Nutshell: Be more Mole: journaling your way to improved performance

Written by
Future Talent Learning

19 May 2020

19 May 2020 • by Future Talent Learning

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 of course the fictional teenager and obsessive diarist Adrian Mole, have used journaling as a means of clarifying their goals and thinking.

Journaling facilitates reflection 

Journaling can help us to reflect on and interpret our 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

Self-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. Co-rumination, where we get together with others to dwell on our bad feelings, can be particularly damaging.

To help rather than harm, reflection must bring ‘insight’, (in the psychoanalytic sense), which is associated with greater feelings of autonomy, mastery and purpose in life, better relationships with others and greater self-acceptance. One thing that helps steer us towards insight is focusing self-reflection on others. When we focus our attention on ourselves, our problems and the bad things that happen to us, this elicits a ‘shame’ response and makes us feel worse about ourselves. However, focusing on how others might feel about our actions, empathising with them, and considering how we can maintain our relationships, elicits a ‘guilt’ response, and helps us to feel better.

The lesson here is that reflecting on work in a structured way – and moving away from self-attention to a focus on others – allows us 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 our 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, improving our relationships into the bargain.

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 her 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
  • active experimentation

Structured journaling can help us with the middle two stages, enabling us to slow down, take stock and learn from our experiences, and to reframe our personal narrative. In recounting our thoughts and experiences, and reflecting upon these, we are telling our own story; through journaling, we 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 we think but to reveal what we 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, 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.”

Your pages will make little sense and might read something like ‘I don’t know what to write for this exercise, I’m still feeling a bit annoyed with Dave, I might have a grapefruit for breakfast, I’m feeling a bit tired today, why is my mobile bill always higher than I expect, what’s that actor called with that weird moustache, that’s a nice noise…’ etc.  

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. 

It should be stressed that the more senior your job title, the more you need to keep a journal, according to Dan Ciampa, a senior advisor to CEOs and boards of directors: “Any new leader must manage intense exposure and unrealistic expectations (of both self and others),” he writes.

For him, a journal is an effective, efficient, private way for leaders to take time out from their pressured schedules in order to self-reflect and so pre-empt mistakes and solve “inscrutable problems”. He, himself kept a journal through his 12 years as chairman and CEO. 

“Slowing things down leads to better-thought-through, more effective judgement and to learning what to do more of and what to change,” he argues. “One result, as important as anything, is an increase in the satisfaction that should come from being in charge. A personal journal should be part of any leader’s toolkit.”

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 as 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 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 habit; scheduling regular writing times (and choosing a peaceful environment in which to journal) helps us to stick to it.

We should also try to approach the task without self-consciousness. It’s not about making our 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 we have clear goals, we should 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). 

When it comes to format, electronic options are available but from a neuroscientific perspective, it’s better to keep a written journal. Handwriting forces our brains to slow down and be more intentional about what we think and write. Writing also boosts the brain’s encoding process, so it is much more likely to be remembered than typed notes

Having said that, it’s better to create a typed or online journal than not do one at all; with blogs, entries can swiftly be assigned tags to help us index them effectively. This helps us to revisit them, going back to our experiences and considering them from a different perspective, and with emotional distance, providing new insights and ideas.

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, better wellbeing and more empathetic relationships.

Read: Transformational tales: Developing a journaling habit

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