Do you even journal? You should if you want to be a better leader.

How many of those articles outlining the morning routine of leaders have you read? It seems the most successful leaders are up and about early. They are exercising at 5am and meditating and drinking green smoothies and reading the news and staying out of their inbox. I’m tired just thinking about it! I do have a few of those things on my morning routine list – exercise and green smoothies are regular features (although not starting at 5am if I can at all avoid it!). But there’s also one more habit I have in common with an increasing number of successful leaders – I keep a journal. Or, in line with language trends that seem to take nouns and make them verbs, I journal!

Nancy Adler wrote about keeping a journal in the Harvard Business Review and quoted research that outstanding leaders’ success depends on the ability to access their unique perspective and bring it to their decisions and sense-making every day. But to do that, you have to have a level of insight about what your unique perspective might be! That requires some self-analysis and in workplaces that value output and results much more than reflection and consideration, it can be hard to find the time and space to do this.

I started journaling (there’s that verb again!) on a regular basis after a coach I was fortunate enough to work with recommended a book to me called, The Artist's Way by Julia Cameron. It says a LOT about this man that I actually bought it and read it! What possible relevance could that have to me? I am not, nor do I have any desire to be, an artist! But because I trusted him implicitly, I put my doubts to one side and dove in. I had to suspend my cynical voice, because there was a bit of God talk and a ‘if you build it, they will come’ vibe. But it was challenging also. It called out the cynicism and named it fear. Which of course gets right under the skin of someone who would rather poke fun than try something new and risk looking like an idiot. It called that out too.

One of the exercises in the book has you commit to writing ‘morning pages’, three pages of longhand writing every day. Even if you fill them up with “I hate writing these pages”, you must write. Before I made the decision to take a sabbatical year, I was journaling regularly in line with this principle. And the clarity came. Weirdly enough, it was actually quite a 'if you build it, they will come' moment. On an early morning flight, after I finished my pages, I re-read the pages I had written over three months and like a bolt out of the blue, I knew what action I needed to take. I was able to silence the noise, the negative, unhelpful self-talk and make a plan based on my clarified understanding of what was important to me. I can still remember the extraordinary lightness I felt as that flight landed.

The same principles that allowed me to see my way through the haze to make some personal decisions, can of course also apply to gaining insights into your leadership and work. The practice is likely to feel awkward and forced to start with and, even now, there are days where my writing basically sets out what I’m having for breakfast. But if you commit to the process, the insights and understanding will come.

To get started, Nancy Adler suggests some trigger questions that can be useful. Write these in the front page of your journal and use them as prompters if the pages are not flowing:

  • How am I feeling right now?

  • How am I feeling about my leadership?

  • What deserves my highest-quality attention in my leadership, in my life, in my world?

  • What is the most outrageous (or fun or novel) idea I’ve heard in the last 24 hours? What do I love about it?

  • What is the most exciting initiative I’ve heard about this week that is happening outside of my industry or in another part of the world?

  • What contributed most to my happiness this week (or to the happiness of my people)? How can I have more happiness in my life?