How Do Great Leaders Journal?

“Being a leader can feel lonely. I journal religiously as a way to express my thoughts, feelings, and aspirations. Looking back at earlier entries helps me reflect on challenges and celebrate progress and successes.” – Rana el Kaliouby, CEO of Affectiva and thought leader on artificial intelligence

Leadership advice often focuses on building external qualities and habits: confidence, quality communication, employee check-ins, and delegation. But the greatest leaders through history understood that in order to inspire without, they needed to inquire within. Journaling has been lauded as one of the most effective tools for leadership, from past presidents like Abraham Lincoln to gold-standard actresses like Emma Watson (who allegedly keeps ten journals at a time). Let’s take a look at the most common journaling strategies recommended by trusted publications like the Harvard Business Review and Forbes.

1. Commit to 15 minutes of daily reflection.

Journaling is a process that takes a while before you see meaningful results, just like any sort of hard work worth doing. Set aside 15 minutes per day to journal. Try experimenting with journaling in the morning, during lunch, or in the evening. Your mentality will be different during each time period. Mornings can be a great time for intention setting and positivity. A session at lunch will help you take a mental break and reset for the rest of the day. The evening allows you to reflect over your choices throughout the day and plan for the next one.

2. Start by writing whatever comes to mind.

We have thousands of thoughts, positive and negative, demanding our attention every day. It can often be overwhelming. When you feel yourself getting distracted or caught up in the anxiety of an “unsolvable problem”, open up to a blank page in your journal and just start writing. For type A leaders, it can be difficult to free associate this way. Press onward. Write down the questions you are asking yourself, and what happened throughout the day. Try not to pause and just let the thoughts flow. You’ll find it feels great to get them “out of your head”, and you can even solve some of those pressing problems by just working through it on paper.

3. Recalibrate and reconnect with your vision.

Leadership is draining, and you can often get caught up in the trivial details of the day. Constantly remind yourself of your greater purpose, values, and long term goals. Your employees will often look to you for inspiration, energy, and direction. When you focus on the big picture and what really matters in the long term, your leadership skills will shine.

4. Move into specific goals and micro-insights.

With a clear mind and a focused vision, you can make the best possible game plan for the rest of your day or week. What deserves your immediate attention? What needs to be delegated? Think about the current strengths and weaknesses of your organization, team, and personal actions. Let this culminate into a simple list of the top three to five most important tasks that need to be completed as soon as possible.

5. Exercise your left brain often to be a better leader.

Creativity is at the heart of all problem solving. Use this to your advantage, and write about things that inspire or challenge you. The Harvard Business Review recommends picking out a specific piece of art and analyzing it. Describe the painting on paper, and then try and connect it to new insights or ideas. Art is subjective. What if a simple painting reveals the feelings you have about a large upcoming business decision? Your perspective could change completely. Just like a workout routine, a journaling routine only works if you are consistent. Stick to it. Before you know it, you’ll be keeping your journal on you and opening it often. In order to be the best leader you can be, use all of the tried-and-true tools available to you. Good luck.

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