Journaling is a powerful leadership practice that I recommend to all my executive coaching clients if they want transformative change in their leadership. Leadership guru Peter Drucker said “Follow effective action with quiet reflection. From the quiet reflection will come even more effective action.”

When I first started journaling, it was something I had to force myself to sit down and do. I am the kind of person who likes to be incredibly productive and efficient and I saw journaling as a waste of time. After all, there were many more productive things I could be doing – folding the laundry, catching up with friends on Facebook, flossing … you get the picture. And then I read data that suggests that all kinds of successful people, including US Presidents, had a daily practice of journaling. Well, that got my attention!

Journaling allows us to get greater insights and knowledge into ourselves and others, which is a core foundation of emotional intelligence. Emotional intelligence is one of the greatest drivers of our success and wellbeing as leaders. Research also suggests that journaling can improve our stress levels, our health, and feelings of wellbeing.

So, here are ten steps to a successful journaling practice:

1. Buy a Journal.  An important first step. You’d be surprised how many people procrastinate on this one. My first attempt was to write on the back of my grocery receipts or random airport napkins. At one point on a flight, having experienced a couple of great epiphanies, I even wrote on the back of two airsick bags. Now I find myself trying to find those epiphanies and can’t remember where I put the airsick bags! Net, I would recommend you start by buying a journal. Some people like to type their journal. I am old-fashioned and prefer pen and paper and writing in long hand. It keeps my penmanship sharp and my 5th grade English teacher would be so proud!

2. Find A Time and Place.  Lose Your Desire for Perfection. If you want to establish a habit, set aside a time (preferably first thing in the morning or at night before you go to bed). It’s important that the time be spent by yourself and without interruptions. If you take a train or bus to work, it’s a great time to journal (I would not recommend it while driving or operating heavy machinery). Having a time and place helps get us into a routine. Data suggests that it takes 21 days to establish a habit. So sit down with your journal for 21 days, even if the only thing you’re inspired to write in it is your grocery list.  Make it your “special me-time.” If you want to, you can put on your favorite music, sit in your favorite chair, make yourself your favorite cup of hot cocoa.  Give up the need to write in perfect prose or poetry. No one will be giving you a grade for penmanship or perfect grammar and spelling.  Just let the words flow without editing anything. You can edit later when you’re publishing your memoirs!

The next step is to figure out what you’re going to write about (I was just kidding about the grocery list journal!). Try each one of the steps below at least once and then see what resonates with you as you become more experienced at journaling.

3.  Write What You’re Grateful For. Write down five things you’re grateful for today.  Make them specific. There is enormous research on the power of gratitude on health, wellbeing, productivity and learning as reported by Robert Emmons, leading expert on the science of gratitude. Challenge yourself to keep a gratitude journal for 8 weeks and you’ll be hooked. Research shows people who kept a gratitude journal were less susceptible to the cold virus so at least start it before cold and flu season starts!

4.  Write Your Successes and Strengths. Many of us have a much easier time focusing on what needs to be improved rather than what went well. We’re perfectionists. Don’t wait until you achieve world peace to start writing about your successes. Here’s one I always find useful if I come up short. It’s one that I am almost sure each of us can put in the success bucket. We woke up this morning! It definitely beats the alternative. Be as specific as possible about your successes.  Women in particular have a hard time noting their successes because of social conditioning that we need to be modest. Give it up! Brag all you want with your journal. It will help you be more powerful the next time you’re asking for a promotion or a raise. You’ll be more confident in knowing you deserve it. Once you’ve noted your successes, think about what strengths you exercised in creating that success. Awareness and use of our strengths is one of the biggest drivers of our future success and wellbeing.

5.  Write Down Your Energizers. Write down what was particularly energizing or inspiring for you today. What were moments of joy and inspiration? Buddha said “Your work is to discover your work and then with all your heart to give yourself to it.” With a journaling practice, we start to pay attention to what inspires and motivates us. When we move our work toward these energizers we can be more engaged ourselves, and more powerfully engage others. Do a little bit (or a lot!) of what makes your heart sing every day. It’s what keeps us alive and vital.

6. Write What You Love About Others. Pick three people that you work with and write about their positive qualities. It’s easy to pick the people you like. But, here’s a challenge. Pick someone you dislike. Pick someone who irritates you and start to write down their positive qualities. Be curious about what it is within you that is irritated by them. Others go about their merry way being who they are, but obviously there is a “charge” within us that causes us to be irritated. These attributes that irritate you about others are likely attributes that you dislike within yourself. This curiosity is a great way for us to get better insight into ourselves and accept others and ourselves as we are.  When the only way we view someone is negative, then the opportunities that can be created with them are limited. A very powerful exercise to grow ourselves is to give up negative and blaming thoughts about others by forgiving them for what they did.

7.  Use Your Journal to Process Through Upsets and Gain Insight.  At different points during the day we are angry, upset, sad or fearful. Our journal can be a resource to help process through the emotions we feel. It certainly beats eating a whole batch of chocolate fudge brownies with extra chocolate chips! Trust me, I know from experience. According to this article, University of Texas at Austin psychologist and researcher James Pennebaker suggests that writing about stressful events helps us reduce the impact of these stressors on our health.  When writing about an event, write about what happened. Write about how it made you feel. Observe the feelings and see what you learned. Journaling gives us a great tool to observe ourselves. It can also help us separate what happened with the stories we create about what happened. As you journal about what upset you, see if there are patterns or “triggers” you find.

When I journal and observe, it is like I am the sky that watches the thunderstorms and knows that the sun will be out eventually. The sky does not feel itself to be the thunderstorms, just a witness to the thunder and lightning that is happening. It’s important that you put all your thoughts and feelings as truthfully as you experience them on the paper. It gets them off your mind where they can cause considerable collateral damage!

8.  Write down your dreams. Thoreau said “Go confidently in the direction of your dreams. Live the life you’ve imagined.” When do we take the time to dream our dreams? Journaling is great time to lose yourself in your imagination. Many times we don’t let ourselves dream because we’re afraid we’ll have to put ourselves out of our comfort zones to actually pursue what we dream about. Well, your journal is the place to dream. I promise there is no Journal Audit Committee that will review your journal to see if you’re actually in compliance with your dreams. So dream away! Savoring and thinking about our dreams gets our creative juices flowing and our unconscious mind starts to work on these dreams.

9.  Write Your Intentions for the Day or Important Events. Writing or rehearsing events before they happen allow the brain to be wired for success. Lots of great athletes actively engage in positive visualization exercises. Before an important meeting, perceive in your mind how you would like things to turn out and then write it down in the past tense as if the positive outcomes had already happened.

10.  Write down your goals and track them. A journal is a great way to write down your goals. Here’s a useful exercise when thinking about goals and creating powerful goals for yourself. Tracking your goals keeps them top of mind for you and keeps you accountable to taking action on the goals.

The idea with the journaling practice is to rewire your brain for greater optimism, resilience, insight, and love – all excellent leadership qualities.

If this resonated with you please comment, subscribe, and share with others.

Showing 11 comments
  • Susan Fletcher

    I liked the sound of Journaling but wondered how I would genuinely fit it in, balancing school runs, work, home, kids, work, exhaustion etc. So, I have made it part of the bedtime routine with my kids (8, 12). So, we can do the positive re-wiring together. I brought home some cool note books I had from conferences etc and let them choose. I wrote the tips in bright colors on a small whiteboard – made them sound a little less Executive – and we sit for a few minutes altogether and write our journal at bedtime, picking about 2 from the list, changing it up each time. And we share what we write. It’s been fun and a little revealing. My daughter is still struggling to find something nice to say about “Doug”! She swears even his parents wouldn’t be able to, so we’re working on that. So, the exercise is a good one and the kids always love quality time. I like anything that gets my 8 year old boy to write. And I get to write my journal when I couldn’t think how I’d carve out the time. Problem solved.

    • henna

      Hi Susan – What a great idea to combine journaling time with family time! You’re right it’s a great bonding activity and allows us to share our day and learn from one another. Thanks for sharing this idea with others.


  • Terri

    When Henna first suggested journaling, I was honest by telling her that it was not going to work for me. I followed that statement with proof points, rattling off my list of “why nots.” Henna listened attentively to my objections and responded matter of factly by asking me to try it for 21 days. I agreed, knowing in the back of my mind that I would prove my point that journaling was not for me.

    Well, it is long past 21 days and I have found journaling to be everything that Henna said it would be. Truly it is a transformative tool. I have used journaling to brainstorm, vent, express, comptemplate, dream, and learn. My mind is less cluttered with thoughts floating in and out, going nowhere. Now I am focused on gaining perspective on a large spectrum of things and have made discoveries about myself and others along the way. I have more clarity and strangely enough contentment.

    My journal is nothing fancy. It is a black book of lined pages. It would be non-descript except for the white block letters on the front that remind me each day as to why Henna is a journaling advocate: “Life isn’t about finding yourself. Life is about creating yourself.” With journaling as a tool, I am creating myself around balance, happiness and fulfillment.

    Try it for 21 days. What do you have to lose?

    • Henna

      Hi Terri –

      I am glad you’ve seen so many benefits from journaling. You deserve all the credit for being open to discovering something new. Question for you. For those for whom 21 days feels like a long time to try something to see if it works, I am curious as to when you started actually seeing the benefits of journaling?


      • Terri

        Hi Henna,

        You raise a good point. Twenty-one days may seem like a long time before seeing benefits. I saw benefits early into my exploration of journaling. The twenty-one days were key for me to be firmly grounded in the practice of journaling.


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