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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.

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.
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A typical entry in my Bullet Journal

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 the wrong appropriate scope. There’s no point adding huge tasks that aren’t really tasks at all – they’re 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.

What are the pros & cons?

Pros

  • A quick & simple task logging system
  • A smart way to oragnise 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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Carl Sagan, the illest

Ladies and Gentlemen, I give you: Carl Sagan, the illest.

All the millions, billions, trillions and (single) quadrillion from his 1980’s tv series Cosmos.

Here he is again, being profound;

Carl Sagan is just the best. Listen to him calmly defuse a radio caller keen on fighting! with words!

And finally, here’s an hour of Carl Sagan saying the word “billion”. Yep, that’s right. An hour of Carl saying one big word. Not looped, not a supercut, a slow motion Carl Sagan. Buckle up, it’s going to get weird.

Carl Sagan is just the best.

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Listening closely to the sounds of The Wire

One of my crew’s challenges, then, was to find ways to evoke mood with backgrounds. When a character is in a crowded situation he is not comfortable with, listen for background laughter. When McNulty is drunk and on the prowl, listen for dogs barking (because he’s a dog – my own private commentary on his character). There was a whole world of work that went in to creating the sound of Hamsterdam and building it from an empty to thriving enterprise.

This one is definitely NSFW. I love these behind the scenes, oral histories of shows like The Wire. I love them because they lift the curtain on something truly great but that’s not the only reason. I love them because they imply, by shining light on the technical, personal or cultural challenges that had to be overcome, that greatness can be reached by anyone. I find that super inspiring.

via Kottke (of course).

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The skeptical futuryst

Powerful technologies of public imagination are hitting the street. They are fast infiltrating society’s main stream. And as they go, we find ourselves living out a dictum something like McLuhan meeting Polak: “We shape our images of the future, and meanwhile, they shape us.”

Stuart Candy (aka the skeptical futuryst) left for snowier shores around two years ago. Australia just hasn’t been the same since.

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Going from good to great

There’s always the chance that your gift will crash-and-burn; to give something that surprises and delights takes great thought, empathy, and a true understanding of the giftee, and most of us quickly retreat to the safety and ease of the list.

Ben Thompson, shows us how to go from good to great, over at Stratechery.

Ben Thompson is one of the best internet business thinkers active today. His writing is astute, clear eyed and honest. His exponent podcast is also excellent, in many ways it’s like the directors commentary track for Stratechery.

Image credit: Stratechery.

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The Wire Bible

“In the end, the cost to all sides begins to suggest not so much the dogged police pursuit of the bad guys, but rather a Greek tragedy. At the end of thirteen episodes, the reward for the viewer — who has been lured all this way by a well-constructed police show — is not the simple gratification of hearing handcuffs click. Instead, the conclusion is something that Euripides or O’Neill might recognize: an America, at every level at war with itself.”

David Simon, creator of The Wire, quoted from the show outline originally pitched to HBO — AKA the Wire Bible.

In 2000 David Simon pitched a show to HBO that would be:

far more than a cop show, and to the extent that it breaks new ground, it will do so because of larger, universal themes that have more to do with the human condition

It’s not every day you get the chance to reflect on something so authentic, savouring the subtle texture and flavour. Let’s all take a moment to consider the origins of that fine street food delicacy: The Wire.

via Kottke, who also took the effort to mirror (archive) these documents for future web posterity.

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The Wire is all shades of grey

And the chilling thing about the show is that, when someone like McNulty decides to care out of turn, he’s not confronted by corrupt or otherwise evil people. Bill Rawls, the middle finger-raising Homicide chief, isn’t a bad guy, though he seems like one when he bitches out McNulty. He’s just a guardian of the system. His job is to keep the murder rate down and the clearance rate up, which in turn helps the department get funding to keep doing its job, keeps cops on the streets, etc. You’ll note that the thing that angers Rawls most is the fact that Jimmy dragged in the Gerard Bogue case, which happened in the previous year and therefore has no bearing on this year’s stats. Bogue may have had family and friends who loved and miss him, but he is of no use to Bill Rawls in his quest to make the numbers look good, and therefore he doesn’t matter. That’s not evil, not “one bad cop ruining the system for everybody else.” It’s just cold, cruel pragmatism, the best way Rawls knows to do the job he’s been given.

Alan Sepinwall, re-reviewing the first episode (s01e01) of the remastered, re-release HD series of The Wire.

This month HBO has re-released The Wire, remastered in HD. Let Alan Sepinwall walk you through one of the best, most compelling shows of our time.

I love the idea that David Simon would use the first scene in the first episode of each season to establish the themes for the season. This is the kind of TV making that just wasn’t possible in the 90’s. We really do have to thank The Sopranos for the glut of high quality TV drama on offer today.