The Ultimate Productivity Instrument is You

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By Janet Choi

In this modern age of gizmos and gadgets, the best productivity app is you.

Benjamin Franklin, that historical grand master of productivity who did pretty well without an iPhone, knows why:

“Without continual growth and progress, such words as improvement, achievement, and success have no meaning.”

Our capabilities for self-analysis, awareness, and perception are what separate us from robotic worker drones, punching in and punching out without rhyme or reason. But our limited notion of productivity ignores those capabilities, focusing simplistically on output and end results, on just doing it and getting it done. We know the destinations in our work are important, but all too often, we ignore the journey and the process. We ignore ourselves.

Passing time

Fuel growth and progress by keeping a work diary.

It makes sense that Franklin was a regular diarist. He was obsessed with personal growth and progress. Every evening, Franklin set aside time for “examination of the day” and to ask himself, “What good have I done today?”

The daily exercise of reflection and asking such questions are powerful, as Harvard Business School professor Teresa Amabile and psychologist Steven Kramer have found that the most effective motivator at work is the sense that you are making meaningful progress. Integral to fostering that sense of progress is a positive “inner work life”, which is “the mix of emotions, motivations, and perceptions” that form feedback loops in reaction to workday events and affecting how people perform at work.

Amabile and Kramer’s research shows that the quality of your inner work life impacts your “creativity, productivity, commitment and collegiality.” People with positive inner work lives are engaged in their work. Meanwhile, disengaged people are less present and less productive, more worker drone.

Keeping a work diary enables you to pay attention to your inner work life, ensures engagement with your work, and helps you make meaningful progress.

How does this work?

Amabile and Kramer offer four explanations: focus, patience, planning, and, especially, personal growth. We build upon those here:

HealthExpressive writing helps cognitive processing and thus enables adaptation, resulting in better emotional and physical health.

Focus and Memory:  Keeping a work diary distills the thoughts running around your head, helping to identify, clarify, and preserve. Even though you’re influenced by work events all the time, it’s extremely difficult to pinpoint how or why you were impacted more than a day later. Details get lost in the stream of busy. Keeping a work diary captures them.

Patience and Planning:  With a more accurate picture of where you are and what you have done, you can plan better for your future and have more patience to insulate you against the monsters of pressure, frustration, and anxiety that time can unleash upon you. Daily writing in your work diary will also build a record and improve your ability to see the long-view. Look backward at any time to forge ahead more meaningfully and productively.

Personal Growth:  Gain insight into your work habits and relationships. Command more control and autonomy because you are better able to learn from mistakes, change course, and recognize what might be standing in the way.

Daily recording and reflection also yields an honest overview of what you’ve done during the day. Instead of focusing miserably on ghosts — the to-do’s you feel you failed to accomplish — you can reflect on the reality of all the stuff you got done that day. Small wins, too, are significant to the sense that you’re making progress.

Work Diary

How to keep a work diary.

It’s super simple! Here are a few tips to get you started:

— Try it out for at least a month, since it takes time to build up a habit.

— Don’t use lack of time as an excuse to skip out on logging an entry in your work diary. Amabile and Kramer recommend five to ten minutes a day. You probably spend more time during the day in the bathroom.

Show up. Try not to miss any days. It builds the habit and you don’t have to deal with the memory problem.

— Use whatever methods and style you prefer. Pen and paper are fine, as are any kind of word processor or text editing program. Electronic tools will probably make searching and review easier but it’s up to you. Write in short fragments, bullet points, or full paragraphs. Write in your work diary in the morning, noon, or night. Whatever works.

— Follow Franklin’s example and start positively. What good did you get done today? It’s too easy to get mired in the negative and you don’t want to forget those small wins that can end up making a difference in the long run. Remember that you’re looking to cultivate a sense of progress. Celebrate your accomplishments, big and small, and unleash your inner Oprah to explore what you’re grateful for.

Turn negatives into progress fuel. If your day had setbacks or you felt crummy, think about what caused negative performance or feelings and what could be done to improve such situations.

Review regularly to gain the maximum benefits. Note patterns for what supported or detracted from your work, your level of engagement, and your moods. Having written proof grants you stronger footing to implement change.

Maintaining a work diary engages you in your work and reflects the journey of your inner work life. You’ll stand out in your outer work life for the finer work you produce and improved relationships you foster. You and your work diary make up the most effective and efficient productivity tool. From a fraction of an hour, you receive incredible gains — more momentum and meaningful progress to carry you onward and upward rather than going ‘round and ‘round the hamster wheel!


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