Entering Bullet Time

Back in March I learned about bullet journals from a post by Berin Kinsman. Bullet journals are a type of journal that’s focused on quick-hit journal entries that are easy to add. Events, to-dos, random thoughts — they all go into the journal. As you complete things, you cross off their bullets. If you don’t complete a test, you migrate it to another page, or decide not to do it.

As one might expect from a blog taglined “simplify – create – thrive”, this post wasn’t about the artsy, over-the-top, water-color filled journals that many people created. It was about having a day planner and data capture system focused on getting things done.

Like Berin, I’ve had my own systems for tracking events and tasks, though not strictly journal based. My hodgepodge approach included blocking out time on my calendar for work tasks (which served a dual purpose of defending that time from meetings), my “angular momentum” spreadsheet to keep track of when I last worked on something, Google Keep for my daily, weekly, and ongoing “to do” lists.

It worked, but it wasn’t particularly efficient and keeping up with it all introduced its own special kind of stress. I needed something better … and something less stressful.

Starting with Bullet Journals

I started researching bullet journals at the source: BulletJournal.com to get a feel for the basic concepts. Watching the videos and reading through the posts, it’s easy to dismiss bullet journals as just another punchlist-based “Getting Things Done” tool. Lists certainly form a part of it … but only a part.

As I mentioned above, at its most basic a bullet journal has for recording quick-hit entries, things like events, tasks, and random thoughts succinctly summarized in a line or two. It’s typically built around the a daily list and there’s a suggested shorthand for the list itself: dots for tasks, circles for events, dashes for ideas. At the end of the day (or week, or whatever interval of time you choose) you review the tasks that weren’t completed and decide what to do with them. Ignore them? Move them to another day? Toss them into a backlog to deal with later?

Some might think that copying tasks over to new days sounds arduous and time consuming … but it’s meant to be a mindful, reflective exercise. What did you accomplish? What didn’t you accomplish? Did you give yourself too much to do for one day? Did that task really need to be done that day? Is it really worth doing?

Bullet journals typically include more than task list. They are built around the concept of “modules”, which are different ways of logging and presenting information. The “future log” is a module in which you write out the next 3-6 months and then jot down the important events in each month as they occur to you. The “monthly log” does something similar, but it’s in chronological order. The “habit tracker” consists of rows for different tasks you’re trying to do on a daily basis (or some other regular interval) and columns for the days of the month. Each day you build toward your “habit” (e.g. blogging, doing the dishes, walking the dog), you color a block.

Some folks take the bullet journal concept far beyond these basics, turning a similar monthly log into beautifully illustrated calendars and transforming the habit tracker into a colorful wheel. I applaud such people for their enthusiasm … but while I’ll do the occasional sketch, my bullet journal is a much more practical affair.

The main website covers the basics, but I wanted to see what other folks were doing and more importantly, how they got started.

Building the Journal

I’ve long relied on Moleskine notebooks, whether it was for work meeting notes, Savage Worlds campaign journals, or hand-drawn maps. Their sturdy paper absorbs ink well, the bindings don’t break, and the covers can take a pounding. Before I launched fully into my bullet journal, I gave it a week long “pilot” using the red Moleskine I use for my work notes. It was a good proof of concept, but I found the Moleskine itself unexpectedly limiting. For one, it was lined which make it more difficult to create alternative logging layouts like habit trackers. For another, it was a little too small — I found I needed another half inch or so of space for the habit trackers and calendars.

I decided to go with the Leuchtturm1917 Hardcover Medium Dotted Journal, which is the notebook most people recommend for bullet journaling. I got it in the azure shade, which makes it easy to find next to my work Moleskines (red) and my role-playing game notebooks (black). It worked well; my layouts fit the notebook perfectly, and the dotted grid is easy to adapt to whatever I’m doing.

For writing, I use my all-time favorite pen: the Uni-ball Jetstream Roller Ball Pen. I use a black pen for work-related events and tasks, as well as the occasional long-form journal entry. For particularly important entries, I use a red pen so I can easily find them while scanning the note book. For my home and personal life entries, I use a Pigma Sakura Micron Archival Waterproof Pen Size 01 (.25mm) in blue. I may switch to a roller pen for this as well if I can find one in blue.

I have a host of other Micron pens that I originally purchased for RPG maps that I started to use for my habit tracker chart. They worked well enough, but this month I switched to using woodless color pencils by Koh-i-Noor, which look better. As with the Micron pens, I had this around for mapping already, so now they’re serving two roles. (I don’t get super artsy with any of this, but I have done the occasional doodle between meetings as stress relief).

I’m using the following bullet journal components:

  • Future Log
  • Monthly Log
  • Habit Tracker
  • Daily Log

I also created a “Backlog” page for things I want to do but either don’t have time for or need to schedule. This was important when setting up the bullet journal, because the temptation is to use the journal as a dumping ground for all your to-dos. That’s an easy way to overload your initial daily journals (as I found out the hard way)

Mindful Lists

I learn and remember best by writing things down. Not typing, but writing … in all of its longhand, sometimes barely comprehensible glory. As such, a bullet journal complements my learning style extremely well. However, it’s meant to be more than just a place to jot down notes. It’s also supposed to be a mindfulness exercise, in which you purposefully migrate tasks from one day to the next, choosing to do that thing rather than having it languish forever on an uncompleted to-do list.

It works.

Over the last two months, I feel that my lists have been more purposeful and realistic. When I first started, I had a tendency to dump everything onto a given day and then migrate tasks to the next day when they weren’t completed. This showed me two things: 1) I was trying to do far, far too much in a given day and 2) I needed to be more tactical about when I was going to do these tasks.

To some extent, I’d been doing this in my work calendar by blocking out time to work on specific things, but I’d get side tracked by higher priority work and those tasks might never get rescheduled. With the bullet journal, I’m assigning tasks to particular days and I’m much better about purposefully migrating them to future days (or throwing them to my backlog). It’s helped me feel more organized and on top of things than I was under my previous hodgepodge approaches.

The habit tracker was the biggest surprise. I’ve tried this sort of thing before with Google Spreadsheets, but it never stuck. I think part of the reason why is because it’s so visual; at the end of each day I sit down and color in the various blocks indicating what I did. It’s a satisfying pause point, and one that forces myself to be honest about how much I’m really exercising or walking the dogs.

It’s more than just to-do lists though. I’ve been doing quick hit journal entries (usually using the aforementioned red pen) to help me recall major and minor milestones, random thoughts, and notable happenings (like my daughter’s last softball game of the summer). I’ve also done the occasional long-form journal entry, but for the most part I’ve stuck to quick-hit notes.

Room for Improvement

The bullet journal isn’t perfect. One area that I need to work on portfolio management — namely keeping track of the last time I did something related to one of my home or work responsibilities. This is what my “Angular Momentum” spreadsheet is for and initially I thought the bullet journal’s various monthly, daily, and future logs would address this … but they don’t. The logs are good for thinking ahead and figuring out when to do a thing but they’re not so good at reminding me to follow up on a particular project. A modified habit tracker might be the way to go, but it’s not enough to know when I last did a thing relating to a project; I also need to know what that thing was. It may be that the Angular Momentum spreadsheet needs to live on, but we’ll see.

What’s next?

I’m about 40% of the way through my first bullet journal. When I get to 100%, I’ll evaluate it again, but I think I’ve got a routine worth continuing here. I’d like to explore some alternative log formats and see if I can find a solution for my “Angular Momentum” use case. I’d like to spend more time reflecting on the bullet journal and see what patterns emerge.

Overall I’m pleased with how things are going. The bullet journal keeps me focus, helps me plan my time, and gives me a place to jot down random thoughts. It’s proven to be a good tool for helping me to balance my work, home, and creative life.

Featured Image Meta

A close-up shot of my Leuchtturm1917 journal. Credit: Ken Newquist.



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