Why and How to Keep a Work Journal

Why and How to Keep a Work Journal
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What is a work journal?

A work journal is a periodic record of highlights, lowlights, accomplishments, frustrations, breakthroughs, blockers, victories, defeats, facts, feelings, observations, revelations…

…and whatever else matters to you and whoever decides whether you should get promoted.

Why should you keep a work journal?

To get perspective on your professional growth, what to study or practice next, and what you’ve learned

Why keep a journal? For one, it can help you get perspective on your professional growth. Recording the experience of your work helps you focus in on and identify what you've learned. This is especially true with something you've learned gradually over time. Rarely do we have the lightbulb moment of, Today, I finally understand that thing! Sometimes, it takes months to figure out that something we used to think was impossible is no longer. Example: I guess I don't fight with TypeScript anymore.

To maintain a record of your work that persists outside of private GitHub repos or docs

Particularly for development work that exists outside of your control (this is especially true for consultants, who don't own the repos we work in), the work journal is the primary record of your work. For any developers, though, you tend not to be able to take the code with you when you leave and, six months later, chances are you won’t remember what you did.

To collate information about your work from multiple sources

Our lives are spread out among all these different digital tools and sometimes it's very challenging to get an overall picture of what you were working on at a particular time. Some of it's in Slack, some in your office calendar, more in JIRA. It’s likely you wouldn’t have access to all of those tools anymore.

To collect stories to recount in performance reviews and interviews

Using the work journal to collate information from multiple sources is like creating a memory assist. You can refer to it to find stories when you're preparing for a performance review or an interview. Or maybe you will look through it and think, Maybe I should give a talk or write a post about this topic that keeps coming up.

Examples of things journaling can tell you

  • Three months ago, I was complaining about how much I hate _____. Now I feel like it’s not all that terrible. So I must have learned it better, since then?
  • Two people from other teams DM’d today to ask me how to do _____. Maybe I should do a lunch-and-learn about it?
  • Wow, how did I completely forget about that big project I worked on?! I should mention that on my LinkedIn profile.

How should you record this info?

  • plain text or Markdown file? on…GitHub?
  • composition notebook?
  • diary app?
  • Bullet journal?
  • spreadsheet?

It's really up to you. There are many ways, and what works for you is going to depend on how your brain works, what your habits are, what kinds of tools you like to work with. In my mind, approaches fall into two general categories: digital and analog. For developers, analog tends to be more popular, because if you're looking at a computer all day it’s refreshing to look at something that doesn’t have a screen.

Alt: A handwritten key to bullet journal symbols, including a dot for “task,” an X for “task complete,” an asterisk for “priority,” and an exclamation mark for “inspiration.”

Bullet journals, in particular, are very popular. That was the subject of Sarah Saltrick Meyer’s 2018 BrooklynJS talk “Biting the Bullet: Code Journaling for Fun and Profit,” in which she showed the types of bullets she used for particular kinds of entries, such as collaboration. See the tweet in the colophon below for some photos of her slides.

Some people prefer more freeform journals, or take a scrapbook approach, or apply quantification such as little checklists or progress graphs. Tracking little colored squares may sound familiar to you if you're a developer and you use GitHub…

I also recommend Brittany Braxton’s talk “Journaling as a Dev,”presented at the 2020 Juneteenth conference, about doing visual journaling as a developer. She has given many talks and workshops on sketch journaling, all from the perspective of a developer, and shares what it has done for her career.

I personally use a markdown-based diary app at the moment, but in the past, I've used a spreadsheet.

Prompts to try

Regardless of what journaling format you choose, you might want to include a list of questions to help you recall and organize what happened that day.

  • “How was your day, my dear?” What would you tell a person who’s sincerely interested in your work and growth?  What are the important things that stand out to you?
  • What work (e.g., PRs) did you contribute to or review?
  • How did you embody the core values? If you work at an organization with clearly defined core values, how did you embody those values?
  • What were you asked for help on? What did you seek help on? What others ask you to help with is a great signpost toward what you’re considered an expert in, what you’re the go-to person for.
  • Which meetings did you attend? Did you actively participate? This might seem mind-numbingly boring, but sometimes it's a big part of your day.
  • What did you read, watch, try out, or otherwise study? What stuck with you the most? How should you guide your next learning project?
  • What feedback did you give or receive?
  • How was your energy level? Weather? Lunch? Caffeine? You may not be aware of all the factors that can affect your productivity. Maybe you want to note the timing of meals and your corresponding energy levels, barometric pressure, etc.
  • What was difficult for you? What was the most fun? If you had to do part of the day again, which part would you choose?
  • Whom did you chat with, and what about? The things you rant about with your friends on back channels can often lead to blog posts or talks.
  • What did you Google? Had you looked it up before? Were you refreshing your memory, looking for help on something that had you stumped, looking for a link to send to a colleague?
  • Which Bitmojis did you use to comment on PRs?  I and some other Striders like to use Bitmojis when we comment on PRs, and I copy all of mine into my work journal.

When should you journal?

Time commitment: whatever you want. Any record is better than none!

Regarding time commitment, how often you record entries and how much effort you put in has to fit your preferences. To that point, It doesn’t have to be detailed. Just jot something down. Maybe for you that means updating the journal every day. Especially if you're using a paper journal, having it immediately at hand – perhaps on your desk, if you have one, next to your computer – can help keep you on track. You may find yourself spending more time on it, as you discover the usefulness of a work journal.

To build a habit: link journaling to some other ritual or event you already have.

I personally think it's most useful to do it at least once a week to ensure that the memory of the record is valid. Regardless of frequency, it is helpful to build a habit around work journaling. The general advice for establishing a new habit is to try to link it to an existing one. For example, Immediately before or after I get up from my workstation, I'm going to journal. Or When I'm filling out my timesheet, I'm going to journal.

Review cadence: whatever meets your needs.

Build in time to review what you’ve recorded, whether it’s weekly, monthly, quarterly, or when you're updating your LinkedIn profile. I recommend reviewing it before a performance review. Being able to give concrete examples of your performance during the period since your last review supports your career advancement.

Start journaling today!

A work journal is a tool that helps you to grow professionally and serves as a record of your career evolution. I recommend keeping one regardless of your job, as it can be a valuable resource in any line of work.

If you're not already doing it, try it out!

India Amos

India Amos

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