Some Thoughts After One Year of Bullet Journaling

My mother would probably say that I’m one of the most disorganized people in the world. I’m sure she has a point, although I’ve been working on it for the last few years. In my quest to become more organized, often forced to trying to juggle professional and personal commitments, I’ve been using a wide array of systems and tools to achieve the Promised Land of Productivity and Organization.

At first, I was heavily focused on digital tools. After all, I’ve always been interested in technology, so this made sense. Off the top of my head, I’ve used the following tools over the years: Trello, OneNote, Todoist, Evernote, Dropbox Paper, a bunch of habit trackers, my mailbox, Outlook Calendar, Gmail Calendar, Wunderlist, Microsoft To-Do.

Besides those, there were also tools from work, often mandatory, such as Basecamp, Asana, Microsoft Project and Teams. I’ll ignore the list of “collaboration tools” such as Slack and Skype for Business for now. I’m sure this list is incomplete, but as you may guess, this overload of tools and solutions did not help me get any more productive. If anything, they assured my information would be spread in many different places and would be really hard to retrieve. This, however, is only one part of the problem.

Why are we using these tools?

Under the label of productivity, we tend to group a bunch of different tools, as if they have the same purpose. They don’t. A to-do app is fundamentally different from a note-taking app. Information retrieval is distinct from logging, which in turn is something else than planning.

Many people seem to think they need some kind of to-do list, just to keep track of all the stuff that needs doing (I do agree with Darius Foroux that we actually know what REALLY needs doing, even if we avoid doing so).

Most of us do need some planning tool, to schedule activities and events. Many people would like a place to store and revisit their thoughts and ideas. And we all know the frustration of knowing we kept a policy number of an insurance somewhere, but we just can’t seem to find it when we need it.

Analog solutions to the rescue

Over the last few years, I had seen bloggers and other authors write about the Bullet Journal method. Rather, I had seen them post very beautiful and artistically decorated journals. While I was impressed with the designs I saw there, I did not feel this would be helpful for my productivity at all.

Quite on the contrary, since I failed at other systems before because they took too much time to maintain, surely all this drawing and decorating would take up even more of my time. Apart for the fact that I couldn’t draw anything nice if my life depended on it. While I do have a growth mindset, I don’t have the time (or the interest) to sink a ton of time in learning how to draw. So I kind of forgot about the bullet journals for some time.

That is, until I stumbled upon a few articles by people who were also artistically challenged, but managed to make the bullet journal method work for them. So, I bought the book (up to this point, I wasn’t even aware this was an actual thing) and bought a Leuchtturm1917 to start keeping my own minimalist bullet journal.

For the first few months, I struggled using the journal, did not quite know how to layout my monthlies, and overall was not sure what to write down. I guess I used it as a sort of minimal to-do list. During the summer, I quit keeping the journal all together.

By September, I reflected a bit on what I was doing and why it was not working. I came to the following conclusions:

  • At work, I was still using Dropbox Paper to keep my notes, because I wanted the information to be easy to retrieve. The idea was to copy the most important things in my Bullet Journal in the evening, which obviously never happened.

At this time, I also had a very concrete problem where I could see the bullet journal as a solution: I was working with multiple clients, so I needed a way to keep track of my time in order to fill out my time sheets at the end of the week or month. While I could use my calendar, it was always a hassle.

So, I set up my journal to help me do this: I created a colored divider between each day and underneath the date, I would add which client I had been working for, highlighting this in blue (which I decided would be the color for work). That way, I could quickly skip through the pages and see for whom I had been working on any given day.

2020 Bullet Journal Dailies — sorry about the handwriting

Another change I made was to prepare my daily for the next day in the evening. In other words, a daily migration. I’d go over all tasks of the day, migrating the open ones which were still relevant to the next day and striking through those which were no longer relevant. This was a particularly powerful habit and it has become a part of my evening ritual. It helps in planning and in clearing my mind before I go to bed.

I also simplified the key: do I need to visually distinguish between tasks and events? I really don’t, so I use a single bullet for both. I add the time of events in parentheses after events, so I still have a visual cue. At some point, I had different bullets for ideas, journal ideas, budget notes etc. I got rid of all of these, replacing them with a single note bullet.

2020 Bullet Journal Monthly

Does the bullet journal solve everything?

Obviously, it doesn’t. At one point, I was doing a data governance assessment with a client and I was taking notes in my journal. This led to a good quarter of my journal being filled with hardly legible interview notes after a single day of workshops. To solve this, I use a separate notebook for meeting notes and long-form writing. I do give these other notebook a name and label them, so I can refer to them from my bullet journal.

Another issue I’m still struggling with is information retrieval. At one point, I tried replicating my analog bullet journal in Evernote using Cerianne Bury’s method. I found this just took up too much of my time and most of the information in my bullet journal isn’t intended for retrieval anyway. While it is nice to thumb through the pages and rediscovering old ideas and thoughts, this is not something that can be replicated with the search functionality in a digital tool. Instead of duplicating the entire bullet journal, I just keep a digital copy of the custom collections and stuff like code and solutions I jot down during the day.

Speaking of digital solutions, at some point I did consider switching to Dropbox Paper, which I liked better to take notes than Evernote, but in the end I decided against it. This will probably be the subject of a future blog post.

But honestly, digital tools for me just can’t replace pen and paper for note-taking. There is something special about the tactile sensation of writing. I feel I remember information better once I’ve written it down, something I’ve experienced since my days as a student. There is plenty of research that confirms this gut-feeling.

Finally, for me, the bullet journal is not a planner. I need my notifications and time blocks, so I still use a calendar app. While I do use my bullet journal throughout the day to make notes about upcoming appointments, I migrate them to my calendar in the evening. The most important ones get written down in my monthly, but I don’t rely on that to get to where I need to go.

Be sure to leave a note in the comments about your experiences with the bullet journal method.

Enterprise Implementation Manager at Collibra - I also blog at https://notthenewoil.org