I started a new job March 5 of this year. The new job also meant a new town and new apartment, filling a newly created position, and working on new projects with new people. On top of that, my start date was just two weeks before my first speaking gig at a major industry conference. Naturally, I had a lot on my mind and a lot of new information to synthesize and store.
A seemingly small decision on day one of the new job made those first few weeks easier. It’s also made every day easier since. I decided to start keeping a work journal.
What’s powerful about a work journal — also called work logs or just logs — is that the journal is just for me. When I’m writing about what I’ve done and how I’ve done it without the filter of worrying if other people will understand it, I can more quickly and accurately log my thoughts.
Here are the main benefits I’ve found from keeping a work journal:
- Writing down stuff helps commit it to memory. The more I journal the less often I need to refer to my journal.
- Progress reports are a breeze. The better my journaling, the better my reports.
- Picking back up on stalled-out projects is much easier. Someone else’s meeting notes rarely reflect where my own thinking and momentum was before the work stopped.
- Out-of-control days feel less stressful. When shit hits the fan I have a process I can rely that will let me act now and organize later.
My first few weeks on the job I threw just about everything into my journal. If I found something useful or interesting on the company intranet, I’d save the link and make a note about it. I summarized guides, tutorials, and manuals I read. If I met someone new in passing, I would try to add a quick entry as soon as I was back at my desk. Much of it I never had to refer back to. When I did it was an absolute lifesaver.
Five months in my process has evolved somewhat. Here’s what I’m currently logging:
- Regular updates about the work I’ve been doing, however banal. Day One’s reminders feature helps me remember to do this on busy days.
- Links and brief summaries of any uploads, updates, or substantive email replies I create — basically, I make a note any time I contribute a “thing” to a project.
- Short summaries of the main discussion and outcomes from meetings I’ve attended.
- Quick summaries of any unplanned, untrackable communication, such as a phone call I wasn’t expecting or a water cooler conversation about current projects. I try to enter these summaries in right away as they seem the easiest to forget. “Shit, what did John tell me in the break room earlier? It was only an hour ago, how did I forget?”
- Ruminations about big-picture stuff. This is the most “journal” like part of my journal.
- Notes to self about changes in my personal work process.
- Meeting notes when I am responsible for taking the official notes. This is pretty rare; usually I bring a pen-and-paper notebook for doodling or sketchnoting.
Day One: My Work Journal App of Choice
I chose to keep my work journal with the Mac OS X app Day One. Day One is a beautiful and relatively lightweight application for quickly creating timestamped journal entries. The search works well, you can create entries using plain-text or Markdown, and there is a handy menubar shortcut for entering a brief note (my favorite feature).
For a Monday-Friday 9-5 sort-of job, I find the linear, automatically timestamped format of Day One to be ideal for journaling my work. Day One is premised on a “note” being a lightweight thing. I don’t have to put a lot of thought into jotting notes into a paper notebook, and I don’t have to with Day One, either. An accumulation of notes becomes a record of my day, my week, my month, without thinking about. Day One is kind of the Twitter to Evernote’s WordPress, if you will.
Day One is not a web app; your journal is a file you keep on your computer. You can sync your journal across devices through iCloud or Dropbox. I keep my work life and other life pretty well separated, so I just save my journal locally and make sure it gets backed up. You can also password protect your journal, but it’s more about preventing snoops than it is about encryption or serious security (encryption is an upcoming feature, apparently).
Day One is a great app for keeping a personal journal as well, though it is not easy to swap between them. If you log work thoughts and personal thoughts in the same journal, you’ll have a bit of a mess, in my opinion. I have a separate personal journal file synced through Dropbox to Day One on my iPhone and personal laptop.
Other Journal Options
Pen. Paper. Write. This would be a good solution if your work isn’t on a computer. Scrawling out fileserver URL’s and transcribing emails wouldn’t translate well for me. I am thinking of starting a paper work journal for my garage projects when I get back to it in September.
I primarily use Evernote (Mac version) for keeping a work journal for my personal projects. I’m more in control of my personal time, which allows me to focus on one project without interruptions for as long as I need to, and I find the robustness of Evernote a bit more conducive to my various independent endeavors, which aren’t always digital in nature.
If you spend a lot of your day in an email client, one solution you could try would be firing off emails to log your work. You could send them to yourself with some filtering magic, create a new inbox, or use a service that capture notes via email, such as Evernote.