Taking a day away from talking about books and reading to instead talk about the art and science behind how I get organized and stay productive. Part of it is being inspired by folks like Jane from Dear Author who talked about this at the start of the year, and part of it is that I’ve really taken to bullet journaling and have had a number of people talk about how they want to get into it and don’t understand how it works.
I’ve always been a list keeper. I have notebooks upon notebooks of to-do lists, stretching back to college and earlier. They’re still sitting in boxes and in closets around the house, in the event I need to do something like see where I was in wedding planning back in 2006. Just incase, I guess. I’ve kept a notebook of every book I’ve finished reading since 2000, which sits on the book case in my living room.
When I worked outside of the house, I kept numerous notebooks for lists. Some were for work. Some were for inspiration. Some were for random note taking. For a few years — recent ones — my list keeping and note taking got out of control. I not only had numerous notebooks going, but I also became an unabashed post-it note user. The great thing about post-its is how easy they are to move around, put into notebooks, rearrange, and, as it turns out, throw away. Where I cannot get rid of a notebook with lists, tossing a post-it of tasks I’ve completed away felt like an accomplishment. I enjoyed that.
The downside to throwing out post-its, though? Not being able to see at a glance what sorts of productivity I can achieve within a certain time frame. Am I getting ten things done a day? Three things done a week? What sort of long-term projects require weeks, instead of an hour? Quantifying productivity with post-its and numerous journals just doesn’t work for me.
Enter bullet journal.
If you’re not familiar with the bullet journal, take the three minutes to watch the video which gives an overview of the theory and system:
After watching this, I had more questions than answers. It felt overcomplicated for my own needs while also feeling too simple. Can I really keep numerous lists in one place? Why do I need multiple calendars within the journal? Do I need the journal AND a calendar? Will it make sense to mix up my work-related tasks with my personal tasks? Blog tasks? How will I make sense of all the little symbols and notations?
In short, I watched the video and felt like it was a lot to take in. But I wanted to try it anyway.
A little bit of backstory here: I noted being a journal and note book nerd, but I didn’t mention the level to which this exists. Back in the glory days of Livejournal, I was a member of numerous notebook and journaling communities, and even after, I connected with many folks who were into that, too. Is there something more nerdy than talking about how you journal or stay productive? About what kinds of pens you prefer? About where to score really great notebooks (…and yes, I have preferences on the note books I use and for what purpose)? I knew there’d be people out there showing off how they bullet journal, and while there are some great examples on Tumblr, I knew where the gold mine would be: Pinterest.
Here’s a quick and dirty set of search results for “bullet journal” on Pinterest. While many follow the formula of the original, many diverge. If you spend some time digging around through people’s posts, you’ll find so many variations on the standard bullet journal, and it was through a few hours of time, I was able to cobble together a system that absolutely, positively works for me.
Yes, I am 100% analog in my tasking and I foresee this being the case for a long time. I am better at remembering things when I write them down than I am keeping them in my head or on a digital calendar or document. I have no more post-it notes in my life, and I keep only two notebooks now. One is for almost everything I do (that’s the bullet journal), while the second is my notebook for keeping track of work scheduling of social media, meeting notes, and generally uncategorizeable note taking. I use a large Moleskine with a grid format for the journal, while I use a Chronicle journal for my note taking (this one right now). I am very, very committed and devoted to both of those products for those very specific reasons. It’s partially about size, portability, and quality. Likewise, they sit together neatly on a shelf when I am finished with them, which is important, since I refer back to many of the note-taking notebooks frequently.
This is how I organize my bullet journal, and as the year has progressed and my projects and work have shifted and grown, you’ll see my methods have evolved, too.
I began like the video does, by numbering my pages and creating an index at the front of the journal. This method lasted for approximately 15 pages and two days of January. I don’t care about being that organized. If I do, I can go back later and fill in those gaps. I did end up making a yearly calendar at the beginning of the journal, month by month, with key dates highlighted and marked. I haven’t referred back to this much since creating it, so it’s stayed blank. I’d probably ditch this in future iterations.
At the beginning of each month, I write out a rough events calendar:
This is nothing more than the dates of the month on the left, along with events or important things I ned to remember beside it. On dates with more than one event, I just separate them but put them all on the same line.
On the next page, I keep a single-page monthly task list. This is a list of things I need to do during the month that don’t necessarily have a due date or need to be done by a certain point. I refer back to this every day when I’m working on my daily task lists (getting there in a minute) in order to build those daily to-dos.
Following those pages, I like to make myself a place to track my monthly workouts. Some people do things like Fit Bit or Polar Vortex (which isn’t the real name, but that’s what I call my husband’s fancy tracker). I think I’ve made it clear I’m a paper person.
Following those three key pages, I then flip to the following page for a two-page spread which becomes a place where I keep track of two things during the month: blog post ideas, as well as books I’ve read and books I’d like to read that month. I don’t get to everything on the “to read” list, but that’s become a way for me to keep up with what I’ve been thinking about or wanting to read so when I do finish something and wonder what next, I have a place to turn.
After that, I give myself 3-5 pages which I’ve so creatively titled “miscellaneous.” This is where all of my monthly catch-all to-dos, lists, and other things I can’t forget or want to refer back to end up. Sometimes it’s literally a note about something I need to mention in an email or it’s an address. Something I don’t want to lose or misplace and would want to maybe refer back to at some point. I didn’t include pictures because all of those pages have personal stuff on them, but the important part for me is they exist and they’re there before the daily task lists.
One of the key features of bullet journaling per the video is that people can use a special key to track their events and tasks. This…does not work for me. Instead, I make a running agenda for every single day and mark things off as I go. For important things, like an appointment or call I have to attend to, I usually put a star to note that to myself. Otherwise, it’s a straight list, and I keep the daily task lists to half of a page. That’s all I can reasonably do in a day. Or rather, it’s all I expect myself to try to accomplish in a day that needs to get written down. Some things are so routine, I don’t need to mark them.
Generally, I write out a week of dates at a time. Sometimes I’ll go further. I don’t usually put the day of the week beside the date, but I have done that to keep track periodically. What’s been key for me here is this: I list things I need to do, or a memory cue for them (like “Pinterest” and “Goodreads,” which are things I do for Book Riot) and I mark them off as I accomplish them. When I see there are things being unmarked and unaccomplished, I move them to the next day.
Some people believe in very specific tasks being written. I alternate between specific tasks (“Write a Tumblr post for work about this event doing this”) and cues (“Goodreads,” which simply means do a few things on Goodreads that need to be done that day). It works for me because some things require specific information and other things do not.
If things don’t get done within a week or so — depending on what the task or memory cue is — I reevaluate the task. Do I need to do it? Will I do it? Or is it taking up unnecessary space in my life and it’s time to let go? If something isn’t on my monthly task list and has just been taking up space on my calendar, it’s time to either do the task (like go to the post office, which is a notorious one I hold over) or get rid of it and not think about it again.
By keeping my daily task lists to a week or so planned out, I force myself to make these decisions regularly. I don’t have time to waste writing things down again and again if I’m really not going to do them or if it’s a thing I just need to do and finish.
I keep all of my to-do list in one space. I do not separate out work tasks from personal tasks. I am very good at budgeting my time and energy during the day, so I know how to proceed with those multiple sides to my daily life. I practice energy management as opposed to time management, which I know is a touchy-feely way of getting things done, but it works for me. And since I work from home with an unconventional schedule, I find this method of taking care of things every day really works for me. Basically, I don’t plot things out in time chunks. I plot them out by energy. I know I am more likely to get certain things done in the morning and other things done mid-day. So I look at my lists every day and go from there. (This also tends to be why I am generally very fast at responding to emails or messages I get: as soon as I have the energy for it, I’m tackling it, rather than planning to go at it in one period of time.)
And that’s all.
I don’t do anything else with my bullet journal. I have no fancy secrets or knobs or gadgets. I use the same black ink Pilot pen on every single page. I reevaluate the monthly task lists as I go, and sometimes things get knocked off when they’re accomplished or I know it’s not going to happen.
I’m sold on this method of tracking my life because it’s analog and because I love having both the feeling of accomplishment that comes with marking things off and seeing how much can and cannot get done. More, I have a lot of opportunities to make choices with my time more regularly now that I see how my energy works with me, rather than against me. As a person who has to have control in her life, this is the biggest benefit. I know when and how I can get things done when I see it like this.
Keeping a record of books read, workouts finished, and blog post ideas keeps me motivated. I like seeing those pages full visually. And it’s always nice to know there’s a pile of blog post ideas sitting in line when I feel like I have nothing to work with when I sit down to write.
My bullet journaling came from trial and error, looking at what other people were doing and what would work for my own life. If it’s something that appeals to you but feels overwhelming, I cannot emphasize looking around at how others adapt them and then doing the same for yourself. I started with some idealistic notions on what I’d do with this, but then I let them die away as I realized the key component of bullet journaling for me, aside from organization, was decision making. Where do I invest my time and where do I let things go?
Other resources for getting started in bullet journaling:
Maureen wrote about her own personal methods of bullet journaling earlier this year. As you’ll see we all have methods that work for us. The beauty of bullet journaling is the adaptability of the format.
There’s also a Facebook group for bullet journaling. You can hop in and show off, ask questions, and get ideas for how other people use their journals here.
Bullet journal ideas and examples from Pinterest to get you started.