Of all the time management tools, work diaries or activity logs are perhaps the most overlooked. Keeping a work journal isn’t just good for mental health; it’s a pragmatic way of documenting your performance in detail—highlighting successes, setbacks and new opportunities.
Done well, a work diary can become an invaluable resource for managing your productivity and professional development. Thankfully, there are several ways of keeping one, depending on what you want to record and how much time you want to spend on it.
To be useful, work diaries require consistent investment, so before jumping into how to keep one it’s worth laying out why you should bother in the first place. The three methods outlined in the next section offer different types of detail, so it’s worth understanding exactly what you want from your work diary in order to choose the right one. The benefits of work diaries include:
There’s something about putting frustrations and concerns into words that makes them easier to manage. Breaking down your thoughts and identifying what’s troubling you, why it’s happening and how often it occurs is essential for finding an effective solution.
If you’ve nailed a client meeting or found yourself panicking during a presentation, remember to write it down to recognize what worked well, or why you weren’t prepared enough. Learning from your own mistakes is the best way to avoid future ones.
Ever had one of those moments where you’re writing a note down and a totally unrelated, brilliant thought comes into your mind? Work journals are an excellent way of composing, building and refining them. You can also take a note of which particular moods contribute to these great ideas and why.
Keeping a consistent work diary helps you assess what’s driving you and what’s holding you back. Reviewing your activity regularly to see which days you were most engaged—and whether those days correspond with greater wins—is a good way to track progress against your KPIs.
For one reason or another, many of us are programmed to criticize ourselves for getting things wrong, and not taking the time out to celebrate wins, however small. But recognizing achievement motivates us to carry on, especially during stressful periods where a little boost goes a long way.
Good planning begins with solid self-knowledge, both in terms of how long tasks take you and what behaviors, processes or distractions threaten your progress. Knowing what’s coming up and how you’re addressing ongoing tasks is vital to staying on track with priorities.
There are three main ways of keeping a work diary, which vary in terms of type of detail and effort required. On one end of the scale, there are long-form analogue methods for those who like to write at length; on the other, there are automatic digital options for those who want to document their work day with as little effort as possible.
This is the short-hand analogue approach. A list-form work diary is essentially a breakdown of what you achieve in a week or day. It’s as simple as bullet-pointing the main things you do each day.
You can list what you want to achieve in a week or by the end of the week, and compare notes on what you actually managed to do. This method is most useful if you just want a high-level overview of your progress or want to make sure you are working to your priorities.
Tools needed: To access your list from anywhere, try using a neat digital tool like Grid Diary or Day One.
Best for: benefits 4 and 5
For those who prefer the feel of pen to paper, writing a detailed log of what you achieved in your week is a traditional, but effective way of keeping yourself in check. It’s a long-form stream of consciousness where you write down what worked, what didn’t and how you felt. It’s a great way of processing events, noting feedback and surfacing personal development goals.
Work journals also allow you the freedom to vent any workplace frustrations privately, which can later be refined into actions—such as process improvements, resource recommendations and training opportunities. Make sure you also note down those important wins and celebrate when you can.
Tools needed: For an organized digital journal, try OneNote, or simply use Google Docs or Dropbox Paper.
Best for: benefits 1, 2 and 3
An activity log is a record of everything you worked on in minute detail, from the time you spend on different tasks, to the low-value work that dominates your attention. It shows the sheer number of things you’ve achieved—which is great for visualizing all the value you contribute each day and gauging progress.
Activity logs are great tools for managing your productivity—they effectively hold up a mirror to the way you work, laying out inefficiencies and distractions so you can learn how to build a more effective work schedule and improve your focus. There’s no way a human can keep an accurate activity log by hand, but thankfully automatic tracking tools can record and display a timeline of all your activities for you.
Tools needed: an automatic time tracking app – try Timely.
Best for: benefits 4, 5 and 6