Getting better as a manager takes discipline. While the idea of keeping a diary of your work life may seem strange, it’s actually central to establishing how you can improve — provided that you do it the right way. As the works of the philosopher John Dewey suggest, we do not learn from experience; we learn from reflecting on experience.
Consider the case of “Hal,” who had just been promoted to sales director of his global company’s biggest and most successful region.
My biweekly Zoom call with Hal revealed that things were going poorly. Feedback from his direct reports was ice-cold. He spent most of his time in his office, hardly participated in meetings, and did not contribute or lead. He admitted that he was overwhelmed. The territory was too big and complex for him to get his head around, and he was concerned he would let down the executive who promoted him.
At my urging, he started writing down daily observations of his ways of working with colleagues, which he shared with me. After a month, things seemed to have turned around completely. His reflections were sharper, clearer, and more detailed. He felt more in control.
I did a 360-degree feedback review to confirm. Sure enough all of his colleagues and direct reports told me that after a wobbly start, Hal was now fully on top of his role. Of course, he had made this happen by changing his approach, not merely by committing to journaling. But the journaling was crucial in helping him to identify his challenges and overcoming them.
Practiced Effectively, Journaling Works
We’re far more in touch with observations if we write them down. Research reveals that people who repeat a task or solve a problem more than once perform better if they reflect on what they did before taking on the problem again.
Is it enough to simply sit down and think through your day? Why does it matter if you reflect in writing? Because writing creates much stronger neural structures than mere thoughts. Your working memory is limited, making it harder to draw insights from your full set of experiences. And writing helps mitigate emotional judgments; the act of journaling creates objectivity that’s not available when just reflecting on emotionally charged incidents. Writing also requires you to organize and edit your ideas, sharpening your thinking skills.
What should you put in your journal entries? Whatever is important to you, especially those things about yourself that you hope to improve. Block out a recurring time on your calendar and commit to journaling even on the most stressful and jam-packed days. In fact, on your hardest days, you’re likely to find journaling is a powerful release and a way to regain agency over the things that seem out of control.
Here’s a framework for journaling as a way to improve your performance on a specific goal.
- Write down what you’re grateful for. This could include things like good health, a supportive spouse, effective staff, support of supervisors, or technology tools that make your work easier. As the psychologist John Arden has shown, writing down things you’re grateful for reduces the risk of depression and anxiety, increases optimism, improves your sleep, lowers your blood pressure, and enables you to form deeper relationships. Regularly looking for what makes you feel proud and grateful builds the neurons associated with those emotions, helping you to develop a more positive outlook.
- Document the emotions you felt most strongly during the day. Labeling emotions, especially negative ones, leads to relief. Research shows that when people are emotionally aroused, simply describing their emotional state reduces activity in the part of the brain that controls emotions. Suppressing negative emotions, instead of acknowledging them, just causes them to keep popping up, out of your control. On the other hand, describing positive emotions reinforces them, making them easier to access in the future.
- What avoidable mistakes did you make? Based on my experience with clients, writing down your mistakes can help you reduce them by as much as 50 per cent. Writing them down helps you remember them, and if you know you’re going to have to write them down you’re more likely to avoid them in the first place.
- What were your key conversations and meetings? Make a table describing your meetings: who you met with, what worked well, and what you could do better, in just a few words. People are a major source of stress, especially when your interactions with them are not optimal. Keeping score in this way helps you grow your skills in understanding people and forming productive relationships.
Journaling is Not Just for Problems
I’ve seen journaling succeed in many situations. For example, “Cathy,” a McKinsey consultant recovering from a devastating performance review, felt isolated and weak compared to peers and colleagues, resulting in a vicious cycle of poor performance. As she described it to me, journaling “helped me with both emotional healing and professional growth. Writing about my experiences enabled me to distance myself emotionally from them, see them from different angles, and think constructively about what I could learn from them, as well as what I should do differently next time.” Reflecting on her interactions with others, her emotional state, and what worked and didn’t helped her to discover the tools to manage those interactions more effectively. She has now grown into a high performer.
And “Tim,” who suffered from towering performance anxiety despite being an acknowledged star performer, used journaling to recognize how the absence of a clear framework for how to solve problems was causing him to feel a lack of control. “I started to reflect on these situations, discuss them with colleagues, and make action plans to break down and analyze them so I could build a case repository for how to best deal with stress in different situations,” he recalled. “Daily journaling has taught me that I can always control what goes on inside my mind, ruthlessly focus on the most critical goal of the day, and make sure I bring distinct delivery on what really matters.”
Keeping a work diary might seem strange. And if you just write down random thoughts, it’s a waste of time. But if you focus on gratitude, emotions, mistakes, and interactions, journaling will help you develop a more realistic and clearer understanding of what is going on and how to make it better. That’s a path to rapid, consistent improvement — and you’ll be happier while you’re doing it, too.