How to Start a Work Journal

In my last post, I presented the arguments for why you need to start a work journal. This week, as promised, I’m following up with how to do it in a simple, yet productive, way.

Develop the Habit

The hardest part about starting any new practice is to develop it as a habit. Charles Duhigg’s book, The Power of Habit: Why we do what we do in life and business describes the habit loop. The habit loop consists of three parts: the cue, the behavior (or non-behavior) and the reward.

The secret to changing your habits is to keep the cue and the reward the same. Right now, you may not think of how you end your day at work as a habit, but I’m sure it’s there. For me, around 5:15 or 5:30, I’d start to think about leaving. I’d do a quick scan of my emails to make sure there was nothing pressing I was missing (because I don’t have email notifications on or check emails constantly). Then I’d look at my calendar for the next day to see what my morning was like (because I NEVER got into work at the same time every day!), and when I felt good about all that, I’d shut down my computer, pack up and leave.

So, my end of the work day habit loop went like this:

Cue: End of the work day (time of day)
Behavior: Check emails / calendar for the next day
Reward: Shut down computer, leave work (YAY!)

When I wanted to institute work journaling into my day, I knew it would be best if I did it fresh – at the end of the work day I was journaling about. Because I quite liked the habit I already had and wasn’t trying to get rid of a bad habit, I decided to use the method of “habit stacking” – the quickest way to build a new habit into your life with the least amount of effort. It’s just what it sounds like. If you want to develop a new behavior, stack that behavior in with another well-established habit, and – voila! – effort minimized and new habit formed. Basically, you take advantage of an old habit to build a new habit.

So, I decided to stack my habit in with my other, positive behavior of reviewing the next day. My new habit loop looked like this:

Cue: End of the work day (time of day)
Behavior: Check emails / calendar for the next day + 5 minute work journal
Reward: Shut down computer, leave work (YAY!)

The key here is to keep the new behavior manageable. Notice I didn’t start with a 30 minute work journal habit (but I did evolve up to that), as I never would have completed it in the beginning – it would have extended the reward for too long.

I also didn’t let myself shutdown my computer or leave until I was done with my 5 minutes of journaling. For habit stacking to work, you must be diligent about holding the reward until the new behavior is accomplished.

It doesn’t matter when you journal, but it does matter that you do it consistently. The best way to develop a new behavior is to make it a habit, so evaluate all of your current habits and see if there are any you’d like to replace or that are appropriate to stack with journaling and start small!

Determine Your Intention

As I articulated last week, there are multiple reasons to start a work journal and keep it up. If you don’t know why you’re starting your work journal and have no clear purpose for it, you’re more likely to let it go. Our brains like purpose and focus, so just an open-ended “work journal” session is more likely to fail than one set with a clear intention.

So, before you dive in blind, get clear on your intention for your new work journal. Here are a few that come to mind, but feel free to come up with your own or leave a comment below!

  • Track your progress to keep you motivated and identify the accomplishments you’ve made
  • Track your achievements to make annual reviews and requests for promotions more straightforward
  • Unload your work frustrations so you stop thinking about work when you get home
  • Focus on achieving your big career goals so you don’t miss opportunities for growth


It doesn’t matter what your intention is. Having an intention will help your new behavior stick and help you focus your journaling efforts to be productive and not merely a random rambling of whatever’s in your head.

Set Your Guideline QuestionsBlack woman staring at blank page in work journal

I don’t know about you, but I HATE staring at a blank page. It brings up a lot of unnecessary pressure and often prevents me from starting anything. I think most people are similar, so I recommend coming up with a  few questions you answer in your journal each day to prevent that paralysis.

The intention you come up with will drive your specific questions. Here are a couple examples:

If you’re merely starting a journal to track your achievements to boost your request for a promotion or make your annual review process simpler, here’s what you might answer each day:

  • What did I do that made my organization or team better today?
  • What traits of mine helped me achieve that?
  • What would be the cost to the organization or team had I not achieved that?
  • How does that achievement fit in with the company’s or team’s long term, strategic goals?


If you’re starting a journal because you want to reinvigorate your motivation for your work again, your questions might look something like this:

  • How did what I do today further me toward my long term career and life goals?
  • How did my work today align with why I got into this career or role in the first place?
  • What impact did my work today have on others? How did I help?
  • What did I learn today? How did I grow as a person or a professional?


Both examples require a baseline knowledge. In the first example, you’ll need to know what your company’s long-term strategic goals are. (And if you don’t know, here are some tips to find out!) In the second example, you need to know your longterm goals and why you got into your career or role. And if you don’t know those yet, there’s no time like the present to clarify them!

As you set your intention and identify your guidance questions, it’s a great time to think of any baseline information you need to answer those questions. Doing so will help clarify your intention and ensure your guidance questions are well-positioned to keep you productive and not just venting.

Bringing it All Together

I recently had a client tell me that she was waiting for some profound insight to put down in a journal I sent to her as a gift. Your journal does not have to be profound. It doesn’t even need to be articulate to anyone but you. The power comes in the practice – not necessarily in the brilliance of what you write.

What you right in your journal, why you write in your journal, and when you write in your journal are all up to you and there is absolutely no right answer. By taking time upfront to consider your answer to those questions, you’ll be more likely to make the habit stick and make this a productive exercise instead of one more thing you have to do each day with no understanding of why or real benefit.

Have you started a work journal? What have you learned? What are your challenges? Leave comments below to help others and get advice as you continue your work!


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