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How to Use Productivity Journaling for Better Time Management

Productivity Journaling is Time Tracking

As someone who writes, thinks about, and assists people with time management, one of my best tips is for people to track their time usage. This is best accomplished via “time journaling” or “productivity journaling,” which is writing down or recording your time use after tasks are completed.

A productivity journal is not a to-do list, planner, or time blocking method, which are all important tools for a productive life. While agendas, to-do lists, and calendars are essential components of effective time management, making a schedule is not the same as recording whether or not you stuck to that schedule. In fact, time journaling, or time tracking, is the other side of planning. It is the assessment of how that plan went. (Or lack thereof, if you are currently operating in your day-to-day life with minimal planning.)

A productivity journal acts as both a time tracker and a journal in that you also write down any observations about how emotional or environmental circumstances are affecting your use of time.

As I started looking more into productivity journaling for time management, I noticed that there is not a lot of discussion or literature surrounding this topic. There are many companies selling “productivity journals,” but these are just run-of-the-mill planners, repackaged with a different name and with more room for journaling. There is also software for companies to track their employees’ time use, but that is not the same as managing your own time.

What is Productivity Journaling?

Productivity journaling is essentially personal time tracking. This entails recording or writing down how much time we spent on individual tasks throughout the day. Productivity journaling includes recording project completion times, arrival times for meetings and social events, bedtimes, etc. A productivity journal acts as a time log, essentially an honest account of how your time was spent throughout any given day.

Productivity journaling, time tracking, and time journaling are all synonymous terms here, and I will use them interchangeably. This process of maintaining a daily log of how you are spending time can reveal how many tasks we were able to complete in a given time frame, as well as the emotional context for your use of time, and any unconscious behaviors that may be hindering your time management. Recording your time usage can show you if you are taking too long to complete a single task, if you are failing to complete important tasks on time, if you are overstudying, and if you are making progress in time management skills.

Benefits of Using a Productivity Journal

Obtain Data

Productivity journals are like food journals for those who want an honest account of their eating and dietary behavior. Productivity journaling is an honest, quantitative, data driven evaluation of where and how you are spending your time. Writing down the specific amount of time you are spending on various tasks is like maintaining a budget, where you record every expenditure.

Identify Patterns

Keeping track of our time allows us to identify patterns of behavior, as well as the amount of time we are spending on chronic time wasters like scrolling through social media feeds and distracting apps with no goal or benefit. Time journaling also enables us to identify if there are better times of day to accomplish certain tasks, and if there is something causing us to lose focus.

Improve Time Sensitivity

Tracking our own use of time also helps us to improve our time-sensitivity and time-awareness. We can start to identify when we are allowing entire chunks of time, or even entire days, float by without getting done what we want and need to.

Increase Productivity

Once we start to connect the dots between how we want to spend our time and how we are actually spending our time, we can start to more closely align our goals and behaviors. When we better understand what is holding us back from what we are trying to achieve, we can take control of our behaviors and become more productive.

Tap into Motivation

Productivity journaling allows us to take note of any social, emotional, environmental, or psychological factors that may be impacting our ability to prioritize tasks and optimally manage time. Noticing and writing down how our emotional states or life circumstances are affecting our timeliness will increase self-awareness and enable us to implement strategies to counter these effects.

Why Is No One Talking About Productivity Journaling?

Currently, an internet search for “time tracking” yields results exclusively discussing time tracking for employees and/or freelancers. There are recommendations for time-tracking apps but few articles discussing how people can use time tracking as a method to keep track of time in their daily lives. Similarly, a Google search for productivity journaling mostly results in products like weekly and monthly planners and to-do lists in various formats. These tools have great value for planning all the things you want to accomplish and future plans to do so. However, they will not help you figure out if you are spending too much time on certain tasks, whether or not you are staying focused, and if you have had a productive day.

How to Use a Productivity Journal

1. Choose a Recording System

This could be a digital tool such as an app, or an analog system like a paper journal. Many digital tools and apps exist for tracking time and managing productivity. Some are very sophisticated, but you can also use a simple notes app on your phone.

Start with the basics

Some apps, such as Toggl Track, have features that will go well beyond tracking your time. They have alarm settings and features, such as a Pomodoro Method feature, that can help you implement a plan once you have made one. I recommend starting with just tracking before you use these more advanced features. 

2. Record Events

To manually track time, as soon as you finish with a task, block of time, meeting, etc. make a quick log of what you did and how much time it took. You can and may want to do this as soon as you arrive to a social gathering if you tend to run late, and after any professional meeting or time-sensitive situation. 

3. Check Your Log at the End of Every Day

Fill in as much incomplete information as possible

Gaps in logging are normal and will happen. Try writing down as much as you remember, as soon as you can, and taking notes at various points during each day.

4. Repeat for at Least Two Weeks

Longer if possible

Obtaining data for a long enough period of time will help you establish the most thorough and accurate baseline. More data will help you better create a plan for being more productive.

5. Analyze How You Are Doing

Look for patterns- are there certain types of meetings or events you consistently show up late for? Certain types of assignments you procrastinate on? Better or worse times of day? Events that trigger procrastination, lateness, time mismanagement? A certain amount of time you tend to run behind? 

Make a Plan

Once you have gathered enough data over the course of several weeks, you should be able to make a plan to address areas you want to improve. This would include setting a realistic goal, and implementing specific strategies to stay productive and on task, such as the Pomodoro Method.

Productivity Journaling is NOT Bullet Journaling

The New Yorker. Can Bullet Journaling Save You?
The New Yorker. Can Bullet Journaling Save You?

Over the last decade, a new concept called “Bullet Journaling” was introduced into our lives and vernacular. Bullet journaling is an organization system created by designer Ryder Carroll in 2013, and it has grown in popularity over the past several years. This is a complex system which requires a multi-step setup (up to 16 steps to set up this planning system!) and rapid logging of various events. Bullet journals also act as planners, rather than as time trackers, so using this method will not actually help you assess your current time management baseline.

Bullet Journaling is Complex and Unnecessary

Using a bullet journal seems very prescriptive, and the system requires so many different sections that it needs an index. Many people, especially those who already struggle with time and task management, may struggle to keep track of the various sections required to implement the bullet journal method.

A bullet journal also requires its own shorthand, so users have to learn an entire new set of symbols in order to successfully complete the required daily spreads. Every bullet journal I’ve seen is so visually haphazard that I’m unsure of how anyone is effectively using this system. A bullet journal seems to choatic for most people to be a useful tool for staying productive and completing one task, let along all the items on a to do list.

You don’t need to use a bullet journaling system. Simpler systems will also allow you to use time blocks, stay on top of tasks, and write down your amazing ideas. There is no reason that all aspects of our lives need to be kept in a singular notebook (unless this really helps you!). Bullet journaling encourages you to create an overly elaborate system which you may lose motivation to use. While some people may benefit from using a bullet journal, it is an overly complicated system that I would not recommend for most people.

Take Control of Your Time and Tasks

Using a productivity journal to track your use of time is not a magical solution to time-management challenges. Rather, this type of journal is a helpful tool for understanding our baseline behavior. This allows us to implement the most effective strategies for managing our time, tasks, and lives in a more functional and less stressful way. Check out my top tips for time management, or contact me directly to find out about how time management coaching can help you take control of your life!

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About Alex Yoken

Alex Yoken is a New York State certified teacher with over a dozen years of experience tutoring, coaching, advising, and providing advocacy services for students of all ages. She is passionate about helping individuals achieve their unique goals through tailored plans and the most effective strategies. She has given numerous workshops on college success, writing, and special ed advocacy.

Alex’s students have received Regeneron Science Talent Search Scholars and The Journal of Trauma Nursing Literary Excellence Awards. She has helped dozens of students get admitted to college and study at prestigious institutions, including Cornell, Pepperdine, Tulane, and Duke.

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