Academic Writers Studio logo with lotus and ink pen

The “dear diary” folks might be on to something.

Since we started the Studio Scholars program in September 2018, we’ve had the immense joy of being able to see—and help—a bunch of people making progress on their research. One of the more striking “there are two kinds of people” observations we’ve had is this: some people habitually record what they’ve done during a work period or day, and some people don’t.

Now, I’m just going to raise my hand right now and say that unless I’m specifically doing so for a client, I am not at all good at recording what I’ve done. When I was a kid, I’d start a diary, write for like 2 hours straight—maybe even a couple of days in a row—and then never touch it again. So I’m throwing no shade at other people who don’t track their work.

But, anecdotally at least, it seems pretty clear to me that there’s a direct correlation between people being more descriptive about their workdays and being less shame-addled and fraught about their work in general. I want to speculate about why that might be the case.

Before I say much more, though, I have two clarifications. First, this is totally unscientific and I have no real sense of causes and effects, and I don’t mean to suggest that all the people who don’t record what they’ve done are shame-addled and fraught. I just suspect that that recording activity can help to mitigate some of people’s crappy feelings. Second, the context of me noticing this is primarily people posting in discussions that they fulfilled—or, more importantly even, did NOT fulfill—their intentions for the day. Some people are more inclined to say things like “done!” or “done! Heading out to pick up the kids.” Others are more inclined to say things like “I wrote one handwritten page” or “today was tough because I have been really struggling with how to open this section. I ended up writing one paragraph that I’ll need to redo tomorrow, but I think I kind of got the throughline articulated.” They might elaborate more than that, too.

That said, I think it’s helpful in a number of ways that blend into and kind of circle back on each other. It has been difficult for me to separate and organize these ideas, which isn’t usually something I struggle with in blog entries. Tracking what you’ve done is similar to other forms of tracking, such as keeping a food diary or budget, in the sense that it gives you a few different layers of information and also ripples outward, I think, in ways that aren’t just about the information.  You’ve probably kept a food journal and/or hung out with someone who has; think about what doing it accomplished.

On the most basic level, to write anything down, you have to think about what you’re writing on some level. You have to pause and reflect, even if it’s just for a few seconds and largely unconscious, like counting. As an embodied action, the writing itself is a visual and kinesthetic event that reinforces that reflection. You can’t help but learn something.

Another really basic effect is that you begin to compile a data set in your head (not to mention, potentially at least, a written record that you can refer to) about how much you accomplish, quantitatively speaking. The effects of doing so can be enormous. It’s fascinating how many of us really have no idea how much writing we can produce in a day or a session.

And, of course, it doesn’t take much drilling down to run into the fact that “how much writing we can produce in a day” is kind of not a thing.  It’s always how much of what type of writing, under what circumstances, in what place, in what mood, under what kind of pressure, with what kinds of obstacles to face, and so on and on.

While it’s helpful to have a nice, thick record of all of those variables, I think that just writing down a quantity of writing you produced is helpful. These numbers aggregate over time, and you will glean some of that next-level info as you go. So don’t feel like you need to write a whole separate manuscript’s worth of tracking description.

Perhaps obviously, having this kind of log can help people to be predictive. Knowing what you have done makes assessing what you WILL do a much more well-informed process. This is an area where the budget analogy is helpful. You can just try to spend less money; you can just try to write more. But for the long term, it’s helpful to know not only what you spent last month but how much you’ve been inclined to spend. Doing so helps you realistically assess how hard you have to push yourself, when you need to change your goals, and so on.

Behaviorally speaking, tracking what you do without being judgmental gives you a tiny bit more pressure and accountability. It’s the scholarship version of not wanting to log that giant tub of movie popcorn you ate and therefore making a more desirable choice, even if it’s only slightly more desirable.

Just as you might not want to track your budget or your food intake because you don’t like what you find, you might not want to record your daily accomplishments because you’re worried you’ll discover that you write too slowly. If that’s the case, you’re not going to find out anything you don’t already know. Or more accurately, you will find out stuff you don’t already know—but you DO already know, or at least worry, that you write too slowly.

In general, though, tracking without judging yourself too much is crucial, I think. However, again anecdotally, I don’t think you have to work very hard specifically to stop judging yourself about it; it seems very difficult to maintain a tracking habit while also beating yourself up about it. And I think that that works both ways. That is, if you start off berating yourself and don’t stop, I don’t think you can keep up the practice of tracking your work; it’s just too exhausting. BUT I also think that if you do keep it up, you begin to stop berating yourself.

In that respect—and actually in several respects—I think tracking your work is similar to meditating. When you begin a regular meditation practice (or attempt one, or begin an irregular one), you’re more inclined to chew yourself out, between or during sessions, about how terrible you are at meditating. But if you keep it up, that judgments starts to dissipate. If you do less on some days, you’ll have a better sense of why, and you’ll know that you’ll come back around to doing more. You also get more inquisitive and better at just listening.

And that is really the point of this practice, I think—to write down what you’ve done so that you can tell yourself what you’ve learned, and listen to yourself. It’s about having a feedback loop, literally taking notes as you go.

In fact, if you’re wondering what to do with a record of what you’ve done, the answer is that you don’t have to do anything with it. In some ways it’s better not to, especially at first. Just write it down. Later on, you’ll become nonjudgmentally curious, and that’s when it’s more helpful to go back to what you’ve written over time.

We talk a lot about curiosity, openness, and finding pleasure in your writing. I think that recording your everyday wrestling and the crappy little struggles you have can bring you a lot of joy and peace in a profession that can lack both.

The “dear diary” folks I’m thinking of don’t all know that they have found a good thing. In fact, I’m writing this partly because I think they’re sometimes deliberate and self-aware about what they’re accomplishing in engaging in this practice, but sometimes they’re not, or they don’t feel like it’s a particular success on their part to do it. I’m pretty sure it is.