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Keeping a work log

I have been keeping a journal for my personal life with some regularity for the good part of 4 years. The difference between my earlier attempts at journaling before four years ago is the regularity and the structure. I started with a very structured and regimented journal (doing it everyday with prompts and blanks to fill), to a ruled journal notebook, then a plain notebook (no rules nor grids in the pages), and then settling on a dot-grid notebook. This allows me to doodle and write free-form to help me commit thoughts and observations of my day but it was mostly for archival and looking back to "feel good" or reminisce (also to sum up a month, a year, etc.) The approach helps a lot with self-improvement in terms of my mental health and my reflection to see where I was a specific amount of time ago and whenever I was reading it again.

In a previous post I wrote about keeping a work log, and I realised I only mentioned that in passing. In this post I detail the structure of the work log pages that I use to achieve the same retrospective goals but with work. Hopefully this will be helpful to some of you out there too!

Notebooks

I use a ruled spiral notebook (A5 size) with a date field at the top of the pages. I prefer the ones that have a top margin but no side margins. This gives me the most writing area for prose. Being able to doodle is less useful for my personal work log so I don't use dot-grid or plain notebooks for that reason. The writing guides are helpful so I don't need to think about aligning the words as I'm hand-writing (and just follow the lines).

Pens

I used to use a ballpoint pen because I tend to write a lot into the notebook but the disposable nature of the cheap pens didn't feel too good for my conscience. So I've switched to using a fountain pen that's still cartridge-loaded, but am working my courage towards getting an ink converter so I can refill with bottled ink instead. This is an ongoing project for me as I'm not confident about my dexterity in managing ink and not spilling all over stuff. 😁

The other approach I've taken in the past is using multiple colours for different kinds of entries. This quickly became unwieldy and broke continuity of writing too much. Now, instead, I use different markings to differentiate items in a list. I haven't gone full bullet journal (yet) mostly because I don't have the indexing step in my workflow, but I have a reason for that.

A template

I structure my workday log like this:

  • Theme for the day
  • Date: Agenda
    • Event @ Time
    • Event @ Time
    • ...
  • Goals
    • Something to accomplish @ Priority #1
    • Something to accomplish @ Priority #2
    • Something to accomplish @ Priority #3
  • Tasks
    • Specific task to perform
    • Specific task to perform
    • ...
  • Task Log
    • Log entry
    • ...

I place the "Theme for the day" at the top margin which roughly describes what my theme is for the day. Sometimes it'll be "Project X: Coding" or "1:1s and Mentoring". The date field at the top of the page will typically be only filled in for the first page for a day. This way I can skim through the pages and find the start-of-day pages quickly by looking at the top corner of a page.

I usually have at most three goals for a day, and on some days I only have one to help focus. Sometimes there's a deadline or a project that's higher priority than other goals, so I'll mark it clearly ahead of time.

Tasks differ from goals in that Goals are "end states" while tasks are "actions to perform". So while a goal might be "Complete design document" there might be specific tasks like "Fill in references" or "Embed system diagram". Depending on the day and how much available time I have (the agenda view helps me decide that) I'll vary the amount of tasks I'll put down for me to accomplish in the day.

Workflow

I populate the workday template the day before, looking ahead into my calendar for things that I've already committed to. This is helpful because it allows me to plan ahead and set expectations on what I'd like to accomplish the following day. In the end this allows me to commit it to paper and forget it until I look at it at the start of the workday. This pre-population doesn't include the task log section, because those will include the running log of things I've been doing in the workday.

The log will vary in the level of detail, but I generally align this with the breaks I take in between chunks of focused time. When I take a breather, I'll write down the thing I was working on, which tasks were accomplished, whether I responded to emails, or whether I got an idea that I'd like to revisit later. For project-specific ideas I'll typically put something short in the work log notebook and write something more substantial in a project-specific work notebook. I'll write about that some other time.

As soon as I have tasks "done" then I'll mark those off from the list of tasks. I use square bullets for tasks that can be accomplished, so I tick the box when they're done usually with an accompanying log entry to try and quantify how much time that took, what the outcomes were, whether I learned something new, or how it made me feel while doing it. I make the task log useful for retrospective purposes so when I'm writing them I write as much of what I feel and/or observe as I can.

At the end of the day I do two main things: I look back at the day and see whether my estimates were good or whether I over-committed and I plan the upcoming work day. This daily reflection allows me to craft the theme of the following day and perform appropriate actions like delegating, reducing scope, escalating to folks who can help, etc.

End note

I've started this practice around 2018 and 2020 made this a good way for me to collect notes on things I've been working on and the challenges/successes I've had along the way. It helps me keep perspective on where I am now compared to where I was a couple years ago. It's also very helpful when working on my self evaluation and peer evaluations, so I have notes that were relevant to my experience along with the evidence that's associated with them. It's been helpful to me in being able to stay on task as well as disconnect at the end of a work day.

Do you have a workflow that enables you to stay on task and reflect later on?

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