Inspiration to Stay Focused

If Time-Tracking Apps Don’t Work for You, Try a Productivity Journal

Monitoring how you spend your time leads to a wealth of useful information: It can tell you what time of day you’re most productive, help you create better estimates for how long tasks will take, and show you what activities you’d have to cut to focus your energy on a new idea or project.

The most precise way to monitor how you spend your time is to use a time-tracking app. But these apps require a lot of overhead. You have to diligently log your hours (or make sure your app is logging them correctly) and sort your tracked time into categories. You have to pause after every task—no matter how brief—to capture time spent accurately.

If tracking your time at such a granular level sounds like a punishment, but you still want insight into how and where you spend your time, consider the less menacing sibling of time-tracking apps: a productivity journal.

What Is a Productivity Journal?

I kept a journal as a preteen, though in those days I called it a diary. Snoopy and Woodstock were on the cover, it had a small lock and smaller keys, and I used it to log details about my day, things like new friends I’d made and people who had wronged me (Dawn wouldn’t play "don’t step on the lava" with me today).

When you say the word journal, that’s the image that creeps into people’s minds, but a productivity journal isn’t an adult diary. Sure, it’s a place to log your activities, but the logging of those activities is more matter-of-fact than emotionally driven. It’s more "I worked on a blog post all day" and less "Writing this post reignited my dreams of launching my own blog."

You can add entries to a productivity journal as often or infrequently as you want: Each time you complete a task, at the end of the day, or even once a week. And you can document that information wherever you want: A paper notebook, an app, or anywhere else that saves text.

The only important criterion when choosing a place to keep your productivity journal is that it will save everything you write in it. In order to get the biggest benefits from tracking your time in a productivity journal, you need to be able to go back and access previous entries to see how you spent your time on different types of tasks and projects.

How Does Productivity Journaling Work?
The thing I like the most about productivity journaling is that it can be as flexible as you need it to be. You can write in your journal on a schedule that makes sense to you, capturing details at a high-level only or as granularly as you would in a time-tracking app.

Here are a few examples.

Interstitial Journaling
Tony Stubblebine—Founder and CEO of—recommends a productivity journaling method he calls Interstitial Journaling:

During your day, journal every time you transition from one work project to another. Write a few sentences in your journal about what you just did, and then a few more sentences about what you’re about to do.

For example, say you finished a project, and now you’re going to answer emails. Before you move on to answering emails, take a few minutes to add a timestamp to your journal and write a few sentences about the task you completed and the task you’re moving into. Do that every time you switch tasks throughout the day.

Stubblebine also says that this method works well with the Pomodoro Technique. After each 25-minute focus period, use your five-minute break to write about what you’ve been working on and what you plan to work on next.

Interstitial Journaling offers three big benefits.

First, having to write in your journal every time you switch tasks could discourage you from getting pulled away from work by distractions. Say you’re working on a project but happen to notice you have several new Twitter notifications. If you check in on the notifications, you’ll have to write in your journal, and that extra work could encourage you to stick to the task at hand.

Second, Interstitial Journaling lets you capture how you spent your time as granularly as you would with a time-tracking app. Since you’re documenting every time you switch a task, you have detailed information you can reference later to find out exactly how long a task took you to complete or how much time you spend each week answering emails or in meetings.

Finally, writing about tasks you complete gives you a moment to reflect on those tasks. For example, you might notice that something you thought didn’t take much time—like answering emails—actually encompasses a good portion of your day. Pausing to reflect gives you space to identify impediments to your productivity and think about how to remove those impediments.

But like using a time-tracking app, Interstitial Journaling requires overhead. You’ll spend a lot of time over the course of the day writing about how you’re spending your time.

If that overhead is what you’re looking to avoid by opting for a productivity journal over a time-tracking app, there are other options.

Daily productivity journaling
The productivity journaling method that works best for me is writing a journal entry at the end of the workday about what I accomplished that day. You can write a lot of details if you feel it’s helpful or necessary, but I usually capture tasks I completed in a bulleted list. Here’s an example:

This method takes me about five minutes, and since I write it at the end of the day, it doesn’t create delays throughout the day for logging and categorizing my time in a time-tracking app or Interstitial Journal. It’s an extremely lightweight approach, but it delivers a lot of benefits. For example:

I can make notes about how I was feeling at different times during the day/week and review this data later to find patterns. For example, I’ve learned that I’m much more likely to feel tired and unfocused in the afternoon early in the week than later in the week. This helps me plan my work better.
I can look back to see how many blog posts I wrote in a week or a month, and I can compare multiple weeks and months to get a better idea of the average number of blog posts I’m able to complete within a specific timespan. This helps me understand how much work I can realistically accept.
If I need to estimate new work, I can review how much time it took me to write similar pieces in the past to form a more accurate estimate.

Plus, since I’m not tracking every single task switch, I get a better picture of how long an entire task will realistically take to complete.

As an example, let’s say I’m writing a blog post. I spend most of the day writing, but I’m also doing other things: answering emails, eating lunch, joining meetings, and so on. Instead of tracking all of those context switches, I capture it all as the amount of time it takes to complete the blog post.

If I tracked only the time it took to write the blog post in a time-tracking app, my end result might be seven hours. But if I track the time to complete the blog post as I do in my productivity journal—knowing that work is never without distractions and interruptions—the end result is 10 hours.

Then, instead of telling a client "I can have this to you by the end of the day" because I’m expecting seven hours of work, I can say, "I’ll get this back to you before the end of the day tomorrow." The latter is a better estimate because it accounts for all of the ways I’m likely to get distracted and interrupted while writing the blog post.

Another example: Say I’m trying to figure out how many blog posts I can write in a month. On average, I work 160 hours a month (40 hours a week over four weeks). If I review only the time I spent writing those blog posts and see that an average post takes me 12 hours to write, I might think I have the capacity to write 13 posts per month.

But I never have a month where I spend all 40 hours of every week writing blog posts. I’m also answering emails, collecting tax paperwork, considering prospective clients, editing posts I’ve written, creating invoices, and so on. So if I review my overall data—how many blog posts I usually write in a month—I get a more realistic estimate: 10 posts.

I only use my productivity journal to track my productivity at work, but you can use it to track what you’ve accomplished in both work and life if you want. Instead of journaling at the end of the workday, make a quick entry before you go to bed. Or if you have trouble remembering the entire day, make an entry after work and add to it again before you go to bed.

Weekly productivity journaling
Unless you have an excellent memory, weekly productivity journaling is probably best reserved for tracking side projects (like building an app in your personal time) or major personal projects you only focus on over the weekend (like renovating your house).

The process is essentially the same as keeping a daily productivity journal; you just create an entry once a week instead of at the end of every day. Capture the tasks you completed, any issues you encountered, and approximately how much time you spent on each task. Then, you can reference that data later to form better estimates for future, similar tasks.

The Best Tools for Keeping a Productivity Journal
All you really need to keep a productivity journal is a place to capture text, so the simplest solution is a paper notebook and pen. Notebooks are easy to carry around with you, they never have technical issues that prevent you from accessing them, and they might be easier to write in than trying to type notes using your phone’s tiny keyboard.

The downside of using paper notebooks: The only way to search them is to read everything you’ve written, and they have limited space. And if you keep a productivity journal for an extended amount of time, you’ll end up with a bunch of notebooks you’ll need to store somewhere if you want to reference them later.

For those reasons, a digital productivity notebook is often a better choice. Here are some tools to consider.

Google Docs and Microsoft Word Online
Google Docs and Microsoft Word Online both function similarly to paper notebooks, but they also have a Find feature that makes it easier to locate specific entries you’re interested in.

To create entries in your Google Docs or Word Online journal, type the date of your entry and follow it with your detailed Interstitial Journaling notes or your daily bulleted list of tasks worked on/completed.

Then, when you need to search your entries for a specific piece of information (e.g., How long did it take me to write that piece about search ads?) you can use the Find feature to search all of the text in your document and jump to any matches.

Type Control + F (Windows) or Command + F (Mac) to open the Find feature. Then, type in the specific words you’re looking for to highlight uses of those words in the document. The up and down arrows in both apps let you jump between uses if it finds multiple instances of the word/term in your document.

Google Docs and Microsoft Word also offer mobile apps for both iOS and Android, letting you add your productivity journal entries from your phone if you’re journaling before bed. Or you can use this Zap (an automated workflow powered by Zapier) if you’d rather email your journal entries to yourself and have them automatically added to your journal document in Google Docs:

Google Docs and Word Online Prices: Both apps are free, but you’ll need either a Google (for Google Docs) or Microsoft (for Word Online) account to access them.

Evernote and Microsoft OneNote
Using a note-taking app like Evernote or Microsoft OneNote for your productivity journal provides you with even more features and flexibility:

Create a specific notebook for your productivity journal entries, and create a new note for each day. This keeps your notes much cleaner than maintaining a never-ending list of entries in a Google or Word document.
Add labels and tags to specific entries or pieces of information, then filter your journal entries to see only those with specific labels/tags.
Use the search function in each tool to find specific words or phrases used in any of your journal entries.

After performing a search in Evernote, you can sort your results by date created, date updated, title, and relevance.

In addition to letting you create a cleaner and more organized productivity journal, both Evernote and OneNote Online have an optical character recognition feature that lets you search text in PDFs and images. So if you feel like writing your journal entry down on paper one day, you can take a picture of it or scan it, upload it to Evernote/OneNote later, and search its text like you would any typed entry in your journal.

Evernote and OneNote also both have iOS and Android apps, so you can create entries on your mobile phone when needed. Or if you prefer to email your journal entries to yourself, you can use these Zaps to automatically add those emailed entries to your journal:

Evernote and OneNote Prices: If you don’t need optical character recognition, you can subscribe to Evernote’s free plan, or pay $7.99/month for Evernote Premium for access to the optical character recognition feature. OneNote Online gives you access to all of OneNote’s features for free.

Not sure which notes app is best for you? Check out our Evernote vs. OneNote showdown for a deep comparison of the apps’ features.

In the end, the specific tool you use to maintain your productivity journal doesn’t matter as long as it’s something you’re comfortable using—and able to use—every day.

If none of these suggestions work for you, you could also use an app designed specifically for journaling or whatever notes app shipped by default with your computer or mobile phone. You could also email your entries to yourself every day and put them in their own label/folder, or you can add your journal as an entry on your calendar at the end of every day.

With the right tool at hand, start adding your journal entries. Then set aside time at the end of every week or month to review your recent journal entries. Doing so will help you identify patterns that may lead to valuable insights like where you’re spending too much time, how often you’re underestimating how long tasks will take, and how much work you’re likely going to able to complete within a specific timeframe.

Related reading:

What I Learned After Analyzing Every Minute of My Life for 30 Days
5 Daily Scheduling Methods to Bring More Focus to Your Day
8 Time-Tested Task Management Methods
The 25 Best Productivity Apps

Paper journal image by Alejandro Escamilla via Unsplash.… Continue reading If Time-Tracking Apps Don’t Work for You, Try a Productivity Journal

3 Actions to Beat Your Biggest Distractions

What’s your biggest distraction? Be honest! For us, there’s no question about it—our biggest distraction is ourselves. Too often, we find ourselves responding to text messages or jumping from one low-priority task to another instead of tackling more demanding work.

Well today, we’re going to show you how to beat distractions and make yourself more productive than ever!

Continue reading 3 Actions to Beat Your Biggest Distractions at Michael Hyatt.… Continue reading 3 Actions to Beat Your Biggest Distractions

Wait…Is Inbox Zero Good or Bad for Productivity?

No one is happy about their email. Our inboxes are a mix of stuff we don’t need, stuff we know we should be doing, and a few messages from actual human people that we’d like to get back to (later). New emails used to be a welcome thing; now, less so.

Which brings me to Inbox Zero. Long heralded as the solution to The Email Problem, Inbox Zero is seeing a bit of a backlash lately. Why? Because keeping your inbox empty, according to some, is simply unrealistic.

Remind Me, What Is Inbox Zero?
Inbox Zero is a system—nay, a philosophy—for managing your email. It was originally outlined by Merlin Mann way back in 2006, when Gmail was relatively new, smartphones weren’t really a thing, and dinosaurs roamed the earth looking for free wifi¹.

Inbox Zero quickly evolved to mean lots of different things to different people, but the heart of Mann’s advice is simple: the ideal inbox is an empty inbox.

How do you get to an empty inbox? By deleting emails that don’t matter, acting on ones that do, and delegating whenever possible.

My colleague Melanie describes Inbox Zero like this:

Somewhere between fanatically checking our email every two minutes and letting email collect like dust in an abandoned attic, there’s a solution: a system for working with the constant flow of email, so that Inbox Zero becomes a habit rather than an elusive goal. At its true core, Inbox Zero is about more efficiently dealing with our email so we can get out of the inbox and back to what matters most.

So Why Do People Think Inbox Zero Is Bad?

The counter-argument to Inbox Zero is basically that it’s impractical to spend that much time managing email. Taylor Lorenz, writing for The Atlantic, started 2019 by recommending people give up on Inbox Zero:

In 2019, I suggest you let it all go. There is simply no way for anyone with a full-time job and multiple inboxes to keep up with the current email climate.

The problem, according to Lorenz, is that she gets way more email than any person could hope to keep up with. She instead proposes a new system: Inbox Infinity. She told close friends and family that she won’t be responding to emails anymore, then set up an autoresponder, which informs would-be contacts that she probably won’t see their email or ever write back. To quote the piece again:

Since putting up my own out-of-office responder on my personal inbox and adopting inbox infinity, I’ve felt my stress about opening my mailbox decrease. I’ve also found that setting the expectation that I may never see or reply to an email makes people even more grateful when they do get a response. I’ve even started sending fewer emails, a consequence of spending less time in my inbox.

Ryan Hoover, the founder of Product Hunt, set up a similar autoresponder. He explains why in the article:

As much as I’d love to get to Inbox Zero, it’s not the best use of my time when I have so many other commitments I’ve made to my team, friends, and family.

Lorenz’s article prompted responses in Bustle, NPR, The Guardian, and even the Trello blog. And I can understand why. Email is a huge source of stress for many people, and it doesn’t usually feel like a very productive one.

Giving up on the cultural expectation that you’ll respond to emails is liberating, especially if it leaves you with more time to focus on doing the tasks that matter most to you. But is it really possible to just give up on email?

One Problem With Inbox Infinity
I can really sympathize with the Inbox Infinity worldview. I used to work as a tech journalist, meaning I got a lot of emails from marketers.

Like, a lot.

So I know what it’s like to get more email than you can possibly keep up with. Here’s a quick recreation of my workflow sorting through those emails:

I’d spend time every day reading and deleting emails so that, when I got something that was actually important, I’d notice it and (hopefully) respond to it. Could I have just given up on email, set up an autoresponder, and gotten to work on actually writing? Absolutely! But only because I was in a position of relative power.

In the marketer-journalist relationship, it is the marketer who is seeking attention and the journalist who is rationing it out. My problem with Inbox Infinity: Most people aren’t in a position of power.

If you’re a real estate agent, you need to respond to emails from potential buyers, or you might miss out on a customer. If you work in support, you need to respond to customer questions quickly, or you’re going to have unhappy customers. If you’re running a catering company, you need to respond to emails from potential customers, or you might miss out on a potential order.

You get the idea. Inbox Infinity might work if you’re a journalist, a CEO, or anyone else whose attention is valuable enough that people will seek it out even after getting an autoresponder. That’s not the case in all industries, however—in some jobs being unresponsive means missed opportunities.

Get To The Point, Justin, Is Inbox Zero Good or Bad or What?
This is the internet, so naturally, you want me to tell you whether Inbox Zero is good or bad so that you can decide whether I’m good or bad, depending on whether I agree with you. I’m going to disappoint everyone and say it depends, even though my headline promised a clear answer. Sorry/not sorry.

Inbox Zero works for me. Mostly². I try to only check my email once a day, and try to empty it out so that I’ll remember to respond to the important bits.

But I don’t think the system you use matters so much as actually having a system and making sure it works for you. The thing to remember is that email is a tool, not some time sink you have no control over. Email was created for humans, not humans for email. Having a system for dealing with email helps keep this in mind.

If that system is Inbox Zero, great! The same goes for Inbox Infinity, if you’re in a position where you can do that. We’ve outlined several other email strategies in the past, so be sure to read up on those as well. The point is to find a system that works for you, then stick to it.

1: Public Wi-Fi wasn’t common at the time, unfortunately, which might explain why there aren’t dinosaurs anymore.

2: My sincere apologies if you’re waiting on a response from me.… Continue reading Wait…Is Inbox Zero Good or Bad for Productivity?

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