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The One Habit That Will Help You Succeed

I’ve always loved a diary. I remember as a young​​ teenager writing in my diary every night and hiding the key away from my sister. I’m not even sure what I used to write, but it must have been important to protect it with the elaborate security system that was hiding the diary in one place and the key in another – despite sharing a room. I’m not even sure why I did it, but I enjoyed it and all my friends did it too. My favourite was a five year diary which was red leather and had a great big gold lock on the front. I remember having to write in tiny letters to fit it all in, but loving being able to look back to previous years and laughing at how immature I had been. I’m not sure when the habit stopped, or why, but it seemed that everyone had stopped writing in a diary at the same time. Perhaps it was no longer the fashion, or perhaps we were just too grown up for all of that.

Years later, when I was at university, there was one class where we had to keep a journal to track our skills development. It was Personal and Interpersonal Skills and we had to keep a journal on skills and behaviours such as Managing Conflict, Communication and Time Management. I do remember a group of us sitting in the canteen, swapping pens (so that each entry was a different colour) and adding pages (that we crumpled a wee bit to make them look like they’d been carried around for months) to make our journals look fuller just before the submission deadline, but I also remember actually filling it in regularly too. It was such a fantastic learning experience that I’ve kept a work journal (on and off) ever since.

Why bother?

Work journaling is such a great habit for many reasons. It really helps you let go of the day and make the switch between work and home. It helps you take all of the chaos that was work and empty it out of your head. I’m sure there are plenty of blogs and articles out there about it’s therapeutic properties, but there are also so many pragmatic benefits. It is a great tool for learning – helping you reflect on what you learned that day, either technically (the computer shortcuts you discovered from a colleague) or about yourself (how you dealt with a difficult conversation for example). When you flick (or scroll) back through your work journal, it really helps you to recognise the progress you’ve made. All too often we learn little things each day and don’t realise that they’re all adding up to be pretty significant. Journaling also helps you avoid making the same mistakes all the time. It helps you see that the first project meeting you held months ago which felt like a complete waste of time back then, actually was important and helped to shape the project into what it is now. It helps you see that the five minutes of filing you do each Friday afternoon have actually added up to a clear tray. It helps you see that although you felt like a nervous wreck giving that first weekly presentation last month, you’re so much more confident presenting now.

We’re all so busy working all day that it’s so easy to ‘just do’ and not think about what you’re doing or why. Without pausing to reflect on our day, we’re so much more likely to keep asking the same questions (where’s that file kept? How do I calculate that again?) and keep doing things the way we’ve always done them. We’re much more likely to get to the end of the month and realise that we’ve not actually made any progress on the very things that were top of our list at the start of the month.

Having a work journal is also great when you’re asked to give an update on a project that you’ve not been great at documenting or when it’s appraisal time and you’ve forgotten what on earth you’ve been working on all year. It should be much more than simply what happened that day though – especially if you’re using it as a learning tool.

What do you write?

Like most things, a work journal can be as complicated or simple as you make it. It doesn’t need to take long and you don’t even need to write in proper sentences. Simply spend 5-10 minutes at the end of each day answering these questions:

  • What went well today?

  • What did you learn?

  • What would you do differently?

You can of course add your own questions in here, but I find it’s easier to stick to just three.

Try to think about tasks that you carried out – did you figure out a quicker way to do something? Did you hear about a system that just might increase productivity? Also, try to think about how you behaved – did you communicate well during a meeting? Did you procrastinate more than usual? Write down the progress you’ve made on any projects you’re working on or on any development items you’re focusing on. Write down the resources you used – any websites, specific YouTube videos or colleagues who helped. I often need to revisit mine to remember where I read something or what the name of that useful website was. Write down anything that sticks in your mind from today – you might not know why it’s sticking out right now, but usually it’ll become apparent when you revisit your journal later.

The easiest way to stick to a journaling habit is to do it at the same time, in the same place every day. At the end of each day, before I shut down my computer, or if I’ve been out delivering training, before I unpack my bag and switch to ‘home’ me, I’ll scribble a few notes in my diary. I prefer keeping digital notes on my iPad, so I have a journal in OneNote that I add to each day using my Apple Pencil as I do prefer handwriting for this kind of thing. The important thing though, is to choose whatever suits you. You might like to buy a nice notebook and a nice pen and journal that way. You might prefer to use Word and keep a (password protected) Word document instead. You could even dictate your journal into your phone on the way home. Find a way that works for you – every day.

It’s not just me that keeps a work journal - Madeline Stilley recently stated in Business Insider that "During the last five to ten minutes of every work day, I would begin to reflect, and without fail, a few key events would stand out that I wanted to iron out on paper. This tool assisted me in pinpointing communication errors, enhancing relationships with colleagues, and learning to be a better listener. After the term ended, I found myself opening up the Word document every afternoon to reflect because I thoroughly enjoyed the activity. I found that it improved my awareness and decision-making."

Also, on HBR, Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer, co-authors of The Progress Principle argued that professional journaling “is an effective tool for self-reflection, helping professionals improve their focus, patience, planning, and personal growth”.

"Keeping regular work diaries, which took no more than ten minutes a day, gave many of our research participants a new perspective on themselves as professionals and what they needed to improve," they said.

Why not give it a go? Before you shut down your computer tonight, open a Word document or grab a notebook and pen and begin. It doesn’t need to be pretty. It doesn’t need to be your best English. It doesn’t need to take longer than 10 minutes and you don’t need to show anyone. It does need to be an honest reflection of how you felt your day was and it does need to become a regular part of your day. So go on, embrace your inner teenager and get journaling!

I’d love to hear how you journal. Comment below with what works for you and whether you feel it helps you develop. Your experience will no doubt inspire someone else to get started.



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