Keeping a work journal sounds fine in theory and ridiculously annoying in practice. And it is! And it's also very, very worth the trouble.
Some benefits of keeping a work journal
I know I know - we have deadlines, performance targets, and actual human beings we work with who need things from us from time to time. These things demand our attention, not scribbling away in a journal.
But I've found that it's during my busiest moments – the times when slowing down to reflect is the last thing on my mind – when taking a brief pause benefits me, the people who report to me, and my company the most.
Track larger themes
Keeping a work journal forces me to pay attention to the gnawing problems underneath the daily fires and multitudes of small, relatively non-world-changing decisions that come up every day. Although it can easily feel like I'm in the groove as I check things off my to do list, when I notice the same larger themes over and over coming up in my work journal, it forces me to reckon with the bigger, tougher work that I'm not addressing.
Let bad ideas die
Every manager needs a good place to have bad ideas.
Sometimes, a fragment of an idea feels like the start of a revelation. Once it's out of my own head and I can see it from a distance, I realize that it's totally garbage (or perhaps just beside the point or irrelevant toward our goals). I always count it as a blessing when that realization happens between myself and my notebook, instead of with an actual human person.
Provide more effective feedback
I aim to let critical feedback marinate in my work journal for at least a few minutes before I share it. Writing things down helps me notice when I'm micromanaging or weighing in on something that's not particularly consequential, and really ought to keep it to myself.
For bigger issues, this helps me isolate out the specific problem and the impact of that problem, so I can edit out the stuff I might say that seemed relevant, but really just muddles the point. It's also a place where I can process any strong emotional reactions or unfair assumptions I'm making, which helps me avoid passing off unhelpful opinions as valuable or useful criticism.
Build resilience to my inner worst critic
When it comes to imposter syndrome, my stack of journals are my receipts. It's hard to see how far you've come in the last year or two, but even my stubborn ass can't argue with mountains of physical evidence.
My work notebooks prove to me what all those days of showing up have added up to and helped me accomplish. Days spend moving sideways, or even backwards, days spend frustrated, days spent tired - they're all equal on paper. Just one day in a big stack of getting things done.
Okay, but what goes IN a work journal?
My work journal is roughly 3/4 utilitarian work horse, and then 1/4 reflection and growth-focused. For me, this is how I make sure my book is always at hand and that I'm constantly reaching for it every day. Anything that doesn't get used regularly on my desk winds up under a pile of books, loose paper, and a random empty coffee mug.
Monthly priority checklist
I use a format stolen from the Bullet Journal method (minus the fancy art pens and calligraphy). At the start of each month, I open to a fresh page and start a checklist of items I'd like to complete that month. Generally, these are larger projects I'd like to make progress on throughout the month, but nagging reminders and small date-specific tasks will wind up there as well.
I mark this list with a sticky note, and once a week or so, I'll flip back to see what needs to be on my weekly or daily radar.
At the end of the month, I see what's left and either move it ahead to the next month's list or cross it off entirely. This helps me trim distracting bad or good-but-never-gonna-happen ideas as I go, keeping each month's focus clear.
End of month recaps
At the end of every month, I clear the next fresh page. Here, I write down a big list of wins for the month, both my own and shared group wins. Especially during months when I felt inadequate or anxious, this helps me see that there are always a few forward-moving steps to be celebrate.
As a leader, this also puts into focus what next month should look like, and it reminds me to give thanks and congratulations to my team for their accomplishments. It also provides some welcome perspective: over the course of time, you start to notice how some "overnight successes" were actually months in the making, and how some moments of deep anxiety wind up as a small hiccup along the path.
During the days in between, my notebook becomes a catch-all for each day/week's top focus items, task lists, reminders, notes from conversations or meetings, and random bits of mind detritus.
It's in these daily logs where I'm dumping all of my bad ideas, rehearsing and editing feedback I'm sharing or ideas I'm discussing with others, and sometimes where I'm scribbling out some frustrations or things that stuck out or stuck with me during the day.
For reflection, a couple times a week, I try to answer a few questions inspired by Michael Hyatt's Full Focus Journal:
- What happened today?
- What were my biggest wins?
- What lessons did I learn?
- What am I thankful for right now?
- How am I feeling right now?
- What did I read or hear?
- What stood out?
- What can I do to move forward on my goals?
Yes, these questions are intimidating. Yes, I was self-conscious answering them at first. It helps to remember that nobody's digging through these notebooks except for you. Some days, I'll skip questions or doodle a shruggie and leave it at that, and other days, even the act of writing out "I don't know how to answer this" leads me down a valuable thought path.
In the end, keeping a work journal has been a solidly good experience. There are huge benefits to putting some space between your thoughts and your actions, and to having a dedicated place to explore your own personal point of view around your work.
Sure, nobody will ever keep these books for posterity or put them in a museum. But I don't do it because I love it and want to cherish my thoughts. I do it because it works. It makes me more effective at my job, and much more well-equipped to communicate the value I've added and am adding to the business. And it makes me a much better human to work alongside in general. At least, I hope so.