Exploratory writing is a simple way to improve wellbeing and much more says Alison Jones
We’ve known for many years that reflection is a key part of learning. When you’re in formal study, for example CPD or a post-graduate qualification, written reflection is an intrinsic part of the course. At work? Not so much.
It’s like driving, we carefully observe the mirror-signal-manoeuvre principle when we’re learning or being assessed, but too often go straight to manoeuvre once we’ve passed the test.
Which is a shame, because both on the road and in the office there’s a very good reason for looking in the mirror before you take action. If only there was a way that we could encourage people at all levels of the organisation to build reflection into their daily routine; imagine the conflicts and costly mistakes they’d avoid, the ideas they’d spot, the learning they’d embed for the future.
But with more than half the workforce describing themselves as ‘stressed’ or ‘extremely stressed’ at work in 2021 , adding ‘Submit regular reflection via intranet’ to everyone’s objectives might just be the final straw.
Exploratory writing is fast, free writing you do just for yourself, on a scruffy piece of paper for a short period of time
So how can we support staff to get the benefits of regular reflection – for themselves and for the company – without it becoming a burden?
Enter exploratory writing.
Most of us write at work all the time: emails, reports, sales copy, always for other people. Which means we’re always, if we’re honest, anxious about being judged. (Is that punchy enough? Where does the apostrophe go?)
Exploratory writing is fast, free writing you do just for yourself, on a scruffy piece of paper for a short period of time (I recommend 6 minutes, timed). Nobody else will ever see it, so it allows you to say what you can’t say out loud: to rant or question or try out an idea that might be genius or might be completely stupid, without worrying about punctuation or finding le mot juste.
And that’s useful for both the individual and the organisation, in a number of ways.
Firstly, we know that ‘affect labelling’, putting words to negative emotions like anxiety, immediately lessens their impact and increases our sense of control.
Secondly, exploratory writing takes us offline, even if just for a few minutes. It allows us to focus without distraction, to create rather than consume, to take a break from the screen and the keyboard. While we know that excessive screen time causes insomnia, eye strain and headaches, the average adult spends over 11 hours each day staring at one screen or another. Engaging with pen and paper restores us to the real, spatial world, and that’s been shown to result in greater brain activity and learning as well as giving us a break from the ubiquitous backlight.
More resilient workers are not only healthier, they show higher engagement and satisfaction at work, perform better, and lead more effectively. There are many factors involved in resilience (physical health, quality of sleep, relationships and so on), but there are also some key cognitive factors that can be very effectively supported by exploratory writing. For example, one of the most debilitating causes of stress is a feeling of powerlessness, the sense that events are happening to us and we have no control over them. Exploratory writing allows us to regain our sense of being in charge of our own experience, it restores a sense of agency and reveals new possibilities.
Similarly, when something goes wrong, we often assume it’s somehow our fault, and we all too easily spiral into unhelpful rumination. Exploratory writing helps us see the unhelpful mind-chatter for what it is and focus instead on what we can control.
In a world of fast-moving change, creative thinking is a key skill for staff at all levels. As any writer will tell you, waiting for inspiration to strike is a risky business. But when we start to write in an unpressured way, to unspool our ideas and make new connections, we not only reliably discover new ideas, but we have a space in which we can develop them safely, without fear of premature judgement. The page becomes a laboratory for thought experiments, and those that have promise can be brought forward for discussion with others.
Most UK workplaces are implicitly biased towards native English-speaking, extravert neurotypicals. Which means they’re missing out on potentially invaluable input from those who think differently, or who need time to reflect, especially if they’re using a second language, or don’t like to speak out in meetings. Encouraging all staff to take time regularly to ‘think out loud’ to themselves on paper in their own language, through traditional writing or more non-linear forms such as mind-mapping, can unlock surprising contributions.
It may sound naive to suggest that a single solution can address some of the most difficult problems we face as humans in the workplace today: distraction, self-doubt, an inability to see others’ points of view, the overwhelm, anxiety and endless demand for creative problem-solving that trails in the wake of disruption.
But just as a good coach can help your people address whatever issue they’re facing, an exploratory writing practice allows anyone, at any level of the organisation, to effectively coach themselves towards a more resilient, resourced state.
And that includes you.
Alison Jones is a publisher, business book coach and founder of Practical Inspiration Publishing.