As leaders of living systems, the ability to reflect is one of the most important disciplines to develop. Over the years we have found that, at particularly difficult times in life, when confused and disheartened, and times of exhilaration when life is filled with joy and happiness, the journaling practice helps center us and provides a space for reflection and learning.

The Internet is filled with journaling advice, and journaling workshops abound. Most journaling teachers describe different kinds of writing such as “daily log,” “period log,” “dream log,” “dialogues.”

Regardless of the style of writing you choose to practice, the most significant part of journaling is that it’s yours–to be listened to by you without comment or judgment, received, not analyzed. Journaling provides disciplined attention to your own experience and your own words, allowing you to absorb your own experience and take it seriously.

Extremely difficult situations with enormous emotion attached can unfold in your journal, to be thought through from what might become a completely new perspective. You can later review your responses to situations in privacy without quick judgment from someone else. Journaling allows you to cope with significant events in your leadership role and offers a refuge to work on other things unfolding in your life.
Journaling will show you that understanding is really more important than critiquing. The more practice you put into this work, the more you will deepen opportunities for understanding self and others.

Many leaders enjoying this writing practice describe their reflections as stepping-stones to deeper understanding of the professional practice patterns. Following the advice of Peter Senge, remember: patterns are not random. When repetitive leadership responses appear in our writing, we should look for the underlying mental models and structures causing the pattern. This becomes a superior way to reflect on the source of our behavior, coming to see what it is that defines us as a leader.

Although encouragement for a writing practice needs little additional support, sometimes the journal gets lost in the process of leading. When you notice that you’ve stopped, commit to writing this afternoon. It’s just that simple. The most common explanation for setting aside the journal is usually time-- many leaders with challenging careers have households with kids, cats, dogs, aging parents and responsibility for may people and things. There just doesn’t seem time to keep a journal. But leaders tell us that they are ready to occasionally set the journal aside for the sake of time only after they have internalized the discipline of personal reflection. Reflecting as a practitioner will serve you well in your personal life or as a professional leader.

There are a few standard methods for journaling, but the ones that you use are the right ones for you. Don’t be surprised that these methods change from time to time along the learning way, or that you may employ multiple journaling techniques. The main thing is to keep writing. The following are a few techniques and methods to get you started.

Reflective Journaling-
This form of journaling invites the journal writer to take a few minutes at the end of a busy day or event to capture the day’s or event’s interactions. Over time patterns in the response of the writer will unfold bringing awareness to a deeper level of structures and beliefs and attitudes which produce patterns in our lives ( p.20, Thinking Systems Thinking). Simply, a telephone conversation that the writer viewed as going well, or a meeting where the outcomes were clear and commitments occurred as well as any other interactions that resonate or stick with the learner are useful for a journal entry. The most important aspect of Reflective Journaling is persistence. Typically, this characteristic of journaling allows the pattern to emerge more rapidly. Idiosyncratic journaling will unfold the patterns over a longer period of time.

Reflective journaling can provide a time to decompress after a significant event. The writer can produce all the feelings and attitudes that surfaced before, during and after in the safe space of the journal. Not only a catharsis but a chance for deeper learning about self is a useful outcome of this type of Reflective Journaling practice.

Metacognitive Journaling-
Typically, a higher level of critical thinking occurs when one is aware of one's thought processes. In a Metacognitive Journal, learners analyze their own thought processes following an incident, a meeting, a reading or any other type of event. While using the Metacognitive Journal Method, learners reflect on their thinking as the event was unfolding. The following key questions can be used a a Metacognitive Journaling prompt.

Key journal questions: What happened? What was I thinking during the episode? What enabled you to learn the most from this experience? What would you do differently, if anything, next time you are facing a similar situation?

Stream of Consciousness Journaling-
This technique invites writers to just keep writing for a few minutes and capture what they a thinking. At first, this seems simple, however, it is a struggle for some to overcome the desire to write down a chronological set of events or describe in detail a situation or event. Do your best to relax into the process and notice your thinking. This is a great method for working on those wicked problems life presents from time to time.

Another type of Metacognitive Journaling comes from the work of two long-time organizational researchers and theorists, Donald Schon and Chris Argyris.

Left and Right Hand Column Journaling--
The Left and Right Hand Column journal technique is an adaptation of Argyris and Schon’s Left Hand column designed to surface organizational defensive routines. In similar ways, this journaling technique assists the journal writer in surfacing their mental models enacted during a conversation.
In the traditional left-hand column exercise, people choose a difficult situation and reconstruct a related essential conversation. In the right-hand column, they write down what was said. In the left, they describe what they were thinking and/or feeling, but failed to say. The difficult situation becomes a “mini” case study where people can examine their own thinking, as well as the messy and often systemic problems which underlie the difficult situation and conversation.
This journaling technique invites learners to restate or summarize the conversation being studied by listing the statements made in the right hand journal column. In the left hand page or column, journal writers articulate what they were thinking or feeling at that point in the conversation. The left hand column entry may include a comment, a question, a connection made, an analysis. etc.

Action Learning Journal Technique--
This method provides a simple direct way to begin the journaling discipline. At the conclusion of a day, a charged interaction, a week, a celebration or the culmination of a project, this technique supports personal learning and change in future responses to similar situations. Briefly describe the event in question and record the following three responses. The act of writing reinforces your learning and saves your ideas for future use.

Divide your journal page into three sections and place the following headings on top of each section: "What I Did," "What I Learned," and "How I Can Use It." Respond to the first prompt , “What I Did”, in as much detail as you feel necessary. Once your actions are recorded move on to the next two columns and indicate your learnings (What I Learned.) and future applications (How Can I Use It?). These are the central points for any After Action Review, a phrase coined by the U.S. Military and used expansively in private and public sectors world-wide.

Personal Dialogue Journaling--
This type of journaling can be fun and insightful because it introduces You to You through personal dialogue.. Ask yourself a question and then answer it in writing. Provoke yourself to go deeper into a conversation with yourself around the question and let it flow without inhibition and see what You have to say! Continue until you have peace about your learning or find a resolution.

Author's Bio: 

Raymond D. Jorgensen, Ph.D. – Director of the Jorgensen Learning Center
Ray spent thirty years in America’s private and public schools as a teacher, coach, department head, collegiate faculty member and school administrator. Today he provides leadership development consultative services to a variety of public and private organizations and coaches the internal JLC leader consultants.

During his three decades of public service, Ray was called upon by various communities to present seminars on both the technical and personal sides of leadership, management and learning. These forays into public speaking defined Ray’s work with various businesses and organizations and ultimately led him to his current position as Director of the Jorgensen Learning Center. Ray has worked with public and private school systems, city and county governments, hospitals, banks, military, physicians’ offices, and a variety of private businesses as a keynote speaker, facilitator, and seminar-workshop leader. Ray’s professional consulting is defining programs as systemic efforts to develop the leadership capabilities needed for any organization to thrive.