Keep a SMART Business Journal (Part I)

The other day, while flipping through my business journal, I found this quote (post graphic) by writer Barry Eisler. This particular business journal was one I wrote three years ago. When I read this quote again, I felt reassured that I am still aspiring and perspiring in the right direction.

Like you, I'm familiar with advice about keeping a journal for story ideas, plots, characters, titles, pitches, etc. But, I think it is rare to hear advice from successful writers about keeping a business journal. We still have work to do around fusing the divide between creativity and sustainability. This post underscores how we can grab hold of Eisler's quote and build on it by keeping a business journal.    

The Forgetting Curve

Even though I've been working solo for 10 years, I am as guilty as the next writer when it comes to this lie we all tell ourselves: "I keep a solid, working idea of my business in my head. I know what's going on. I have notes." 

No. We don't retain as much information as we believe we do. Further, when we go to those fancy workshops, we forget most of the strategy details we learned before the cocktail hour begins. 

According to Art Kohn, author of Communicating with Psychology and expert in performance improvement, we forget 90% of what we learn in seminars, workshops, and training programs. In his article, Brain Science and the Forgetting Curve, Kohn explains the intricacies of our neural networks, how our brains parse stimuli, and he translates the evidence into our Forgetting Curve. Acknowledging that we cannot hold everything in our heads is a good start. We are now ready for a different curve that is more useful for our goals. 

The Learning Curve

One of the biggest takeaways I have from my coach training is a frame for how we learn. Learning how to drive a car is a good example. In the beginning, our position is unconscious incompetence (we don't know what we don't know). After a few driving lessons, our position is conscious incompetence (we recognize what we don't yet know). The day of the driving test, we have conscious competence (we know what we know). We pass the driver's test. Driving becomes routine. We've reached unconscious competence (we don't think about what we know; we do it automatically). 

Unconscious incompetence

Unconscious Incompetence: we don't know what we don't know. 

Conscious incompetence

Conscious Incompetence: We recognize what we don't yet know. 

Conscious competence

Conscious Competence: We know what we know. 

Conscious Competence

Unconscious Competence: We don't think about what we know; we do it automatically. 

In my case, after working as a publisher for 15 years, I had unconscious competence when it came to writing business plans. Most writers do not realize, or if they do, they may not appreciate, the time and effort an editor puts into a publishing plan for each manuscript purchased for the publisher. Each book has its own business plan. Each publishing program (the entire list) has its own business plan, which is the foundation for the editor's performance evaluations. Over the course of 15 years publishing books for my list, plus working in various managerial roles, reading and critiquing the plans of the editors who worked in my groups, I've read more than one thousand plans easily. 

When I went solo I thought, "hey, I'm my own boss. I can lighten up. I know all of this planning stuff." I kept writing my business journal, but I did not write a formal business plan (until several years ago).  Today, my written business plan continues to pay off. When people ask me what it is like to be self-employed and what's my best piece of advice, I suggest that they set aside all the bonuses, awards, accolades from their employers.

Start with a beginner's mind and be open to not knowing what you do not know. Then, start writing it all down.  ​

How to Start Your Business Journal

Accountability is what makes a business journal powerful. As I will discuss in Part II for this post, accountability is the foundation for your business plan. Keeping a business journal is the first step. To get started, I offer three tips.

Tip 1: Choose a method that complements your learning and working style. If you are an  auditory learner, someone who takes and gives verbal instructions easily, record your journal using a voice notes application. Every few days or once a week, carve out time to replay your voice journal and jot down key points, phrases, observations. 

When I work with musicians, I find they like to work out the basics of their journal through chords and songwriting. Writers, on the other hand, like to use a notebook or a note-taking application such as Day One Journal or Evernote. If you are artistic, you might choose to draw and sketch a few notes using storyboard frames.

Once you have a method, your goal is to be consistent with recording entries.

Tip 2: Choose timing that works for you. In his insightful book, The Diamond Cutter: The Buddha on Managing Your Business and Your Life, Geshe Michael Roach suggests keeping a Six-Times Book, where you are checking in with yourself six times each day. Most of us, myself included, have yet to obtain this level of enlightenment. 

I notice that most people develop the discipline for business journal writing when they do it for 15 to 30 minutes each morning, or several times per week. You might also try two-minute writing exercises. For example, choose one word to associate with a specific goal.

Try it right now. Jot down your goal. For two-minutes, write whatever comes to mind around the word "happiness" in relation to your goal. Then, do the same with two other value-oriented words such as "courage" or "serendipity." Now that you've written for a total of six minutes, put the pen down. Stand up, read these entries aloud. Your goal now has a voice! Go for it!

Tip 3: Choose to Make it Easy. ​When you move from beginner's mind to developing the new habit of business journal writing, your inner critic will scream, stomp, and say whatever it takes to maintain the status quo. This signals true progress on your part. Rather than resist this inner critic, acknowledge it and move forward. Keep recording entries.  

In Keeping a SMART Business Journal (Part II), I share what I've learned about breaking the rules of SMART goals and rewriting them to work for creatives.

You know I love to hear from you. Please share your thoughts, questions, and resources in this blog's Comment section. And, let's connect on other social platforms, including Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook, and Instagram.

Happy business journal writing! ​


Melissa A. Rosati

Melissa A. Rosati, CPCC, is a career strategist to writers, independent scholars and academics. An award-winning publisher, Melissa has acquired nonfiction titles and led editorial teams for HarperCollins, Van Nostrand Reinhold and Routledge in New York, and served as editorial director for McGraw-Hill International based in London.

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