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The surprising benefits of journaling in the workplace

Staying motivated is difficult. No matter how much you love your job, or the thing you’re studying, there are times when you feel like you aren’t making any progress, and you just cannot… stay… focused.

A study from researchers at Harvard Business School claims that the way to minimise these lapses of focus, and boost your progress, is to keep a work journal. Journaling is often associated with personal development and has been shown to be therapeutic for many people, but is often overlooked as a professional development tool.

The Harvard researchers studied 3 groups of trainee workers for 10 days: one group worked through the day as usual, the second spent 15 minutes at the end of the working day reflecting on their experiences by writing in a journal, and the third spent 15 minutes journaling followed by discussing their notes with a colleague. They then set the trainees a test based on the content of their work. The results showed that the journaling groups performed 22.8 % and 25% better than the control group in the test, despite the fact that the control group spent 15 minutes longer working than the other groups.

Quantitative Journaling

Keeping a work journal can help employees and employers in equal measure, but works best as a personal motivator and record of achievement rather than a tool for employers to monitor their employees. The focus of the journal is for its writer to list goals for the day or week (daily works better for maintaining a consistent sense of motivation and personal development) which can be quantified, followed, and crossed off as they are completed. Quantitative journaling allows you to measure your own progress in numerical terms, making it a good choice for sales roles and those reliant on figures.

The key is to set attainable goals - don’t tell yourself you’ll finish a whole project in a day or come up with a great new invention by the end of the week! These goals should also be specific, so you can definitively measure progress and achievement: you should aim to “increase sales by 5%”, rather than just “increase sales”, which will help you pinpoint your most successful moments, days, and strategies. Try not to cut corners!

Qualitative Journaling

Alternatively, work journals can be spaces purely for reflection. If your job is such that targets are harder to set and quantify, you could do what I do and simply note down the day's achievements. If you have undertaken lots of little tasks, note them down in bullet point format, maybe with a note on how successful you feel they were, emphasising the quality of your day and the tasks you completed. If you are tackling a single larger project, however, it is advisable to break down your work into smaller sections and reflect on them individually. Did an introduction to a paper flow well? Did a meeting take an unexpected turn? Write it all down, and be honest with yourself!

This kind of qualitative journaling is great for tracking progress in a less number-oriented job; for example, an archivist in one of the West Midlands' museums told me she finds it useful to track items that have been moved while the archive is being renovated, because on any given day she will have written down what she worked on and where she moved it to. It really pays to be as specific as possible if you know in advance that you will be looking back on your work for more than just personal development, but even a basic overview of your day can act as a real boost on days when your motivation is lagging.

Idea Journaling

Work journals are also a good place for noting down ideas you have, especially if there is a relevant meeting or deadline coming up which would benefit from the idea. The foresight bias means that we assume a sudden great idea is so great that we will definitely remember it later, so don’t bother to write it down, so having a journal on hand to write all your ideas down and remind you to bring them up in that meeting is crucial to new thinking and development. If the idea is well-received by your boss or colleagues, note that down too: the journal is not just a place to nag yourself into completing tasks, but to show the progress you have made. It can also come in handy as part of a salary or performance review, as proof of your contribution and commitment to the job.

Getting Started

For those of you who are of a more writerly persuasion and may already keep a diary, creating your work journal might be relatively easy: grab a notebook and a pen and start writing your goals and ideas.

For those of you for whom writing does not come so naturally, however, there are a range of productivity planners and journals available which have all the relevant headings and sections already laid out for you, so all you have to do is fill in the tasks. This one features a 5-day working week layout and spans 6 months, and has great reviews. Its bullet point format means it should take no more than a couple of minutes to jot down your information each day, so it’s ideal for those with already hectic working lives.

Whether you choose a more structured, quantitative approach, or the more casual descriptive style of the qualitative journal - or even if you only use journaling as a tool for remembering your best ideas - happy journaling, everyone!

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