Bullet Journal: 12+ Months

I have been using my bullet journal for over a year now. While the original purpose for starting a journal has changed, I've continued to appreciate the perspective and focus that I get from the practice of journaling and reflecting on paper. Here are a few things I've learned in the past year:

Pick it back up.

Personally, I have found that when the going gets good, the journal stops going. Try to keep the momentum… but if you do let your practice lapse, forgive yourself, do not try to go back and fill in the gap… just start anew from today.

At least twice in the past year I've let the practice lapse. In both times, I realized that dropping the rituals and practice of journaling resulted in higher stress and a sense of purposelessness. A major part of my journaling practice is centered on recognizing what the Lord has accomplished in my life during the past week and choosing the most essential things on which to focus for the next week. Each time I let the journal drop, I tend to get caught up in the whirl of urgent notifications and I miss that quiet sense of knowing my place in time.

(That was way more zen sounding than I intended, but it is true!)

Evolve to your needs.

I've been scanning my old journals in an effort to have them accessible when away from my desk. It has been pretty interesting to see how my particular journal has changed and evolved over the past year.

A healthy reflection/retrospective session regularly with your journal helps this… I would especially examine anything that you don't value or don't need and drop it. It is way easier to keep a habit that is simple. Over time, my "spread" has gone from a more structured design that needed a few minutes and a ruler to draw to a humble pattern that I can set up in five seconds.

Here's a brief history of the changes I've made in the organizational side of my notebook:

Early 2018

I was using it very irregularly. I had a simple month page with a calendar and a monthly todo list and daily entries. I copied tasks from one day to the next. For the first time in a long time, I was keeping track of what I needed to do, and there was a place to store stuff I needed to do in the future, but copying the tasks from day to day got tiresome quickly.

Mid 2018

simple week spread
The mid 2018 weekly spread... required ruler shown to the left.

Because I didn't want to keep rewriting tasks, I continued with the monthly spreads, but added a spread for weeks that gave me the ability to "schedule" tasks for further in the week. This worked wonderful for quite a long time. I could identify tasks at the end of a week, and schedule them out into the next week. This is the style that is shown in my original six month post.

Late 2018

The same system continued for a while with minor tweaks... I added a some small details like a consistent gratitude rating system for my month... all mostly in service of planning my month out.

Around November of last year, I was juggling 7-10 projects at work with multiple due dates and time frames and four of them had to be shifted. At that time, I decided to move some of the nitty-gritty details of todos and projects into a digital format, and still track personal todos and goals in the journal.

As my tasks slowly migrated out of my journal into Things 3, the journaling slowly started to lapse. I wasn't spending time in the journal on a daily basis unless I was drawing or taking notes. Eventually, I realized I missed the sense of purpose, and re-designed my weekly spread... which is still evolving. (More details at the end of this post!)

Threading is incredible.

The first journal and for half of the second, I didn't bother ever creating a threaded spread just for a topic. After the first time I was required to pick up an older project and found myself flipping through two books to reacquire all the research and context, I started creating threaded links and dedicated 2-page spreads for any topic that I suspect is going to go on for more than a page: all-day events, multi-day projects, even buying a house.

Yes, I have occasionally wasted a page because a project that I thought was going to take off got canceled, but the power of seeing all the related topics together far outweighs any whitespace loss. It is an idea singly worth the whole bullet journal idea just by itself. I can read the disparate thoughts I've had on a project over a year just by flipping through a few pages. Amazing.

It taught me good rituals.

When I first started using the bullet journal… I used it 100%. It was my agenda, my todo list, my journal. To do this effectively required the development of rituals. Each morning, the journal was the first thing I touched and looked at, making sure that my plan for the day aligned with my goals. I referred to it constantly throughout the day, updating context and marking things as complete. At the end of the day, I reflected and set new intentions for the following day. I got into a really solid rhythm, and it felt really good.

I do not regret moving to what I believe Shawn Blanc calls a "hybrid method." (I honestly haven't taken his course on the subject, but from the surrounding material I think I'm doing something similar.) While it took some tweaking, I think I have a really good balance going at the moment. I still would advocate trying the bullet journal method for a season if only because the physical nature of the medium requires that you develop those valuable rituals for maintaining your system. These little practices not only contribute to upkeep of your journal, but they serve as little "startup" and "shutdown" markers. I find that when I do my shut down routine including my journal, it helps my mind close the book on work and leave it at my desk, ready for tomorrow. That leaves me free to focus on my family.

For more information about shut down routines, check out Deep Work by Cal Newport.

You do have to read it.

One of the biggest strengths of any journaling practice is not just recording, it is reflecting. You need to set aside some time to spend in your journal, reading and thinking on what has changed. The benefit can be simple gratitude for an old goal that has been reached, or the more complex realization that times of anxiety don't last as long as they feel they persist.

I actually look forward to finishing a notebook… I save the last few pages for a summary/review of the book, things I learned, things I changed, high points and low. With the size of my favorite notebook, this process happens about every six to nine months, which is a great additional ritual for gaining some perspective and joy.

Even in the process of researching what I've done and changed over the past year has been a blessing and boon… the Lord has been good and I've accomplished a lot more than I remember!

What I am doing now?

I use Things 3 for my task manager. All my projects and tasks live in there. I try not to live in it all day, but it's just easier to manage due dates and delays digitally.

Last and this week's spreads. Refreshingly simple. No rulers or stencils required... and still evolving. (Changed my habit tracker from vertical to horizontal this week and added my new monthly theme.)

As before, I use my bullet journal for storing my scattered concepts and thoughts on one side, with the organization side on the flip side. I have a barebones weekly spread on the other side that contains notes, a simple habit tracker, and my top three goals. These can be simple personal goals like "Have a distraction free date night," but more often than not they correspond to a task or project that lives in Things. The main purpose for me is identifying (and limiting!) my goals, and taking notes on the week to help me plan the next one and work on gratitude.

My "Future" page lives in Things, and I don't track further out than a week in the Bullet Journal because it is fed out of Things, so there's only a need for a weekly spread to keep myself connected to my goals. So far it is working great. My day starts without email or slack... just my calendar and my bullet journal. I identify a goal that fits today, open Things to that project and start my day. I still have 25 minutes blocked at the end of the day to review, reflect, and schedule the next day based on the journal and what's left to do in my task manager. The rituals are back in place, and it feels good.

I'm sure my tools will change in six months. With the Lord's help, the habits and focus will only improve.

  • 2022-06-08 11:31:29 -0500
    Rename articles

  • 2020-06-18 14:26:02 -0500
    Move everything to CST

    Don't know why I didn't do that before. It caused _no_ end of

  • 2019-11-14 19:33:21 -0600
    Auditing the tags in the site...

    Many removed, cleaned up, or renamed.

    Tags with only one child got yanked.

  • 2019-09-03 09:15:51 -0500
    Update posting time

    (I need a better way to store a draft until posting time...)

  • 2019-09-03 09:11:15 -0500
    Publish the bullet journal post

  • 2019-09-01 22:08:37 -0500
    New article: Bullet Journal at 12+ months