In the fast paced, turbulent and uncertain world of today learning becomes a source of competitive advantage. The gap between where you are today and where you want to be in the future is crossed by gaining new knowledge and learning new skills.
“I’ve always thought that success on the job is based on how fast you learn and not what you know… the best CEOs I see are introspective. They learn every day. That’s what I try to do.” – Jeff Immelt, GE CEO, Q&A with GE’s Jeff Immelt, Bloomberg
The big question then becomes “how can we develop leaders who are fast learners?”
The Chinese teacher, editor, politician, and philosopher Confucius (551–479 BC), provides insights into how we can improve our learning:
”By three methods we may learn wisdom: First, by reflection, which is noblest; Second, by imitation, which is easiest; and third, by experience, which is the bitterest.” – Confucius (551-479 BC)
This insight on how we learn wisdom from Confucius shows that we learn best through reflection. Taking time to reflect on what we have been doing is critical if we are to develop wisdom. It’s only as we reflect and think through lessons learnt from our experiences, that we develop wisdom. Learning is most effective when we combine experience with reflection.
One of the best ways of developing a habit of reflection, and thereby improving our wisdom and speed of learning, is through the practice of journaling.
Research Shows that Journaling Improves Learning
An experiment conducted by Di Stefano, G. et al. described in “Learning By Thinking” shows the importance of reflecting and learning from our experiences. The researchers put two groups of people through the same technical training. One group was asked to spend the last 15 minutes of their day reflecting on what they learnt in a journal. The group which used the last 15 minutes of the day to reflect in a journal, performed 22.8% better on their final assessment score than the group that did not.
The bottom line is that learning happens when you make time to deliberately reflect on your experiences.
“We do not learn from experience, we learn from reflecting on experience.” – John Dewey, American philosopher, psychologist, and educational reformer
The Importance of Self-Efficacy
The researches believe that self-efficacy was part of the reason for the better performance of the journaling group. Self-efficacy is defined by the researchers as:
“the belief in one’s capabilities to organize and execute the courses of action required to manage prospective situations”
It seems practice of journaling and reflection builds self-efficacy. This happens because reflecting on your experience builds your confidence. It builds a strong belief in your skills and ability to achieve your goals.
When you reflect on your action, you position yourself to perform better next time. It builds a belief and confidence in your ability to accomplish your goals. Leaders who experience self-efficacy therefore invest more energy in their efforts, because they believe their efforts will result in success.
The findings from this research show that leaders can gain significant benefits from keeping a journal. In retrospect this is not a new idea, many great leaders from history kept journals, leaders like:
- Winston Churchill
- Sir Ernest Henry Shackleton
- Benjamin Franklin
- Thomas Jefferson
- Ralph Waldo Emerson
- Theodore Roosevelt
- Mark Twain
- Andrew Carnegie
- Sir Edmund Hilary
- Thomas Edison
As you can see, successful leaders have been keeping journals for centuries. Reading through these journals one can see how these leaders have used journals to chronicle their thoughts, feelings, experiences and critical decisions. They have used journals to help them process their emotions, to help them think through difficult decisions and to keep them focused on what is most important.
Observations from science and history shows that journals make for better leaders.
Journaling Keeps You Focused on What Matters
”The unexamined life is not worth living.” – Socrates
A journaling practice helps you stay focused on what’s most important, it keeps you focused on your great work.
The practice reflecting on what you are doing each day changes your behaviour. Asking questions like “What did I do today?”, “Did this contribute to my great work?” and “How can I do more of this kind of work tomorrow?” changes your thinking. And as we all know, when we change our thinking, we are able to change our behaviour. Journaling changes your focus and therefore changes how you act and changing how you act, changes your outcomes.
As Dwight Eisenhower discovered, separating urgent work from important work is the foundation of success. Urgent work are those pressing short-term tasks that keep you busy, whilst important work consists of those tasks that contribute to your goals and long-term success.
“What is important is seldom urgent, and what is urgent is seldom important.” – Dwight D. Eisenhower
As a leader you need a reliable way to help you keep focused on your most important work. The only way you accomplish your great work, is when you focus each day on those tasks that help you accomplish your most important work.
Leaders don’t have to worry about their urgent work, after all your urgent work will find you, busy work will always find you. Instead you need to become deliberate in shifting your focus from your busy work to you great work.
The challenge is that your most important work is passive. That is, your important work will not find you, it will not press on you with urgency to get completed. When it comes to important work you have to actively seek it out, you have to take an active part in making it happen. This means you and I need to find a way to remain focused on doing those tasks which contribute to your great work.
It turns out that a journal is one of the best ways of keeping ourselves focused on doing work that matters. Just like the great leaders of history, we can use a journal to help us accomplish our great work. It’s only important work that contributes to your legacy.
How to Keep a Leadership Journal
So how can you get started with creating a leadership journal? One of the most effective ways to start a journaling habit is to end each day with a journal entry. The goal is to end each day, reflecting on the events of the day, in the same way that the students reflected on their learning. Here are some ideas to help you get started:
1. Use A Small Set of Focused Questions to Get Started
A small set of focused and open-ended questions serves as a helpful guide to kickstart your journaling process. The idea is to use a small set of questions to guide you as you reflect on your day.
The process works as follows, at the end of every day set aside some time to reflect on your thoughts, feelings and reactions to the following questions:
- What worked today? What are the things I consider important work and did I do that today? How have you spent your time? Benjamin Franklin focused his reflection, at the end of the day on what good he did, by asking himself “what good have I done today?
- What didn’t work today? How much time did I waste? What have I learnt?
- What’s next? What does tomorrow look like? What are the three most important tasks I want to accomplish tomorrow?
You don’t have to answer these questions directly, but rather use them as a guide for your writing. Write in your journal about what you did during the day, how you felt, where you failed, and what you didn’t get time to do.
The idea is to write in a stream of consciousness about the day, exploring what you did, where you failed and how you felt about the experience.
2. Don’t Create Too Much Structure
Keep your journaling fairly unstructured. Too much structure will kill the creative process and your motivation. Keeping the process simple and unstructured helps to ensure it gets done every day.
There is no one right way to keep a journal, there is only the way that works for you. So fee free to adjust your journaling process until it works for you. Initially the most important thing is that you get into the habit of reflecting on your day.
3. Look for Patterns and Ways to Improve
Once you have been journaling for a few months, take some time to read through your entries. As you read look for patterns, are there recurring themes, thoughts, emotions or habits? What can you learn from these patterns? Is there anything you need to change to become more effective?
Taking time every few months to review your journal is a powerful way to strengthen your personal leadership.
Journaling is a really powerful personal development tool. It helps you learn, grow and improve. It keeps you focused on what matters most. Why not start a leadership journal today?
If you do decide to start a journal. Please reach out to me at some point and let me know how it has worked for you. Thanks.