a book shelf

Dear Diary

The need to ponder and reflect is a basic human need and a valuable mechanism of evolution. It supports us in learning from an experience which ensured survival. In today’s complex world, we continue to benefit hugely from learning through reflection, but often we don’t have (or don’t make?) time for a deeper reflective practice that goes beyond thinking or talking about our day.

But the desire is there! ‘Reflective journaling’ returns over 1.2 million Google search results. Amazon sells over 1000 books with ‘reflective journal’ in their title. It’s clearly something people want to find out about. Reflective journaling might be the most prevalent approach to reflection, and this post focuses on writing. But reflection can of course be achieved through other means than writing, for example through a visual art journal or sketchbook.

Reflection provides the opportunity to process and integrate experiences and let them inform our future actions. This learning can be two-fold:

  1. learning about the world and others
  2. learning about ourselves

Learning about the world is particularly important in a world that’s changing constantly, quickly and in deep and significant ways. When we reflect on new situations and unfamiliar encounters (and our way of responding to them), we understand what has worked and what hasn’t led to a beneficial outcome. By putting ourselves in others’ shoes we develop empathy and compassion for those around us.

Learning about ourselves occurs when we make our typical patterns and responses visible through reflection. This includes emotional responses which we may not want to share with others. We can therefore attend to our emotional world as the journal offers a container to hold all kinds of experiences and feelings. Reflecting on emotional patterns builds self-regulation skills, resilience and emotional intelligence. When we use a reflective practice in the workplace, it helps us identify areas for learning and development. It can therefore inform the sometimes dreaded appraisal conversation and turn this into a shared reflection – not all reflection has to be a solitary activity. Reflection can be used as a tool for self-motivation and encouragement as it makes our progress visible, no matter how small the steps. Teresa Amabile has done extensive research on the importance of identifying and acknowledging progress in the workplace.

For learning to happen we must find a way of effectively capturing the key insights. There is always a risk of losing them in the constant busyness of our minds or in a sea of written notes. That why I find a written reflective practice so valuable. I have written about my process to find what works for me before. It is based on Julia Cameron’s Morning Pages, but I now call my practice ‘Anytime Pages’, acknowledging the original approach of Julia Cameron, just with the twist that I’m writing them whenever it works for me. I figured going a little rogue on the original concept is better than not getting into a habit of daily writing at all.

But doesn’t all this writing just create more stuff? More words? More cognitive load? It’s true, even three pages a day create a lot of words, and I felt the need to reduce my writing to memorable key insights. Some people promote the idea to trust that whatever is meaningful will automatically stick. But as a recovering ‘high achiever’, I needed to process my pages in some way. In order to build a habit around my writing it had to feel useful and purposeful beyond the act of writing.

I achieve this simplification with one of my favourite art therapy processes: key words. Whenever something resonates with me, surprises me or somehow feels important, I underline it. Every now and then I write all my underlined words or phrases onto a sheet of paper. Sometimes I do this after a couple of weeks, sometimes when I have filled a journal (which takes me roughly two months). Collecting these key words helps me to record my insights in a reduced manner.

They become something I can USE:

Unexpected – my underlining is guided by my curiosity. I often underline what feels new or surprising, sometimes even dissonant, that makes my key words relevant and worth following up on as part of learning about myself.

Simple – just some key phrases – for example: from my last journal (they are just under 200 pages) I have collected five themes. This makes is manageable.

Emotional – key words resonate with me on a deeper level which in itself means they touch something inside me. Our brains have developed in a way to remember emotionally charged situations or content better than just factual stuff.

As with every creative process – it only needs to make sense to you. If you want to have a stab at developing a reflective practice here is my suggested approach to start with – remember to adjust it to whatever works for you: 

  • Get a cheap journal, nothing fancy.
  • Use stream of consciousness writing, simply let the words flow without censoring or editing, ignore spelling and grammar.
  • Consider writing with pencil, it allows you to write fast, which is often important for stream of consciousness writing, and with little pressure (good for a daily habit, avoids any repetitive strain injuries…)
  • I don’t recommend typing, writing longhand seems to help me get into the flow of writing, it feels more personal and intimate, there are fewer distractions to manage. There is a form of body memory when I’ve written something by hand rather than typed it, which again supports the end goal of learning from my reflections.
  • As suggested by Julia Cameron, I write three A4 pages each day. It helps turning it into a habit and is achievable on a daily basis.
  • If you can’t get started, tune into your mind and write whatever internal chatter you hear, It might be thoughts like: I don’t know what to write, I’m bored, what a waste of time…Write that down, it’s a start.
  • I underline as I write. With some practice you will notice the little jolt in your body when something you just wrote is important, resonates and should be captured as key words.
  • Review all your key words regularly. You decide what ‘regular’ is for you. It can be every two weeks or when you have filled a journal. Whatever feels right. But set aside some time to sit with these words.
  • Don’t get disheartened by a few days without major insights and little or no underlining. The good stuff will bubble up eventually. Sometimes it’s like doing some stretches before you start a workout. Give yourself time to warm up.

Sometimes I create a little ‘poetic reduction’ or a tagline from my key words (hello, marketing background!). This is a way to reduce things further. But that approach is another post altogether.

Go get a journal and start writing, you’ll be surprised how much wisdom you carry inside you!

If you have any questions around this topic, email me, I’m happy to share my experience. 


Find out more about my work at Sensemaking Space

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