How to Use Journaling to Get Unstuck at Work - See Change Studio

How to Use Journaling to Get Unstuck at Work

By Elaine Kiziah, Ph.D.

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Several years ago, I was reading through my recent journal entries and was struck by something. Journaling has become an indispensable productivity tool for me.

I know. When you think of boosting your productivity, the first image that comes to mind is not sitting down with a journal, a pen, and a cup of tea, and writing longhand about how you’re feeling and what you’re thinking. But I’ve discovered that is sometimes the smartest thing I can do. Here’s why…

When We Get Stuck

Have you ever had this experience?

You’re so stressed about something at work — a recent interaction with a colleague, an upcoming meeting, a high-stakes project — that you find yourself feeling almost frozen.

Maybe you avoid dealing with the issue. You procrastinate by busying yourself with other tasks that are, in truth, far less important. Or maybe you’re moving forward — but at a snail’s pace, overwhelmed by your feelings or by the complexity of the situation.

Or you might have had the opposite reaction to stress…

Some of us freeze up. Others spring into action. Almost any action will do, as long as it releases the pressure of the stress that’s been building. But then you discover you’ve sprung forward in the wrong direction and only made matters worse. Or at best, you’re back where you started.

It’s doesn’t always have to be a high stress situation, though. We live in a complex world, and sometimes the sheer complexity of our responsibilities can make it impossible to see the right path forward. And so again, we freeze up, or we make impulsive choices that create setbacks for ourselves.

If you’ve had these kinds of experiences, well then congratulations — you’re officially human.

How I Use Journaling at Work

Me? I’m definitely human too. So I’ve had my own moments of wheel spinning, procrastination, and self-induced setbacks.

But I’ve gotten much better at recognizing when those things are going on — or are about to happen — and doing something to get myself moving in the right direction again. Usually that’s done with the help of my journal.

I can’t remember how I first made the switch from journaling purely for personal reasons to using it also as a productivity tool at work, but I’m so glad I made the discovery. It allows me to coach myself through challenging situations and walk away with greater perspective and clarity.

An Example From My Journal

Here’s an example. I was feeling stressed out this particular morning and like I was spinning my wheels at a time when I really needed to get a lot of stuff done. So I sat down with my journal and started writing…

This morning has had a strange feeling to it — it feels earlier than usual, and there’s a tinge of old anxiety similar to when I was a young adult dressing up to try to play in a world I felt I didn’t quite belong in. I’m sure it’s about my conference call this afternoon, although it’s probably also about feeling under-rested and rushed as I try to get things wrapped up before our vacation.

I went on to observe that I was feeling two different kinds of stress…

…”get it done” stress when I have too much to do and too little time in which to do it, and “evaluative stress” when I feel like I will be judged and possibly found lacking. The second kind is rarer for me, which is probably why this morning feels so strange.

Having identified my feelings, I could then use my journal to investigate their causes and to talk myself down off the ledge.

Here’s what I uncovered — and how I intervened with myself:

  • I noticed that the formal clothes I was wearing didn’t really feel like “me” and also were taking me back to an earlier, stressful time in my career. This might seem odd, and it could have been easy for me to dismiss the connection. But being honest with myself about being emotionally affected by something as seemingly trivial as my attire allowed me to do something about it. And it worked. Changing my outfit helped me feel better!
  • I reasoned with myself about the conference call. What if it didn’t go well? What’s the worst that could happen? Once I asked this, I was able to remind myself that it really wouldn’t be a big tragedy if the call didn’t go as well as I hoped.
  • I discovered that part of my anxiety about the phone call was a lack of clarity about the purpose of the call and exactly what my role was. So I took a minute to create a little mini agenda of things I wanted to clarify with them and questions I needed to get answered.
  • I reminded myself of one of my highest values — being authentic in my relationships and interactions — and of what it would look like to embody that value during the call. That took away some of the pressure too, because it meant I didn’t have to be anything other than myself, which I am perfectly capable of being.
  • I put the phone call in the context of the larger day and the other things I needed to get done. I clarified the single most important thing I needed to accomplish that morning and drew a mental dividing line between the morning’s task and the call in the afternoon. And I reminded myself that the many other things on my list were items I wanted to get done before vacation but that could in reality be dealt with remotely if needed.

In this example, I invested a small chunk of my morning writing about my tasks for the day and how I was feeling about them, and I walked away with a sense of peace and with clarity about how best to proceed.

Here’s When I Bring My Journal to the Rescue

These are some of the many ways I’ve used journaling to boost my productivity and effectiveness at work…

  • Pinpointing and addressing sources of stress
  • Understanding and unraveling reasons for procrastination
  • Prioritizing tasks and clarifying goals
  • Identifying sources of confusion and/or information gaps
  • Sorting through mixed feelings and competing motivations
  • Clarifying the dynamics at play in work relationships
  • Preparing for crucial conversations
  • Putting mistakes behind me so I can move forward again

Pretty much any confusing or emotionally-fraught work situation is one that could benefit from a little examination through journaling.

Want to Try It? Here’s What to Do

When & What To Write

You might want to just make a habit of starting your workday this way. Consider setting a timer for 10 minutes and writing stream-of-consciousness style in response to one or both of the following questions:

  • What feelings or sources of confusion am I aware of that could prevent me from having a good day today?
  • What are the most important things I can do to ensure today is a good day?

But you don’t have to do it everyday.

Just as valuable would be to pull journaling out as a tool whenever you become aware that you are feeling stuck. Try these questions instead:

  • What thoughts, feelings, or circumstances are preventing me from moving forward?
  • What can I do to remove the obstacles that are in my way?

An important thing when you’re writing, though, is to not just focus on the problems.

Do identify the challenges you’re facing, but then keep going. Write yourself into a more positive frame of mind, into a state of greater clarity and perspective.

Rarely is “venting” a productive use of journaling time and energy. If that’s all you use it for, you’ll just exacerbate the negative feelings.

Once you’ve named the problems, you then need to draw on your wisest self to coach you into a better place.

Journaling Tools

Experiment to find what works best for you. But know that typing on a computer is likely not the best approach. It’s probably too much like your other work and therefore won’t help your brain switch into a different way of thinking.

You want something that will help you look at your situation from a fresh perspective.

And there’s something too about the tactile experience of pen on paper that helps unleash your intuition, which is invaluable if you’re looking for new insights.

I’ve seen my husband do this kind of writing on a simple yellow legal pad and get a big benefit from it. I myself have sometimes done work-related journaling in a notebook I use for jotting notes during meetings, brainstorming about current projects, etc.

But I find that what really works best for me is to write in a bound book that’s specifically dedicated to my journaling practice. There’s something safe and intimate about it. And that helps me be more honest with myself about what I’m feeling and how I might be getting in my own way.

Where to Write

Find an undisturbed location for this.

Close your office door and turn off your phone. Or go someplace away from the distractions of your workplace — outside on a park bench, in a nearby coffee shop, or even sitting in your car.

What’s key is to find someplace private. Someplace where you won’t be interrupted and where you don’t feel like you have to censor yourself while writing.

How Long to Write

Often just 10 minutes can produce breakthroughs. Sometimes it takes a little longer. But 10-20 minutes is well worth it if it means the other 95% of your workday is focused and effective.

I can’t think of a time when I started writing about a situation I was feeling stuck about and then couldn’t eventually write myself into a new sense of calm, clarity, and momentum.

So I encourage you to invest the time. I think you’ll be delighted by the payoffs.