How to reflect as a Leader

August 7, 2019 ☼ LeadershipRemote Work

For new readers: To get started in this series - go to the first post.

In the third post of the series Be an effective leader in a remote team”, I am writing about keeping a journal.

I would consider myself an introvert. I tend to be shy, quiet and prefer to spend a lot of time thinking and reflecting. Often I end up not being able to share exactly what I think, though. I have this perfect argument or thought played out in my head, but when it’s time to express it in words I end up stuttering and stalling until I just give up. Most of the bigger meetings I was in, I kept to myself, and only shared smaller bits and pieces.

Keeping a journal has helped me to understand this on a much deeper level and showed me how I can turn it around and leverage it, in becoming a better leader.

Want to learn how a journal became my translator between my thoughts and the world? Read on and I will give some of my tips and tricks.

Analog or digital that’s the questions!

We live in the great age of technology, almost everything can be done in a digital way. That is true for taking notes and journaling and for many other things. There are tons of apps, and websites out there helping you with these two things. Journal Apps, Note-taking Apps, etc.

Now only while they exist doesn’t mean they are good or will help you. There are a lot of studies that provide enough information to almost convince anyone reading this, that writing by hand is the better way to taking notes. Just looking at this one study. It talks about how Handwriting helps you to learn and remember faster, and also it exercises your skill to use your own words. Writing at a laptop or other devices encourages verbatim, mindless transcription of what is being said. You tend to write much more on a laptop, but the content and what you’ll remember is far less.

Writing things down in your own words can be really powerful, first it helps to cultivate your own language and it also helps you with active listening. I recently wrote about this, active listening is a crucial part in becoming a leader and/or manager especially in remote teams. While listening and noting down thoughts in your own words, and also marking questions you might have, will help you to rephrase what has been said.

Paper is also just fast, easier and more flexible. You won’t have any notifications pop in and distract you, plus it is also healthier for your eyes. Don’t get me wrong I am a very technical person, and would like to use my iPhone or iPad for everything. I tried, but a notebook and a fountain pen are just not replaceable. There is another tiny factor, but this might be a personal one. Writing with a fountain pen and checking things off on paper, feels really satisfying to me. And as I recently read in a book called Atomic Habits, making something satisfying helps tremendously in building your habits 🙌

To satisfy my longing for more tech and great apps, I am using both in conjunction. My notebook is always with me and open in front of me while I work. At the same time I use a ToDo List App to collect task which are further in the future or need more detailed planning and resources around it. I can’t write down cancel my phone contract next year in May 2020” and keep this task around in my notebook for 10 months. I might not even have the same notebook anymore. This is where I just move it into my electronic brain, to remind me when it is time.

Find a system that works for you

Keeping a journal and writing in it everyday sounds easy. It doesn’t involve a lot to prepare and you can almost do it everywhere.

There are a lot of different systems out there: Gratitude Journal, 5 Year Journal, Morning Pages, Bullet Journal, etc. It all starts to get confusing pretty early on. Once you start looking into them, you’ll spend more time on finding the right system than actually journalling or taking notes. I tried some of them and almost all failed for me because of various reasons.

The first thing you need to do is build the habit. I won’t spend time here and go into habit building, that would be too much for this post, but check out some of the best books about the topic (The Power of Habit, Atomic Habits).

What worked for me was:

And that is what I did. I mixed different things I learned from all the various Journal types and created my own system. That system that worked for me. And I would highly encourage you to do the same. Get inspired but don’t spend time on learning a system to take notes. Get a notebook and a pen and start, do what feels right and natural to you.

Write down what has happened, what you have to do, whatever is currently on your mind. Initially that might feel a bit overwhelming. I had this feeling of, only wanting to write great things in my notebook, like DaVinci 😂. I noticed soon enough that this wasn’t the right way to approach it. The important part is to keep up the habit, and write everything down. Don’t care about how it looks and what the content is, get it out of your head.

If you find a way to do this in a structured way for yourself, awesome. You found your system. Once you’ve build that habit you can always improve on it or make it more complex. But for the beginning, start easy!

Here is how my system looks for taking daily notes, todo’s and other general thoughts. I use a dot-grid notebook (mine has about 250 pages). I dedicate half of it to daily-journaling (let’s call it Journal) and the other half for taking notes when I read, or longer thoughts (let’s call this my Bucket). The journal is pretty straightforward as you can see in the picture. I use some of the Bullet Journal annotation to mark different items, but also added some of my own to it. I have a date headline, followed by a part that is used for tasks, and underneath I put any short notes, thoughts or questions that popped up throughout the day. Pretty basic right?

I use the journal notes section also to take notes while I am in meetings, any follow-ups I have to do, or messages I have to send. This has really helped me to be productive and not forget things. It is also a great spot to prepare for meetings and laying out my thoughts.

The Bucket Section is my favourite part. I use it to write down longer thoughts I have and don’t want to loose, or all my note when reading a book. As Benjamin Franklin said: Never read a book without a pen in your hand”. It is having a tremendous effect on my learnings. First I write my notes in my own words, that means the thought I am writing down becomes immediately mind”. But it also helps with remembering it far easier, than just copy and pasting it in my digital notebook.

What I learned after journaling for 8 weeks

After investing so much time into my system, did it actually help me? I think it did. Yes! The two biggest improvements I’ve seen until now are related to reflection and productivity.

Having the possibility to just turn back a couple of pages and check what you wrote there is really helpful. It just feels more natural than filtering an application by date or something similar. Another benefit is that reflecting on the past days/weeks allows me to structure my thinking in a better way, improve my actions and learn from my mistakes. It teaches you to become more self-aware.

Writing with my fountain pen, outside of being fun, also helps me to remember things better. Notes I took on my devices are harder to remember (I have to be aware though that I’ve just started this practice recently).

It helps me tremendously to prepare for meetings and laying out my thoughts. Something I struggled with for a long time, as I mentioned in the intro. Having a journal and being able to write notes in there before the meeting, plus having it in front of me all the time, changed my work life. Becoming more active in listening in meetings was also a nice side-effect. Trying to follow and take personal notes, while noting down eventual questions was a great little hack to become a better active listener.

I also feel less stressed when I know that I’ve noted it down. I know that I will get back to it eventually either today or tomorrow. The sense of having it written down by hand is so much different for me. Similar to this is the feeling at the end of the day, looking back at your notes from the day and knowing that you did stuff. In our ToDo Apps we often don’t see the ToDo anymore after it is checked off. When I finish working every evening, looking back in my journal gives me a good sense of I’ve done stuff today” and at the same time I know that all the things I didn’t get done, while be still there tomorrow.

Finishing with a little quote I found in the World Wide Web: Documenting little details of your everyday life becomes a celebration of who you are” (Carolyn V. Hamilton)

I think keeping a journal will help everyone to become a better human and a better leader at work. Start small and don’t get lost in all the different systems. Do what works for you and keep doing it. You’ll start to notice the benefits soon enough.