Many of us have a notebook. Some of us even have an entire shelf full of them. Maybe you bought it intending to jot down creative ideas. Or to keep to-do lists on paper, preserving the satisfying tradition of scratching an item off the list in pen. Or to reflect on the day before bed. The phenomenon of buying a Moleskine notebook that is ambitiously purchased and then minimally used is so pervasive it earned its own Portlandia sketch.
But what if you had a writing ritual that felt really good (so good that you’d do it regularly)? And what if that writing ritual could yield conspicuous dividends—such as increased ease in negotiating raises, promotions, and favors, and deeper insight into what you want to do with your life?
You’d start a success journal ASAP.
Keeping a success journal, in its perfect manifestation, is taking five to 10 minutes sometime during the final hour of your workday to make a few quick notes about your wins at work that same day. According to Aytekin Tank, founder and CEO of JotForm, a startup that creates customizable online forms, “I always stay in the JotForm office 15 to 30 minutes after my team leaves. During that time, I write in my success journal. I’ve found that the success journal is a way to recognize any success.”
Brandon Baker, owner of Loveletter Cakeshop in New York City, agrees.
“Keeping a journal and actually taking the time to write down your thoughts is one of those habits that doesn’t seem that important until you actually start doing it. Many people—entrepreneurs especially—struggle to cope with everything that life throws at them, and they might view a journal as yet another distraction away from their goals…This journal helps to keep me—and our company—on course, or what I call ‘true north.’”
A success journal is like the opposite of a to-do list—it isn’t limited to logging what tasks were accomplished. Instead, it’s taking a few minutes every day to notice what went right, what you did really well, and when you felt your best at work.
“Small successes, wins, compliments, and a-ha moments tend to get lost in a busy workday, so keeping a success journal helps cement them in our memories. It’s a positive way to end the day and invaluable for our personal and professional growth,” says Hannah Braime, author of the Ultimate Guide to Journaling.
Here are some ways you can use your success journal:
1. Keep track of compliments
“Seize every opportunity to look for the positive in what’s said to you or sent to you in writing,” says Dr. Lois Frankel, bestselling author of several career books, most notably, Nice Girls Don’t Get the Corner Office. “And if the praise is said to you, you can ask someone, ‘Oh, that’s so nice of you to say, would you mind putting that in a short email to me so I can put it in my Attagal file?’” Dr. Frankel explains when she consults the “Attagal file” and the relief that it brings: “for those days when I think I can do nothing right, I’m reminded that I really do know what I’m doing.” At Google HQ, the gender-neutral term employees use when they tuck away complimentary emails for future encouragement is “the Keeper file.”
2. Identify what aspects of your work you enjoy most
Jenny Blake is a career coach, author, former Google employee (former owner of a Keeper file), and co-founder of Lucent, a digital media company that promotes meditation. Blake’s co-founder Adam Chaloeicheep works on Lucent from WeWork Dumbo Heights in Brooklyn. Blake thinks having “daily reflection” and an “evening wind-down routine” can help people make their days more energizing and exciting. She encourages success journalers to ask themselves these questions: “When did I feel the most in the zone? What type of work recharged my batteries? What work drained them?” By doing so, “That can also help people understand what to do more of and what to do less of, and how to structure their day,” she says.
3. Uncover your competencies and passions
According to Frankel, “You get to see what you’re really good at. Sometimes we get so caught up in just doing our jobs and doing what everybody expects of us, that we don’t focus on what we’re really good at. And usually what we’re good at is often what we really love to do.” If you look back at three months’ worth of success journal entries where you wrote, “I really liked this…” or “I forgot to eat lunch when I was doing this…” or “This was kind of thrilling,” you’ll understand what you’re truly passionate about.
4. Get a raise/promotion/other development opportunities
Perhaps this is the most obvious benefit of keeping a success journal. When you want to ask for a promotion, request funding to attend a cool conference, or step up to lead a team, you have a chronological record of your successes that you can comb through for supporting material as you make your case. If you need a reference or a recommendation letter, Frankel says you can literally page back in your success journal: “If you think, ‘Who am I going to go to?’ You’re going to go to someone who appreciates your work and has told you so.”
5. See the positive in every day
“There is the Native American story of the grandfather speaking to his grandson,” says Jenny Blake. “The grandfather says, ‘We all have two wolves fighting inside us, good and evil. One is joy, and the other is fear.’ The grandson asks, ‘Which one lives and which one dies?’ And the grandfather says, ‘The one you feed more.’”
Blake continues, “It’s so easy at the end of the day to focus on what didn’t go well, what we don’t know yet, why we’re still confused. All this stuff is creating anxiety. And that anxiety tends to be more consuming than the small, joyful moments. So creating any kind of gratitude or reflection practice feeds the joy. And it’s really important to do this, because it is not our instinct.”
Hannah Braime agrees, adding, “We are evolutionarily wired to pay more attention to potential threats and losses than we are to positive news, feedback, and wins…Our success journal reminds us of the bigger, long-term picture and helps us bounce forward.”
If successfully negotiating a raise, rewiring your brain to internalize and create currency out of compliments, and fomenting a mindset of self-growth is not motivation enough to start a success journal, there’s one final perk. Before you head out of the office, spend five minutes at the end of every work day writing about what went right and how you positively contributed to your career. There’s nothing quite like having that I-killed-it-at-work-today swagger during your commute home.