The Importance of Documenting Everything You Do

You have probably been in the situation at some point in your work life where you simply feel overwhelmed by your duties. Perhaps you’re on a team and everyone feels the same way. After speaking with your supervisor or manager about it your take-away task is to document what you do during your day to show your workload. You probably felt as though the sky was falling because on top of the crushing weight of your duties and your panicked efforts to simply keep up, you now have to take the time to write down everything you’re doing. That sinking feeling just got worse.

This is known as “the whirlwind” in 4DX (Four Disciplines of Execution) and represents all the urgent tasks that you are expected to complete throughout the day. 4DX is a complete system to help chip away at the important items you want to accomplish while dealing with the whirlwind. And there is a difference between urgent and important tasks. Dwight D. Eisenhower, the 34th President, said, “I have two kinds of problems, the urgent and the important. The urgent are not important, and the important are never urgent.” I recommend reading his thoughts in more detail as this is an important concept in prioritizing and executing work.

There are other, similar systems, like Getting Things Done by David Allen, and many books like Essentialism, by Greg McKeown or The One Thing, by Gary Keller with Jay Papasan or Eat That Frog by Brian Tracy that attack the same idea in their own ways. However, what they all have in common is increased productivity as a goal. From my own personal experience, documenting what I did during my day is one of the most important things that made more time for myself. It is counterintuitive but it really works.

The first step is to simply use a tracker of some sort. Use pen and paper, a spreadsheet, a calendar, a text document, or all of them, or anything with which you feel comfortable, and stick with it. Evernote and OneNote are both great for this type of thing. Both have the ability to create and use checkboxes, which are tremendously helpful when you have daily to do lists, or a list of tasks to complete to reach your weekly goals.

Keep in mind that this isn’t necessarily a log of each action you took during your day, written down the minute you did it. Depending on your job, you can probably fill in some things ahead of time and write in the extras as you go, or at the end of the day. I strongly recommend writing down ahead of time all the things you know you will be doing through the day just to relieve some of the pressure of documenting your chores.

Also, set goals. Start by scheduling everything you want to accomplish for the next week ahead of time. Once you have three goals written down, write down what you need to do each day of the week to reach those goals. Be detailed, but not too wordy. Brevity in this area is a plus. As you complete the daily tasks you scheduled, just check them off the list.

One of the main tenets of 4DX to combat the whirlwind is to define “X to Y by WHEN.” I like this idea very much. Break it down. If you are currently at X location in your project, you want to be at Y by the end of the week. Set a due date to keep yourself focused.

However, if the unexpected arises and something or someone interrupts your work flow don’t be afraid to adapt and evolve with the situation. Move or change the “X to Y by WHEN” to accommodate the new details. Also write down why you had to move or change the details of your goal so you can explain yourself. You probably won’t remember three days later why you did that when your boss asks about it, let alone six months later when you’re doing your self-assessment.

As you work through your week update the tasks you prepared ahead of time. Keep checking off those completed items. You should also document meetings, conversations, note significant information from emails received etc. After a few weeks or months have passed you can look back at all the notes and see the progress in your tracker at what you have accomplished. You can identify bottlenecks or repeated interruptions, and can plan ahead accordingly. If one particular person or meeting or event seems to be causing problems with your productivity you can approach your boss about it to get help finding a solution.

At the end of the year you can look back at your notes and you have a tremendous amount of material to use when writing out your self-assessment, and this is the reason you started writing down everything you do in the first place. This is the make or break moment. Rely on those notes to show your boss exactly what you did during the year with specifics. The next step is to put a dollar figure to as much of it as possible. Since you already have the time involved in most tasks, you can attach a dollar amount as well. If you made a change in one of your processes that shaved 5 minutes per day off that process, you have saved X dollars over the course of the year.

Once I started using this method to track myself I found that my actual job description took perhaps an hour of my day, while the rest of my time was spent on the “above and beyond” projects, and that is where promotions hide. There’s no need for long days! Stay focused and you can get done with everything in the eight hours provided, and then go home to enjoy your family and friends.

The Importance of Documenting Everything You Do

Time Management versus Detail Management

Time Management

For several years I had a relatively easy method of tracking my efforts because my job required me to do specific things at specific times of the day, every day. I simply created a checklist to manage the items I absolutely needed to get done. There were some things that could get done at any time of the day, and other items on the list that had to be completed at specific times. This is time management.

My job also required a mastery of “multi-tasking,” a concept that many people are currently writing negatively about. Their contention is that multi-tasking is A) impossible because no one can do more than one thing at a time, and B) even if it were possible it would probably do more harm than good to one’s productivity… I agree with both of those views, but I think both are also misplaced.

There’s really no such thing as multi-tasking in the purest sense of the word, but my experiences taught me that what we refer to as multi-tasking has a place in the work force that is valuable in some positions, though not for all positions. I would also define it as constantly prioritizing a rapidly changing task list to make sure the most important items remain at the top of the list.

In addition to my static list of daily to-do items “fires” would spring up that I had to put out – constant interruptions that forced repeatedly prioritizing the list. There may be 10 things on the static list, and as I worked through them any number of other things could happen; “hot” requests from a state government agency or a boss, computer or network malfunctions, co-workers asking for help, meetings, processes that broke and needed fixing, more meetings, distractions from other departments and people, fire alarm drills, even more meetings, tornado drills, etc…

In this environment I made sure the boxes on my checklist were getting checked off and those things that absolutely must be done at a particular time were getting done on time. I’m not a perfectionist or obsessive-compulsive, but I do watch the details and I sweat the little things. That’s why I was good at the job. In the end, my job description, what I was hired to do, only took up around 30 minutes of my day. The rest of my time could be used for special projects thanks to effective time management.

Detail Management

My current job is very different and requires documenting and managing nearly countless details for hundreds of requests and small projects. When I was promoted to this position I inherited a list of items on four different spreadsheets that had been passed around the company for over a year. It was my job to drive these requests forward to completion. They may be as simple as finding the answer to a question, or as complicated as documenting a large software enhancement and working with the developers to implement it. It was and still is overwhelming in many ways due to the sheer number of the requests (100 when I was given the list, 175 at this time). I had to learn new systems at least at a conversational level, processes in parts of the company with which I was completely unfamiliar, the people who managed these systems and processes, the people who managed the hardware that drove the software, etc. This is detail management.

I went from tracking a list of to-do’s on an hourly basis to tracking different items on a daily, weekly and monthly basis. I still track everything that I do daily, but I’m organizing my days and tracking both what I want to accomplish and also what gets done, as well as setting goals on a monthly and weekly basis (see my previous post for an example).

I do it this way for two primary reasons. First, it’s simple productivity tracking. I can keep my days more organized ahead of time. I’ve learned that I also need to give myself deadlines on the requests on my task list. That helps keep me focused. It’s easy to get overwhelmed by 175 requests and projects that have to be organized and completed, which is the second reason I organize my days like this… I don’t like the feeling of being overwhelmed. This system helps me keep things in perspective.

To track the details of each of the 175 requests on my list I use Microsoft OneNote. I have a page for each request, and another one for tracking my time on a monthly/weekly/daily basis. I break it down that way to keep the big picture in view, in addition to tracking all those details. Of course, I also have a spreadsheet that acts as an index for all of those requests and I keep that updated as well so I can see the overall status of each item in a summary view.

By doing it this way I can keep my boss and all the other stakeholders updated as to the progress I’m making on these items.


Each person has to justify his or her position in a company. It’s just a fact of life in today’s work force. In larger corporations it is increasingly important to distinguish one’s self from co-workers as a dependable, reliable employee to not only sustain employment, but also to earn higher pay, to be rewarded with higher bonuses, promotions, etc. Determine if your job requires time management or detail management and build a system to track it all for yourself. Yes, it actually takes time to do it that you feel you don’t have, but by organizing properly it will free up even more time than tracking it will use. Work smart! And good luck!

Time Management versus Detail Management

Book Review: Eat That Frog!

Eat That Frog! 21 Great Ways to Stop Procrastinating and Get More Done in Less Time. By Brian Tracy. (Second edition)

In mid-2015 I set a goal for myself. It was one of the first goals that I created for myself in my pursuit to become a better, smarter, higher paid, and happier employee. My goal was to read 25 books within a year that were related to productivity, procrastination, time management, management, or anything else that could help me evolve into a better employee and person. “Eat That Frog” was one of the first books I read on my journey.

It’s a simple read. Brian Tracy doesn’t waste time on flowery language and doesn’t spend five pages writing about something that can be covered in one. He gets to the point quickly and moves on. Other books have helped me improve in many ways, but I think it’s one of the best books available to help get organized and be more productive.

Of the 21 ways he writes about getting more done, the ideas that made the most important impact on me were A) getting organized (planning, prioritizing, focusing on the most important tasks), B) determining my most important skills and improving them, C) scheduling my work time to block out times for productivity (and also for breaks), and D) NOT becoming a slave to technology and/or social media. Two years later I still feel like these are just as important, if not more.

The one thing that made the most significant impact though was mentioned in my previous post. I keep a list of tasks to keep me focused. The book mentions having separate lists for daily/weekly/monthly tasks and keeping them updated all the time, but that system didn’t work well for me. I didn’t like multiple lists that all needed attention so I combined everything into one basic list. I still use it constantly, all day, every day, and not only did I stop forgetting to do things, I learned to set and track goals and deadlines and my bosses saw an immediate improvement in my work.

Two years later I’m in a very different position than when I started using task lists and I have very different duties, but I still use my tracker. It has evolved significantly since I started using a list at all, and now it is indispensable.

Below is a week of my current daily/weekly/monthly planner and checklist for December, 2017 in Microsoft OneNote 2016. I put the monthly goals at the top, above the calendar, then separate the month into weekly chunks with their own goals based on the monthly goals, and finally the daily goals based on the weekly goals. Though I show only three goals in each section below, I actually have many more in my working list.




This system has helped my productivity and organization reach new levels that I never thought possible for me. I’m now tracking the daily chores related to 150+ requests and projects simultaneously.

As the book says, there are 21 ways suggested to stop procrastinating and get more done in less time. I suggest everyone read the book (it will take very little time) and adopt a few recommendations and see if they help. I’m sure everyone can find at least one or two items in the book that will help them evolve into a better, more productive, and happier person and employee.

Book Review: Eat That Frog!

Learning To Set Goals

Setting a goal sounds like such a simple thing to do. Reaching a goal was something more involved. Until I started my current job I had no idea what goal-setting really was. When a recruiter in an interview or HR person or a boss asked me a question like, “Where do you want to be in 3 years?” I had no idea what to say. I looked at my feet, or at the ceiling, or coughed, or choked nervously and said something like, “To be gainfully employed?” It’s what my history had conditioned me to say. I lost many jobs over 20 years due to layoffs. Setting goals, or planning for the future, wasn’t something I had learned. Much of my career has been focused on adapting to situations; surviving rather than thriving.

What I’ve only recently learned was that even though the future is uncertain I had to have a goal to help create stability for myself. I learned this from a particular boss at the company where I currently work. He taught me to break down daily information and track it over time. Most importantly, make it simple. Just get started tracking the information you need to have a big-picture view of the situation. If it happens to be numbers, put it in a spreadsheet and after a month or two, you’ll have a baseline and you can plan for progress or improvement. Most importantly, make sure you do it every day.

What I learned from reading books on productivity, procrastination, and organization was how to put structure my day to make sure I remembered each task that had to be completed. I started working with Excel, then moved to Evernote, and over time I evolved toward Microsoft OneNote. I just like the way OneNote organizes things. It’s almost three-dimensional in its structure. I also like the keyboard shortcuts in OneNote because time-saving with keyboard shortcuts is what I cut my tech teeth on. Most of my career has been built on a daily routine which involved doing the same set of processes every day. Evernote was good at that, but OneNote takes it further thanks to better keyboard shortcuts.

As an example I might want a checkbox for something that needs to be done that day in a list of items. In Evernote I would type a “[” and “]” and “space” and it would make a checkbox. In OneNote I can type CTRL + 1 and it adds a checkbox at the left margin regardless of where the cursor is. It’s a small difference, but when you do this 25 times a day (or more) it adds up to real time savings each day.

Getting back to the big picture, setting goals didn’t come naturally or easily to me. Once I admitted to myself that it was a skill that needed to be developed, I took a large step forward. There are no secrets here, no arcane knowledge, no innate ability that you have to be born with. Just write down what you want to achieve and when you want to achieve it. It’s important to put a date on it to make it more urgent. Next, write down the steps you know that will get you there (along with a date) and put a checkbox in front of each one. More steps may need to be added as you start working through them, but you can do that later. Just get your initial plan on paper to get started (or in an app if you prefer that to paper).

I have a list of projects that I work on every day and I use this technique to track steps for each one. I have a monthly calendar that is broken down by week and day. At the top I write down what goals I want to accomplish for that month. For each week (written between Saturday and Sunday) I write my weekly goals. For each day of that week I write down what I want to get done that day. I often have to move things from one day to another, and that’s fine because unexpected requests or issues can arise to derail any single day. Be adaptable. Evolve with the situation.

In regards to long-term goal-setting, the approach I’ve settled on is to have a 90 day goal, a one year goal, and a three year goal. I review each of these goals every 30 days or so to make sure I’m on track. If not, I follow the words of Confucius, “When it’s obvious the goals cannot be reached, don’t adjust the goals, adjust the action steps.”

I’m a late starter in the goal-setting department, but I also like what Tolstoy wrote about goals, “Have a goal for your whole life, a goal for one section of your life, a goal for a shorter period and a goal for the year; a goal for every month, a goal for every week, a goal for every day, a goal for every hour and for every minute, and sacrifice the lesser goal to the greater.”

I haven’t attained Tolstoy’s level of commitment to goal-setting yet, but after a couple of years of setting and tracking my goals I’ve seen the power of writing them down and tracking them daily. I have evolved into a much better employee, and a more focused individual.

One last critical thing I had to learn is that I had to make this happen for myself. No one else was going to make sure I achieved my goals. This is why I used to feel like I had been overlooked so often. I worked hard, but could never articulate very well what I had accomplished or what I had worked on even the day before. That’s all different with my current approach to goal-setting. I can show someone exactly what I’ve been doing, and it has the added benefit at the end of the year of getting me a nice bonus. And that makes my wife happy. 😉

Learning To Set Goals