Journaling is a Dialogue with Yourself

A great dialogue can unfold when you seek to truly understand your partner. If you go into conversation with an open mind, ask meaningful questions and listen deeply, you can come away with powerful insights about the topic (and the speaker). With this framing in mind, I offer that the most meaningful journaling is really conducted as a dialogue. With yourself.

Previously, I mentioned the importance of making journaling a routine. But what exactly are you putting on the page?

Just as there’s no singular way to engage in conversation, there are just as many possibilities for journaling.

Positives

In her 2016 Harvard Business Review article, Want to Be an Outstanding Leader? Keep a Journal, Nancy Adler suggests leading your reflection time with some positive takeaways:

  • What was I thankful for today?
  • What did I do well today?
  • What did I learn today?

Responding to questions like these helps put your brain in a positive state of mind. The brain is easily threatened. Threat dampens your creativity, decreases your understanding of options, and leads to reactive, rather than proactive thinking. When you reduce threat and increase positivity, you increase your field of possibilities, engagement and motivation. In short, you raise your confidence and productivity.

Self Awareness

  • What made me laugh today?
  • What upset me today?
  • Did I feel successful today?
  • Did I disappoint myself today?
  • What inspired me today?

Self-awareness questions give you the chance to be a truth teller. You can acknowledge the good, the bad and the ugly, and your true thoughts and feelings about it all. You can improve your emotional intelligence by assessing your responses to various circumstances. You’re not judging yourself, you’re simply learning more about yourself. Gaining self-awareness helps you to become more intentional over time.

My Leadership

  • How am I leading?
  • What do others think of my leadership?
  • Am I reflecting my personal values?
  • Am I supporting my organization’s values?
  • Were my people better off today because of me?

Questions like these allow you to assess your impact and how it can be improved. Again, this is not the time to beat yourself up. Based on your observations, interactions, gut feelings and so on, what did you notice or learn about your leadership today?

My People/My Team

  • Who needs my attention?
  • What might my team be feeling?
  • What techniques/support/resources worked best?
  • What techniques/support/resources didn’t work?
  • Who has been consistently dependable / non-dependable?

Answers to these will shed light on how to manage talent better.

My Goals

  • Did I get closer or farther from my goals today?
  • What can I do differently?
  • What did I prioritize today?
  • What were the results?
  • Are my goals still appropriate?
  • What is the purpose of my work?
  • What fulfills me?

In particular, when I felt my time did not reflect my priorities or values, I reflected on questions like this quite a bit. It helped me to be more proactive with prioritizing and scheduling. It also led me to do some exploration of my values to find out how I could express them more at work.

My Day

My current favorite is the quick run down. I do a check on the day and set an intention for tomorrow:

  • What were my goals for today?
  • What went well?
  • What didn’t go well?
  • What will I do differently tomorrow?

The categories and questions here are just a guide. I recommend you try journaling a few days and then decide what kinds of questions are most meaningful for you.

If you’re stuck and feel unsure how to begin, you can simply ask yourself one question: What happened today? As you answer, really listen. Pay attention to yourself. Just as in a dialogue, you’ll naturally pose relevant follow-up questions. After a few days you’ll have a good idea of the questions that will make journaling most meaningful for you.

The most important thing is to start. 

A Journaling Habit

Journaling is a powerful practice. But like any practice, it only works if you work it. That means your goal is to do consistently, not just when you feel like it. You don’t have to carve out a lot of time, but you will need to carve out some time.

If you’re not sure how to make the time, a coach can help you rethink and redesign your day. 

As I mentioned in an earlier post, journaling allows you to document ideas and work through hunches. It allows you to keep track of otherwise fleeting, yet potent thoughts, and it also improves your thinking. These benefits accrue to the degree you can make journaling a habit.

Plan Ahead

Building a habit can feel daunting, so it’s important you set yourself up for success. Consider a consistent time or trigger that will alert you to journal. For instance, set a recurring meeting with yourself for first thing in the morning or perhaps as you close the day.  

You might also consider your work ebbs and flows. Look ahead several days, and see if you have short breaks between longer meetings. Block 15 minutes for yourself and commit to journaling during that time. Midday journaling is more difficult for some – especially those without as much control over their calendars. The important part here is to plan ahead and schedule reminders to keep you on track.

Defeat Decision Fatigue

I recommend clients go so far as to picture where you will journal and make sure your notebook or favorite app is handy at the time and place you’ll need it. As you go through the day, each decision you make takes a toll on your brain. As a result, you become more likely to do what’s easiest, rather than what’s best.

Having a clear plan of action in place minimizes your chance of being foiled by decision fatigue.  Journaling by hand is great for slowing down and processing, but digital journalingis certainly a viable choice as well. So whether a special colored pen or a stylus, select your tool ahead of time and have it ready.

Silence the Inner Critic

Journaling allows you a moment of quiet honesty. Since you’re journaling for yourself, not for a broader audience, give your inner critic the day off. This is not the time for judgments about spelling, grammar, formatting or content. Avoid editing. Really. You’re thinking on the page, and analyzing those thoughts. You’re not trying to win a contest or create a post to display on Pinterest. Don’t stifle your thinking. Just write.

This is your leadership development time. Use it to better understand and nurture the leader within.

What do you think? Are you making a routine to journal? Are you seeing benefits from journaling? Let me know what you think. 

On Leadership Journaling

Black woman writing in a diary on a wooden desk.
Journaling can be a great practice for mindful entrepreneurs.

In today’s digital world, there’s one analog practice I cherish. Journaling.

Now to be fair, you can journal on your phone, tablet or computer, but I’ve long found that my best thinking comes when I make time to put pen to paper. This age-old practice isn’t just for personal insights and daily documentation. It’s also a great tool for leadership growth as well.

On first thought, it may seem counter-intuitive to suggest leaders find time to journal, of all things. The business climate changes day by day and there’s pressure from all directions – superiors, stockholders, customers. You have to be ready, agile, quick. But you also have to be visionary, innovate, creative and smart. And that’s where journaling comes in.

Nancy Adler, an expert in arts-inspired leadership, writes:

Extraordinary leadership requires seeing before others see, understanding before others understand, and acting before others act.”

Wise leadership requires careful reflection of evolving ideas and feelings that may be forgotten from one day to the next. Mental processing is difficult enough without the added distractions from push notifications, information overload and more. Let’s face it – deep thinking seems impossible when you can barely keep up with email!

But we encourage leaders to try journaling as a way to retell, review and understand the events of the day. Just the act of recording what happened and what you thought, felt, or noticed will give you perspective over time.

Journaling allows you a moment of quiet honesty in a busy life. You’re not sharing your notes with direct reports, peers, or anyone else. You’re writing for you, so you can tell the truth as you know it. Document ideas you want to revisit, research or refine. Acknowledge, observe and work through feelings, gut reactions, and hunches.

Not only does journaling prevent your important mental notes from being lost, but it also improves your thinking. Research funded by the National Institute of Mental Health found that settled brains are better at processing and problem solving. Journaling quiets the mind so you can think more clearly in the moment. I sometimes refer to it as meditation by writing.

Take a few minutes to document and digest your day.

Additionally, research sponsored by the National Institute of Health found that replaying experiences in our minds is a great tool for learning. As you relive thoughts and feelings while journaling, you reflect on them. Such reflection is a key step in increasing self-awareness, as well as better understanding the world around you.

Dan Ciampa, author of Right From the Start: Taking Charge In a New Leadership Role (Harvard Business Review Press, 1999), believes journaling what’s working and what’s not throughout the day is great for learing. There are lessons in your successes and mistakes, and with a little practice and diligence, you can discern when and how to implement positive changes. 

Who presents this bride?

Today makes eight.

For years I went to bed early. As an elementary school teacher, I had an extensive morning routine involving exercise, prayer, and a 30-minute commute. I arrived at work by 7 a.m. – well before the kiddos who often wanted to share household news as soon as they said good morning.
Because I require 7-8 hours of sleep to function well, I observed a strict bedtime of 9 p.m. My friends knew this and generally avoided calling past 8 or 8:30. From time to time an acquaintance would call too late, so I turned off my ringer at night just to play it safe.

That is, until Daddy admitted his health was fading.

It was shortly after Mama died. His prostate cancer wasn’t a secret, yet he seemed to be doing well. But y’all know how (some) men like to hide shit. Reality didn’t exactly align with appearances. I told him in no uncertain terms, he wasn’t allowed to die any time soon. His reaction, some mixture of exasperation and acquiescence, was disconcerting. He said okay because that’s what I wanted, but he hinted there were no guarantees.

I began leaving my ringer on at night.

Daddy and me. Wasn't he sharp?
Daddy and me. Wasn’t he sharp?

My parents eloped when they were 23. As a little girl my mother offered me several thousand dollars if I eloped, too. I can’t remember what prompted her to mention it at that moment. The only possibility that comes to mind is Princess Diana’s wedding, grand affair that it was. I was too young to have heard about the bride’s family footing the bill for weddings or other such traditions. I’m serious, she said. I shrugged. I tucked it away for later.

As a teenager I thought I’d get married shortly after college. My 20s came and went and I remained single throughout. I was grateful, honestly. I hadn’t met “Mr. Right,” and by the time I hit 30, I’d evolved into a completely different woman.

My dad did his best, as much as one can wield control over such things. He held on another three years. My phone rang just before dawn. I sighed awake, already shaking my head. No good news comes at this time of day. The voice on the other end was Daddy’s but softer in tenor. I instantly recognized my uncle, Daddy’s identical twin. Did I call at a bad time? he asked. I pressed him to spill the news. Daddy was en route to the hospital. He wasn’t breathing on his own.

Daddy reading aloud The Night Before Christmas circa 1976.
Daddy reading aloud The Night Before Christmas circa 1976.

I arrived at Grady Hospital eight years ago today. I didn’t see Daddy that morning. Nor any other since. Following my uncle’s lead, we both left without seeing his lifeless body.
 I wanted to say goodbye, but I did not want the image of death burned into my memory. I had made that mistake with Mama.

Toward the end of my 30s, I met my future husband. When we spoke of marriage, I told him I didn’t favor a big wedding, and, in fact, eloping was fine with me. I was down for a courthouse ceremony, or a small gathering on the beach. I don’t think he believed me the first few times we discussed it, but the seed Mama planted nearly three decades earlier bore fruit. I had never planned or even considered a “fairy tale” wedding.

A few months after my 40th birthday, Blue proposed.

I remembered the brides who cried in the days leading up to their weddings. I vowed not to be one of them. As spring melted into summer, we played around with wedding dates, sizes and locations. Nearly every Friday from June through August, we considered jumping in the car and heading to the courthouse. In September we settled on an intimate October affair.

first lookIf we had eloped, we would’ve escorted each other during the ceremony. But the venue we selected encouraged something a little more traditional. I decided Daddy’s twin, my “DNA Daddy,” might be the perfect choice.

He later told me it was one of his greatest joys.

During our ceremony, we invoked ancestors and loved ones who were not present, and that, of course, included my parents. Although neither were present in body, it was a loving comfort to hear Daddy’s voice and witness his smile through his brother.

Said our officiant, Who presents this bride?

My uncle replied, I do. 

Who presents this bride? I do!
Who presents this bride? I do!

200 pages down.

I’m 2/3s of the way done with Pearl’s book. I’ve been on a first name basis with her since I began this journey.

parchment-23662_640Reading it makes me wonder how much wisdom gets lost because women don’t share their most intimate thoughts? Either aloud or in writing? Many of us live our lives, and simply figure out the hard shit as we go along.

Some read the self-help gurus say, and I’m sure there’s plenty of insight to be gained by doing so. Others bond and grow through occasional talks with a close friend.

But how many of us engage in a systematic effort to document (your real) life and the lessons it teaches you? Either for your own reflection and edification or for the express purpose of passing it on? If we are not the keepers of our stories, who should be? When our stories fade, our wit and wisdom fade also.

I’ve written before about questions I’d love to ask but can’t. There’s also this about the importance of family narrative. There’s so much learning to be gained in the living of life, yes, and eve more so in the telling and retelling of it.

Do you document your life? Why or why not? How do you or how would you if you started today?

The deeper business of being beautiful inside.

Blue and I saw 12 Years a Slave as soon as it was released in Atlanta.

The film was stunning.

We dined afterward and talked for hours about the the movie and the myriad topics it inspired: slavery, racism, privilege, wealth, the power of story, literacy, critical literacy and public schooling. We discussed the stories that get told or lost. We noted, with a healthy dose of cynicism, who “history” deems worthy of remembrance.

We retold scenes to each other. Relived predictions, twists. What made us look away, hold our breath, or more tightly to the other’s hand.

The writing, directing and performances were brilliant. And yet as moved as I was during and after, it was Lupita Nyong’o as Patsey who brought me to tears:

At some point I want to truly express what Patsey meant to me, but this post is about Lupita.

I’m overjoyed she has received accolades during this awards season, including the Oscar for Best Actress in a Supporting Role. She is being honored for being herself. Not a shrinking violet of herself, but a lantern. A ray of sunshine in what can sometimes be the the darkness of Hollywood. She overcame a childhood of self loathing to become someone who, quite literally, puts herself on stage, on screen, on view, for all the world to see.

Lupita relates her story in a loving response to a young woman drawn to her light. Watch it below:

And so I hope that my presence on your screens and in the magazines may lead you, young girl, on a similar journey. That you will feel the validation of your external beauty but also get to the deeper business of being beautiful inside. ~Lupita Nyong’o

Dereliction and Fire

Narrative of Frederick DouglassI debated the merits of crafting a preamble to this excerpt, and as I begin typing, I honestly haven’t decided what to say about it. So we’ll see…

I read Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. Early on in my reading, I became angry. I graduated from a high school named after this man. We did not read his words. At various points, teachers or administrators recited quotes of his, or summarized the “highlights” of his life. Our mascot, school paper and yearbook were all symbolic of him. But we did not read his words.

We did not spend time in an English class, nor a history class, nor an extracurricular making sense of his life. Glaring omission seems too quiet, too meek, too gray to describe it. Dereliction of duty is how I framed it in a brief note of complaint to a friend. And perhaps it was our fault, incurious teenagers that we were, we didn’t seek him out on our own accord.

I don’t know why it was not mandatory for incoming freshmen at the very least. Not just to find out more about Douglass as a historical figure, but also to help us begin to understand his fire to free both his mind and body. For him, the two were interconnected in ways that may not seem as obvious now. But we needed that. We need that.

I don’t know whether its apathy or rebellion, but it seems the fire has gone out in many quarters. Whether we blame government mandates, institutionalized oppressions, our families, ourselves, somehow we must at least acknowledge that smoldering embers and cooling ashes are often found where fires once roared.

I have more to say on the matter, but for now let us read his words:

Very soon after I went to live with Mr. and Mrs. Auld, she very kindly commenced to teach me the A, B, C. After I had learned this, she assisted me in learning to spell words of three or four letters. Just at this point of my progress, Mr. Auld found out what was going on, and at once forbade Mrs. Auld to instruct me further, telling her, among other things, that it was unlawful, as well as unsafe, to teach a slave to read. To use his own words, further, he said, ʺIf you give a nigger an inch, he will take an ell. A nigger should know nothing but to obey his master‐‐to do as he is told to do. Learning would spoil the best nigger in the world. Now,ʺ said he, ʺif you teach that nigger (speaking of myself) how to read, there would be no keeping him. It would forever unfit him to be a slave. He would at once become unmanageable, and of no value to his master. As to himself, it could do him no good, but a great deal of harm. It would make him discontented and unhappy.” These words sank deep into my heart, stirred up sentiments within that lay slumbering, and called into existence an entirely new train of thought. It was a new and special revelation, explaining dark and mysterious things, with which my youthful understanding had struggled, but struggled in vain. I now understood what had been to me a most perplexing difficulty‐‐to wit, the white manʹs power to enslave the black man. It was a grand achievement, and I prized it highly. From that moment, I understood the pathway from slavery to freedom. It was just what I wanted, and I got it at a time when I the least expected it. Whilst I was saddened by the thought of losing the aid of my kind mistress, I was gladdened by the invaluable instruction which, by the merest accident, I had gained from my master. Though conscious of the difficulty of learning without a teacher, I set out with high hope, and a fixed purpose, at whatever cost of trouble, to learn how to read. The very decided manner with which he spoke, and strove to impress his wife with the evil consequences of giving me instruction, served to convince me that he was deeply sensible of the truths he was uttering. It gave me the best assurance that I might rely with the utmost confidence on the results which, he said, would flow from teaching me to read. What he most dreaded, that I most desired. What he most loved, that I most hated. That which to him was a great evil, to be carefully shunned, was to me a great good, to be diligently sought; and the argument which he so warmly urged, against my learning to read, only served to inspire me with a desire and determination to learn. In learning to read, I owe almost as much to the bitter opposition of my master, as to the kindly aid of my mistress. I acknowledge the benefit of both.

~Frederick Douglass

Settling. Not yet still.

I’ve missed this space.

I’m finally settling into my house. I haven’t spent much time there yet, and we can now add renovating to the purging, reorganizing, unpacking mix. Seems it’s time for a new roof. Lots going on, suffice to say. Cousin Big Sister and my SO, Blue, have been amazingly supportive. I love and appreciate them.

I’m excited about  my Creating Room. I’m not sure that name’ll stick, but it’s basically a thinking/collaborative space. Or it will be. It was most recently known as the Everything Room – a dumping ground for miscellaneous or mislabeled boxes, and soon-to-be-purged items/furniture. It’s clear now, except for the closet, and after a fresh paint job and some intentional (inexpensive) furniture selections, I think it’ll be my new favorite place.

I’m getting clearer on professional goals and timelines. It’s just about time to move out of this thinking/planning stage and into the doing/being of it all. I’ve heard verbatim encouragement from two women I trust, and related words of support from friends and loved ones. Next steps…

Misogyny and rape culture. Vengeance. Fear. There’s plenty of work to do. Systems to help dismantle. Healing to facilitate. Plenty of stories to tell and investigate.

It always comes back to the stories. 

There is plenty of room for yours…

What do you want? #rapeculture #vaw

People who have witnessed the recent steps on my journey have sent me good wishes and hopes for the outcome I want. Truth be told, the healing, the outcome I wanted for myself, happened long ago. But I’ve started to talk publicly about it. And I recently told my ex my thoughts about our past. This has inspired the following question from many corners:

What do you want?

I want to agitate.
I want to make people feel uncomfortable.
I want to counter rape culture.
I want people to stop blaming victims.
I want to add my voice to the chorus of survivors.
I want partners to question their entitlement over another’s body.
I want people to talk. Especially men to their friends and brothers. To their sons and lovers.

Rape culture is allowed to fester, in part, because of our silence. So I am speaking up, speaking back. I want to speak more often and with more eloquence. I want to help survivors speak, too.

I want to make a difference.

On family narratives. #NaBloPoMo

The single most important thing you can do for your family may be the simplest of all: develop a strong family narrative.

This line comes from a recent New York Times piece about the importance of understanding from whence you came.  The more you know about the characters, settings, and other elements that contribute to your life story, the better prepared you are to make intentional choices about your own life.

You can be a more sophisticated author of your life if you have a strong sense of your biography:

Do you know where your grandparents grew up? Do you know where your mom and dad went to high school? Do you know where your parents met? Do you know an illness or something really terrible that happened in your family? Do you know the story of your birth?

Dr. Duke and Dr. Fivush asked those questions of four dozen families in the summer of 2001, and taped several of their dinner table conversations. They then compared the children’s results to a battery of psychological tests the children had taken, and reached an overwhelming conclusion. The more children knew about their family’s history, the stronger their sense of control over their lives, the higher their self-esteem and the more successfully they believed their families functioned.

Both of my parents are deceased, but as child and young adult, I did have a lot of access to family history. We had dinner table conversations as I was growing up, and I spent quite a bit of time around relatives in various cities. I had a good sense of who we were as a family on both sides. But I didn’t find out everything. There are gaps in my knowledge, some of which may never be closed.

Gaps aside, Drs. Duke and Fivush speak about the importance of a more global understanding of the family’s development over time. Specifically they mention three types of narratives:

  • the ascending narrative – think rags to riches, or nothing to something;
  • the descending narrative – we had it all and lost it; and
  • the oscillating narrative – we’ve had good times and bad times, but here we are.

Dr. Duke said that children who have the most self-confidence have what he and Dr. Fivush call a strong “intergenerational self.” They know they belong to something bigger than themselves.

What about you? Do you know your family narrative? Do you have a sense of belonging to something bigger than yourself?

Excerpts from The Stories That Bind Us.