Five Reasons Every Leader Should Keep a Journal

I just unwrapped the cellophane from a brand new Moleskine journal. I get a thrill every time I break open a new notebook, move the tassel to page one, and embark on filling its 240 acid-free pages.

This is Moleskine journal Volume 21, the other 20 five-inch by eight-inch volumes line my shelf like soldiers at attention. I fill three to four of these notebooks a year, writing in them most every day, and regard this habit as a personal secret to success.

My musings are not the “Dear Diary …” kind of prattle we normally attribute to the practice. In fact, it’s just the opposite. A decade plus of journaling has captured some of my deepest thoughts and most difficult emotions and has helped me process each in the pursuit of leadership excellence. The same can be true for you.

Here are five reasons why every leader should keep a journal, with some practical tips on how to get started.

1. Keep a journal to gain greater focus

This is the first, great gift journal keeping gives to every leader: focus. The pace of business today is so intense that we spin like tops from one meeting to the next and one email to the next with no real sense of purpose or direction.

Writing in a journal 15-30 minutes, three to four times a week allows you to step back from the spinning and look at the bigger picture. It lets you reflect. It forces you to ask the question, “Is what I’m doing right now the most important thing I should be doing right now?”

That’s a focus question, and it’s focus that separates leaders who lead from leaders who drown in the rising tide of demands, details, and deadlines.

And this is why I recommend physical writing in an actual physical notebook using an actual physical pen when you journal, and not digital data entry using an electronic device. The act of writing slows you down. The deliberate motion of pen on paper forces you to reflect in a way that keyboarding at 50 words a minute doesn’t (Okay … 20 words a minute, but you get the idea).

You don’t need to go all Moleskine Hard Cover Ruled Notebook like I do. Any pad of paper and any pen will work. But write, don’t type, and you’ll find greater clarity and gain greater focus as you do.

2. Keep a journal to unravel thorny problems

What do you write about in your journal? Not junior high obsessions about who likes whom (or not) and who’s dissing whom (or will). The first thing to write about are the problems you’re facing as a leader right now.

Why write about problems?

Because when we try to keep problems bottled up inside our head, they have an odd way of getting bigger and bigger. But when we get them down on paper, they become much more manageable, more reasonable, more solve-able, which is, more often than not, the brilliant by-product of jounraling.

Productivity guru David Allen observes, “The mind is for having thoughts not for holding them.” And while he was referring to capturing the natty details of life in a master things-to-do list, the principle applies to life’s bigger issues as well.

3. Keep a journal to process negative emotions

While you’re processing thorny problems in your journal, use the same practice to process negative emotions. This is critical for leaders to do because of the phenomenon known as emotional contagion. I wrote about emotional contagion in a recent blog article, and you can read that article here: How to Sneeze: 10 Keys to Positive Emotional Contagion.

The upshot is that human beings are affected by their external environment, both physically and emotionally. An airborne virus infects people with the cold or flu, and negative emotion infects people with even worse maladies. As leaders we have control over the environment we create, transferring positive or negative emotion to the people we come in contact with.

Which brings us back to journaling.

Instead of sneezing on people—and those people include your family and friends—get the snot out of your system in the pages of your journal. If the same emotions keep creeping up again and again, do some deeper work and find out why. The bottom line, though, is this: you’ll increase the effectiveness of your leadership when you don’t make everyone you work with sick from your bad mood.

4. Keep a journal to make a decision before making a decision

This is perhaps the most practical use of my journal over the years: making decisions before making decisions. Let me explain.

Once an important decision has been made, there’s usually no turning back. The bullet’s been shot and unintended consequences begin to mount. Things you didn’t even think about in the consideration process.

What if there were a way to avoid all that?

Whenever you need to make a critical decision, think it through thoroughly in your journal. Consult others about that decision and record their advice in your journal. Then make that decision in your journal only, not in real life, and live with that decision for a week or two (or even more). Take note during this time of all the repercussions of that decision—feel them in your gut. And if they’re overwhelmingly negative, guess what? You can easily un-decide that decision, because all you did was make it in your journal. No harm, no foul.

More than once this process has spared me from a foolish choice I would have lived to regret.

5. Keep a journal to track progress over time

Four years ago I started long distance running. As I did, I wrote down my workouts and my races in—you guessed it—my journal. What’s great about this written record is that I can go back and see the progress I’ve made over the years, from barely being able to finish my first 5K to completing a half marathon (and the 50 pounds of fat lost in-between).

Daily workouts, as with any daily activity, rarely have this kind of dramatic progress. Progress comes slowly over time, so we easily miss it. And miss the joy it brings to celebrate success.

This is one of the weaknesses in my leadership. With my head down in driver mode, I tend to plow from one project to the next without taking the time to truly enjoy what I’ve completed. The net on this is a giant sucking sound in my soul: debilitating emotional depletion, both within myself and within the people who help me get these projects done.

So this fifth, and certainly not final, reason to keep a journal is to experience more joy in life. To remember to reward yourself. To celebrate more.

Here’s how to get started keeping a journal:

  • Get a notebook that’s the style and size you like.
  • Get a pen you enjoy writing with.
  • Set aside 15-30 minutes, 3-4 times a week to write in your journal. Put that appointment in your calendar, if you must, to keep it protected from other demands.
  • Write about your leadership challenges (also known as problems), emotions, decisions, and anything else that comes to mind.
  • Write about your reflections on faith and family, time and eternity, and anything else that comes to mind.
  • Record your goals and keep track of their progress, both professionally and personally.
  • Review what you’ve written and write some more.
  • Take your journal with you everywhere you go until it becomes an indispensable part of your leadership.