Serious journal writing

How to keep a professional journal

If you want to learn and improve you need to engage in serious journal writing and that means not only starting a journal with a purpose but also keeping at it.

Yet for most people, there are two obstacles to successful journal writing:

  • It's hard to decide what to write and how to write it.
  • It's hard to find what you wrote some time ago.

Unfortunately, can't help you very much with the first issue. While there are some techniques that can be learned and mastered, this is not what is about. The best we can offer is a way to visualize which tasks are worth writing up and which are better left out:

What to keep in a journal as a function of complexity and repetitiveness 

What this means is that tasks that occur very infrequently may not be worth writing up (it may actually be cheaper to reinvent the wheel).

Tasks that are really easy will also not warrant a journal entry.

Tasks that you perform on a day-to-day basis have usually become so automated that you would laugh at the idea of doing a write-up, even if it's a fairly complex task. Most likely you don't keep a journal on how to drive a car. Think twice though: have you ever wondered why pilots use checklists "how to fly an airplane"? They do this because of the high complexity of their tasks combined with a high cost of mistakes.

 That leaves you with the big orange area as the most profitable investment of your time. These are tasks that are mildly to highly complex and occur fairly frequently but kind of intermittently.

At the end of the day, much of it boils down to self-discipline. The good news is that once you've cleared this initial hurdle and start reaping the benefits, maintaining the discipline is much easier. It soon becomes clear that the benefits outweigh the costs.

And by the way, if you keep a private journal you certainly don't have to be so analytical about what to write. No one wants you to feel guilty at the end of the day because you wrote about the "wrong stuff". I don't think there is a useful distinction between wrong and right in keeping a private journal.

Where really can help is the second issue: Making it easy to organize, browse and search what you've written - no matter how long ago.

It may also help to stick to some practical rules.

Five simple rules of journal writing

Rule number one

You have to stay with it for a while before you make a decision whether to continue. An empty journal has no value. Depending on how much you write, you should give yourself at least several weeks before you can expect to be able to see the benefits.

Rule number two

Make it easy for yourself to enter text. Maybe the most neglected issue in this context is that you have to learn how to type using ten fingers. This is actually a minor investment that will pay off big. It will not take you longer than two weeks to get used to it. The nice thing is that you'll get enough exercise while you write your journal. Only learn the basics and keep writing! There is no excuse at all for not learning how to do this.

Rule number three

Start writing now and get organized while you write. Keep™ open and take some notes whenever you come across an activity that gives you the feeling that you will be doing this again in the future and may have difficulties remembering the exact steps. A good idea would be to collect this kind of notes in a How To... Topic. Here are some categories that have proven useful again and again:

  • How To...
  • Favorite Mistakes (How Not To...)
  • Goals
  • Achieved
  • To Do
  • Done
  • Ideas

And talking about getting organized, you want to check out Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity by David Allen. Really.

Rule number four

Review what you wrote on a regular basis. Take a little time at the end of the day to go over your daily notes. Do you still understand what you wrote? If you wrote down a procedure or a How To... Topic, follow the steps mentally to make sure everything is correct and complete.

Rule number five

Invest some time in learning or improving the fundamental skills that all professionals need. Keep yourself up to date about topics like self-management, goal-oriented planning, project management, (technical) writing, and others. These are all basic tools of the trade for any professional - no matter what the specific profession. For starters, you may want to have a look at How to Write, Speak, & Think More Effectively by Rudolf Flesch.