Benefits of Keeping a Work Journal

Many developers feel overwhelmed with the amount of work they want to get done each day. Or they feel pulled in multiple directions and struggle to make progress on the important things. I can totally relate! One thing that helped me is keeping a work journal.

What is a work journal? It’s just a log you keep throughout the day of the things you work on. Often it will be divided up in a couple sections. In one section you might log activities. Another section might be for things you learned that day. Some people like having a separate section for “Wins”, things that felt really good or went better than expected, or a section for “Challenges” where you can capture things that were especially difficult.

Your first instinct when thinking about starting a work journal might be “Isn’t this just one more thing I have to do each day?” It’s true that keeping a journal is going to take a small amount of time throughout the day, but I found that this small investment of time actually helped me get more done, feel less stressed, and overall have a better attitude toward my work. Let’s discuss each of those benefits one at a time:

Getting more done

The act of writing out each thing you work on forces you to recognize how frequently you move between different tasks. Some who are resistant to journaling cite the reason as “but I switch tasks too often, how can I write that all down?” Well, you’ve just identified part of the problem!

Another productivity boost comes from looking back at the end of the day and seeing where you spent your time. Was it all on unplanned activities or administrative tasks? Or was it mostly on your planned goals for the day? It’s easy to be “busy” all day but get very little done that’s important. Seeing that in journal form can be very eye-opening.

Side point: listing out your 3 most important tasks for the day pairs really nicely with the journal. More on task planning in a future post. (Updated: What are your important tasks today?)

When I decided I wanted to start blogging more, I added a “Blog Ideas” section to my journal. Each day as I helped a co-worker with a question, learned something new, or was curious about something, I’d jot down a new topic idea. Now I have so many topics to choose from when I write a new blog post.

Lowering my stress

Reducing the amount of task switching I do throughout the day also had a positive impact on my stress level. Focusing on just one thing at a time, ideally for at least 30 - 60 minutes, makes the day feel less frantic and chaotic. As things undoubtedly pop up throughout the day, capture it in your journal so you don’t forget, but don’t switch to it until you’re done with your current task (unless it’s an absolute emergency, but hopefully those are rare).

Another thing that journaling allows you to do is more accurately reflect at the end of the day. You can read back through your journal, consider your wins and challenges, and really think about what went well and what you could do better next time. It’s easy to get to the end of the day and think “wow that was horrible”, but taking 5 minutes to accurately reflect helps keep a healthier perspective.

Feeling better about my work

Related to the previous point, it’s rare to have a day where truly nothing good happens. More likely we just tend to focus on the negative things or let them overshadow the small wins throughout the day. This is why I like having a separate section for Wins in my journal. Even if I only have 1 or 2 listed, it gives me something to feel good about, and to build on tomorrow.

A journal also helps to identify interruptions or annoyances throughout the day. Seeing these listed out helps you notice patterns. Is this one client or project the cause of the majority of your unplanned tasks or emergencies? Noticing that can help you prioritize. Maybe that client/project isn’t worth the amount of stress it’s causing you. Getting rid of it will not only improve your mood, but free you up to do more important tasks.

Or maybe co-workers ask you the same questions and you can write up a wiki to reduce those interruptions. Of course, not every annoyance or interruption can be eliminated, but seeing those patterns helps you to deal with it more deliberately and be less reactive throughout the day.

How to get started

My advice would be to start simple. Open a document on your computer and start typing. Or if you like to journal on paper, grab a notebook and get started. There are lots of “systems” out there for journaling, but it’s easy to obsess about the perfect system, when the reality is that any system is better than doing nothing.

Personally, I use Bear and have a pinned Work Journal entry at the top of my notes list. After I settled into a routine, I wrote a quick Alfred snippet so I can type !log and quickly set up a new day. But don’t get ahead of yourself! Start simple and add things as they make sense.

One final bit of advice: give the work journal a week or two of steady use before you give up on it. I found it took some time for the benefits to become obvious. If you give up to soon, you might not see those benefits for yourself.