Digital Exhaust: Making Your Work Work Twice

Most of us work from one deadline to the next, in an endless race to check tasks off our to-do lists and stay ahead of everything left to do. Whatever your work is, digital technology means that you can also be saving little bits of the work you’re doing anyway and using them in interesting side projects without a lot of added effort.

Very much like the CO₂ pouring out of your car as you run your errands, digital exhaust is made up of all the writing, thinking, finished products, and media assets that you unwittingly create while you’re busy tackling your tasks. And like that CO₂, we treat it like useless garbage when it is really full of energy waiting to be harnessed for good.

Once you understand the idea of digital exhaust, look for ways that your day-to-day tasks can be saved and repurposed into an enduring resource that others can find value in.

A Zoom Meeting can be MORE than just a Meeting

The Pandemic (and everyone’s quick transition to living life over Zoom) means that simply pressing record on a meeting you’re having anyway can be preserved and reused to create a new useful video artifact, like a podcast, a how-to video, a product demo, a music video – anything you can imagine really!

Can your Zoom class meeting be reused as a Q&A session for future classes? Can the big presentation you gave be re-edited into a standalone explainer vid for your YouTube channel?

I run a biweekly call at work called the Authoring Innovation meeting where we discuss best practices in eLearning development using Evolve Authoring as well as various multimedia design tools. The call started off as an internal meeting of our team, but now we’re recording and sharing the meetings as videos with learning designers across the company and around the globe! It has helped raise our profile as a design group in the company, helped disseminate best practices, un-silo this information between the disparate islands of learning designers that historically didn’t interact. Just by recording the meetings we have created a new source of valuable information that has real world impacts.

Additionally, my colleagues and I have started a podcast about instructional design (coming soon!) that requires just a little extra work for a potentially valuable work product that others can get benefit from. We press record and then discuss the most successful ID projects we’ve completed, taking about the tech and pedagogy decisions we made. Sure, we edit the recording, add music, touch up the sound, and package it for a wider audience, but it doesn’t feel like a whole EXTRA job above the regular meetings we have every week.

Writing for Now, Writing for Later

Several of the blog posts on started life as email responses to interesting questions that arise in my daily work. I put a lot of energy into giving people the best answers I possibly can (often with hyperlinks to recommended readings!), but then I can put those on the blog where other people with the same question can find and benefit from them.

When I share my blog with people, they often make comments like I could never find the time to create something like this. The secret is that it’s a habit of writing a little at a time that has helped me publish 200+ articles on instructional design since 2009. This blog has led to multiple job offers and offers of book deals, simply by making the best of what I know available to anyone willing to find it. But it’s not extra TIME that allows me to do this, it’s more like squirreling away the things I create everyday that I think others will get value from.

Smartphone Snaps are Priceless

I sometimes work with small business people, artists, and nonprofits on how to set up a website and social media presence. I always encourage these busy people to take smartphone photos of some of the more interesting details of their daily work. A moment or two here and there to take out your phone and snap a shot while you’re working can accrue to a large repository of visual assets that can breathe life into your website or social media presence.

Don’t worry if they’re not color-balanced or perfectly framed. If I’m designing a website or online course for you, you can just point me to a big folder full of images of the work you do and I can make them sing. But if you don’t take the shot in the first place, you end up feeling stuck when you decide to set up a website and don’t have any images.

This goes double for communities you belong to – your family, your church, the nonprofit you volunteer with – encourage people widely to take photos and store them in a shared online space (Instagram, Facebook Groups, Google Drive, etc.) I did this with my church and quickly saw the best shots appear on the website, giving life to otherwise boring informative announcements.

Digital Exhaust for Physical Products

I find the people who are the most resistant to capturing their digital exhaust are makers whose work involves producing physical things – food, landscaping, art, movement, haircuts, etc. These are people who probably made a conscious choice not to spend their lives sitting behind a computer, and whose work is finished when it is eaten or watched or worn, with nothing left to capture after it’s been enjoyed. I’ve also worked with teachers and healers who cannot capture their work because it would violate the privacy of their clients and learners.

Even if what you produce is analog not digital, if it’s meant to live outside the computer rather than inside, if your work produces human outcomes rather than digital things, you may still find ways to take a snapshot of your work at a quiet moment when it can be used to teach others.

We all now have the tools to quickly record those moments in our lives that could help someone else learn to do their own work better, and you may stand to benefit by being the person who does that teaching.

What do you make everyday that someone else would value?


Forbes, 2021. Digital Exhaust: The Most Valuable Asset Your Organization Owns, But Isn’t Using

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