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Progress is the single most important motivating factor when it comes to work. That might seem obvious. But what’s not obvious is that we don’t always see our progress. In fact, we’re prone to lose track of it, if we don’t regularly document what’s happening in our lives.

Harvard professor Teresa Amabile has been researching what motivates creatives, and what keeps them going, for years. And it turns out the simple answer is: Keeping a diary.

Here’s what Amabile has to say about the power of diaries in an essay penned with Steven Kramer and Ela Ben-Ur for our new 99U book, Maximize Your Potential:

Creative people frequently work solo, without the benefit of colleagues who could help capture or develop their ideas. But even teams and organizations rarely offer creatives the necessary time, understanding, and patience to nurture their creative seedlings. A diary can help fill the void. It can serve as a sounding board and an alter-ego companion—one who will never forget what you say. What might otherwise have been isolated or passing thoughts become permanent and potentially powerful ideas.

This sounding board can serve a number of functions, the simplest of which is planning. Many entries in “The Daybooks” of Edward Weston reveal him focusing on future actions to capitalize on emerging
 opportunities:

“The excerpts from my daybook and photographs will
 be published in the August issue of Creative Art… It
 seems my fortunes are to change for something better. 
Now I must spend all my spare time in cutting and
 correcting my manuscript.”
 —Edward Weston, May 23, 1928

Of course, Weston could have used a simple calendar or to-do list to plan next steps. But notice his remark that his luck seems to be changing. What a calendar cannot do, and a journal can, is help you reflect on the big picture of your life and your creative work—where it is, what it means, and what direction you want it to take.

Diaries can be particularly helpful tools for accurately capturing positive events. In his book, “Thinking, Fast and Slow,” the psychologist Daniel Kahneman distinguishes between experience and memory, noting that human memory of an experience can easily be altered. Kahneman describes a man who was enjoying a concert immensely until the very end, when there was an obnoxious sound in the concert hall. The man said that the noise ruined the entire concert for him. But it didn’t really, of course; he had enjoyed the concert up until that moment. What it did ruin was his memory of the concert.

By keeping a daily diary, you will reduce the chance that some later event will transform your memory of the day’s experiences. So when you feel you have accomplished something, write it down soon, before a client or critic has the opportunity to say something that diminishes that sense of progress.

You can find the complete essay, as well as contributions from Joshua Foer, Jonathan Fields, and Tony Schwartz and more, in Maximize Your Potential, the latest addition to our 99U book series.

  • Shawrett

    Evernote is awesome. There is a free ap for apple, PC and tablets.

  • Nick in Omaha

    My favorite, by far, is the Day One App. Simple, clean, and you can export all to PDF.

  • http://jcroxas.com/ JC Roxas

    I still own a diary and I find it really useful for my growth as a person. Though sometimes, I feel like I don’t have the urge to tell everything to my diary because

    1. I am afraid to think about it
    2. I also develop a sense of shyness to my diary

    But on top of that, I think that it is part of the process that I am starting to consider the diary as a friend who can be with me (like what the article said) and I just have to cope with my fears so I can fully document all the things happening to me.

    I really prefer doing it traditionally (with a pen and a notebook) instead of documenting everything on tablets or on blogs. Writing helps me think more and sometimes, whenever I write things out with my hand, I get to feel more passionate with my ideas and thoughts which leads me to pass things out from my mind to my words spontaneously and gives me more soothing and rewarding feelings afterwards.

    Thanks for doing this article. This gives me a proper support to continue what I am doing. i can’t wait for this year to end so i can read all my experiences and prepare myself for a new year on 2014 =)

  • Thiago Vieira

    I’m using Bullet Journal. It’s simple and fast. Contrary to everything I always tought about journals.🙂

  • Ian Matthews

    I use a ten year diary/journal from http://www.journal10.com. Very easy to keep up with short entries with each page dated.

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