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A leadership journal is a great way to increase your impact as a leader. Here's how to get started.

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If you’ve ever finished a busy week of work wondering what you’ve accomplished, you’re not alone.

As software engineering leaders, we spend every day racing between numerous tasks on our to-do lists and rushing from one meeting to the next. But do we ever stop before picking up the next task to reflect on what we just did, or simply process what was said at the last meeting? Do we ever give extra thought to the insights raised, or contemplate the actions taken?

We make dozens of decisions every day, but rarely get immediate feedback on them. Unlike developers, who can write code and see its effect on users within minutes or hours, leaders rarely see the consequences of their actions until weeks or even months after a decision is made. While a developer can push code to Git and receive instant feedback from his peers, there’s no PR process for a leader’s decisions, insights, or creations. Our impact isn’t easily measured.

As an engineering manager who has led multiple teams and complex projects, I’ve learned that self-reflection is an essential leadership tool and a valuable asset for growth. When we hit pause on our busyness loop to reflect, it results in better decision making and inspiration for the work ahead. Most importantly, reflection makes us proud of our craft.

Research shows us the importance of self-reflection for our well-being. Research from Jennifer Porter reveals that employees with a daily reflection ritual perform 23% better after only 10 days. Another study shows that reflection improves productivity while reducing burnout. These studies show that self-reflection helps you make choices that will bring you closer to your life’s purpose.

Okay, the motivation for self-reflection is clear. But how can we make a habit out of it? The answer is building a ten-minute reflection ritual into our daily routines, in the form of a leadership journal.

What is a leadership journal?

A leadership journal is the best tool I’ve seen for improving your leadership skills, and it requires only ten minutes at the end of every working day.

In the process, you’ll self-reflect on your decisions, collect interesting insights, think creatively, and execute ideas you wouldn’t have thought of otherwise. You’ll figure out new ways to perform better, and discover actions you can take to enable others to thrive. Oh, and one more thing – you’ll get higher satisfaction from your hard leadership work.

Start by shutting down all interruptions: disable Slack mentions and email notifications, place your phone out of sight, and enter your flow by wearing your noise-canceling headset. Once you feel focused, go over today’s calendar, skim through your to-do list, and reflect on the following:

  1. Creations: What did you create today?
  2. Decisions: What were the top decisions you made today?
  3. Insights: What interesting ideas did you or others raise today?
  4. Challenges: What were the main challenges you faced today?
  5. Tomorrow: How do you make the most of tomorrow?

Let’s take a deeper dive into each step.

1. Reflecting on today’s creations

As our leadership evolves, we do less hands-on work than in the early stages of our careers. This may lead to the feeling that we’re generating less value for the organization.

Leaders’ creations are difficult to spot at first sight. While developers are building obvious, visible software, great leaders are normally creating significant, longer-term value in a variety of ways.

Creations can be made by putting an interesting product idea into words and requesting feedback, by architecting new components, devising a growth plan for your employee, or writing the first draft of a blog post. You may plan a workshop for your team, create an important discussion forum, simplify the team’s hiring process or improve its onboarding program. I’m sure you can find your own examples of meaningful creations.

Tip: block time in your calendar for deep work, during times of the day when you are most efficient. Insist on writing down at least one strategic creation every day. As time goes on, this alone will give you motivation for building new things, creating more value for your surroundings.

2. Reflecting on today’s decisions

What were the top decisions you’ve made today? Obviously, you won’t remember all of them, but skimming through your daily agenda will remind you of the most important ones.

Now, it’s time to pause and reflect on these decisions: was a decision made wisely, or could it have been taken differently? While sharing a decision with your peers, did you explain the motivation behind it, connecting the dots to the bigger picture, or did you take the vision for granted?

Think about choices you’ve made in different topics: system design, employee feedback and growth, company branding and recruitment, and anything else you can think of. Over time, as you understand the motivation behind your decisions, you’ll gain clarity, improve your decision-making skills, think strategically, and make smart long-term decisions.

Tip: did you make an important decision today that wasn’t work-related? Write it down and reflect on it. Organize your thoughts, and assess what led you to where you are today.

3. Reflecting on today’s insights

Several ideas crossed your mind today. I bet a colleague of yours suggested an interesting direction worth exploring, but you didn’t write it down. You may have had an idea for a new feature but didn’t let it grow. A moment before these ideas slip your mind, in this part of the journal you’ll collect, digest, and evolve them.

Insights can arrive in many ways: they can be highly technical, like performance improvement to your system, or people-oriented, such as an idea for challenging your employee in a way that serves their personal growth. Did you learn a new skill today that you’d like to share with your peers, or think of a colleague who can benefit from your feedback, advice, or mentorship? Write down today’s insights and simply give them a moment to develop.

Tip: after processing today’s main insights, you’ll gain new perspectives and perceptions on top. Add these new discoveries to your favorite task management tool. If they are actionable, avoid procrastinating by scheduling time for them.

4. Reflecting on today’s challenges

Think of the biggest one or two challenges you’ve faced today. Can’t think of any? Dig deeper. Anything works – technical challenges, employee issues, passing feedback to colleagues, or a problem you simply don’t know how to solve. Yet.

When you discover that major challenge, process it in your mind, and you’ll figure out new ways to resolve it. Even if you don’t have answers immediately, thinking of it has planted the issue in your subconscious. Solutions will arrive when you least expect them to.

Tip: Here’s a challenge I’m sure you deal with every day: trying to overcome your immense to-do list. Write down your single most important task. If you find that multiple tasks are equally important, then nothing is important. Ask yourself: what is essential? Prioritize and schedule your most valuable priority for tomorrow.

5. Reflecting on tomorrow

I’ve been saving the best for last. As leaders, time is our most important asset. You can think of adding an event to your calendar as an ATM withdrawal, with one major difference. The scarce resource you’re about to waste isn’t your money, it’s your limited time. Accepted too many invites? You'll start paying debt and interest. Over-spending time is costly, resulting in context switches, mistakes, and no time to process. This is your chance to make tomorrow a great day.

First, skim through tomorrow’s agenda. Ask yourself about any meeting you find there: ‘Is my attendance pivotal? Do I have something meaningful to contribute?’ If you answered ‘no’ to both, skip this meeting. But wait, perhaps you can use it as a growth opportunity for one of your employees? If so, ask them to represent the team and send a summary. Alternatively, politely decline. Don’t feel bad; the fact you were invited doesn’t mean you must attend. You’ll use this time to provide better value for your company.

Second, prioritize long-term goals over short-term rewards: do you have at least one item in tomorrow’s schedule that is strategic for your team? Schedule time for yourself to think clearly about the team’s longer-term plan. Placing it on the calendar forces prioritization, rather than keeping it in your never-ending to-do list.

Third, create buffers for the unexpected. If you’re a manager, leave open slots in your calendar for your employees’ emerging needs.

Remember, when you say 'yes' to an event, you implicitly say 'no' to another. Not sure? Don't answer immediately, and create a buffer for yourself to think about it.

Tip: visualize a key meeting you have tomorrow, how you want it to go, what role you will play in it, what could derail the meeting, and how people should feel after it.

Conclusions

As a leader, your role is to create high value for others. Committing to the habit of writing a leadership journal will help you to develop proactive leadership, rather than spending most of your day reacting and putting out fires. 

A short while after doing it for five days a week, you’ll see results, become a better leader in your group, increase your impact on the organization, and perhaps even have a bit of industry influence.

Adopt the leadership journal habit and make it a part of your daily routine. Once it sticks, it will become effortless. You won’t regret it.