What Did I Do the Other Day? A Productivity Journal Experiment.

I often find myself trying to figure out what I did the other day. When I was a bit younger, it was easier to think back a few days and remember what I worked on, where I went, what I had to eat, who I spoke to, and so on. However, now (that I’m older), I find my job requires me to jump around so much that all the days seem to blend together. Tasks on my TODO list remain incomplete and I find myself incapable of remembering what I did a yesterday or the day before, never mind three or four weeks ago.

I’ve kept journals in the past. In fact, when I was building Lifeables I used to keep a running journal (using MaxJournal) that I would update periodically during the day. That was very handy for looking back to remind myself why I did something a specific way or for noting ideas as I had them. I kept that journal going for months and it was an incredibly valuable tool. The problem was that it had a very definitive scope, and I only updated it with things that had to do with Lifeables development. At one point I tried to expand it to include general Lifeables business related topics (fundraising, product meetings, etc.), but since I kept them in a separate journal, I almost never remembered to add entries to it.

I recently have been hearing a lot about productivity journals and how helpful they can be. There are a number of different variations, including things like writing down your three most important tasks for tomorrow. However, one variation I heard that really resonated with me, was the idea of keeping a single journal that merged business and personal thoughts. While this idea may seem incredibly simple, it’s also very powerful. Oftentimes my business and personal life are so intertwined that trying to keep them separate in my mind is nearly impossible. I couldn’t even imagine maintaining multiple journals. I need to try something, so I decided to give the combined journal a try.

The Experiment

I’m a heavy user of Evernote, Google Drive, and Asana. I don’t think I could get through a day without them. I did quite a bit of research to try and find the perfect journalling software and I eventually settled on Day One. Sure, I could have used Evernote or Google Drive, but I felt like they were too broad and contained several other notes, documents, and files that had nothing to do with my journal. I wanted the journal to be its own, self-contained entity that was ONLY for journaling. Day One works on all my Apple devices and it saves the data in my iCloud, so I don’t have to share entries with Day One’s servers. Day One also lets you password protect your journal, so it gives you a little extra security that you might not get with Evernote, for example.

I decided to try and start by simply documenting my day. This meant a bullet point list of what I did (or perhaps thought) during the day. I wanted to establish a routine, so I planned on writing my daily journal entry right before I went to bed. The first few days were actually pretty easy. I would think back and create a bullet point for all the things I could remember for that day — when I woke up, what exercises I did, what I ate for breakfast, when I got to work, what I did at work, when I left and got home, what I had for dinner, and so on. I agree it may be a bit excessive, but I wasn’t sure what would be important, so I didn’t want to leave out too many details. I started doing this on my iPad, which took a bit of time every night since typing on the soft keyboard isn’t very efficient. But I did it, every night… for three days.

On the fourth day I went to bed and I forgot to write in the journal. I realized this fact the next morning, so I back-dated an entry and tried to fill in my missed day. To my surprise, it was incredibly difficult. It was amazing to me how many things I couldn’t remember. When did I wake up yesterday? What time did I get to the office? What did I work on from 10 am to noon? After a night’s sleep, these question became near impossible to answer. My mind must free up space while I’m sleeping and purge things that it knows do not need to be converted to long-term memory. I did my best, but I felt uncertain about the veracity of my previous day’s documented events. I resolved to do better.

A few more days went by and I did my best to recount my day every night before I went to bed. At some point I had another slip up and had to do it the next morning, but even on the days I did follow through, there were still some gaps for the things I did at work. I now found myself straining at night to remember details from my day. Sure, they were probably trivial things anyways, but my plan was to be as specific as possible, so I could get a better understanding of my days and weeks. I decided to change things up a little.

The next day, when I got to the office, I created a new TextEdit document and I named it “Daily Log.” I then bulleted out the details of my morning since they were fresh on my mind. Throughout the day I would periodically flip over to that document and add a bullet or two. Sure, I’d do several things and forget to document them, but as soon as I remembered, it was generally pretty easy to recall what I had been doing for the last hour or two. That night, when I went to create my journal entry, about 85% of it was already written. I just copied and pasted it into the desktop version of Day One and filled in a few more details from my evening.

This did three things:

  1. The details of my day were exponentially more accurate and complete. Adding a note soon after something happened made me feel much more confident about the information.
  2. The amount of time it took to complete my nightly journal entry decreased dramatically. What used to take me 20+ minutes now took me just a few.
  3. It gave me a chance to reflect. The first few days I felt like I was just creating a list of bullet points so that I could lookup what I did on a given day. Now, when all I had to do was simply copy and paste most of it, it gave me a chance to reread what I did and add some reflections and thoughts to it. Now I wasn’t just capturing the events of my life, I was capturing my state of mind.

I’ve been doing this for a few weeks, and so far I’ve found the process to be somewhat laborious, but also extremely rewarding. I’m getting better at summarizing and articulating my daily activities, and as I do, I often find myself assessing the value of those actions. This in and of itself has been eye opening. Writing these things down has added a bit of accountability to my day as it has become clearer how I prioritize certain things. When I’m noting something trivial that I did instead of something with a higher priority, it’s now harder to make (and justify) excuses as to why something truly important didn’t get done.

Having these journal entries has also made my weekly reviews (I’m a GTDer) much easier and more enlightening. I used to run a report in Asana to see all the things I checked off that week and look at my “Sent” email folder to do an assessment and plan for the week ahead. Now I augment that with this journal and it helps me to reflect on both professional and personal matters.

Next Steps and Some Final Thoughts

So where do I go from here? Most importantly, I’ve decided that I’d really like to keep this going. As I mentioned, the benefits have seemed to outweigh the extra effort, at least for now anyway. My first monthly review is coming up, and it should be interesting because of the wealth of information I now have. In the past it has just been Asana reports and a few notes from previous weekly reviews. It’ll be nice to add a new sense of perspective and commentary to the mix.

One of the podcasts I listen to interviewed someone who has been keeping journals like this for quite some time. He noted that at the end of every year, as he takes stock of his life and plans for the future, he rereads the last year’s journal entries. I think that would be absolutely amazing. We all change and grow so much in a year, and being able to look back and have the opportunity to better appreciate that growth, might just give you a better sense of yourself. I only hope I can keep this up so that I have that opportunity.

Another thing that I’m trying to do with this is to be 100% honest with myself. The decision to use Day One was almost entirely based on the security and sandboxed aspect of it. Not to sound cheesy, but I want to be able to write down my hopes and dreams as well as my fears and disappointments. I don’t want this to be a personal Facebook that hyperbolizes my life. If I had a bad day, or struggled with something, I want to make a note of it. I want to write down how I overcame (or didn’t overcome) those challenges. How else are we going to learn and grow? Mixing both personal and business matters seems odd at first, but I’ve been trying to think of this as a personal journal that also recounts the things I did at work. It makes it easier to get personal.

Perhaps one of the greatest benefits is that now I have detailed notes and stories about my kids. We went on a 6 mile bike ride, we went out for ice cream, one of them was angry about something and was acting out, we played Jenga, they said something really funny, etc. These are all things that I’ve struggled in the past to remember. Did I spend enough time with them this week? When was the last time that we had a family game night, or went on an adventure? These are now much easier to answer by looking back at my journal.

I see this as a tool that will let me assess and better reflect on how I live my life. It will let me see how I spent my time and maybe even why I spent time doing the things I did. For me this means the clarity that I’ve been lacking. It means getting a better understanding of myself. It means being able to become a better husband and father, a better product manager and engineer, and hopefully, a better person.

What started as a little experiment to help me remember what I did a few days ago, has inspired me to work harder on myself. Now it’s just a matter of follow through, and that’s going to be the really hard part.

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