A Better Way to Organize Your Day: The Work Diary

A Better Way to Organize Your Day: The Work Diary

I want to talk about the Work Diary. It is said that journaling is the cheapest form of therapy, and I’d also add that’s true in a sense both personally and professionally. In 2009 I decided to keep a running log of every task I ever performed at my workplace. In this document I include notes on what I am trying to accomplish, the outcome, who is involved, and what key learnings I can take away. Since starting this project, I have created and archived hundreds of pages of notes spanning various stages in my career.

Creating a work diary has been helpful not only tracking what I’ve done in the past so I can review my workflow, but it’s given me a needed structure to ensure tasks are accomplished and I’m using my time effectively through prioritization. It also frees up a lot of mental energy by not having to remember ever single detail going back over time as well as a terrific backdrop to create a resume around when I decide it’s time to pursue my next opportunity. The Work Diary has become a tool that I teach every junior person I work with to help them stay on top when they feel like they’re being inundated by a heavy workload. I have used this method to carve out multiple hours of wasted time during a week myself. In fact, I think it’s probably the most effective tool you can use to get your work week at or below 40 hours. If you think you’re too busy and are being pulled in too many directions, this is a fabulous way to gather some semblance of order. Here’s how you can do it:

Get familiar with outlining in Word or another word processing tool. This sounds self-explanatory but this process works using bulleting, indentation, and color coding. You should be familiar with how the tools work so you’re not spending your day trying to make the document look good.

Do a brain dump. Get everything typed into your Work Diary that you have regardless of priority or when it needs to be accomplished.

Organize your tasks within that week by task header and prioritize them. Highlight in bold the name of the task and then cascade below any detailed information un-bolded. This helps important items stand out to you. I like to include notes on methods that I try to solve a problem even if that attempt fails. Everything in a week gets moved around so the highest priority is at the top. I also try to make sure each task connects to a goal that I have so I’m not wasting time working on items that won’t add value.

Label your block of tasks by week. Since most tasks tend to bleed between days as you’re waiting for others to follow up it’s best to organize the block by week. This gives you a way to timestamp what you’re doing without getting overly weighed down by information that doesn’t add any value to the process like exact times. I like to start each block off with “The Week Ending March XX, XXXX”, which is the Friday of that week and go from there. Typically emails you send and files you save are timestamped already, so only include exact times if you know in the future it’s going to be a hot issue.

Highlight open items in yellow. Anything that needs to be done should be highlighted in yellow and conversely anything completed is un-highlighted. This also includes emails, if I sent an email and need a response, I’ll keep that item open until I hear back.

Track your meetings using blue. I like to stack all my meetings up at the top of a work week block and highlight them blue so I’m reminded to prepare for them. I also include who is in the meeting and any follow ups if necessary.

Throw away the notepad. A lot of us like to squirrel notes away on paper. The downside to doing this is that we often never read those notes again because we don’t have an effective way to search paper without scanning with our eyes. Going forward, you should type your notes in your Work Diary and ditch the paper. This means you’ll need to take your laptop to meetings, and if you can’t, get used to writing down notes on paper and immediately transferring them to your Work Diary.

Back up your file. Never save your Work Diary on your local PC. It should be saved on your private shared drive at work in case of drive failure.

Roll over each week properly. Anything highlighted still gets carried over to the next week. Sometimes you have task headings that are only half done, in this case just start a new header in the following week and copy down the uncompleted items. In some circumstances when I’m working on long extended projects, I will extend a block to two weeks instead of one so I don’t have to carry the same items over, so that’s something to think about. I also use this time to pitch out items that ended up being incredibly low priorities or “nice to haves” that aren’t mission critical.

To conclude, below is an example of what a typical Work Diary might look like for me. I made up names and projects to give you a feel of what your version might look like.

Thanks for reading!

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