The power of diaries

Theresa Amabile and Steven Kramer recent book, “The Progress Principle”, has attracted significant interest in the blogosphere of late. These authors have carried out research into daily experience at work, and concluded that small wins (progress) are the key to engagement, creativity and positive experience. If you are interested in what Amabile and Kramer have to say, I would encourage you to read any number of blogs or articles on the subject (here, here and here to name but a few) because I won’t discuss it here.

My interest in the book is in their methods. These authors have collected, over decades, 12,000 daily diary entries from workers in a number organisations about their experience at work. The richness of this data, which includes both quantitative and qualitative questions, is vast. Turn to the appendix of their book and you will see a summary of just some of the themes which they have managed to pull out of the data. The blog connected to the book has a couple of examples too:

I think this method (commonly known as diary research or experience sampling) has an enormous amount to offer to organisational researchers (and, indeed researchers from any domain who are interested in human experience). Diaries can be completed in hard copy or electronically and normally only take a couple of minutes to complete. They can be completed at “random” intervals when prompted (signal sampling), when specific events occur (event sampling) or at pre-defined times, e.g. at the end of the working day (interval sampling). They can be quantitative or qualitative or are often a combination of the two.

Diaries offer the possibility of understanding individuals’ ongoing experience of their world, in “real time” and in “real life” (not in a lab) and, importantly, take a “people focused” approach to research – putting personal experience at the heart. Although there are plenty of examples of diary studies in organisational research (I’d be happy to share my list for anyone who is interested!) they are still relatively under-utilised.

There are some challenges with diary studies – diaries take time (both for researcher and subjects) and therefore money and they involve more effort in keeping subjects participating over the diary period, it is also an additional challenge to design a diary which is short enough to be completed in a couple of minutes whilst still gathering enough data. BUT, the pay off has to be worth is surely, for researchers interested in human behaviour in any kind of context.

I am in the process of designing a diary study for my research – looking at the experience of motivation at work on a daily basis. I’ll report back on my experience in future.

I’ll leave you with probably best known, and in my opinion the finest, example of experience sampling (and the man who coined the phrase) in the work of Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi’s. He has spent his career trying to understand Flow experience. His TED talk is a fascinating introduction to his work:

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