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Michael Fitch, Blogger

April 22, 2014

5 Min Read

The first time I was asked to keep a log of the work I was doing in my job was around ten years ago, and I was incensed.  The request came down from management, and it felt like a surveillance technique, a way to take work that is complex and often abstract (game design) and make it measurable.  As an adult, and a salaried professional, it got my back up.  Surely, I thought, and likely argued at the time, the measure of my work should be the results and not the amount of time it took to get there.

Nonetheless, it was required, and like a good, little foot-soldier, I started doing it.  It turned out not to be as onerous or repressive a structure as I anticipated.  It only took a few minutes every day to reflect back on what my day had consisted of and write it all down.  Management didn't use this information to regulate what I was or was not doing.  I'm not sure what value, if any, it actually had for them.  Over time, it became a habit, and then something surprising happened.

When it came time for my annual review, I actually had a defined record that I could go through.  Instead of only being able to focus on my most recent accomplishments and work patterns, I had a data-set that I could mine.  Work that I had done 6-12 months ago was no longer a fuzzy, abstract recollection; I could point to (and back up) a whole series of accomplishments that would otherwise have faded in the collective memory.  Beyond that, I could actually see my own work patterns, identify what parts of my job were taking more of my time than I wanted, where I wanted to spend more time, and make adjustments.

When I switched jobs, I took this tool with me.  With no one pushing me to do it, I kept a daily work log, and every Friday, just before I left for the weekend, I would send it to my supervisor so that we both had the same understanding of what I had done over the previous week.  Instead of being a tool for my supervisor to manage me, it became a way for me to manage up.  I could go back through previous months, identify issues like excessive workload, too much diffusion of responsibilities, and even the amount of travel involved in my job and make a concrete, cogent argument for promotion, raises, additional hiring, and shifts in responsibility.  I didn't even have to wait for formal reviews to make these arguments, because my supervisor was aware on a week to week basis not only of how I was progressing our collective agenda, but also the details involved in getting there.  As a manager, I began to evangelize this to my direct reports.  I didn't require people to do it (remembering my own indignation), but I strongly recommended it.

I got even better at this as my responsibilities increased and my time became more fragmented.  I kept a simple Word document on my desktop, and every time I finished a task, I would open up that document, update it, and save it.  I learned that tasks shorter than 30 minutes rarely needed to be called out individually (this made the document too long and obscured the bigger issues by flooding it with minutia) and tasks longer than two hours needed to be broken down; anything in the 1-2 hour range got marked as such.

So, what I ended up with was a daily list of 8-12 items of significance; a week's worth of work fit into two pages or less.  It became easier and easier to spot problems.  If I was consistently logging 15+ items per day, I knew that I needed to scale back, delegate, or otherwise adjust my own commitments.  If the log ran over two pages, I knew it had been a particularly hectic week.  If I had a run of days with less than 8 items, I knew I had an opportunity to take on additional work.  Before I sent this off on Friday, I would do a quick analysis of the week just past and jot down action items for the next week.  This kept me from stressing about work over the weekend, and when I showed up Monday morning, I was able to dive right in without a long ramp-up.

In other words, this tool, which I had resented as management trying to monitor how well I was using my time, turned out to be a great tool for me to manage my own time and workload.  I cannot stress enough how valuable this perspective is.  Particularly when you're in a position where you're constantly firefighting, overworked, and fragmented, taking these few minutes to assess, prioritize, and course-correct is a life-saver.  It also increases the sense of control and accomplishment when doing work (game design, management, relationship-building, etc.) that is abstract and hard to quantify.

What I am telling you is that you should do this.  Start right now.  Use whatever format is convenient, but do it every day.  Make it a habit; make it an organic part of your workflow.  The ROI on this simple activity is phenomenal.  Not only will you be more productive, you will be better able to identify problems and work with your management to resolve them.  It turns out that my high-school math teacher Mr. Massey was right, after all: showing your work is essential.

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