The non-profit leaders I’ve worked with over two decades have numerous attributes in common: deep empathy, infectious passion, and unwavering dedication to their mission and those they serve. We, and I include myself here, have been fueled by purpose, long before such concepts became a mainstay of applied organizational and leadership development.
Living and working from a place of calling, rather than obligation, is deeply fulfilling. It can also be exhausting, researchers have confirmed. In her 2019 article “When Passion Leads to Burnout” published in Harvard Business Review, Jennifer Moss offers vital insights into this phenomenon that every non-profit leader could benefit from. It also led me to challenge my own mindset and behavior as a purpose-driven entrepreneur.
How can I continue to become more effective and impactful, while also commit to taking better care of myself, nurturing my relationships, and fully engaging in my life?
As a life-long journal writer, I knew that wisdom was already inside of me. I carved out more quiet time in my days, took pen to the page, and connected with the inner knowing I needed to take inspired action that would make a difference for me and everyone around me. You can too.
Why pausing and reflecting matters
You might feel that you have an endless number of priorities and commitments in life, yet taking time to pause, breath, and reflect is vital. Journaling has significant mental, emotional, and even physical well-being benefits. And self-reflection is especially helpful in the VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous) world we operate in today.
As non-profit leaders continually face increasing demands, heightened expectations, and more complex decision-making, focused, clear thinking is essential. A mindful reflection practice allows us to stay grounded in who we are and what’s most important to us, while developing awareness of the thoughts and emotions that impact every aspect of our lives, every decision we make, every action we take (or don’t take).
What’s more, investing in quiet time each day for reflective writing can enhance our experience of inner peace, self-regard, joy, meaning, and resilience. Here are just a few ways journaling can enhance your well-being and improve your capacity for effective leadership.
Reducing Stress and Anxiety through Emotional Awareness
Journaling is, first and foremost, a self-care practice. For most of us, our thoughts and feelings are often running on auto-pilot. Until we deliberately train ourselves otherwise, we rarely stop to challenge our thinking. That’s problematic since our brains are wired with a negativity bias. Journaling is a tool that can help us identify, process, and understand our thoughts and emotions, giving us the opportunity to deliberately manage and transform them. We know that identifying and labeling our emotions is the first step in helping to reduce their power over us. That’s the foundation of emotional intelligence: self-awareness.
Journaling Practice: When you are moving through an uncomfortable experience, acknowledge what you are feeling – all of it, without judgment. This method of externalizing our emotions – getting them out of our head and onto paper – can provide emotional and mental relief. Feeling frustration? Apprehension? Disappointment? In your journal, explore potential sources of your thoughts and emotions so you can take steps to move beyond them. While even empathetic reflection can be uncomfortable, left unchecked, negative thinking patterns fester, often unconsciously. That only keeps us trapped in thought, feeling, and behavior cycles that prevent us from seeing the best in ourselves and the possibilities in our lives.
Of course, journaling on our positive emotions is also important as a means of cultivating well-being and emotional intelligence. Gratitude journaling is wildly popular for a reason – it feels great. In addition to “what am I grateful for today?”, try these prompts at the end of your day: “What surprise delighted me today?”, “How did I make a difference today?”, “What gift or character strength did I put into action today.” Set the tone for positive experiences with a morning intention-setting practice: in your journal write, without overthinking, about “What would make today wonderful?”, “How can I be of service today?”, “What matters most today?”.
Enhancing Problem-Solving and Innovation
Journal writing can improve our problem-solving skills and the quality of our decision-making. Consider how easy it is to feel inundated and overwhelmed with complicated, confusing, and contradictory information and opinions these days. This cultural reality makes it all the more important to tap into our individual sense of values and inner wisdom, especially when the stakes are high. Certain types of journaling are effective mindfulness practices that help us access our intuition. In addition, as we cultivate emotional intelligence, we’re able to more readily access the cognitive centers of the brain while under the emotional grip of stress and anxiety.
Journaling Practice: I tend to have two main journaling “modes” – thinking mode and non-thinking mode. Let me explain. When I’m in thinking mode, I’m deliberately using my logic and reasoning. Some of my “thinking practices” are developing an exhaustive list of options and then contemplating pros and cons to gain insight and clarity about how to move forward with a challenge. Another is using the “five whys” technique to explore the root cause of an outcome or some other mystery I’m grappling with.
My “non-thinking” mode is much more subtle. You’ve experienced this too. It’s the brilliant idea that you wake up with in the middle of the night or the solution that seemingly comes out of nowhere when you’re in the shower or taking a walk in a peaceful setting. In more relaxed states, our brain is operating at a completely different frequency, allowing more of our intuition and subconscious to shine through. I’ve learned to keep a journal “at-the-ready” so wherever I am when those illuminating ideas surface, I can capture them while they’re fresh. I invite you to be on the lookout for these gentle, often exciting, creative flashes of insight.
Moving Past Mistakes and Disappointments
As I was writing the sub-head above – either by inadvertent typo or subconscious guidance – I wrote “loving past mistakes”. And that’s the lesson, isn’t it? Nothing will sabotage our success and sense of peace more than relentlessly holding blame and shame against ourselves. And…nothing will heal hurts and bring authentic fulfillment without love. Acknowledging mistakes and disappointments, when done with empathy and kindness, can also boost our self-regard over the long term. Normalizing the idea that we all fail or fall short at times encourages self-acceptance and reduces perfectionist tendencies that can be counter-productive to a healthy achievement orientation and commitment to excellence. These interactions can also provide fertile ground for the exploration and processing of emotions that accompany life’s highs and lows – a key factor in becoming more resilient.
Journaling Practice: To uncover or shine light on thoughts or belief systems that might be impacting your sense of peace or self-regard, consider these questions:
- Do I replay mistakes in my mind or hold onto shame for past mistakes or harm I’ve caused to others?
- What does my inner dialogue sound like? Am I compassionate with myself or harsh and judgmental?
- Do I give myself enough credit for what I’m doing right?
As you reflect, try to use discernment rather than self-judgment. It’s important to acknowledge shortcomings as part of being human, without relentlessly condemning ourselves. We can transcend emotions such as guilt or regret by activating positive emotions such as love and humility. Tapping into the power of emotional intelligence in this way inspires us to take positive actions such as forgiving ourselves, apologizing to others, making amends, or shifting behavior. Also, be sure to acknowledge what you are doing right. Let’s face it, most of our “inner critic” dialogue isn’t even true. Take some time to journal about what is true about you. All the good stuff.
Balancing Life’s Priorities to Focus on What Matters Most
Journaling can also help us be more mindful about how we are spending our time and energy. As we get clear about who we want to be and how we want our lives to look and feel, a regular journaling practice can help us map out a vision with actionable steps. Then we can we hold ourselves accountable to that vision and approach life from a higher perspective of purpose and meaning – more evidence-based indicators of well-being.
Journaling Practice: Draw two columns in your journal and number the columns one through five.
On the first column they list 1-5 the things that are most important to you – your highest priorities in life. In the second column, list 1-5 your daily activities, measured by the amount of time and energy you spend on them.
When you’re complete, compare the two lists. Do you notice any disparities between what you believe is important and how you spend your time and energy? For most of us, there’s never going to be a perfect balance of what’s important and how we spend our time. We all have so many different and important things to manage. However, we can be more mindful about how we spend our time. For example, if you rank family at the top of the first column, but it’s a bit farther down on the second column, use your journal to get creative and map out your schedule. Carve out time for the special people in your life. Think ahead about unique experiences you might share together, fun places you can go, or meaningful conversations you can have. Then be sure to come back to your journal later to capture those precious memories.
You’ll notice that with each of the journaling prompts and practices there are also ideas for putting your insights into action. Without inspired action, we miss the opportunity to transform ourselves, our relationships, our organizations, communities, and the world. And isn’t that what we are all here for?
Another critically important benefit of developing a self-reflection practice with a commitment to personal and professional growth is the example you, as a leader, set for others. As you do this work you get more comfortable with being vulnerable and your capacity for empathic interactions will likely increase dramatically. These are essential leadership competencies to build a healthy organizational culture in which your team members can be authentic, do their best work, and thrive. Don’t forget to bring your journal to the office to log observations on your progress!
Lisa Gruenloh is an International Coaching Federation (ICF)-certified executive and emotional intelligence coach and purpose-driven entrepreneur. She’s Founder and President of Purpose Journey®, a consulting, training and coaching company that helps individuals and organizations harness their unique values, strengths, and purpose with bold action to optimize their well-being and impact. She’s also the Founder and Executive Director of Journal for Change, a 501(c)(3) organization that brings the transformational practice of journaling to non-profits nationwide. Learn more at www.purposejourney.com and www.purposejournal.com .