential learning cycle concept divides the learning process into a cycle of four basic theoretical components: concrete experience, reflective observation, abstract conceptualisation, and active experimentation.
Structured journaling can help you with the middle two stages, enabling you to slow down, take stock and learn from your experiences, and to reframe your personal narrative. In recounting your thoughts and experiences, and reflecting upon these, you are telling your own story; through journaling, you can clarify these narratives and find meaning within them.
Revealing rather than recording: the power of free thinking
It’s important to bear in mind that journaling isn’t so much designed to record what you think but you to reveal what you think. As author EM Forster put it: “How do I know what I think until I see what I say?”.
Often, we don’t know what we think about work-related issues, but only how they made us react and feel:
“Why was I so annoyed when I wasn’t invited to the brainstorming session about the new marketing plan?”
“Why did I feel so demotivated about the project when that surly new team member made a joke?”
“Why do I prefer working with extroverts?”
“Why did I get passive aggressive when my manager challenged me on my progress last week?”
“Why did I feel so upset when my colleague praised me publicly?”
Journaling helps us to interrogate these feelings and understand ourselves better. Sigmund Freud, the Austrian neurologist and the founder of psychoanalysis, argued that our behaviour is driven by fears and desires locked in the 'unconscious'.
In psychoanalysis, free association - “the mental process by which one word or image may spontaneously suggest another without any necessary logical connection” – can help us to ‘unlock’ the unconscious. When undertaking free association, we may find ourselves saying something that shocks or surprises us; we realise we believe it or think it but didn’t know we did. Understanding this enables us to choose, consciously, whether or not to go on thinking in this way.
One of the most famous journalers of all time, Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius, gives examples in his Meditations of how freewheeling thoughts can clarify our thinking and lead us to a conclusion – even when contemplating the seemingly mundane, such as how to motivate ourselves to get out of bed.
A variation on this theme can be found in The Artist’s Way, where Julia Cameron asks readers to write three page – by hand, first thing in the morning, about whatever comes to mind – in order to achieve what she terms “creative recovery”.
“There is no wrong way to do Morning Pages, they are not high art,” she says. “They are not even 'writing'. They are about anything and everything that crosses your mind – and they are for your eyes only. Morning Pages provoke, clarify, comfort, cajole, prioritise and synchronise the day at hand. Do not over-think Morning Pages: just put three pages of anything on the page... and then do three more pages tomorrow.”
Journaling in this way requires a true lack of self-censorship and honesty. It’s very difficult to do but, if we can manage it, it’s genuinely insightful.
How to journal for professional development
There is no single established method for journaling (and no right or wrong way to go about it). Whether you decide to follow a popular method such bullet journaling (launched in 2013 by US art director Ryder Carroll as “a mindfulness practice disguised as a productivity system”) or to design a journaling system of your of your own, it will take trial and error to get the methodology right
Received wisdom suggests making notes as soon as possible after the events you are recording (preferably the same day), for example asking yourself:
- what stood out for you most today (in a good or bad way)?
- what impact did you have on others? Who impressed you?
- from what you learned, what might you do differently next time?
Alternatively, you could:
- begin with a primary outcome
- list reasons for the outcome (peeling back reasons layer by layer)
- note your reactions and the emotions you experienced
- outline what you can learn from the experience and do differently in future.
Set aside 10 minutes three times each week to do this activity on an ongoing basis so that it becomes a regular habit. Electronic options are available but from a neuroscientific perspective, it’s better to keep a written journal. Handwriting forces your brain to slow down and be more intentional about what you think and write. Writing also boosts the brain’s encoding process, so it is much more likely to be remembered than typed notes.
Try to approach the task without self-consciousness. It’s not about making your entries sound good, or impressing a reader, but about exploring experiences and finding meaning within them. Marcus Aurelius’ journal was never intended to be published; it was just his tool for daily reflection and musing.
Where you have clear goals, write these down: in research conducted by Dominican University, those who wrote down their goals accomplished significantly more than those who did not (the mean achievement of the group with unwritten goals was 4.28 versus a mean of 6.55 for those with written goals).
Ultimately, journaling is a valuable investment of time. While reliving challenging experiences can be difficult, it’s a learning opportunity that may lead to improved decision making and critical thinking, sharpened self-awareness and better wellbeing.
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