My Approach to Bullet Journaling

As I move through middle age, I find one of the things I value most is focus. My family and I lead active lives. Not busy in a keeping-up-with-the-Joneses way, but busy in an engaged embracing-life sort of way. My wife and I work full-time and our kids complement school with a host of after school activities (softball, baseball, scouts, band, orchestra). Plus we’ve got the grand adventure that is Seeing Eye puppy raising.

With all that going on, you’d think that time would be the thing I value most – and some weeks I do – but time without focus is less valuable than you might think. Sure, there’s a need for unstructured time and I hunger for (and occasionally defend) that as well, but the truth is on any given day if I have an hour to myself, that hour needs to be productive (in which productive means moving me toward one of my goals, even if that goal is doing nothing).  With focus, I can look at the week ahead and make realistic estimates about what I think I can get done. With focus, I can sit down at my desk and know what my priorities are … and what I can knock out in the 15 minutes before I’m on to the next thing.

My bullet journal is the key to achieving that focus.

My Approach

Created by Ryder Carroll, bullet journals can take many different forms. The overall idea is to create an analog solution to the chaos of modern life. Bullet journals are typically kept by hand using a Moleskine or Leuchtturm1917. While many folks bullet journal as an artistic exercise, mine is more Spartan with a focus on prioritizing meetings and tasks for the day, week, and month. It’s coupled with a Getting Things Done strategy that captures everything I need to do as well as some light journaling to help me reflect on what I’ve done, what I haven’t done, and what I want to accomplish next.

Intake and Getting Things Done

It starts with Google Keep. The free web application is designed for note-taking and is a competitor to Evernote and Microsoft’s OneNote. It’s designed around cards, and each card can include freeform text, drawings, or checkbox-style to-do lists. Each month, I create a checkbox-style “Intake List” for that month and pin it at the top of my Keep cards.

Leveraging David Allen’s “capture everything” approach from Getting Things Done (Amazon), I save all of my ideas, to-dos, and other things that need remembering to this list. I practice “Inbox Zero-ish”, in which I try to limit the amount of email in my inbox as much as I can. Email is where tasks go to die, no more so than when my inbox is overwhelmed with messages.

For Inbox Zero-ish, my goal is to make sure that every email that requires more than a few minutes of thought gets an entry in Google Keep. The message is then filed into the appropriate folder in Gmail for future reference. Getting to Inbox Zero isn’t the goal; getting all of my tasks in the right place is.

The other major source of tasks for Keep is the real world. Whenever someone asks me to do something that I can’t do right away (which happens most of the time), I take a moment and add it to Google Keep. This is particularly important for family and volunteering tasks, which don’t have any documentation to back them up. At work, I have emails or meeting notes that I can review; at home, the reminder usually comes a week later when my wife asks if I did that thing she asked me about.

I review Google Keep every day or so. Anything that’s easy, I do right away; things that need more thought, I add it to my bullet journal on one of the daily pages.

When the next month rolls around, I add any uncompleted tasks (there shouldn’t be many of them) to the new month’s Intake list.

Tools of the Trade

I use Leuchtturm1917 hardcover, A5-format, dotted-style notebooks  (Amazon) for bullet journaling. I started with a lined Moleskine but found that I needed the slightly-larger space that the Leuchtturm1917 provides. The dotted-style is easy to write and draw in and makes it easy to create grids and boxes.

I use an assortment of writing implements:

  • Uni-ball 33931PP Jetstream Roller Ball Pen, 1mm Bold Point, Black Ink (Amazon) – It’s a smooth writing pen with fast-drying ink that makes it great for lefties like me. I use these pens for my work tasks and meetings since those typically account for about half of the entries for any given day.
  • Sakura Micron 005 Pens (Amazon) – I use these fine-tipped pens for everything else. Blue is for home tasks. Green is for scouts. Orange is for Nuketown, freelance assignments, and other creative endeavors. Red stars indicate something that must be completed that day.
  • Koh-I-Noor Progresso Woodless Colored Pencils (Amazon) – I use a variety of colored pencils in my bullet journal but most of them are made by Koh-I-Noor. They’re typically used for my habit tracker, but I doodle with them as well.

The Bullet Journal

My bullet journal consists of five kinds of pages:

Monthly Log: A list-style view of the upcoming month noting major events (Boy Scout trips, work conferences, birthdays, family events, etc.)

A month bullet journal view. Dates are listed down the left margin, with blue text indicating family/home events. Weekends/holiday dates are green

Weekly Log: A high-level view of the upcoming week. It lists major meetings, tasks that need doing, priorities for home and work … and the occasional log of my high scores on the work office’s Ms. Pac-Man machine.

Daily Log: The equivalent of a day planner, this lists my meetings and tasks for the day, as well as the occasional random thought or idea that I want to remember.

I use the following notations

  • O (circle): Indicates a meeting. If the meeting was completed, I cross it out with an X. If the meeting didn’t happen, I put a line through it.
  • – (dash): Indicates a journal entry – usually a random thought or observation about the day but occasionally I log what books I started or finished or TV shows that I watched.
  • * (bullet): A single bullet (aka dot) indicates a task. Completed tasks are crossed out. Tasks that are carried over to the next day get a > symbol. Those delegated to the backlog get a ^ symbol.

A day-specific list of tasks. Work tasks are in black ink. Home tasks are in blue. Scout tasks are in green.

Habit Tracker: A daily color-coded log of the activities I want to keep track of. These range from household chores (laundry, doing the dishes, cleaning the kitchen) to fitness goals (walk 6+ miles, exercise at the gym) to personal ambitions (read a book, read a comic book, do something creative, write 500 words). I typically track 18 to 24 different “habits” on a monthly basis.

The Backlog of Doom: A task that repeatedly doesn’t get done — as well as tasks that don’t need to be done in the near future, but shouldn’t be forgotten — are exiled to the Backlog of Doom. I admittedly revisit the backlog too infrequently. I should do it once a month, but typically it’s every 3-4 months when I remember it exists.

The Monthly Routine

At the start of each month, I create a monthly log which helps me get a feel for what’s coming. I take a look at the previous month’s habit tracker and think about what worked, what didn’t, and what I want to carry forward into the current month’s version.

I typically layout a weekly log, then daily logs for each of the days in the week, followed by the next week’s weekly log. That cadence repeats until the next month rolls around. This format means I’m always thinking about the current week and the following week, which is important for my family life, day job, and volunteer work.

Per the standard bullet journal practice, any task I don’t complete in a given day is re-copied to the next day. This is a manual and inefficient process — especially if there are a lot of incomplete tasks – but that is exactly the point. The act of copying the task forces me to think about it; copying a lot of tasks forces me to think about how unrealistic I was about what I could accomplish in a given day.

There’s a huge bullet journal contingent that loves creating artistic spreads for their journals. I won’t begrudge them that … but it’s not what I do. I will occasionally doodle in my bullet journal — one month I sketched alien versions of flowers I’d seen on my way to work, another month I doodled a Mars Attacks!-style invasion across a few weeks worth of pages — but I’m mostly focused on bullet journaling as a Getting Things Done tool and a continual exercise in mindfulness.

Tips for Bullet Journaling

After 18 months of bullet journaling, I’ve learned a thing or two about what works for me. They might work for you too.

  1. It’s ok to be messy. My bullet journal isn’t pretty. I make lots of mistakes – misspelled words, accidentally sketching out the same monthly log twice, duplicating entries, etc. I accept the mess – hell, I embrace the mess. That monthly log I messed up? I used it to launch my alien invasion doodles by having the ships smash through the ruined calendar. The point is, I accept that my bullet journal is going to be messy, just like life.
  2. Be consistent. I use my bullet journal every day, even on vacation. Every Sunday I plan out my week in my bullet journal, and every Friday I sketch out the agendas for the following week’s meetings on Google Drive. Those agendas spawn items that go into Google Keep or my journal. It isn’t always possible to maintain this cadence, but if I fall behind, I make sure I take the time to get caught up. Some of the worst days I had in the last 18 months were the days I didn’t take 10 minutes in the morning to review and update my journal
  3. Sometimes, you need to journal in your bullet journal. I don’t do a lot of journaling in my journal, where “journaling” is making notes and observations about what happened during the week. I’m more focused on the day-to-day business of getting things done, and not losing track of key tasks … but I find actually journaling can be useful too. Noting the day I got together with friends to see a movie, start a new book, or go on a 10-mile hike with the kids is helpful from a piece-of0mind sort of view. It’s not all rainbows and starships though; I’ll also write about the things that frustrate or annoy me, which is constructive in two ways: it gets the thoughts out of my head and it reminds me that yes, I do get annoyed. I’m a pretty mild-mannered individual; it takes a lot to get me angry, and even more to keep me angry. While I don’t want my bullet journal to be a Book of Grudges, it’s helpful to keep stock of my mental state.
  4. Be honest with yourself: If I overload my day with tasks, my daily log lets me know exactly how unrealistic I was. If I don’t exercise for a while, my habit tracker points out it’s been a week … not the three days I thought it had been.
  5. You don’t know what you don’t know (or don’t remember). My bullet journal is a tremendous help in getting and staying organized, but it (and I) only know what I put into it. It’s possible to get so caught up with what’s in front of me – the minutia of the day – that I can miss aspects of the bigger picture. It’s not great at helping me identify trends or weaknesses that I’m not already aware of. I try and remedy this by adding abstract habit trackers that cause me to pause and think about what I’m doing (e.g. “relationship”, which encourages me to think about my marriage, or “be creative”, which reminds me to occasionally make something).

Reflections and Mindfulness

I just finished my third bullet journal and I can say it’s made a significant positive impact on my life. It feels like the culmination of a half-dozen systems, some paper, some digital, that I’ve tried over the years. If I miss planning out a week or skip a day or two of journaling, I can feel things slipping.

I have a tremendous amount of things to do between work, family, volunteering, and my hobbies (yes, I still have a few of those) and without some tool to stay on top of those things, it all collapses like a sandcastle at high tide. Moreover, not journaling greatly increases my stress and anxiety levels because I constantly feel like I’m forgetting something. I still forget things even when I’m journaling – that’s inevitable – but life is easier (and saner) with it than without.

Bullet journaling isn’t for everyone. It’s inherently inefficient. It’s messy. If you forget your journal at home, it’ll probably ruin your day. But if you’re the person who learns and remembers best by writing things down, if you’re looking for a way to focus your chaotic mind on the tasks at hand, and heck, if like buying journals and writing in them with cool pens … it might be for you.


Featured Image Meta

My last three bullet journals. Credit: Ken Newquist


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