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  • Jessie Brennan, MPH

Journaling for Productivity

Updated: Jun 3, 2022

Research has documented that outstanding leaders take time to reflect. It is an essential practice of mindful leadership, one that has the power to pull us out of our habitual behavior and into a more aware, conscious state of being. Unfortunately, the reality is that most of us live such fast-paced, frenzied lives that we fail to leave time for it. We feel like a shark, if we stop swimming we’ll surely die.


Leadership researcher and international management professor, Nancy J. Adler, recommends the simple act of regularly writing in a journal as a means to access your own insight. The benefits of keeping a journal as a leader are many: increased self-awareness (a key driver of EI), improved stress management, increased clarity and mindfulness, and there are some forms of journaling that may even save you time and boost your productivity!


Productivity coach Tony Stubblebine suggests making reflection a micro habit using a technique he calls “interstitial journaling.” The word interstitial means “occupying the spaces between”, and as the name implies, this practice takes place during project transitions. A project transition is when you make a switch: from checking email, to preparing a presentation, to attending a meeting, and then back to checking email. Each of these is a project in your day, and the times between them are interstitial moments when you could write in a journal.


Why? Moving from one task to another can be very difficult for our brains to do. While we may think we have transitioned very quickly from one task to another, a part of our mind tends to stay with the other task for a period of time. Your outlook calendar says it’s time for you to start writing that report, but your brain is still lingering on the information you received in the meeting you just attended. That means your second project suffers from partial attention, which can mean a 40% or more reduction in cognitive performance.


Interstitial journaling helps our brain switch from one task to another. By putting our lingering thoughts on paper, we make it easier for our mind to stop thinking about the previous task and gives us space to formulate an optimal strategy for our next task. Tony suggests that every time you switch projects, you open up your journal and enter the following three things:

1. Note the date and time.

2. Write a few sentences about what you just worked on. When you empty your brain, you can then start the next project fully focused.

· What project did I just finish?

· Are there any parts of that project that I’m still thinking about?

Use complete sentences rather than one-word answers. “Email. Yes.” Is not the kind of response that is going to prepare you to move onto the next task.

3. Write a few sentences about what you’re about to work on.

· What is the first action of the project I’m about to start?

· How should I approach getting the project done?

You can write more, and most of you will discover new things to write about, but the above is a solid format to start with.


One notable aspect of this format is the act of identifying the first action of your next project or task. I used this journaling technique in the days leading up to writing this post (and while writing it) and found that the simple act of taking a moment to decide on a first action cut the time I would typically spend procrastinating down to nothing. According to Stubblebine, the easier the action, the more likely you are to do it and the less likely you are to fall prey to procrastination.


This concept of first action is born of one of the fundamental’s described in David Allen’s Getting Things Done, a tactic Allen dubbed “Next Action.” In David Allen’s observation, most people write their to-do lists in terms of projects. “Change tires” would be an example of a project-oriented to-do. The problem is when you get to a to-do list item framed this way, you get stuck. Taking action is too cognitively difficult, and it results in procrastination. Will we eventually figure out how to get our tires changed? Of course, but how much time will be wasted in doing so?


David Allen popularized the idea of rewriting your to-do list in terms of actions. Thinking about Next Actions helps you keep momentum as you work down your to-do list. In David Allen’s GTD, you would translate the project-oriented to-do of “Change tires” to the Next Action style of “Call Tire Stores for Pricing.” While it is not included in the suggested format outlined above, I found it helpful to take a moment to determine next action whenever I stalled out on my task and found myself slipping into my typical procrastination habits.


Another aspect of this practice that I found to be particularly enlightening was considering how I’d like to approach getting the project done. This is where the practice feels most like traditional journaling, where you have the opportunity to be more honest about yourself than you might be otherwise. I have the tendency to get distracted while writing these posts. While I research, I end up following every thread of information that I find interesting. I’m typing away and then all the sudden I find myself reading amazon reviews for a book whose topic is barely related to the one I’m writing about, and 10 minutes have passed. I know this about myself, and putting that knowledge into a journal moves it from being a habit that unconsciously rules my actions, to a rational concept that I can analyze and solve.


My approach involved setting aside a block of time in which I would focus completely, no side researching, no getting out of my chair. Now, your approach may look much different from mine, but the point is, you are consciously choosing the way you want to approach your work. The magic of journaling is that it is almost always effective at bringing thoughts and feelings up to a place that triggers your rational mind. The end product being that you are bringing intentionality and awareness to each task you begin.


It feels a little uncomfortable to take time for reflection when you are truly very busy. You may feel urged to plow ahead with your work. I understand that impulse. My suggestion is that you try it on a day that you aren’t incredibly pressed for time, and just see how it feels. You have nothing to lose, and you may have a lot to gain. Journaling as you work produces mindfulness about your context, goals, mood, and skills. Eventually, you will not only see the effect of this pause on your productivity, but you may come to enjoy the quiet moments alone with your thoughts.


Resources:

For more on the power of journaling and a brief guided session view our webinar: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cm5xNQ76bXU\



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