Journaling into Leadership

"Writing has been an important exercise to clarify what I believe, what I see, what I care about, what my deepest values are. The process of converting a jumble of thoughts into coherent sentences makes you ask tougher questions." ~ Barack Obama, Former President of the United States of America, Time's interview.

Obama speaks of journaling — setting time aside to organize one's private thoughts and dreams, with the aid of written language, utterly without judgment. This very act uncovers spaciousness. New solutions orient themselves in mesmerizing patterns like iron filaments around a magnet. We energize ourselves with the visibility of our own resourcefulness. As such, journaling is a powerful pathway into more effective leadership. It has, in fact, long been a habit for many successful leaders, including also Abraham Lincoln, Marcus Aurelius, Charles Darwin, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Susan Sontag, and the scientist Oliver Sachs. 

For me as well, journals have been part of my life for decades. Writing down what burdens me and what inspires me has brought me insight and the motivation to move forward. It has healed pain and conflict. It has deepened joy and gratitude. When opening the page, my writing hand may shake with resistance, but eventually my chatter becomes quiet wisdom. Clarity and trust may emerge. New intentions, dreams and possibilities surface. A renewed sense of ease. 

Journals offer an invitation to explore our inner powerful questions in absolute safety. They also send us back out into the world, urging us onward with what what we discovered. "What do you notice?" the journal asks. "What are you learning? How are you growing? How do you want to show up? Who do you want to be? And why?” 

Professor James Pennebaker a leading scientist in the field, made headlines as early as 1986 documenting the therapeutic benefits of writing about traumatic or stressful events. Since, many other studies have shown that benefits of journaling include greater physical health, a stronger immune system, lessening depression and anxiety, stronger social connections and higher-quality relationships. It increases focus. You sleep better too. 

 credit: unsplash | dustin lee

credit: unsplash | dustin lee

How can you start to journal in meaningful ways? There are no rules. Journaling takes many shapes, from mind-mapping or quick bullet journals to penning free-associative morning pages and gratitude notes. The purpose is always the same: A space for us to be and grow. To help us forward. To own our wholeness. A few things are key, however. A 2002 study shows how journaling can be effective in processing stressful events in positive ways, provided that the writer uses the journal to understand the event. So a cognitive factor must pair with the emotion. This means that you could ask yourself: How can I reframe this?  What is the opportunity that is available to me? Who do I want to be when this is behind me?

If you are looking for some clear direction, a good guide is The Five Minute Journal: A Happier You in 5 Minutes a Day. It offers a simple, effective and structured format. But, really, all you need to get started are a good pen, a notebook, and a daily few minutes of quiet space. What you jot down may be anything that surfaces. It’s about clearing your head and accessing possibilities. Your writing can be a few sentences, or several pages, a few minutes, or much longer. Just keep writing without stopping for whatever time or length allotted. Aim to write regularly, as a routine, and allow it to become something to look forward to.  

What about journaling on an electronic device? Lots of handy apps are available. My own thought is that digital journaling is not the same as handwriting. Writing by hand stimulates all areas of the brain. It is so kinetic that it allows us to go into essential stuff. Writing by hand may feel strange at first, but your pen will guide you. Still, if you can't get used to paper and pen, by all means, get your apps going! 

“In the journal I do not just express myself more openly than I could to any person; I create myself." ~ Susan Sontag. 


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