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The discipline of writing something down is the first step toward making it happen.

– Lee Iacocca

As you become more mindful of yourself and your world and formally reflect on the gaps between what you want to happen and what really happens, you will have a lot of “Ah ha!” realizations. Some will stay in your head, but most won’t, especially as you get older. This is why you should keep a journal.

In his book, Getting Things Done, David Allen discusses how the brain is made for processing information, not storing it. As I age, I become more and more aware of how true this is. In fact, I’d say that my processing capabilities have actually improved, while my storage, or at least the speed of accessing that storage, has declined a bit.

Because of this, I try to record or write down as many of my thoughts as possible, as soon as possible. Whenever I have an idea, a new task or project, a new meeting, or someone to call, I immediately jot it down in my journal. In effect, I am downloading my brain. A key, therefore, is that the journal needs to be with you everywhere. We’ve all had those great ideas during the day without anything nearby to record them.

The Simple LeaderKeeping a journal will ensure you capture those brilliant sparks of wisdom. When you write your journal, you should record your plans, the results of carrying out those plans, the factors causing the gaps between your expectations and your results, and any insights from your reflections. This same process can be applied to team meetings, family meetings, and mentoring or counseling sessions with individuals. As part of your reflections, consider past experiences and insights that have been documented in your journal. Do patterns emerge? How do those patterns change your awareness? What will you do about it?

There are many different technologies that can be used to keep a journal. Electronic journals have become the rage, and I’ve tried many devices and apps, but they just don’t work for me. Instead, I prefer paper notebooks. Instead of having to open my iPad, turn it on, select the right app, and then start writing in a clumsy manner, I just open my Moleskine and start scribbling with a pen or pencil. I start a new journal each year, beginning with an annual end-of-year reflection where I look back at the past year and think about personal and professional goals for the upcoming one. I’ll tell you more about that reflection process later on.

Each morning before I start work, I write down my Big Three tasks for the day and I take a moment to record something I’m grateful for. It’s amazing how that creates focus and a positive perspective. During the day, I sketch out ideas and keep a list of to-do’s. And at the end of the day, I review and reflect (hansei) on my Big Three and on the rest of my day to see if I accomplished what I set out to do. If I didn’t, I write down how to improve next time. I also jot down action items, notes from phone calls, and questions to follow up on. Roughly once a week, I review previous pages, putting a check mark in the top corner of each page that no longer has open items (an easily seen visual cue). Every month or so, I do a more thorough review, copying uncompleted action items and issues to a new page so I don’t have to skim through the journal to find them.

All this seems cumbersome, right? Could this be done more effectively electronically? Probably for some people, but not for me. Writing by hand is powerful for me. Experiment and discover what works best for you. The important action is the recording and reviewing, however it is done.