Why Leaders Need Reflective Writing

Close-up of hand writing with pencil in a spiral-bound journal.

I spend much of my work week reacting: responding to questions, solving problems, mediating disputes, seeking answers, tackling some goals, setting others aside, listening actively, practicing patience, adding to my to-do list. Most of this I do reflexively, without deep consideration. The result is that my brain is full of moments–unfinished conversations, looming deadlines, unwritten emails, overfull agendas, and unrealistic timetables. It can feel out of control, and that feeling manifests as physical and mental stress. 

Leaders of all types — from those who head organizations, lead teams, and manage staff to those who plan programs, teach classes, and parent children — sometimes feel overwhelmed by the cacophony of other people’s needs and expectations. During the work week, everything moves so quickly, there’s rarely time to consider the impact of decisions and actions and to connect our daily tasks to our “why,” the priorities and values that guide our efforts.

So what does it take for leaders to quiet this noise and gather themselves and their thoughts so they can move from scattered and reactive to coherent and planful?

Reflective writing. 

For those of you who dislike writing, hear me out. 

Writing about your experiences turns down the volume and creates a quiet space where you can reconnect to your “why.” In their book Journal Keeping: How to Use Reflective Writing for Learning, Teaching, Professional Insight, and Positive Change, Danelle Stevens and Joanne Cooper remind us that humans develop through an ongoing process of meaning-making. Making sense of our experiences happens through conversations with others and with ourselves. They argue that reflective writing “can be an important tool in facilitating conversations with the self and furthers a deeper understanding of our values and beliefs” (42). Journals, diaries, daybooks, logs, or lists are spaces for self-talk. And it’s in these spaces that we can observe and make sense of our worlds. 

“Writing about your experiences turns down the volume and creates a quiet space where you can reconnect to your ‘why.'”

Beyond reconnecting us to our values and beliefs, reflective writing also: 

Improves Focus and Clarity

Productivity guru David Allen famously said that “your mind is for having ideas, not holding them.” By writing everything down, we clear our minds of the clutter. A clear mind is more available for creativity and positivity, more open to possibilities. In his memoir Greenlights, actor and lifelong journal-keeper Matthew McConaughey says “I never wrote things down to remember; I always wrote things down so I could forget.” Forgetting–or setting aside–the things that don’t matter makes it possible for us to attend to the things that do. 

Records Your Development Over Time 

Habitual journalers provide a gift to their future selves: a chronicle of their experiences. Fellow trekkies might remember Jean Luc Picard’s Captain’s log–a record of encounters, ambiguity, adversity, and resolution. Your log will reveal evolving goals, beliefs, behaviors, failures, successes, and more. This record can be tapped when working through challenges (“How did I handle this last time?”) and when there is a need for perspective. A review of your reflections can also reveal patterns of behavior, knowledge that can prompt personal change.  

Helps You Prime for Spontaneity

In The Art of Framing, Gail Fairhurst explains that leaders must stay in control of the vision they frame for others, even within spontaneous communication. They do this by developing mental models, structured ideas that ground their words: “If you take the time to consciously and periodically think through your mental models as a leader, you are priming your unconscious to select and interpret new information using the models as a reference point.” Reflective writing creates private space for leaders to revisit and rehearse their mental models. 

“Reflective writing creates private space for leaders to revisit and rehearse their mental models.”

Reflective writing can take many forms. In fact, it doesn’t even have to be writing. Visual journaling has a loyal following among artists and doodlers. Bullet journals combine to-do lists and reflective writing, using icons and other visuals as tools for focus. Apps like Day One allow you to record images and metadata (like weather and location), in addition to words. But the physicality and measured pace of the old-fashioned diary has significant advantages when the goal is to slow down and spend time in quiet conversation with yourself. 

I think it’s time for me to give reflective writing a try. How about you?

This post was originally published as a LinkedIn article on May 27, 2021. It was inspired by the W&M Washington Center’s course Modern Leadership: Reflections and Tools for the Values-Based Leader.

Inefficiency and The Writing Process

Image of sculpture head

I approached this essay a few ways. The first was by lying. I wrote a paragraph about going through rational and efficient stages– planning, outlining, writing, revising– and how my ideas morph miraculously and consistently into the written word. The second was by apologizing. Even as I wrote this, having rode roughshod over my own characterization of how I compose a paper, I realized that I might not have a writing process. Or, put differently, I realized that calling what I do a process– the way I use a Google doc to aimlessly wander through my mind– is probably too generous. The reality is that there are few tasks I approach in a less efficient or clear-cut way than the essay. I’ve rescinded that apology, and I’ve decided that it is a process (after all, it’s produced something, regardless of its quality). All of the inefficiencies– the verbal meandering, the pointless diversions– are part of the process that culminates in a final product. And my writing wouldn’t be the same without them.

I start my process for every paper by acknowledging, despite my resistance, that I’m not Michelangelo. That’s probably the greatest epiphany I’ve had about writing. While other Renaissance sculptors used cast models before marking where to cut on a slab of marble, Michelangelo worked freehand. He saw his figures in the marble and worked to carve them out. And so his statues emerged, as Vasari wrote, like they were “surfacing from a pool of water.” I think a lot of writers see themselves as Michelangelos, about to make a masterpiece on the first try. We sit before a blank page, chisel in hand, hesitating on every word, fearing imperfection. I don’t exactly reject the analogy, but I reject the comparison between a slab of marble and a piece of paper. A writer needs an imperfect model to mold into a final product. A writer’s marble slab isn’t a blank page, it’s a first draft. To me, this is liberating.

“I think a lot of writers see themselves as Michelangelos, about to make a masterpiece on the first try.”

So when I have an idea about what I want to write, I just write. This leads to my first of many inefficiencies: I have never been capable of outlining. I’ve tried before to sketch my ideas in advance, but I can seldom stay loyal to it. I think writing and outline are fundamentally different processes. When I begin to actually type an essay, putting ideas on a page tends to lure me in directions that I hadn’t conceptualized. When I receive a prompt, I first write a few sentences that form the core of what I want to say. Then I turn to the trickier question of how to say it. For me, this involves sitting at my computer and typing until I feel satisfied that my idea lies somewhere on the page. My second writing inefficiency is that I’m a dogged rereader. Every sentence or two, my eyes creep back to the top of a paragraph, or sometimes the top of the page, to see how it’s fitting together. Like writing and outlining, I think writing and reading are different processes, and in my experience it’s only through the latter that I realize how uninteresting something sounds. It also gives me a constant sense of place– where I am, where I’m going, and how my ideas have accumulated. At the end of a paragraph I go back and make a series of deletions or menial changes (like switching the phrase “negative edits” after remembering that the word “deletions” exists).

Stemming from this is my third inefficiency: double-tapping the enter key and starting a new section whenever I draw a blank. I leave the job of connecting them for later, and sometimes I never do. I’ve written first drafts double the size of my final, including lengthy diversions that I eventually deleted. But I think the process, despite its inefficiency, is necessary for good writing. I try to let all ideas, all approaches to a prompt, play a role in my paper. Some, I discover, are better in my head than on the page. One thing I don’t let myself do on a first draft is check the word count. If I rush to close my draft before its ideas are actually fleshed out, my essay reads like I was played off the stage before my speech was over.

“A writer’s marble slab isn’t a blank page, it’s a first draft. To me, this is liberating.”

When my first draft is done, I have a roadmap of what I want to say, a block of marble that I can chisel. First I look at the little things I can correct– all the egregious things I did with the English language. Then I do something admittedly strange: I write an outline of how I had organized my thoughts in the draft, and how I should have. For me, it takes the completion of a work to understand how each sentence or paragraph functions as a part of the whole. Reduction and reorganization is the part of the writing process where I can really start to chisel my piece of marble, with a rough understanding of the essay having already revealed itself.

When it comes to cutting, I take Orwell’s advice to cut any word, sentence, or paragraph that doesn’t strengthen a piece of writing. More holistically, though, the editing process is really the art of seeing alternatives. I find myself going through my writing deliberately omitting words and sentences, and asking myself, Is it clearer and more concise without this? I swap paragraphs, rearrange what I have top to bottom, and pursue all the alternatives I can see– until any additional changes would, in my opinion, be detrimental.

And that, in sum, is my process. It’s a collection of inefficiencies that I’m still unable to escape, but which I’ve come to embrace. For me, organizing, writing, editing, and rereading don’t happen in phases; they all work concurrently. It’s a messy process that takes a lot of time, but the time, to me, is not wasted. Once I’m able to spend enough of it navigating around the idea, meandering in my mind, and building my block of marble, I can carve something out of it, chisel it down to an imperfect but acceptable product, until I’m finally, eventually, ready to type my name proudly and bring the process to a close.