Reflective practice and journaling

bigstockphoto_Organizer_Pen_Books_2328499Journaling has been recognised as a powerful instrument for personal development for as far back as we can tell. It isn’t for everyone, but at least giving it a try may help you identify another way of doing something that is better for you. Keeping a journal has long been associated with the leaders of the world. Politicians, statesmen (and -women), spies, military campaigners, and explorers have often kept a journal of their exploits. It is one of the key tools of ‘reflective practice’ – recognised since Roman days, re-invented in the 1930s by John Dewey, and then formalised in a modern context in the 1980s by several authors.

1. What is journaling?

It is the habit of keeping a written record of your life – usually in prose – and generally close to the time of real events. (Many people write one last thing at night or at a consistent time once a week – Winston Churchill is said to have always written 500 words every day – many of these were in the form of journal entries). Entries are usually kept in some kind of chronological order.

2. Why is it so useful in personal development?

While a few people stick to a matter of fact log of the events of the day, ‘proper’ journalists add their interpretation or conjectures about the events. They may also add their emotional responses. This makes the record far more personal and far more valuable in the long term. By considering these dimensions we can learn a great deal about ourselves and our responses to events. The sequence described in Gibbs (1988) was Description, Feelings, Evaluation (was it good or bad?), Analysis, Conclusions, and finally an Action – even if it isn’t detailed.

3. What exactly do I write?

There are no hard and fast rules. Here’s one simple example: “Attended the XYZ event this evening and had an excellent conversation with YY about ZZ. I do find her company enjoyable and it’s obvious that others around her do too. I admit she is stunning, though there’s no prospect of a relationship! It is her grasp of current affairs and her positive attitude that is so refreshing. It would be good to find ways of engaging with more people like her. I wonder how I can get to do so?”

4. Some practicalities…

While there are dedicated software tools around for journaling. Indeed, some forms of blogging are a form of journaling – though few blogs are that self-analytical. Most people that write about keeping journals still seem to prefer a bound notebook and a pen of some kind. Despite a digital version being safer, there’s something reassuringly secure about writing in a book that can be locked away in a desk drawer.

5. Overcoming the first hurdle

Like so many things, starting to keep a journal is the daunting step. Once you have begun, and experienced the benefits, it can be a rewarding creative activity. I always suggest getting a nice notebook, a pen that you feel comfortable writing with, and coming to an agreement with yourself that you will devote 20 minutes to keeping the journal for a week. Challenge yourself to be selective – don’t write everything but just the highlights or events that were unexpected. Once you’ve done the factual bit, just ask yourself “So what?” and “What shall I do about it?” Add a few more words to address these questions.

6. Using a coach

Of course, I’d say this, but the role of a coach or counsellor in the process of reflective practice has been acknowledged widely since the 1930s. This approach to leadership development has also been suggested by some as one means of improving the governance of organisations. The coach is there to help you explore your interpretation of events and to extract the learning from them – they are not a judge or critic.

7. Your personal advisory board

If having a coach isn’t practical, try thinking of half-a-dozen people who you respect or whose views seem valuable and insightful. They may be people you know, they can be well known individuals, or even fictional characters. When trying to interpret your journal, ask yourself what they would make of it. What would they be saying to you if you asked them? This ‘virtual advisory board’ is a useful panel for all kinds of decision making.

8. Some alternatives to a written journal

I’ve already mentioned blogging. Some people find it easier to produce an audio journal – there’s a platform that offers this too – This is fine – there are also some good tools for producing audio transcriptions ones. You could also set up a notebook within Evernote and even add photos and sound recordings to entries on there.

9. Whatever form you use, remember that it’s the analysis that leads to action

A lot of people are good at writing detailed descriptions of who said what to whom, but this doesn’t usually lead to insightful learning. Instead it often forms the basis of post-hoc rationalisation. It’s worth asking yourself which steps are the tough ones when you write something. To take the example in (3) above, the critical question is “How can I engage with more people like this?” That said, if I was coaching this person I would be wanting to know about their existing network and why there were too few such people in it, whether this says something about their own personality and state of emotional connection with other people.

10. A work of art…

And finally, don’t forget that when you are famous your journal will be an invaluable tool in the production of your memoirs, autobiography, books and other publications. How do you think politicians like Clinton, Blair, and many others manage to produce a memoir so quickly after they left politics? They drew almost entirely on their journal.

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