Many historical figures kept work diaries or journals. Ben Franklin, John Adams, Andy Warhol, and countless others have recorded the events of their day in some form. While these historic diaries are incredibly fascinating for us to read today, the benefit they gave to the writers was probably far greater.
Richard Branson has written bestsellers based largely off of his years of recording his daytime thoughts and working experiences into journals. Reading Branson's thoughts motivated me to keep a loose log of work and life experiences as well. The ritual has helped me immensely, probably more than any other work or time management "hack."
My process is pretty simple: At the end of each day I'll recount what worked, what didn't, and some other random things that happened during the day. There isn't a lot of structure, just merely stream of thought that lasts about fifteen minutes. Sometimes I'll vent in wordy prose, other times I'll just make a quick list. I've found that it's not so much what or how I write, but rather that I do it. The results have been profound for me. I'd recommend this practice to anyone. Here's why:
1. The release
If anything, it feels good to unwind and recount the bits of the day. There's something about the finality in writing something down on paper that makes it more real, and makes the memories stronger. I doubt I'd be able to remember half of what I did throughout the day if I didn't recount them. It also helps with answering that recurring question of "Where did the day go?!"
2. An honest overview
If you're like me, you keep lists of stuff that needs to be done throughout the day. I've had days where the morning started with 15 things on the list, and ended with 13 left undone. Ouch. Yet being able to recall the day allows me to see some of the other things I did get done that weren't on the list.
3. See the wins
We often forget the things that we got done during the day for lots of reasons. We're taught at an early age that what we do isn't as important as what we didn't do. After all, what we don't get done often impacts us more in work and other social settings. This causes us to automatically shove the stuff we did accomplish into the back of our minds, and fret about the undone. However, focusing on what we have done—the wins—in our day rejuvenates. Going to bed looking at what was accomplished can be a massive motivator to help start the next day, and can keep us from closing the day on a sour note.
4. Minimize your mistakes
One definition of insanity is repeating the same process over and over again, while expecting a different outcome. Similarly, it's easy to plow through each work day like the last, without giving a second thought to the events of the day. This is especially true for our bad days. On our worst days, we simply want to unwind and not have to relive the nightmare that was the previous working day. But it turns out the worst parts of our days are important to remember as well (even though it stings). Reverse engineering what went wrong is helpful to ensure it doesn't happen again, and work journals are perfect for this.
5. A new perspective on your day
The most helpful part of this exercise for me is getting perspective on what my days end up looking like. After a particularly bad day last month I reflected, stiff drink in hand, on all the events of the day. This helped me to see that my day wasn't as bad as I had remembered it. In fact, it was a really decent day, minus a couple setbacks towards the end. In my mind I had made these setbacks out to be more important than they were. The day wasn't a total loss after all! Perspective is everything.
As our days move by us faster and faster, it becomes that much more important to take a breath, and reflect on what happened during the day. Without the perspective of our days, we can't really take satisfaction in our big wins, nor can we learn from our mistakes.