Over the years I’ve tried various methods of note taking and task management. If you’ve ever looked for a system you’ll no doubt be aware of how many tools and techniques there are. I’ve tried online and offline tools and a combination of both. (The nature of my work precludes the use of online tools for some of the more sensitive aspects.) Without delving into everything I’ve tried, I wanted to write a bit about my approach to keeping a Bullet Journal. Having reviewed what I’ve written, I don’t do much that differs from that website, so please visit there for the original explanation of the technique. For another comprehensive guide, have a look at Tiny Ray of Sunshine too.
Why a Bullet Journal?
Bullet journalling gives me an efficient way to take notes and manage tasks. In short, it is:
- Structured as you go
You might be surprised at these points. If you search online for bullet journals, you’ll find beautiful art and design ideas for things like monthly logs, habit trackers, calendars, etc.
As much as I like the effort people put into their designs, I am not imaginative, creative or patient enough to do that with my journals. More importantly, it is not necessary. At its core, a bullet journal can be incredibly minimalist and just what you need it to be.
My day begins exactly where my previous day ended. I use a fairly unadulterated rapid logging bullet style:
- Tasks are bullets
- Notes are hyphens
- Events are open circles
If I was disciplined the day before I will already have a list of tasks below the day’s date, and any events listed along with the time that they occur.
It’s important to realise that this list doesn’t need to start on a new page; it just continues from the previous content.
As I plan my day, I take a look back at previous days, looking in particular for unfinished tasks. If I find one, I change the bullet to a forward arrow and rewrite it in the present day’s list. This is referred to as migration, but it’s no different to the idea of rewriting your todo list every day.
As the day progresses, I use my journal in a continuous manner. Completed tasks have the bullet changed into a cross (as do finished events), and any tasks that are cancelled or have become irrelevant are struck through. Any notes that I take are added to the same list, only they are denoted with hyphens.
Brief notes really benefit this technique. If you can keep a note to a single line, the list structure of the journal is maintained. It might sound tricky to do at first, but with practice you can still capture a lot of information. Of course you can have many notes to capture a lot of information. Nesting is also a possibility, although I don’t find this to be necessary. One thing I do suggest, however, is to use headings if you think you will be making a lot of notes. So for example you could have a list of tasks, an appointment, then a heading for a meeting, below which you have your single-line notes. Depending on what happened at the meeting you could then have a list of actions written as tasks. All of these are in the same list.
I think you could just follow the rapid logging approach described above and get 90% of the benefit of bullet journalling. But of course there is a lot more you could do. Some things I’ve tried include:
- Monthly log
- Future log
- Weekly log
- Time tracker
- Habit tracker
These types of page are all referred to as collections. I don’t really understand the meaning of the name except that it might help with how you use the index.
They look pretty but have limited value I find.
If you have an A5 notebook of any type, you can quite easily create a calendar across a two-page spread. Then, at a glance, you can see your availability in the future, what day of the week the 28th is, when it was that you went on holiday, etc.
The calendar can look quite impressive but I find it has limited value. I already have a work calendar in Outlook and a personal calendar on my Google account, so the use of a calendar like this requires duplication.
At the end of a month I start a new double page. Down the side (or the middle for some variety) of one page, I write a list of numbers for the month, e.g. 1–30. Next to each number, I then write the initial of the day (i.e. M, T, W, T, F, S, S). Now I have a place to record anything significant for a particular day of that month. On the facing page I have a “tasks” heading.
The monthly log is still one that I am trying to learn. I think it’s important to think of not as a calendar but more as a record of significant events. There isn’t a lot of room against each day, so deciding what to record needs some careful thought.
The task list for the monthly log is clearer: at the end of a month, any tasks that have not been completed but are still relevant and necessary can be migrated to the task list for the upcoming month.
I don’t do much with this but the intent is to record events that occur in the future. In many cases this requires knowing when in the future this will be, which I find a bit odd. Calendars are most useful for that type of information, and in my job events move around quite frequently. However, it can be used as a useful way of recording that there is something that I want to do, but it is not high priority, and more of a “some day” activity.
The weekly log has become a very useful page for me. On a single page I record the days and dates of the week down one side, and leave room for a task list on the other. This approach gives me a small but usable amount of space for each day where I can record upcoming events. This is contrary to my complaints about the calendar above, but I find the duplication (writing down an event that is already in my calendar) at the beginning of the week or day a useful part of my planning process. It helps to work out what is feasible to achieve on a given day. The small amount of space available for the day is also useful as it helps limit the amount I try to accommodate in a given day.
I went through a phase of taking a two-page spread to create an hour-by-hour tracker for my working week. I would simply record which task or project I was working on at a given time during the day. This helped to make entering my timesheet at the end of the week slightly less painful. It took a while to set up each week, but again was a useful way to structure my planning activity. However, more recently I have been using Toggl to accomplish the same task with similar results.
More suited to a personal journal, this can be thought of as a chart to track habits that you want to develop (or stop). For every day of the month I would add a cross or shade a square for each habit I had successfully completed or avoided. So for example, I would see a pleasing row of blue squares if I had managed to stretch every day in a given month. Gaps would show up as missed accomplishments. Similar to the time tracker, I have found that an online tool suits my needs better at the moment.
According to the guidance, the index is one of the most important features of the bullet journal system and comes first in a journal. That I’ve left it until last and am about to say that I don’t use it effectively is not to dismiss it, but rather to show that I have improvements to make.
The index, as suggested by its name, indexes the various collections/pages that go into a journal. Written chronologically by topic, they allow for finding information easily – if used continuously.
I do not update my index properly. Therefore, I am left flicking through pages to find a scrap of note-taking I added some months earlier. However, if instead I had used the index, I might have seen a list like this:
- April 2020 monthly log 38–39
- Quarterly meeting with AP 41
- Team planning 42
- Review of MBSE paper 42–44
- May 2020 monthly log 46–47
- Team planning 45
- Call with customer 48
The biggest advantage of using the bullet journal method is the speed of recording information. I don’t feel like I am wasting time in the morning when I rapidly list the tasks I need to do that day, or when I take notes during a discussion. I don’t need to worry where I record something, whether there will be enough room to write about a particular day with what space is left on the page, or what happens to that task that I want to write down but know I won’t get to for weeks.
My notes will be even better if I make regular and effective use of the index, something which I intend to do from now onwards.