Keeping a Work Journal

In 2015, I’m making a goal to keep a work journal. This post is about the why, what, when and how of my work journal.

I wanted to make this post in January but I’m a bit late on that goal. As you read on, you’ll see why that timing seemed particularly smart. Oh well, it’s still early in the year ~

Why a Work Journal?

I want to keep a work journal for many reasons. Starting a new position and starting a new year seemed like a great time to start a work journal. I’ve kept many work notebooks and still keep notes at work, but my work journal has a different purpose and is separate from project notes.

My primary reasons for keeping a work journal are:

  • To establish my focus for the day.
  • To prevent the loss of ideas.
  • To reflect on positive and negative situations and to think about what I may want to do about these situations.
  • To track info (see the section on “what”) and to have that information over a span of time – hence starting at the start of the year seemed a great time to begin. (I did start my work journal in December but I haven’t gotten to blogging about it until now.) Note that if you want to start a work journal, it is still Q1 – still early in the year and still worth trying. Also the “annual” aspect of journalling is fairly irrelevant, starting anytime is worthwhile.

Need more “why keep a work journal” – see these articles.

Inc. magazine: “Why You Should Keep a Work Journal”

Harvard Business Review: “Four Reasons to Keep a Work Diary”

Forbes magazine: “6 Ways Keeping a Journal Can Help Your Career”

What to record in work journal


I record ideas even if I cannot execute on the idea for a while. I imagine some people thinking – what’s the point if I can’t execute but I don’t like to think that way – instead I prefer to think – you never know – sometimes I can fit in a simpler version of an idea and instead of waiting for the perfect alignment of opportunity, I try to see if I can somehow get an idea moving in a simpler form.

(In software development terms – think the MVP (minimal viable product) of an idea.)

I know from past note-taking experience that going back over my notes can be inspiring on days I might need inspiration.


I record snippets of conversations that I want to recall. Perhaps this harkens back to my journalism or technical writing background but the way someone phrases something can be pivotal and if I record a snippet of a conversation – the entirety of the conversation can come back to my memory. Recording concepts from a conversation is much more likely to end up in a project notebook than my journal – this probably sounds confusing but the split or division of what belongs where is not confusing to me – it’s probably a matter of coming up with what makes sense for you.


I take pictures of whiteboards, screenshots, pictures and such. If we talk and you write on a whiteboard, I’m likely to ask if I can take a picture. If your drawing looks like doodles, it will still help me recall the conversation and those doodles provide surprisingly good recall and value to me.

(As a side note see this Ted Talk on the benefits of doodling: )

I’m a big fan of mindmapping although I don’t find mindmaps to suit all purposes – there is a place for checklists, a place for notes and a place for mindmaps. My preferred tool for mindmapping is SimpleMind+. It’s free and easy to use, see:


Nearly everyday I have a list of people I want to contact. I might make a note of why I want to contact each person if I think I will forget. Often in the morning, I think of different people I want to contact that day so many days start with a list of names. For some reason, I’ve found if I write names in the morning, I’m much more likely to actually contact those people that day.


I record connections, which might be one of the more elusive items to explain. As I meet with one person to another, a concept or an idea will come to mind. Often I can see the connection between one person and another – connections that might not be obvious – in this case, I connect people when I can. Other times I have an idea and I can see a connection to a person – as in – this person can help with this idea or this person knows something that could be helpful. Noting connections and finding synchronicity in people and ideas is one of the most valuable bits I recognize and record.

Follow-up Items

I record items I want to follow up on which can range from an email, a phone call, a meeting that needs to happen – all sorts of possible things. Some days the list I write at the end of the day is longer than the list at the start of the day – frustrating to me as it always seems there is more to do than hours in the day, everyday.


Everyday I start my work journal with the top three goals I have for the day. This is a baked in habit, to think in terms of top three. It is tempting to have more but when I list more, I can get sidetracked or overloaded and end up achieving nothing.

A friend and colleague recommended the book The Progressive Principle (back in 2012.) The Progress Principle has a short PDF overview, see: “Tips from The Progress Principle” Notice the book tips encourage keeping a work journal. When this book was first referred to me, I used a half an index each day (for about a year), in fact, I often tucked that index card into pocket and would refer to it later in the day to see if I’d made my top three intentions or goals for the day, I liked the simplicity and the physical card as well as the personal push it encouraged to make my goals.

And although I have not been recording these items – it is possible I will begin to:

Appointments. I want to track and tag where I spend my time. Currently I use my calendar but that might be too fine of a grain of information – although color coding meetings and appointments helps me get a quick visual on where my time is going.

Long View Goals. I want my longer view goals in front of me continually and while I do track my goals of the day – those mini-goals feed into bigger picture goals – or at least I hope they do!

When to write in a work journal

1. At the moment because the next moment happens so darn quickly and then the thought is gone.

2. Alternately a time to write is when I find a quiet moment n between activities or meetings.

3. The start of the day – early morning hours hold such promise for the day. Writing in the morning drives my focus for the day.

4. The end of the day – end of day seems to create another flurry of thinking as the reality of time sets in and I can better see what will and will not happen – yet – I don’t want to lose ideas and follow-ups – so typically late afternoon, I find I’m jotting lots of items down.

5. At the end of the week, I’m trying to build a habit to go back through my daily journal to catch anything that was missed (I’m still baking this habit in.) It is also clearly a time to capture items from the week that might have been lost or missed.

How – the format of a work journal

Format matters. I want a paper journal but it is just not feasible or maintainable. I tried to keep a paper journal, I tried for the month of December (2014) but I encountered too many issues. And my back refuses to carry more than needed – besides with all the devices in my bag, why carry a notebook too?

In January, I downloaded the Day One app and have been experimenting this past month. I’ve encountered some issues but reached out to their support team and have resolved what I needed. (Yahoo to the support group for being responsive and friendly.) I’ve also been experimenting with Evernote and that appears to be the winner.

The convenience of a mobile app that works on both my iPhone and Android device means I’m not waiting to get back to a paper journal in a desk drawer, it means I can record super short notes anywhere, anytime – and I do. Convenience means not losing ideas or the moment. Although I have two more computers to install and sync with – there is no location in my life that I don’t have at least one of the following: an iPhone, Samsung/Note4, iPad or MacBook.

I think it’s clear to see the benefits. I think a work journal like any journal is a private matter so feeling secure no one else will read your journal means you could use your journal to vent and blow off steam – I’ve done that and it’s sure better than blowing off steam to a person.

Think about keeping a work journal, try it – it’s a good time of year to start a new habit – especially a habit that can boost productivity and a place to record all those little bits of things you don’t want to lose track of. The how (format) and the when (time of day) matter less than why. And based on the why – what you’re trying to achieve will certainly influence what you choose to record.

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