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Things Get Fuzzy Fast: Examine Your Day So You Can Learn From It

By Tim Riley04 Jun 2013

Many of you will have seen Benjamin Franklin’s daily schedule.

Benjamin Franklin

I love it, especially how it brackets the day with moments for reflection. He lives the examined life. He uses his morning to “contrive [the] day’s business and take the resolution of the day.” If Franklin were at a present-day web or design business, he’d be right in there at the daily stand-up, with all his plans lined up nicely.

But the most interesting part of Franklin’s schedule is in the evening, in his “examination of the day.” This is the moment that allows for learning and growth, for a conscious inspection of matters that gives you true agency over your work. Just in the way the web business runs a retrospective at the end of a project, you can achieve a much tighter cycle of personal evaluation, allowing your experience from one day to inform and improve the next. Without this, you can resign yourself to be little more than a sheet of paper – perhaps the one outlining your morning’s good intentions – cast out to flutter in the wind, hostage to the whims of myriad external forces.

Taking back control takes a mere few minutes a day, and the results are worth it. In doing it myself, last week I learnt that I would start most days with a big goal in mind and a bunch of small chores alongside, but the chores would always end up taking longer than my drinking-my-first-coffee self predicts. I’d get to the end of each day with too little time for my most important work. Without any kind of examination, it’s too easy to let a situation like this leave you feeling vaguely embattled and just press on without any change. This is not a recipe for improvement.

You might ask why a mornings-only cycle of evaluation wouldn’t also work. At the end of the work day you just want to shut the computer and move onto something else, right? The trouble there is that you’d lose information. You best know how your day went when you’ve just finished living it. If you want to be active in adjusting your days so you can end them feeling accomplished, that’s when you need to be recording things.

These daily reflections become even more powerful once you’re part of a team. Write at the end of each day and this small investment in time can bring about a huge boost to everyone’s general awareness of each other’s work. If you’re struggling with something, your teammates don’t need to wait and see if you deem it important enough to bring up again the next morning. Instead, they can jump in and offer a hand as soon as they can see you could do with one. Then when things go well, there’s no better motivation than seeing the continuing great work of your teammates, and you can boost the positive mood even further by joining in and celebrating their wins.

The way I see it is that, if I haven’t shared it in writing with my teammates, then the work never happened. Prose is just as important as code.

Have you ever reached the end of a long stretch of work and thought, “Wow, didn’t that time fly?” If you then thought more deeply, would you even be able to recall the particular ups and downs that defined the course of that work? What if you waited a couple of weeks and tried again? Things get fuzzy fast, and since the most instructive aspects of the work may not always be the most memorable, there’s only a small window where you can learn from it. Become a diarist of your work, and you can keep this window open.

Being ignorant is not so much a shame, as being unwilling to learn.

Benjamin Franklin

Live an examined life, and you give yourself the best chance to improve it.