You’ve probably heard how journaling can help with your mental health and well-being, no matter whether that involves writing down what you’re grateful for or your reflections at the end of the day. It can also help you become a better leader. Keeping a journal is one of the most effective ways to reflect on your daily experiences and make stronger, more nuanced decisions.
One caveat: If the word “journaling” evokes visions of a loopy self-help seminar or an embossed diary under lock and key, it’s time to shake off those stereotypes. Writing down your thoughts is a powerful tool for growth—whether you lead a team of three or 300. Here’s why.
The benefits of journaling
According to Impraise founder Bas Kohnke, today’s leaders need to master five soft skills: active listening, self-compassion, empathy, vulnerability, and honesty. A journal is a private—and inherently candid—space where you can explore and strengthen these skills.
As a leader, your unique perspective is both a creative and competitive advantage. It’s the secret sauce that can change the entire trajectory of your organization. But a frenzied schedule can drown out your most valuable insights, Nancy J. Adler—the S. Bronfman Chair in Management at McGill University—said in a Harvard Business Review article. Writing in a journal allows you to access those innovative ideas lurking below the surface.
Studies also show that journaling can strengthen the immune system and ease the symptoms of depression and anxiety. “Writing something down stops things from going around and around in our heads,” psychologist Dr. Jane McCartney told the Telegraph. “This puts things in perspective; it stops you from obsessing and can help us make sense of our jumble of thoughts and feelings.”
Perhaps most importantly, leading people and organizations is demanding work. Research shows that when leaders crumple under pressure, teams also suffer. Journaling serves as a pressure valve to help you release and manage stressful experiences.
How to get started
Don’t know where to start? Block off at least 20-30 minutes on your calendar, and find a quiet place where you won’t be disturbed. Turn off digital notifications, and put your phone in a drawer, if necessary. Now, you have just one choice to make: digital or paper?
Experts like Adler say handwriting delivers more significant benefits than typing or writing online. Putting pen to paper can also increase focus and brain activity in the motor cortex, which can induce a meditative state of mind. Given that the average American spends over 10 hours a day in front of a screen, according to Nielsen data, keeping a physical journal can offer a much-needed break from that ever-present glow.
On the flip side, most of us can type much faster than we write. If you’re more inclined to hit the keyboard, by all means, keep a digital journal. Just make sure it’s private—and again, block out all distractions before you dive in.
What to write
The blank page can be daunting. That’s why many of us need prompts to get the words flowing. Among others, Adler suggests that you answer the following three questions:
- How am I feeling right now?
- How am I feeling about my leadership?
- What is the most outrageous idea I’ve heard in the past 24 hours? What do I love about it?
Executive and leadership coach Christi Hegstad also encourages her clients to keep a journal. In an article for Huffpost, she offers 25 prompts that lean toward more personal reflection. In my experience, questions are merely a litmus test because we answer based on our current preoccupations.
Personally, one of my favorite questions is “What am I noticing?” This deceptively simple sentence can unleash a flood of responses, from organizational issues and triumphs to deep-seated thoughts and feelings. Best of all, it rarely elicits the same answer twice.
When to write
If an empty page or blinking cursor doesn’t faze you, you can also try morning pages, which author Julia Cameron introduced in her book The Artist’s Way. This is my favorite way to journal. Every day, I arrive at the JotForm offices, open a blank document, and write three stream-of-consciousness pages. They often begin with petty complaints or inane observations, but I keep going—and I never censor myself.
Eventually, I shift from surface chatter into meatier stuff. Maybe it’s a new strategy, a feature idea, or even a to-do list. Sometimes my thoughts are still jumbled, and that’s okay, too. Over time, this practice can deliver exponential benefits, from deepening your creativity and intuition to clarifying your perspective.
Journaling at the end of the day can also work. Try writing “evening pages” to process your thoughts and clear your mind. In a working paper from Harvard Business School, professor Francesca Gino and her coauthors found that taking 15 minutes to reflect at the end of a busy workday can even enhance performance.
However you choose to journal, know that the time you spend writing will deliver significant returns. Facing yourself on the page can be uncomfortable at times, but it can spur growth and innovation. Just as you lace up your sneakers and hit the treadmill whether you “feel like it” or not, don’t wait for inspiration to strike. Incorporate journaling into your daily routine, and make time to hear your own, unique voice.
Aytekin Tank is the founder of JotForm, a popular online form builder. Established in 2006, JotForm allows customizable data collection for enhanced lead generation, survey distribution, payment collections, and more.