Self-awareness is critical for success

Self-awareness is critical for success

Self-awareness is an acquired skill and a Learning Journal is a fantastic tool for developing it.

What is a Learning Journal?

A Learning Journal is a place where we can store thoughts, notes, observations, comments, reactions and reflections.


A learning journal is recognised as a simple, yet exceedingly powerful tool, for improving our understanding and performance.  It enables us – through the process of writing and thinking – to;

  • explore our understanding of a situation
  • process emotions and experiences
  • raise our self-awareness,
  • gain valuable insights for achieving better outcomes in the future, and ideally
  • be more successful.

Journal Type

A learning Journal can come in a variety of formats.

It can be handcrafted such as writing in a notebook, drawing or painting.  Or it can be tech savvy such as using an online journaling tool such as ‘750words’, or ‘Penzu’, or simply keeping your notes in a Word document, text file or notes storage programs such as ‘Onenote’ or ‘Google Keep’.

There is no right format or right way for keeping a Learning Journal.  I have seen successful Learning Journals that comprised a series of paintings, another that was almost exclusively drawings and process charts, through to the more traditional text-based journals.

There are pros and cons to the different formats.  For instance, being online means that you can write anywhere anytime as long as you have the tech available with you.  I have a colleague who very successfully journals using his phone.  Then again, a tech solution may not be as fluid in capturing your thoughts since you can’t readily draw lines and pictures, or connect up ideas.  Alternatively, you might find dictating your journal using voice recognition software helpful.  A downside is that if the program doesn’t capture accurately your words, then you may have difficulty in effectively recalling them.

If using a hand written journal, then a strategy I have found helpful is keeping the left-hand page blank (assuming you are right-handed) and only journaling on the right-hand page.  This blank page provides you with space for later comments, analysis and reflections on your writing.  For instance, you might have written three or four pages on your reactions to, and analysis of, a particular situation.  Upon rereading, you identify key reactions, emotions, and motivations.  The blank left-hand page gives you space to make these observations and also enables you to very easily skim through your journal identifying recurring themes.

Psychologically there are also differences.  The different formats activate different areas of the brain and consequently generate different cognitive processes.

In summary, any format is acceptable, however try some different methodologies and find out what works best for you.

Journaling Methodology

Journaling can be directed or undirected.  Both have value.

True undirected journaling means that you don’t designate a focus.  Literally you write anything that comes to mind.

Focused undirected journaling – if you can forgive what sounds like a tautology – is where you start journaling with a topic in mind.  For instance, in the “Influence and Impact” program, you might start your journaling with the broad topic of ‘leadership’ or ‘your effectiveness’.

Directed journaling uses a framework for thinking.  You are still interested in recording your thoughts, emotions, and reactions to an experience; only you are organising your thinking around a series of questions or a specific framework.  Over the years a framework I have found to be effective is a modified version of the KOLB learning cycle.  This is where you consider four aspects of a situation.  1: a description of what happened? 2: how did you react? 3: what did you learn from the situation? And, finally, 4: how will you behave differently in the future?

The ‘Influence & Impact’ Leadership program uses a blend of both directed and undirected journaling.  Periodically you will get an email from me asking specific questions to direct your journaling.  On all other work days, it’s up to you what journaling format you choose to use.

Why 10 minutes daily?

Ideally, you will journal at roughly the same time every day.  Consistency helps form the habit, plus the subconscious learns that this is the period when you are going to solicit its input.

You are absolutely at liberty to journal for longer than 10 minutes; however 10 minutes is the minimum.  I strongly recommend that you put on a timer and journal without pause until the time expires.

It is quite acceptable, especially in the early stages, to be writing statements such as, “I have no idea what I’m supposed to be writing.  This exercise doesn’t seem to be working for me.  I can’t think of anything to say.  Here I am a couple of minutes into the activity and I still haven’t said anything worthy of reporting et cetera.”  Please persist.  If you find after four days that you still aren’t getting a result, then switch to a different methodology.

Over time, as with any skill, your capacity to reflectively journal will improve and you’ll find that you more rapidly move to the “meat” of the matter.

The allocated time of 10 minutes is aimed at minimising the impost on your time whilst simultaneously allowing sufficient time for you to generate adequate material upon which to reflect and gain insight.

Despite the simplicity of a Learning Journal, it is one of the most profoundly influential tools for fast tracking and improving your performance.  It also serves the purpose of enabling you to safely “dump” negative emotions and thoughts and prompts you to moving to the next level of reflection.


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The ability to organise your thinking, reflect on your experience and reaction and then identify more effective responses is foundational to a successful career and life.


Tracey McGrath

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