I believe one mark of an exceptional leader is a personal commitment to continuous self-development and learning. Running with this idea, let’s say you read one to two books a month for the purpose of development and learning. Additionally, you listen to an audiobook a month. You also listen to one to two podcasts a week. And you read a handful of blogs and articles each week. Great! I’d consider that quite a robust self-development habit of learning!
That’s also a lot of content to consume every week.
How do you extrapolate what is important and relevant from all that? Moreover, how do you record those ideas or lessons, retain them, organize them, or even reflect to keep them relevant months or years down the road? This is certainly a common challenge for those highly committed to self-development.
In previous articles, we first introduced four important self-development activities, one of which included broad knowledge gathering. After that, we explored what we can get from all our reading – basically, what the benefits of routinely consuming so much developmental content are. Now, we end this thread of self-development by offering a model on how to retain and reflect on the developmental content we consume.
I preface this by emphasizing that this is just a model. I don’t believe there is an objectively right way, but only preferred ways based on your unique learning style. This model works for me and is one that has taken me years to curate. I share hoping it can serve as an initial reference point for those looking to cultivate their own methods. Whether you adapt the model for your specific needs, extrapolate components of this system, or simply use it to start jumpstart your thinking on your own system, I hope this action-focused article can help in some way.
Step 1: Recording
I have a system to record quotes, thoughts, or ideas anytime I consume developmental content.
When I read books and magazines, I have a pen and highlighter handy. I highlight quotes and write margin notes throughout.
When listening to audiobooks or podcasts, I use my phone Notes app to record quotes, ideas, or questions for further research. (If listening to audiobooks or podcasts while running, you can sometimes find me paused on the side of the road or trail feverishly typing a note into my phone!).
If reading blogs or online articles on my phone, I email the article link to myself with instructions to add it to my learning journal (below).
Step 2: Retaining & Organizing
Next, I consolidate all my highlights and notes from the different platforms into a personal digital portfolio that I call my “reflection & learning journal,” which I maintain on Dropbox (personal preference as I can access the portfolio on my computer, tablet, and phone whenever I want). I organize it as a series of folders and Word documents as you can see below.
A few explanations of the system:
- After I finish reading a book, I go back and type up all the highlights and margin notes from it. This takes a lot of additional time but is a great way to reflect on what I read and is important for extrapolating and consolidating ideas. This helps prevent what resonates from the book simply remaining on the bookshelf after I put the completed book back. I make a separate Word document for each book, which I organize by title in the “Book Reflection Notes” folder.
- If I learn something in a blog, article, podcast, or from a unique experience (which I usually capture on a 3×5 card), I consolidate those notes into a running Word document which I call my “Leader Reflection Journal_Master.” This is a long document of random ideas and lessons from a variety of sources. I maintain it chronologically, adding new entries at the end. A screenshot of part of a page from the journal is below to show how I organize each entry. I title the entry according to the main idea or theme, include the source (with hyperlink as appropriate), and a bulletized list of what I want to record.
- In being deliberate to prepare for my future job assignment(s), I also maintain a journal of ideas and resources for consideration in the folder. I keep those in my “Field Grade Preparation Notes” Word document and “FG Assignment Docs” folder (for resources, full articles/blogs, etc.).
- When I email article or blog ideas to myself, I transfer those to my “master journal” next time I’m on my computer and going through email.
Step 3: Organizing Part 2
Everything described above occurs within a single Dropbox portfolio folder (with sub-folders and organized Word documents). But it is a very compartmentalized system. This is helpful if I’m trying to find a specific idea or quote, like if I know it came from a specific book or simply using the CTRL-F function to search across the folder. However, this system is not helpful for trying to connect ideas across resources. So, I also print out all the items within the entire portfolio and keep it in a large 3-inch binder. Every time I add a new page to the master journal, I print the page and add it. When I type up my book notes, I print and add as well. I organize the binder by the master journal pages (chronologically), then the book notes, and then any experience-based notes at the end (summary lessons from major experiences like duty assignments, courses, etc.).
This binder enables the final step of reflecting.
Step 4: Reflecting
So, how do I keep this entire portfolio of ideas and lessons relevant, even years later? I take a pause from my book reading for one to two weeks every six months. During that pause, I read my reflection journal binder from front to back. While I read my notes, I keep a notebook to record things that stand out or new ideas formed; I’m reflecting on my reflections in a way. This helps me identify novel things that might mean something to me with new experiences, make connections to new additions to the journal, and so on.
I come away with a whole new list of things to think about, practice or set goals around, or write about. It also keeps the myriad ideas fresh in my mind and reminds me of a few important perspectives I may have forgotten or ignored.
I will be the first to admit that this system takes quite a bit of time and personal discipline. But I think what I gain through it all is absolutely worth it. Structuring my learning and reflecting like this maximizes my sustained growth and self-development. It’s too important to not do in my mind.
I hope sharing this system inspires and equips you to formulate your own methods to be intentional about retaining and applying what you learn through your self-development habits.
Happy learning and reflecting.
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