What’s the best productivity tool you’re not taking advantage of? Evernote? MeetingWizard? Dropbox? Think again. Harvard Business School professor Teresa Amabile says it’s journaling. In her new book The Progress Principle: Using Small Wins to Ignite Joy, Engagement, and Creativity at Work (co-authored with Steven Kramer), Amabile argues that keeping a journal is one of the best strategies for learning about yourself and improving your professional performance over time.
“One of the big reasons to keep a diary is to record small wins that otherwise might slip through your memory,” she says. “You can leverage the progress principle and allow yourself to get that boost from realizing you are making progress. And it’s also helpful to record major setbacks – or minor ones that recur – so you can think about how to get rid of inhibitors blocking your progress.” Here are four tips from Amabile on how to start improving your productivity today.
Start Small. Keeping a journal – fortunately – isn’t like starting a blog, where you face public humiliation if you slack off. You can try out journaling for a set period of time – Amabile suggests a month – to see if you like it and find it helpful. And don’t set yourself up for failure by chaining yourself to your desk interminably. “It doesn’t have to be a big deal. Write for five or ten minutes a day,” says Amabile, who is also Director of Research at Harvard Business School. “You can focus on one particular project or issue you’re dealing with, and use it to help clear your mind.”
Create a Ritual. When you’re tired after a long day, journaling might seem like the last thing you want to do. That’s why Amabile suggests leveraging the power of habit to help you keep your commitment. “Try to do it at the same time each day, when you’re not likely to be interrupted,” she advises. Whether it’s before work with your morning coffee, on your lunch break, or just before bed, find the time that works for you. The format (electronic or paper) doesn’t matter, says Amabile: focus on consistency.
Don’t Overlook the Positive. It’s easy to use a journal as a venting tool – and that can be useful at times. “But even if the day was frustrating or difficult, try to pull out at least one positive thing,” says Amabile. “Then you can write about the difficult things, as well.” Remembering something good – even if it seems small – can help you shift your perspective and break out of a rut.
Review the Past. Simply writing down your experiences can be cathartic. But, says Amabile, “it multiplies in utility if you use it to review your personal history. You can find insights or pieces of ideas beginning to emerge that you might not have realized if you look back a week, a month, or a year ago.” That was certainly the case for Charles Darwin, who – as profiled in Steven Johnson’s Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation – developed a “slow hunch” that built over time and turned into his theory of evolution.
If you want to improve your performance and productivity, sometimes the simplest solution is also the best. “A journal can help you learn things about yourself, and help you see patterns in your own reactions and behaviors,” says Amabile. “That can help you identify your greatest strengths – and weaknesses you might want to work on.” You can hear Amabile speak about journaling at Behance’s upcoming 99% conference, which – per Thomas Edison – honors the “99% perspiration” that makes innovation possible. (You can read my interview with fellow 99% conference speaker Jonah Lehrer on “How to Stay Creative at Any Age”.)
Have you tried journaling? What are your strategies for monitoring and improving your performance?
This post originally appeared on the Forbes website on May 1, 2012.
Dorie Clark is CEO of Clark Strategic Communications and the author of Reinventing You: Define Your Brand, Imagine Your Future (Harvard Business Review Press, 2013). She is a strategy consultant who has worked with clients including Google, Yale University, and the Ford Foundation. Listen to her podcasts or follow her on Twitter.