An image of my bullet journal on a desk.

Bullet Journaling: A Six Month Review

July 31, 2018

At the beginning of this year, I decided to upgrade my personal organization system. Between increased responsibilities at work and being newly married I had a few more things on my plate, and I wanted to do a better job of keeping track of the plates spinning in my world.

At first, I turned to my familiar digital tools, particularly my favorite Trello and Apple’s Reminders.app. However I wasn’t satisfied. Trello has the ability to store too much context, and Reminders too little. After thinking about it for a little while, I realized I probably needed a separate family and a personal system. The family system would need the ability to store upcoming issues/events/projects for collaboration with my wife, the ability to track ongoing family projects, and to estimate our total family commitment level. (We are trying hard to avoid overcommitment!) Trello is a great fit for this, and one we continue to use. As opportunities or ideas come up (needed car repairs, visits with friends, paperwork to fill out) it gets added to Trello and discussed once a week during our Sunday afternoon meeting.

The personal system would need to be primarily for me: my work and my personal goals. It doesn’t need collaboration, but it needed to enhance and encourage my focus. I’ve been thinking a lot about focus this year… and my lack of it. Trello usually gets me lost in details, and I wanted something a little more high level that could keep me focused on the most important things.

I took a quick look around the world of todo apps (of which there are legion!) and made a quick trial of Things.app. Things is a wonderful application with great design. I enjoyed it immensely, but ultimately decided to pass on it for two reasons: first, my phone is too old and full to run it quickly. It takes entirely too long to enter an entry! (This isn’t Things fault, it’s mine.) The second and more important reason is that I really want to spend less time on my phone, and I feared that continuing to use my phone as the place where I go to find my next item to focus on would ultimately prove futile as 90% of the distraction in my life comes from that tiny screen.

While searching for systems to organize myself, I came across Shawn Blanc’s articles about bullet journaling, and how he uses a combined digital and analog system. My mom had already been using bullet journaling for some time and loves it, so I started googling around to learn more.

It was overwhelming… but fascinating.

Bullet Journaling is a concise but extendable system of patterns to use to organize physical journals and notebooks.

There is not a special notebook, or any correct way to do bullet journaling. It is just a short set of core principles to start from, and then the rest is up to your creativity solving your particular set of focus/organization problems. This is the thing I love most about the system. You aren’t buying a system made for other people… you get the opportunity to sculpt it just for you!

I’ve been tweaking and working with mine for about six months, and having gone through the process of filling one journal and opening another, I thought I’d share what I’ve learned.

Focus on the main thing.

I find that the rapid logging style of bullet journaling lends itself to strengthening my focus. I have been trying to take five minutes at the end of every day to solidify my notes and to choose the most important task for the next work day. I migrate this item to the next work day, so that when I arrive at work, I have no decisions to make and no excuses, I can merely get into flow.

Retrospection is key.

Up to this point, I’ve been using Apple’s Reminders.app as my main todo list. While really convenient to be able to dictate my todos to Siri, it was discouraging to be constantly carrying around the list of what I need to do. In a bullet journal, your tasks that you are focusing on exist in the context of what you have already accomplished. Just seeing the little “x”s that represent the work I’ve already finished behind the work I have yet to do is hugely motivating.

I have also started taking time at the end of each month, to review my lists and events to build in a sort of month-review. I use this to both bolster my gratitude and sense of accomplishment (“Oh yeah, I really did a lot of useful things this month!”) and I also try to learn from my mistakes as Sarah and I plan the next month. (“Hmm… we felt stressed due to commitments last month, let’s cut back and do more with less this month.”)

my montly spread in a bullet journal

A couple months ago, I was convicted that I wasn’t waking up early like I ought, and that was eating into the time I normally spend praying and reading in the morning. (In my defense, it was probably a little due to getting used to having a baby in the house.) As a result of talking about this with Sarah, I added a habit tracker to my next month’s planner, and have been slowly turning that around. Its been really encouraging to look back over the past six months, and see the slow changes in myself and in my journal.

Build in flexibility.

I’ve been trying to develop my system slowly… there is a ton of information, layouts, strategies, stickers, and systems out there, and it was overwhelming at first.

I just started with what I needed… a todo list.

After using it for two weeks, I realized I needed a way to schedule things out a week, so I found a simple design that worked for me.

my weekly spread in a bullet journal

Each time I came up with a need, I made a note of it, so that I could think about it and experiment with a solution in the next week or month. I love that it has slowly grown around my needs, rather than me attempting to fit my life around someone else’s system.

For example: After realizing my home projects were getting lost in the larger work list, I borrowed from Things.app’s concept of Evening tasks. For each day, I put workday tasks at the top of the day, and tasks for the evening after I get home at the bottom. That simple separation persists to several areas of my journal, helping me separate work from home life.

Don’t be afraid of smudges.

This is hard for me to admit, but I want it to be perfect. It’s not going to be perfect though… pens will smudge, your brain will betray you and write the word someone else is saying instead of what you intended to write… cross it out and move on.

There's a bit more smudgey here than I'd like but that's ok!

Record it all, focus on a little

In college, I developed a really weird notebook habit. I used 3-ring binder style notebooks, and I hated that I could not really use the left side as a right-handed person. Therefore, I would use the left side for scratch paper… equations, half-answered questions, drawings off the white board, and the right side was as close to perfect notes as I could muster: drawn from and distilled from the sprawl on the left. I also started keeping a todo list on a giant sticky note, moving it from page to page as the day’s classes wore on. This way, I wouldn’t lose class assignments and important reminders in the mess of scratch paper or polluting my condensed notes.

I completely stole this from Matt Ragland, but I’m using a really similar pattern in my bullet journal now, and I love it: One side of the bullet journal is purely concise organization, and if you flip the whole book over, that’s my mess. If I want to focus on what I should be doing today, it’s on the organization side, but if I’m dreaming up a UI, or taking notes during a call, it goes on the other side of the notebook. I link the notes using a modified version of the threading concept from Bullet Journal. That means if a meeting in my organizer has an underlined number beside it, that’s the reference to the page number of the extended notes on the other side of the book. I’ll often take the one or two big ideas from the messy notes and record it next to it to help me remember what I learned there. It works perfectly for me, both helping me stay focused on my left-brain side of the book and allowing for me to sprawl out and be creative on the right-brain side.

Make it your own.

These are just suggestions. Make a list of todo items in your pocket notebook? That’s your bullet journal. Start with what you have, change it to become what you need.

I really have enjoyed my journey through bullet journaling. I feel that I am keeping my world in order, focusing more on the moment and remaining grateful for what has already happened. It is not perfect, but it is a great fit for me at the moment.

Do you bullet journal, or do you have a system that has helped you stay focused and in the moment? I would love to hear about it!

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