Most of us know that writing is a technology invented several millennia ago to aid memory, but few consider how much writing — especially reflective writing — can aid creative and critical thinking, particularly when leading organizational change. For anyone who is about to embark on organizational change, has the responsibility to lead it or needs to help others make sense of it, reflective writing can enhance and deepen your leadership practice.

The process of writing, and particularly reflective writing, has an extraordinary capacity to aid creative and critical thinking and deal with complex emotions. Keep in mind that writers not only benefit from the products of writing — messages that can be archived or transported — but also from its practice. Experientially, writing slows down thinking, which can be especially valuable to anyone under the stress of organizational change. Jumbled thoughts, images, impressions and feelings, when ordered on a page as words, sentences and paragraphs, begin to make more sense; incrementally, they become stories that explain cause and effect, arguments that discover logic in the midst of chaos and analyses that provide for clearer judgment.[1]

Further, as the writer becomes reader, thoughts appear at a critical distance. Toggling back and forth from reader to writer — from objective to subjective interpretation — one becomes freer to reflect on and refine thoughts, stumble upon unexpected discoveries, invent new ideas and meanings, and solve problems creatively.[2] Taken to yet another level, reading your own writing opens up the possibility of also examining how you think in the context of change, putting you in a better position to make adjustments as needed. Overall, writing to reflect can transition a leader’s mind from the whirr and buzz of daily reactive thinking and communicating to a mindfulness that welcomes the creativity and fresh thinking you need to lead change.[3]

Getting Started With Reflective Writing

Most people who regularly practice reflective writing develop habits and rituals that keep them going. At first, finding a time and space that work for you may seem the biggest challenge. The good news is that you don’t need a lot of time at one sitting. Writing in 10- to 15-minute increments can actually be quite productive. It does help, however, to give your full attention to the task, so help yourself concentrate by closing your office door, turning off your cell phone, going out to a coffee shop, sitting in the park or using a little idle time on the train. If possible, take your writing time-out at the same time each day. Some people enjoy writing in the morning when they feel rejuvenated from a good night’s sleep. Others prefer to write before going to bed to clear their minds so they can fall asleep.

Many people prefer to keep a journal rather than use a computer. Writing in longhand slows your thinking and stimulates the brain differently than typing does. If fancy journals are intimidating, use an ordinary spiral notebook. Conversely, if a fancy journal inspires you or helps you take the task more seriously, by all means, use the fancy one.[4] If your thinking is coming in bursts, and unspooling thoughts sequentially seems to interrupt your flow, try jotting ideas on index cards or sticky notes first. Spatially arranging these bits of thought later may help you transition into prose as you feel ready.

If you’ve never tried reflective writing before, just the thought of it might give you writer’s block. To counter inhibiting thoughts, decide to turn off your internal editor. Instead, practice free writing, a technique in which you write nonstop for several minutes without any interruptions. Concentrate only on the thoughts that come up in the present moment and ignore or suspend that internal editorial voice that may plant seeds of doubt. This technique can be good training for more formal writing, too, because it encourages you to separate the creative process of drafting from the critical process of editing.

Make the Most of Your Reflective Writing

While writing to reflect has many virtues, there are a few caveats. Socrates said that “the unexamined life is not worth living,” but the over-examined life isn’t worth living either. As you write, be mindful of what you are doing and why. Recognize when you have reached a point of diminishing returns; walk away from your writing if you find yourself over-analyzing a situation, fixating on a detail or obsessing about how you have been wronged.

Ultimately, as a souvenir from your time spent writing to reflect, bring the pearls of wisdom you discover back into the world to help you lead change. Now that you have some thoughts on paper, call on “the muse of the second draft” and translate your personal writing into communications with others: conversations, memos, emails, presentations, meetings and so on. Completing this step will help you realize the real world value of your investment in writing to reflect.

Leading change is hard enough. But if you can’t focus because you are overwhelmed with information and the tumult of change, you will have a hard time focusing other people’s attention, too. So take some time out, write to reflect, and clarify for yourself and others what you want to communicate and accomplish.

This post is excerpted from Darden Professor Lili Powell’s technical note Writing to Reflect: Mindful Leadership in the Face of Change (Darden Business Publishing). Please see its companion piece, “Writing and Leadership: Applying Reflective Writing to Leading Change” for actionable ideas to begin the reflective writing process.

Professor Powell teaches in the Executive Education program Leading Mindfully, which draws from neuroscience, psychology, management research, yoga and acting methods to teach skillful self-management so that participants may lead others more effectively.

[1] For research on the mind-body benefits of reflective writing, see James W. Pennebaker, Opening Up: The Healing Power of Expressing Emotions (New York: Guilford, 1997) and Stephen J. Lepore and Joshua M. Smyth, eds., The Writing Cure: How Expressive Writing Promotes Health and Emotional Well-Being (Washington, DC: American Psychological Association, 2002).

[2] For more on critical thinking, see Richard Paul and Linda Elder, Critical Thinking: Tools for Taking Charge of Your Professional and Personal Life (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Financial Times/Prentice Hall, 2002).

[3] For more on mindfulness, see Jon Kabat-Zinn, Wherever You Go, There You Are: Mindfulness Meditation in Everyday Life (New York: Hyperion, 1994).

[4] For a leather-bound guided journal aimed specifically at reflective writing for executives, see Peter Drucker and Joseph Maciariello, The Effective Executive in Action: A Journal for Getting the Right Things Done (New York: Collins, 2006).

About the Expert

Lili Powell

Associate Professor of Business Administration

Powell’s current academic interests are mindful communication and leadership presence. She also has expertise in leadership and management communication, corporate reputation and diversity.

Powell has authored numerous cases and is co-author of Women in Business: The Changing Face of Leadership. She is currently working on a new book — Present: Leadership as Wise Practice. She has presented her work at the Academy of Management, the Association for Business Communication, the Management Communication Association, the National Communication Association, and the Reputation Institute’s Conference on Reputation, Image, Identity, and Competitiveness conferences.

Powell has been a consultant, facilitator, instructor and coach to a number of individuals and organizations. Her clients have included the Council for Public Relations Firms, Federal Bureau of Investigation, KPMG, Lagos (Nigeria) Public Schools, National Industries for the Blind, Premier, Providian Corporation, United Technologies, University of Virginia School of Medicine and World Bank. She has taught internationally and worked with Executive MBA students from IAE Business School (Argentina), IBMEC Sao Paulo (Brazil) and the Stockholm School of Economics (Sweden).

B.A., M.A., University of Virginia; Ph.D., Northwestern University