What is reflective journaling

Reflective journaling is an active and purposeful exploration of how we feel, experience, and perceive a situation, and, through this process, process our emotions, develop a more coherent set of ideas, or a better story of our experience, which that will then inform future actions. 

The power of reflection lies in its ability to encourage us to stand back from what is happening, and to examine our own thinking and feelings. Even though in popular speech we may sometimes use the term reflection loosely as “thinking about something”, using reflection for personal development is not a process that comes naturally to most people. Reflection requires challenging our assumptions, re-evaluating what we know, letting go of our long-held, cherished beliefs, and previous interpretations until a new one can be formed. 

I think of Reflection is a process of dialogue with ourselves, with the narratives we create, with our own insights, and with others as we explore the validity of our newly developed ideas and behaviors.

Making the most of reflective journaling

Developing a habit of reflection may be challenging. We may also feel that we are not getting enough out of the time and effort devoted to reflection. Below I offer some suggestions to make the most of a reflective practice.

1. Prepare for reflection

To get the most out of our reflections, we need to create the time, space, and mental clarity required for it. Choose a comfortable place and time where you are not likely to be interrupted. Give yourself a few minutes to just freely write without concern about what you are writing. Do not worry about coherence, spelling, or grammar. Just write down whatever comes to your mind without judgment. If your mind jumps between thoughts, let it jump. This is not your reflection, this is a time to clear your mind and prepare for your reflection. Writer and creative coach Julia Cameronsuggests people interested in being more creative should do this type of free writing every morning to clear the mind and open space to more creative thoughts. After you have finished your five minutes of free writing, put it aside. You do not need to come back to it.

2. Write it down

You may be wondering why bother writing, as you can just as easily think about your experiences in your head. Writing and other types of visual language such as images, shapes, doodles, and conceptual maps facilitate thinking and learning in several ways. First, putting things down on paper (or on a screen) extends our mind and increases our ability to work with complex issues. Think about counting using your fingers as support, or writing down directions to a new location as opposed to memorizing it. Our fingers and paper act as extensions of our mind, releasing cognitive power to focus on other things, as we know that the information will not be lost. When we put thoughts down on paper through writing or drawing, we allow our minds to release that information from our short-term memory and free cognitive power to organize, examine, and reflect on its deeper implications. 

Putting things down on paper (or screen) helps us achieve coherence by organizing, clarifying, and sequencing our thoughts. When we are thinking in our head, we are free to change topics, drop lines of reasoning, get distracted with something else, and often get stuck in a loop ruminating the same thought repeatedly. When we record our experience, we can step back, look at it, know how we understand it, and challenge our own thinking.

Writing also captures thoughts for later consideration. As we continue with this process day after day, we are able to notice patterns over time and track our progress. As we are reflecting, we may have an insight or thought that if not written down will be forgotten. As we revisit our notes, we can capture and revisit those insights. By recording our thoughts, we are able to provide ourselves with feedback, relate to past and future, and respond to our own thinking.

3. Give it time

The process of reflecting on experiences is a powerful tool towards learning and growth. But that does not mean that every time we reflect, we gain big insights. The process towards new understanding is not linear and predictable. The outcomes may not be immediate, but they will come. And that is why it is important to think about reflective journaling as a practice, or a regular and consistent activity.