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.

Maintaining Normalcy While Learning Remotely

The COVID-19 pandemic has upended student plans and disrupted learning routines at campuses across the country, including at William & Mary. Many of us left for Spring Break not realizing we’d be gone the rest of the semester or longer. Now that remote classes have started, it can be a struggle to stay motivated and focused on learning in these new formats and without our usual on-campus inspiration. Here are a few tips that can help you reduce stress, improve productivity, and generally make the most out of this unexpected experience.

1. Create a routine that you can take with you.

A routine doesn’t have to be complicated – it can be as simple as five things you do every day when you wake up or when you go to bed. The idea is to build a practice that can travel with you, so you are able to do it no matter where you are. My portable routine includes waking up early, practicing meditation and yoga, writing down at least one gratitude and goal for the day, and then eating breakfast. I can do this easily at home, in my dorm, in a hotel room, at a friend’s place, and so on. Maintaining a simple routine gives your mind and body a familiar pattern to follow and helps you manage the stress caused by events that are out of your control.

2. Create a dedicated study space.

Claiming a space as your own can be challenging, especially if your living arrangements aren’t conducive to studying, or if you have multiple people in your home working remotely. But even establishing a part-time study space—for example, by setting up the kitchen table as your “desk” for a few hours every day—can make a big impact on your productivity. When we try to study in spaces typically used for sleep or relaxation, we may subject ourselves to an unnecessary emotional muddle. For example, try to avoid working in bed. When I work from my bed, my mind begins to associate that spot with the energy and emotions I feel during work and school, which can make it much harder to unwind and fall asleep in that same bed at night. By separating the spaces, I avoid this emotional overlap and make it easier to be productive in my study space and fall asleep in my bed at night.

3. Minimize distractions and take notes.

Remote learning can be difficult because it often comes with many more distractions than learning in a classroom does – noisy backgrounds, family members interrupting, food, pets, and so on. During an online class session, maximize the browser on your screen so you can’t see other distractions on your computer, use headphones to help block out other sounds, ask family members if they can keep the volume down for the time you are in class, and take notes with a pen and paper so that you can stay focused on the class and not the tabs open on your computer.

4. Take purposeful and regular breaks.

It is easy to end up sitting at your computer or in front of the TV all day when working from home because it can seem like there isn’t much else to do. It is important, however, to take regular breaks from the screen to relax your eyes, muscles, and mind. Use these breaks purposefully: exercise, take a walk outside, play with your pet, or do something creative like knitting, drawing, painting, or writing. The goal is to give your brain regular rest periods throughout the day. A rested brain is better able to retain information. Keeping these breaks purposeful can help you stay energized and motivated to continue your studies.

5. Stay connected and use campus resources.

When we are on campus, our friends, classmates, professors, and campus resources are all nearby and more immediately available. Now that we are studying remotely, we have to take the extra step to reach out to others and seek support. Contact your friends and organize group FaceTime or Zoom calls. Setting a regular time for socializing can help replace the positive energy that used to come from running into friends on campus. In my case, I used to meet a friend every week at the Rec; now we FaceTime each other while exercising.

Many campus resources are also available online. Online appointments are available at the  Writing Resources Center and the Tribe Tutor Zone. The Wellness Center and Counseling Center have created a  Virtual Health & Wellness  page with pre-recorded classes on yoga, meditation, mindful arts, and more. The Office of Academic Advising has created a Studying with Distance Learning resources page, and their professional advisors are available for online appointments. The Dean of Students Office has created a student support page and is available for phone and Zoom meetings. If you’re struggling to keep up with your studies during this pandemic, it is important to ask for help.

Most of these tips can be used any time, not just during this unexpected campus hiatus. Implementing small changes to our daily habits, and staying connected to others, can help us maintain our sense of normalcy wherever life takes us. Stay healthy, W&M!

Have you tried gratitude journaling?

grateful-forScrolling through my social media feeds, I can’t help but notice a sudden burst in pretty twenty-somethings professing themselves to be wellness gurus, promoting some kind of “healthy” practice that “Everyone Should Add To Their Routine!” Things like yoga, meditation, vitamin supplements, and innumerable recipes using organic foods fill my screen. As someone who tries to stay holistically in-tune with her wellness, I like to try a variety of these cool things I’m seeing online. There is one approach that I have found more beneficial than any other—gratitude journaling.

Gratitude journaling is the daily practice of writing down at least one thing you feel grateful for and why. This can take many forms—bullet points, full journal entries based on gratitude-themed prompts, drawings, or photographs with captions. There are many creative possibilities. The goal of this journaling is to create a deep sense of appreciation in one’s life.

In a world with so much inequality and struggle, it is often easy to overlook something as simple as being thankful for warm socks or the way the leaves on your favorite tree change colors. Competitive and academically challenging environments can make it easy to forget to be grateful for internet connection or supportive friends and family. Gratitude journaling focuses the mind on the present and generates a more appreciative view of the world.

There are even some proven benefits to daily gratitude journaling. The University of Minnesota and the University of Florida teamed up for a study in which participants were instructed to write down a list of positive events that occurred throughout their day and why these made them feel happy. At the conclusion of the study, the participants reported lower stress levels and a greater sense of calm at night. Psychotherapist Amy Morin has identified some key benefits of gratitude journaling, such as an improved quality of relationships, physical health, self-esteem, mental strength and resilience, and a decrease in aggression and anger.

Gratitude journaling is something I have come to look forward to every day. By positively focusing on the things that matter to me, no matter how small, I generally feel happier and more content with everything around me. I am more receptive to friends, family, even strangers; and I’m more resilient when faced with uncontrollable, stressful events in life. The physical act of writing down my gratitude helps to permanently capture these important things, and reading back through all these entries is something that brings peace to my life.