Productivity tip: keep a handwritten log

This is the best productivity tip I have received in a long time, and it is surprisingly simple:

Keep a handwritten, detailed log of your daily activities.

I have been using GTD for some time now, and my problem has always remained in the last step: actually doing the things in my actions list. I am easily distracted, and distractions abound: people asking questions, email, web, things that need fixing, installing or upgrading on my machine, etc. I am working on something, and when I notice, I’ve gone in an hour-long unrelated tangent, and at the end of the day I wonder where my time went without getting anything done.

Keeping a log tricks my brain into thinking someone is watching over my shoulderSince the beginning of the year, I have been keeping a handwritten log of what I am doing at the moment – no matter how short (“make coffee”) or trivial (“go to the restroom”), if it’s a separate thing, it goes into the log with a time stamp.

The result has been amazing! For me, keeping the log seems to trick my brain into thinking someone is watching me, which keeps me from goofing off too much.

Let’s break down the two main characteristics of the log:

  • Handwritten. I have tried keeping electronic logs before, but it never worked out – I always forgot to enter things into the log. This time I just grabbed a lined notepad and I start a new page every day. Having the notepad on my desk helps in not forgetting to write things down, plus it makes the log impervious to machine failures, reboots or other situations in which the electronic log would be inaccessible. It also gives you a nice tangible thing to look at at the end of the day to see what you have achieved. You can embellish it a little: I draw arrows connecting multiple entries across interruptions (helps in realizing how many interruptions there are during the day) and draw a little check mark next to each work-related task I finish, which gives me a nice “see how much I did today” feeling at the end.
  • Detailed. This is crucial – you really have to be honest with yourself, and record everything you do. Phone rings? Into the log. Go to the restroom? Log. Someone IM’s you with a question? Log. Choose a next action from your list to work on? Log. Keeping a detailed log helps in really analyzing where your time is going. Before, I would think “I spent all afternoon writing a paper review”. Now I realize that was the main task, but there were 10 interruptions of different types (some made by me, some by others) that greatly reduced the actual time I spent on my work.

The usefulness of keeping a log is not new. In fact, it was my wife who suggested it to me (she is a sysadmin, and uses this at work as well), but for me the handwritten log has been a complete revelation. Granted, I’ve only been doing this for three and a half weeks, so I still have to see how well it fares in the long term, but so far the results seem promising. Sometimes the simplest tricks are the most effective.

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4 responses to “Productivity tip: keep a handwritten log

  1. Query: Are you still maintaining this log as of March 2008? I find this a fascinating idea.

  2. Pingback: After three months: handwritten log experiences

  3. @d: I do. Coincidentally, I was in the process of writing a follow-up post about it, which your comment has prompted me to publish: http://zzamboni.org/brt/2008/03/23/after-three-months-handwritten-log-experiences/

  4. Pingback: How To Stay Productive When Bombarded By Interruptions - Practical advice on personal development, productivity and GTD

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