Start a Work Journal: Here's Why

How often do you track what type of day you had? What about what made it great or terrible? Do you even know if you can articulate what makes you feel great and what makes you long for the day or week to end?

In my work with individual clients, my most common assignment is to start a work journal. It usually comes up right in the beginning of a coaching relationship, and it comes up because so many people don’t know what they want. They know they’re unhappy, but they aren’t sure what’s causing it. They know they want something more, but they aren’t sure what or why.

Enter: the work journal.

It’s really not earth shattering, so if you were hoping to find some “WOW!” moment in reading this, I’m sorry. Basically, I want you to journal about work. Daily. That’s it.

I’ll get to the specifics of how in my next post, but first, here’s what you have to gain from starting a work journal today.

Perspective

If there’s one complaint about work that I hear more than anything else, it’s that people want to feel like they’re making a difference. They want their work to mean something. They want to contribute.

Exacerbating the struggle to find meaning in work is an influx of technology that makes keeping up difficult. At some point, emails answered came to mean a productive working day, regardless of whether anything was actually accomplished with those emails.

Technology and the increasing pace of work has focused people on the wrong things. Instead of looking back at the week and reveling in what you’ve accomplished, all you can see is the unanswered emails waiting in your inbox. Instead of taking a well-deserved break to celebrate a recent management presentation that went well, you dive back into your task list to make sure you’re hitting your numbers.

With all of this pressure, it’s hard to stay focused on what matters to you. Developing a big career strategy feels like a distraction from producing at work. Defining your work goals is harder and more nebulous than checking off the tasks on your never-ending to do list.

Journaling helps get you back to the big picture. It helps you keep your perspective when Steve from accounting won’t get off your back about that report that was due yesterday. It reminds you that there is more to what you do and why you do it. Sure, you could spend your time journaling about how Steve doesn’t know a thing about what he’s doing. If you’re worried about that, be sure to check back next week for tips to make sure your journal doesn’t just become a bitch-book.

As you reflect back on what you’ve written, you’ll uncover patterns – common themes that left you feeling great about work, ways you handled yourself that made you proud (or not), whether you felt better at the end of a day that included a good workout or not. You’ll eventually see what makes your work feel meaningful and what to avoid that leaves you feeling down, and you’ll begin to shift your thoughts to focus on the high-level, important work, rather than just what’s in front of you because you don’t know what else to attend to.

Truth

As humans we think we can remember things much better than we can. We think we can just jump back to last Tuesday and remember what we did, how happy (or not) we were about it, and, generally, whether it was a good or bad day. But most of us can’t do that.

And even if you can recall the specifics of your day, your memory is not just a straightforward reflection of facts. Your memory involves your perception of your current reality, and thus is tied to how you feel now. So, if you feel great about work now, you’ll probably think that last Tuesday was great as well. If all you want is for the week to end, looking back at last Tuesday will likely show you confirmation of your current viewpoint – that work sucks.

Getting in the habit of writing about your days at work regularly will give you the truth. It will make sure that as you’re evaluating your next move, you’re using the most honest set of facts out there – not just looking back at your work with rose-colored glasses or all doom and gloom, depending on how you feel at the moment.

Clarity

Journaling about work gets your thoughts and feelings out of your head and forces you to actually articulate them. Have you ever been really mad at a spouse or friend and let it just ruminate in your head? And then when you confront them and try to eloquently express those thoughts and it just falls apart. As soon as you get it out of your head it either feels silly and petty or just plain doesn’t make sense.

Well, that happens at work too. I vividly remember a day when I was relatively new at my in-house position at Kraft. I was working on a big outsourcing agreement with a woman I really enjoyed and it was almost 5. I had a long bus/train/walk commute to and from Kraft, so catching the bus was a huge part of my life. I was frustrated because I wanted to catch the 5:03 bus and escape work, as “escaping work” had been go-to my mindset for years. My body was tensing, I was getting really sweaty in the armpits (TMI, but it’s what happens when I get stressed!) and I just took a minute to stop and ask myself what that stress was about.

As I tried to answer, I had an epiphany. I actually liked what I was doing at work. I had no reason to be stressed other than that I had decided to try to catch the 5:03 bus and probably shouldn’t. So, no biggie, 5:33 it is.

That’s what journaling does for you. It forces you to confront the tiny frustrations that build up and put words to them – to give them a real why. It sounds silly, but most of us are wrapped up in these little balls of stress about work, traffic, catching buses, shuttling kids, and we don’t actually have a good reason for that stress. When forced to articulate it, which we rarely are, we see that there’s less to be stressed about or learn that it’s something completely different than we thought that’s causing that stress.

I’m not saying work journaling will make you feel silly everyday (but I’m not promising it won’t either). But it will force you to hone in on what’s REALLY not working (or working, hopefully!) at work. And it will force you to express it in a way that actually makes sense so you can understand where you’re coming from when you look back in the future.

Progress

Finally, keeping a work journal can boost your morale by reminding you of the progress you’re making on your important work. It’s so easy to lose perspective on what we’re actually accomplishing with the vast amount of emails, meetings, spreadsheets and progress trackers to attend to. It can start to feel like you’re just going through motions and never really getting anything done.

Your work journal will be a place for you to reflect on the meaningful progress you’re making in your work – whether that’s progress toward a long term project you’ve been working on or progress against the larger career goals you’ve set for yourself. And seeing your progress against those goals or projects will keep you motivated tomorrow and the next day and the next…

So, how do I start?

Lest I just feed you clickbait here, here’s a little preview for next week’s post on how to start your work journal – just do it! Set aside 5 minutes at the end of each day to start. Write about what’s on your mind about work. That’s it.

I’ll give some more concrete strategies next week, but for now, start simple. Just write and let it flow. Trust that, if nothing else, the discarding of those thoughts onto paper will help you set work aside once you get home. But, trust me, the benefits are so much more if you stick with it!

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