I started a bullet journal in Spring 2018. Nine months and one completed journal later, I’m still journaling and still happy with the results.
Life is busy. As I’ve joked before, my wife and I hit peak kid last year. That’s when the kids have the maximum number of activities they can be involved in and the least ability to get themselves to said activities. Combined with evolving responsibilities at our day jobs and making sure to take time for ourselves (individually and as a couple), it’s a lot to keep track of.
The bullet journal helps with all that. It provides a daily opportunity for mindfulness as I sip my morning coffee and review what I need to get done that day. It forces me to acknowledge when I’m taking on too much, and encourages me to distribute those tasks throughout the week. The manual act of copying unfinished tasks from day to day helps me re-evaluate whether a particular task is really needed.
The various log modules help as well. I started with a month log and a day log, but after filling the first journal I realized I needed a weekly log to provide an intermediate view. I’m now in a position where I’m scheduling tasks one to two weeks in the future. Now you may say “Ken, you’re doing too much if you have to schedule that far out” and you’d likely be right. And yet … things need to get done. The difference now is that I’m not trying to do them all in one day, or one week. Just as importantly, I’m not putting pressure on myself to get things done in that time frame or setting unrealistic expectations (for myself and others) about when I can get those things done.
Getting Things Done
Speaking of getting things done, I started reading David Allen’s Getting Things Done over the summer and continue to work my way through it. Berin Kinsman did an excellent job of explaining how a fusion of bullet journaling and GTD works for him and my own experiences track with his. Granted, I’m only about half-way through the book, but there’s a lot in Allen’s GTD methodology that overlaps with bullet journaling and it’s helped me solve the problem of the ephemeral to-do list.
I’ve always had a running to-do list of some sort, and when I switched to bullet journalling, the list went there. That cluttered and overwhelmed my bullet journal, so I decided to create a digital inbox in Google Keep. Each month, I create a checkbox-style note that serves as my inbox for any task that needs doing. Per Allen’s model, the goal here isn’t to do the task – it’s to get it out of my head so I don’t need to think about it anymore. This is surprisingly calming; like many people, I’d think of something I needed to do and then either keep thinking about it or forget about it, both of which created their own kinds of stress. With my Google Keep inbox, the task is recorded. Every few days I review the list, figure out what needs doing and by whom, and then check off the task (not because I’ve done it … but because I decided what to do with it).
I’m still figuring out what to do with my “Angular Momentum” list — the big list of projects and responsibilities that I need to keep up with. Allen has the concept of a “tickler” file to keep track of what needs to be done next on a project (he defines a project as anything that involves more than one step; based on that model I have many, many projects). My original list had a “last touched” column telling me when I last did something for a particular project and a “notes” column to say what that was. I added a “next up” column to call out what needs to happen next, and another date column to indicate when that was last updated. It’s not perfect, but it helps more than it hurts.
It’s not all process and to-do lists. I use the journal for actual journaling as well. These are quick-hit notes about the day – observations about life, markers for notable milestones, and the occasional doodle related to the day. When my son suffered migraines in Autumn 2018, I used my journal to note the good days and the bad days. I tracked when I had a particular challenge or success in training Bob, the Seeing Eye puppy my family is raising. I note successes and failures, great days and frustrating ones (and, ahem, my daily score in Ms. Pac-man on the stand-up arcade machine). Most days the journal is about getting things done, but these milestones are helpful when it comes to reflection.
Looking Back, Looking Ahead
Reflection is the biggest challenge. The bullet journal is excellent for keeping track of the universe of things I’m thinking about and doing … but if I’m not logging it, I’m not seeing it. And if I’m not seeing it, it’s likely to fall through the cracks. In the months ahead, I want to get better at the reflection piece. I haven’t settled on how to best do that — perhaps finishing the GTD book will provide some helpful insights — but if nothing else the bullet journal provides a way of looking back over the last few weeks of life.
My bullet journal is an essential tool for keeping me focused. More than that, it helps me power through the days when it feels like everything is collapsing in on me and there’s far too much to do. The bullet journal, and the regular prioritization that goes with it, reminds me of what I need to do next … and provides a helpful tool for re-prioritizing – and re-scheduling – that mountain of tasks.
What’s next? I’d like to do a little more doodling in my bullet journal – I’m not looking to go full-on bujo arts fest, but doodling’s always been a great stress reliever for me and I’ve enjoyed the few doodles I’ve sketched over the last few months. I’m experimenting with a monthly expense log for my journal, which helps me stick to my budget and remind me how close I am to maxing out a particular category. That may become unnecessary if I make good on my rants to quit Quicken … but that’s a post for another day.
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A close-up of my habit tracker and a few of my common writing implements. Credit: Ken Newquist