Thursday, March 20, 2014

What Did I Do? Keeping Track of Accomplishments Without Going Crazy, by Tyler Dzuba

We librarians are great at helping others but we can be terrible at helping ourselves, especially when that means talking about our own accomplishments. We do a lot of important things (right?), and they’re hard to track. An extended reference question here, a printer jam there, a report drafted and edited, a book budget spent: the odds and ends don’t always fall nicely into memorable boxes. Come performance review season, it can be impossible to remember what precisely it was that we spent all our time on.

Keeping track of my work sounds mundane, but it’s seriously one of the most valuable gifts I give myself. There’s no better feeling at the end of a tiring day than knowing I’m tired for lots of good reasons. It’s not just for my private benefit: telling my boss what I do is so much easier when I have a roadmap to what I need to say. And best of all, it helps me zero in on what’s important to me and my career. If I’m spending a lot of time on something, it’s either something I’m passionate about and need to cultivate, or something I’m tired of and need to cut.

It’s possible to reconstruct a surprising amount of my activity from email logs and archaeological digs through The Piles of Stuff™. Even so, not a fun way to spend Friday afternoon. So in August 2012, three months into my first professional job, I decided to make a better system.

It boils down to keeping a private, daily log of what I worked on that day. Think Library Day in the Life, but for my eyes only. (Sound riveting yet?)

Your mileage may vary, but five priorities rose to the surface as I started designing my methods:
  1. It needs to be frequent. It’s no fun to forget on the 20th of the month what you did on the 2nd.
  2. It needs to be fast! If it took me a long time to add something to my logs, I’d never keep up with it. A spur-of-the-moment rapidfire process works really well for me.
  3. It needs to be private. It’s not unheard of for me to throw in something like “Wrote passive-aggressive email to [name very redacted], the jerk” or “Had freakout session in office.” If it’s going to be quick, I need the freedom to just write out what actually happened, unfiltered. Bonus: when I’m trying to figure out why some project took so long, these personal notes become super helpful. Why couldn’t I get my act together that week? Because I was holding an unproductive grudge against [name very redacted].
  4. It needs to be flexible. I experimented with a bunch of scripted formats, but a blank page seems to be best. Sometimes, I write little narratives. Sometimes, sparing bullet points. Remember, it’s all about making notes that will be useful to you when you look back at them months or years later.
  5. It needs be a part of my normal workflow. I already did a lot of notetaking in Evernote, so that’s where my daily logs live. If you live by pen and paper, that works too.
With all that, I’ve settled on a system that works beautifully for me. I made a new notebook in Evernote just for this. Every day, I make a new note with a bullet-point list of things I did. Sometimes I editorialize, but usually it’s just a laundry list. Then at the end of every month, I use the Merge Notes feature to make an indexed list for that month in one note, ready to summarize for performance reviews or to analyze for my own devious purposes. It takes no more than 5 minutes a day, and it’s behind a password so I know that it’s for my eyes only. Clean, simple, and endlessly helpful.

And being the nerd I am, I’ve spent some time automating it. (Relevant xkcds. You’re welcome.) Now, I just press CapsLock+J, and a little dialog box pops up on my screen to ask “What did you do?” (See the picture above. [Editor's Note: Click the picture to see a larger version.]) All the rest is taken care of behind the scenes. I don’t have room for details here, but get in touch or ask in the comments below if you want the gory version. For the adventurous and Mac-centric, start here and here and here, and be creative. I can’t help as much with Windows, but AutoHotkey will get you a fairly long way. Godspeed.

When I started my job, remembering what I did from week to week was tricky. Now, two years in, I can tell you what I did on November 5th, 2012 (mostly reference questions and fighting with link resolvers. Very little gunpowder, it seems.), and I can rest easy writing a self-evaluation about what I accomplished over the last year.

What about you? What have you found helpful in keeping track of what you do all day?

Tyler Dzuba is the head of the Physics-Optics-Astronomy Library at the University of Rochester, River Campus Libraries. Twice an alumnus of UNC-Chapel Hill (BS, MSLS), he’s glad to be in cooler weather for a change. He is passionate about citation instruction reform, early-career leadership, personal information management and the tools for it, and coffee. Tyler is serving as the inaugural chair of the New Professionals Section of the Library Leadership and Management Association (LLAMA), a division of ALA. (Ask him about it!) He would love to chat further about keeping track of accomplishments by email (tdzuba [at] gmail) or on Twitter (@silent_d).


  1. I love this. I recently started using RescueTime for the same reasons. It's even more motivating than I thought it would be! (I don't use the $$ version which can include things like "talked to so and so" but just tracking what I do on my computer is a huge huge help to my productivity.) thanks for this! I use Evernote as well...wheels are turning!

    1. I've heard good things about RescueTime! Thanks for bringing it up. It seems like a really interesting way to passively get data on what we spend our time on. Any tips for people getting started with it? What has surprised you?

  2. I set up a recurring notification in my Outlook calendar called "what did you do today?" and set it to go off ~45 minutes before I usually leave. It's really just a link to a OneNote notebook where I have tabs for each month and add individual days to these tabbed areas. I usually put in hours worked, summaries of what I did that day, and my reference hours. It's simple, easy, and "automated" enough that I do it consistently, plus (like you mentioned!) it's a great way for daily work reflection and helpful for tracking accomplishments, professional development, and projects.

    1. Love it! One huge disfluency in my overall notetaking has been working between Mac and Windows systems. My library uses MS Exchange for email, and I do a lot for work in Outlook 2013 that I can't in any Mac product. Switching to an all-Microsoft environment for work has been...tempting. Now that MS has released OneNote for Mac, I might have to play with that particular fire again.

      It's good to hear that OneNote with Outlook has been working out so well for you!

  3. Great post, I really need to do this! I have difficulty sometimes remembering what I've done from week to week, and I'll check my Outlook calendar to jog my memory. A daily log like this will be so helpful in tracking progress and knowing what I'm spending my time on. Right now I use Workflowy more than Evernote, but I might play with both to find what works better for me.

    1. Hi, Ariana!

      I haven't tried Workflowy; I'll have to check it out! First glance, it seems pretty nifty, and definitely a lot more streamlined than Evernote. Good luck!

  4. What a good idea! I will play around with this in Evernote tomorrow. As a matter of fact, I've already set up a notebook called 1WHAT I DID TODAY (I added the 1 so that this will file at the top of my list). I'm all ready to go. Thanks for the tip.

    1. Yay! I'm glad you're trying it out!

      I do something similar with exclamation marks: ! alphabetizes above all letters and numbers in basically everywhere I've tried it. I'm a big fan of having folders labeled "!Archive" in places where I need to keep things but don't need to see them regularly. Actually, you can see my !Archive notebook stack in the screenshot in this post! That stack (i.e. superfolder for notebooks) holds a ton of notebooks from my job search, my MSLS program, and past committees.

  5. No matter what method(s) work best to keep track of accomplishments, the important thing is to keep track, period. For years, whether a supervisor has required it or not, I have been writing quarterly activity reports. Just a bulleted list of job activities grouped by function, plus service and research/creative work. I write much of it from memory, as well as refer back to the previous report and (yes) scroll through the last three months of sent email. You're right about that; most non-routine activities have at least one associated email. It takes a few hours, but it pays off at review time. When I come up at the end of 2015, those 12 quarterly reports will be everything I need to write my self-review, without worrying about missing any significant accomplishments.

    Last fall I started using Todo on my iPhone/iPad. I have quarterly goals, but I needed a task management tool to identify, check off, and sometimes reschedule activities on a daily basis. And as an experiment I have also started a daily log. I'm a big Evernote user, and their built-in timestamp (ctrl + ;) takes care of the automation. Even with just a few days, it's been interesting to see how the unexpected things impact the planned ones.

  6. Ok, I'll bite on some of the gory details. How are you getting Evernote to give you question prompts like that? Is that an Evernote thing, a Quicksilver thing, or some scripting magic between them?

    1. I'm glad you asked! Some scripting magic is the short answer.

      I started by Googling around and finding this:
      I made some modifications to simplify the script a little for my purposes. If you're curious, my version is here:
      Modify as needed for you.

      In summary, the script throws up a dialog box (the one you see in the picture), and either (when I run the script the first time in a day) makes a new note in the right notebook entitled with today's date and containing whatever I typed into the box with a time stamp, or (later in the day) appends what I typed to end of the existing note.

      Once written and tested, I put that script in a dropbox folder. (Just in case I needed it from different computers—haven't yet, but you never know!)

      Quicksilver ( can do many things for a Mac user—that's another post—among which is assigning global shortcut keys (QS calls them Triggers) to do things like, say, running an Applescript. So from anywhere on my computer, I can press that key combination and run the script.

      Last piece: Brett Terpstra, programmer and tech blogger extraordinaire, has an interesting workaround to remap CapsLock to Control-Shift-Option-Command:
      Why would you do this? Because practically no software uses all four modifier keys in its shortcuts, which means that you now have what amounts to a whole new shortcut key that conflicts with nothing else.

      So, bottom line: I used CapsLock+J (= Ctrl+Shift+Opt+Cmd+J) as my trigger key to have Quicksilver run the Applescript, which gives me a handy dialog box from anywhere to type what I just did, then puts it safely in the right place in Evernote.

      Have fun!

    2. Thanks! I prefer Launchbar to Quicksilver, but I was able to get it working just fine with it too. I trigger it by hitting CMD-Space and typing "WD" (I'm better at remembering 2-3 letter mnemonics than keyboard shortcuts), and everything else works just the same.

  7. This is a great idea -- with performance reviews coming up soon, I find myself wishing I already had a system like this in place! I'm definitely going to try this out for next year.

    I've been using a system which isn't nearly as detailed (or technically advanced) but helps capture at least the major things that I do. I have a big wall calendar in my office, and whenever I make an appointment or have a major event coming up, it goes on a fluorescent sticky on the calendar -- blue for research consultations, pink for classes, yellow for outreach events, etc. I layer on as many as I need. Then at the end of the month, I snap a picture of the calendar and save it to my iPad. It's a good way to keep at least a visual overview of the ebb and flow of each month and the major tasks I am accountable for.

    1. (edit: Forgot to post as reply)

      How cool! I really like the idea of visualizing the flux of your work in that way. Something I'll definitely be thinking about the next time I try to revise my system...

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