Developing Wisdom: Reflection Journaling

Are we a wise civilization? Can we grow wiser? Being cynical about these questions is easy. The news shows us we are always on the brink of disaster, and, let’s be honest, the comments section of most social media posts does not engender a spirit of optimism about humanity’s collective wisdom. Yet, consider the following.

  • Since the year 2000, the child mortality rate has decreased by half.
  • In 2016, 99.7 girls were enrolled in primary and secondary education for every 100 boys (up from 86.6 in 1990).
  • In 1990, 36% of the world population lived in extreme poverty. In 2015, only 10% did.

And that’s only scratching the surface of the advancements that have improved our health and quality of life over recent decades. Are we perfect? Certainly not. Still, these stats aren’t bad for a species that regularly tears itself apart debating the deficits of the latest Star Wars movie.

So, yes, I do believe we are wise and growing wiser. For society to grow wiser still, we need wise institutions, and to have wise institutions we need wise people–people like you and me. My research focuses on developing organizational wisdom, and my findings show me that we can teach the skills on which wise people rely. I will introduce different ways we can do so on this site. Today, I’ll start with reflection journaling.

Why reflection journaling?

Experience is a critical component of wisdom. Experience alone, however, is not enough. In the words of an early pioneer of reflection journaling:

We do not learn from experience … we learn from reflecting on experience.

John Dewey

Reflection journaling is easy to pick up and, if done well, yields powerful insights into our performance at work or in life. It can help us identify unconscious assumptions in our decision-making process, deepen our perspectives, and help us make sense of our experience.

As a business prof, I have used a “teaching journal” for a couple of years. It has helped me debrief difficult interactions with students and contributed to my development of more effective means to deal with these interactions. It has revealed how emotions have led me to make poor decisions regarding class management–for example, how frustration may lead me to discount genuine efforts of students, or sympathy may lead me to give a struggling student an unfair advantage. Forearmed with this awareness, journaling has led me to make better decisions. It also holds me accountable to do the things I said I would do. I feel I am a more insightful teacher than I was before I started my reflection practice.

To get the full benefit of reflection journaling, there are several things to include in your practice.

An effective reflection journal

What follows is a collection from several research sources. I’ll append a reading list at the end of this post for those interested in learning more.

To get the most significant returns on your time, here’s what to include in your reflections.

On a regular basis (several times a week)

Describe the event: Summarize the main details of an event you experienced in enough detail that you can recollect it in a few months. The situation could involve a decision you made at work, a sales meeting with a client, a pitch you made to your boss, or whatever. It could also be a discussion you had with your spouse, a fight you had with your child–whatever’s important to you.

Provide the rationale for your actions: What were the thoughts behind the decision you made? Be sure to address the following elements.

  • Values: What values (or goals, if you prefer) were you hoping to achieve through your actions?
  • Emotions: This is a big one everybody wants to ignore, but, like it or not, emotions influence our behaviours. Reflect on what emotions you were feeling during the event. Importantly, how did those emotions influence your actions?
  • Rationale: What were the “intellectual” underpinnings of your choices? Did you rely on gut instinct? Data? Were you simply following company policy?

What was driving other individuals? If your event involves interactions with others, what do you think drove their behaviour? Do you have insights into their values, emotions, or rationale?

Short-term outcome: What was the result of the event you described? Are you satisfied with the resolution? If yes, what was key to arriving at that outcome? If no, what prevented you from your desired end?

Short-term lessons learned: After reflecting on the above, what key lessons can you glean? If a similar event occurred, how would you respond differently? What would you do the same?

Action items: Pull out any actions you feel you need to take as a consequence of your above reflections.

Periodically (every 3-4 months)

Review your journal: Scan through your reflection journal and review your recordings. I do this at the end of each semester. If you’re working for a corporation, you might do this every fiscal quarter. Find a rhythm in your life that will prompt you to undertake this review every 3-4 months.

Long-term outcomes: We love to ignore long-term consequences. We make decisions in the heat of the moment and gauge success on the result at that moment. Decisions, however, have an echo. Are there consequences to any of your choices that you have experienced in the long-term that you did not notice at the time? Are you happy with those long-term impacts? Why or why not?

Trends: Do you notice the same situation arising frequently? Do you see yourself making the same mistake regularly? Is there a system you can put in place to address these recurring elements?

Long-term lessons learned: Considering the long-term outcome of your actions and the trends you observed, are there additional lessons you have learned? Highlight key learnings so that you can review them often and keep them top of mind.

Action items: Pull out any action items you wish to complete based on your review.

In the end

Reflection journaling is an easy and effective way to deepen our insights into our patterns of behaviour and help us develop skills and processes to deal with the events of our lives. It helps us make sense of our experience and integrate what we learn into our daily practice.

Have you used reflection journaling, either at work or in school? What has been your experience? Please take a moment to share your stories in the comments.

Additional reading

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