I’m visiting friends in Sonoma this week, and I’m up before dark again today, my internal clock still on Virginia time.
Sipping tea in my friends’ cozy living room, listening to the sounds of distant roosters and the gently trickling fountain outside, I’ve been flipping through my journal, reading recent entries.
In looking through what I’ve written of late, I was struck by how my use of this tool has shifted over the years — and by how indispensable it’s become for me as a productivity tool at work.
I admit, it’s a little surprising:
When you think of getting your work done in a way that’s efficient and strategic, the first image that comes to mind is not of settling down with a bound journal, a pen, and a mug of tea, and writing longhand about how you’re feeling and what you’re thinking.
But I’ve discovered that is sometimes the smartest thing I can do.
When We Get Stuck
Have you ever had this experience?
You’re so stressed about something at work — a recent interaction with a colleague, an upcoming meeting, a high-stakes project — that you find yourself feeling almost frozen.
Maybe you avoid dealing with the issue, procrastinating on it by busying yourself with other tasks that are, in truth, far less important.
Or maybe you’re moving forward but at a snail’s pace, overwhelmed by your feelings or by the complexity of the situation.
Or you might have had the opposite reaction to stress…
Some of us freeze up. Others spring into action — almost any action will do, as long as it releases the pressure of the stress that’s been building.
But then you discover you’ve sprung forward in the wrong direction and only made matters worse. Or at best, you’re back where you started.
It’s doesn’t always have to be a high stress situation, though. We live in a complex world, and sometimes the sheer complexity of our responsibilities can make it impossible to see the right path forward.
So much relevant information, so many possibilities, so many factors to consider before making a decision and moving forward. And so again, we freeze up, or we make impulsive choices that create setbacks for ourselves.
Yes? You’ve had these kinds of experiences too? Well then, congratulations — you’re officially human.
How I Use Journaling at Work
As a thoroughly imperfect human being myself, I’ve certainly had my moments of wheel spinning, procrastination, and self-induced setbacks.
But I’ve gotten better at recognizing when those things are going on — or are about to happen — and doing something to get myself moving in the right direction again.
I can’t remember how I first made the switch from journaling purely for personal reasons to using it also as a productivity tool at work, but I’m so glad I made the discovery. It allows me to coach myself through challenging situations and walk away with greater perspective and clarity.
Here’s an example from the start of a recent journal entry:
This morning has had a bit of a strange feeling to it — it feels earlier than usual, and there’s a tinge of old anxiety similar to when I was a young adult dressing up to try to play in a world I felt I didn’t quite belong in. I’m sure it’s about my conference call this afternoon, although it’s probably also about feeling under-rested and rushed as I try to get things wrapped up before our vacation.
I went on to observe that I was feeling two different kinds of stress…
…”get it done” stress when I have too much to do and too little time in which to do it, and “evaluative stress” when I feel like I will be judged and possibly found lacking. The second kind is much rarer for me, thus the strangeness of this morning.
And so I then spent a little time talking myself down from the feelings.
Here’s what I uncovered in the process of writing — and how I intervened with myself:
- I noticed that the dressy clothes I was wearing didn’t really feel like “me” and also were taking me back to an earlier, stressful time in my career. Perhaps this makes me a strange bird. But being honest with myself about being emotionally affected by something as seemingly trivial as my attire allowed me to do something about it.
- I reasoned with myself about the conference call. What if it didn’t go well? What’s the worst that could happen? Once I asked this, I was able to remind myself that it really wouldn’t be a big tragedy if the call didn’t go as well as I hoped.
- I discovered that part of my anxiety about the phone call was a lack of clarity about the purpose of the call and exactly what my role was. So I took a minute to create a little mini agenda of things I wanted to clarify with them and questions I needed to get answered.
- I reminded myself of one of my highest values — being authentic in my relationships and interactions — and what it would look like to enact that value during the call. That took away some of the pressure too, because it meant I didn’t have to be anything other than myself, which I am perfectly capable of being.
- I put the phone call in the context of the larger day and the other things I needed to get done. I clarified the single most important thing I needed to accomplish that morning and drew a mental dividing line between the morning’s task and the call in the afternoon. And I reminded myself that the other million things on my list were items I wanted to get done before vacation but that could in reality be dealt with remotely if needed.
In the above example, I invested a small chunk of my morning writing about my tasks for the day and how I was feeling about them, and I walked away with a sense of peace and clarity about what I needed to do (including popping home and changing into a more comfortable pair of pants).
So for me, journaling has been useful for things like:
- Pinpointing and addressing sources of stress
- Understanding and unraveling reasons for procrastination
- Prioritizing tasks and clarifying goals
- Identifying sources of confusion and/or information gaps
- Sorting through mixed feelings and competing motivations
- Clarifying the dynamics at play in work relationships
- Preparing for crucial conversations
- Putting mistakes behind me so I can move forward again
Pretty much any confusing or emotionally-fraught work situation is one that could benefit from a little examination through journaling.
Want to Try It? Here’s What to Do
When & What To Write
You might want to just make a habit of starting your workday this way. Consider setting a timer for 10 minutes and writing stream-of-consciousness style in response to one or both of the following questions:
- What feelings or sources of confusion am I aware of that could prevent me from having a good day today?
- What are the most important things I can do to ensure today is a good day?
But you don’t have to do it everyday.
Just as valuable would be to pull journaling out as a tool whenever you become aware that you are feeling stuck. Try these questions instead:
- What’s preventing me from moving forward?
- What can I do to remove the obstacles that are in my way?
An important thing when you’re writing, though, is to not just focus on the problems. Do identify what they are, but then keep going. Write yourself into a more positive frame of mind, into a state of greater clarity and perspective.
Rarely is “venting” a productive use of journaling time and energy. If that’s all you use it for, you’ll just exacerbate the negative feelings.
Once you’ve named the problems, you then need to draw on your wisest self to coach you into a better place.
Experiment to find what works best for you, but I’ll warn you now that typing on a computer is probably not the best approach. It’s likely to be too much like your other work and thus won’t allow your brain to switch into a different way of thinking.
You want something that will help you look at your situation from a fresh perspective.
And there’s something too about the tactile experience of pen on paper that helps unleash your intuition, which is invaluable if you’re looking for new insights.
I’ve seen my husband do this kind of writing on a simple yellow legal pad and get a big benefit from it. I myself have sometimes done work-related journaling in a spiral bound notebook I use for jotting notes during meetings, brainstorming about current projects, etc.
But I find that what really works best for me is to write in a bound book that’s specifically dedicated to my journaling practice. (I don’t draw a line between what’s “personal” journaling and what’s “work” journaling. It’s all about me, my feelings, and my life.)
I think there’s something safe and intimate about writing in that bound journal that helps me be more honest with myself about what I’m feeling and the ways in which I might be getting in my own way.
Where to Write
Find an undisturbed location for doing this.
Close your office door and turn off your phone. Or go someplace away from the distractions of your workplace — outside on a park bench, in a nearby coffee shop, or even sitting in your car.
The key idea is to find a place where you won’t be interrupted and where you can achieve enough privacy that you won’t censor yourself while writing.
How Long to Write
Often just 10 minutes can produce breakthroughs. Sometimes it takes a little longer.
Either way, I can’t think of a time when I started writing about a situation I was feeling stuck about and then couldn’t eventually write myself into a new sense of calm, clarity, and momentum.
So I encourage you to invest the time. I think you’ll be delighted by the payoffs.