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One month with the Bullet Journal


Bullet Journal claims it is for those who feel there are few platforms as powerful as the blank paper page. But just how powerful could a piece of paper be?

Last month I decided to deep dive into the BJS & I’m here to tell you that it is every bit as powerful, flexible and useful as it claims to be.

Firstly, what is a Bullet Journal?

Bullet Journal is simple logging system that uses a few clever tricks to help get & keep you organised. At first blush it seems like a cute yet superficial solution to the problem of disorganisation – one that rests on the analogue pleasures of pen & paper, but that would fall short compared to the digital tools we have in spades. Last month I decided to take the Bullet Journal for a spin, to see if it was up to the task of whipping chaos into order. One month later, here are my thoughts on the usefulness & potential of the Bullet Journal system & whether or not you should consider using it.

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It’s designed to be easy to remember & importantly, very quick to use. It’s best used with gridded or dotted notepads, but you could also make it work without these things. It’s built around a few simple ideas:

  1. A small collection of meaingful markers, the box, the bullet point and the circle. Each of these signify a different item: a to-do task, a note and an event,
  2. One page per day, or collection of items,
  3. Numbered pages, coupled with an index &
  4. Additional symbols used to mark priorities & actions (e.g. a star gives a task priority)

That’s it. The Bullet Journal really is that simple. The simplicity of the system is what appealed to me at first, both as a way to organise & order the clutter of hand written notes & as a way to bridge between the physical & digital worlds (more on that later). All you need is a stack of paper & this simple system to tackle your work.

Why would you need such a system?

The Bullet Journal system, like nearly all note organisation systems, won’t be for everybody. You might be perfectly happy to have the messy desk, creative mind organisation system, perhaps your notes aren’t particularly important, or you have a well developed spatial memory (one clear advantage of hand written notes) Perhaps the loss of one specific note wouldn’t be significant to you.

I’ve certainly churned through many notebooks in the last half decade, the contents of which probably wouldn’t be very interesting — even to me.

So why pick a system like Bullet Journal? This is for people who do keep precious notes, notes for which date & context is important, for people who want to be able to keep a better record of the events that happen in their lives. People who want to be able to note anything, at any time, without later needing to translate that into some other system or place.

People who want an everything bucket, but who don’t want their notes to devolve into meaningless mush.

A not-uncommon example from my most recent journal.

A not-uncommon example from my most recent journal.

How do I use it?

I’ve made an effort to apply the tenets of the system as closely as I can remember, in the moment. Like with any system, if it’s hard to remember in practice, it’s not going to stick. I’ve found that the most useful aspects of the Bullet Journal system have stuck, becoming the default way I organise my thoughts. Here’s how I use it:

  • I use stock-standard Field Notes Brand notebooks. Nothing fancy, here.
  • Every day gets a full two-page spread, with tasks listed below the date
  • I rarely use the note or event items, instead I stick to tasks
  • Tasks not completed one day are moved to the next day (with a > symbol to indicate that it’s moved)
  • Completed tasks are ticked (not struck-through)
  • Collections of thoughts are grouped, on a new page where necessary & added to the index.
  • I’ve added colour coding to tasks to make it easier to skim & pick something to work on (this was inspired by the fantastic digital highlighting on the Bullet Journal website). I use three colours: Work, Hobbies & Personal. I’ve found this to be very helpful.
IMG_0363

A typical entry in my Bullet Journal

How does it work in practice?

One pleasant and unexpected benefit is that — since I’m using small Field Notes notebooks — space is limited for daily tasks. Why is this a benefit? It places a physical limit on the number of tasks I can add to any one day. It’s like a sensible cap on the tasks you should attempt to do in one day. Yes, some days are busier & we’re pressured to get more done. But most days aren’t like that. The Bullet Journal helps support the tasks we need to get done, whilst also placing natural limits on the to-do list.

Bullet Journaling also makes micro-management difficult & this is another good thing. There’s no point listing out every step involved in a bigger task, you’ll simply run out of space. The system encourages you to think in a concise, outcome-oriented way, though this will require some acclimatisation.

One of the ways I’ve struggled to implement this system is in choosing the appropriate scope for a task. I’ll give you an example: My fiancee and I are currently planning our wedding. One task that insists on following me through my notebook, zombie style, is an item called ‘Plan Ceremony’. This is a classic example of using an inappropriate scope. There’s no point adding huge tasks that aren’t really tasks at all – they’re actually projects.

In this case, I’m much better off creating a Ceremony collection page where I can add & complete subtasks of this bigger project. Then the daily ‘Ceremony’ task could be used to call out the actions or items that actually need attention, today. It’s good to avoid these situations that can quickly notch up a lot of emotional debt – your tasks keep following you through your notebook with no end in sight. This is madness & a simple collection page is the Bullet Journal solution.

Would you recommend the Bullet Journal system?

Absolutely. This system is for anyone looking to structure their work, thoughts or notes quickly. It’s stable yet flexible, I’ve found that it’s certainly able to grow and adapt to the way I need it to work.

What are the pros & cons?

Pros

  • A quick & simple task logging system
  • A smart way to organise otherwise jumpled thoughts
  • An index to your paper life, easily searchable by date or topic
  • All you need is pen & paper

Cons

  • It does require more thought than simply living in chaos (or whatever your current system might be)
  • You will need to pick a notebook with numbered pages, or commit to doing that yourself.
  • It’s all paper based, so digital backups / copies will rely on your diligence

Other Notes

Because I use Field Notes notebooks, I find that each notebook takes up about a month’s worth of the Bullet Journal. If you include the index & calendar pages, daily spreads and collections, a month of content will almost fill up a single notebook. I like this as it lends itself to easy archiving of notebooks as well as clearly delineating one month from another. If you add in the differently coloured Field Notes editions, each month stands out even more.

A sharpie or differently coloured notebook can help you quickly spot the different months.

A sharpie or differently coloured notebook can help you quickly spot the different journals / months.

Colour coding tasks is a really great way to help focus on what needs to be done, right now. You can look at today’s tasks and decide where to focus your attention, quickly

It does require a commitment to organisation from the user. For instance, if your notebook doesn’t have numbered pages, you’ll quickly tire of the process involved in numbering your pages. I don’t mind doing this, actually, but I can imagine I might feel differently in 6 months time.

Having one notebook for each month might feel like overkill if you’re accustomed to fitting 5-6 months into a single moleskin notebook. Field Notes notebooks are quite compact, but I can imagine it might get annoying trying to keep it all organised.

[Update: Rachel Baird says she also uses the Bullet Journal to log her spending habits, as she makes purchases. I’ll have to give this a try & see if it sticks.]

Closing Thoughts

The Bullet Journal is a very effective system & took very little effort to commit to memory. It’s quite easy to pick up and use, whilst also being flexible enough to accommodate small tweaks you might add for your own situation. Like any effective system, the big questions is: does it help you to accomplish more?

In my experience, the answer is a resounding yes. I’d recommend it to anyone looking to find order in the madness of their handwritten notes.

Take a look at the very well-designed bulletjournal.com to get started.

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