With digital productivity tools coming out every day, it can be hard to keep track of your tools to keep track. Many are opting out and going old school for their to-dos and time management with a "bullet journal". I tried it for three months and this is what I learned.
I have a somewhat crippling addiction to stationery. I love journals, pens, old leather, and ink. I have them strewn about my home, rarely used because I haven't thought of anything important or poetic enough to write in them worthy of their craft.
Sometimes I posit that my love of stationery comes from a desire to organise my life. A recently visiting friend rightly pointed out that if that's true, given the amount of loose stationery in my home, the obsession is actively making my life less organised. But it gives me joy.
Enter the idea of bullet journalling, which I found through Youtube, and I arrived late enough to the party to witness the idea start to gain a bad reputation.
A bullet journal is a modifiable system for keeping track of your life. Things that happened, things you want to do, what you're grateful for. To-do lists are a big part of it, but you can really add anything you think is relevant to your life. There are some standard practices, which are outlined in the original video that made it popular, but you can create your own system as you go.
Obviously we've written a lot about it before here on Lifehacker, and usually in a positive light. But as one commenter put so succintly on Youtube: "If I had the time to do this, I wouldn't need a bullet journal."
That's because most of the bullet journals you see are prettied up for public consumption. They're about the craft, and the creativity. They're for people who have 30 minutes to make a few pages look perfect, and inspiring. They don't scream productivity or time efficiency, especially when contrasted with the myriad apps that come out every month to boost your output that little extra bit.
But after playing around with the concept for a few months, I do think bullet journalling has some things the apps and calendars can't offer.
The Minimalist Approach
I was determined to not be someone who used journalling as a procrastination technique. It was all too possible — me, with my shiny new leather journal, scribbling away and not actually getting things done. I wanted to test its productivity potential by never making the act of journalling so big that by itself it needed to be an item on the to-do list.
That meant going minimal. I bought a small ruler that fit into the back pocket of my journal, and some stickers, and that's about as many frills as were allowed:
There's much huffing and puffing around which journal and which pen to use. None of that really matters, but I'd say it does help to have a dot grid instead of ruled or graph paper. Obviously if you want to use different colours, you'll need those pens.
This was the most rewarding part of the experience. I chose a minimal style for the journal which meant minimal upkeep, but in order to properly maintain to-do lists and pages full of one's goals, one must actually articulate those goals.
That meant bullet journalling, for me, was really more about sitting down and spending 10 minutes thinking about what I actually want to do with my life, and how to get there. It's a pleasant little daily ritual, not unlike meditation or prayer, in which I was forced to be honest with myself about what I was really enjoying in life, and whether what I was going to do that day would help achieve that.
I've also noticed that it's resulted in less time doing things that don't achieve anything, which can be good and bad. Less time watching TV, less time gaming. Being someone who writes for gaming publications, it's actually kind of important that I spend time gaming, so I'm not sure how I feel about that. There's also something to be said for the downtime you spend with people you love. It's not time that achieves goals, but it's quality time.
Over time, I realised I was using a very small amount of space for every month. I was treating the pages as too precious, and decided to use the journal for all the important workshops I'd attend. I'm without a good laptop at the moment anyway, and hey, handwriting is proven to help you remember things.
This turned into a great reference over time. If I'd forgotten something, it was actually easier to pull out my journal and whip straight to the page then it would be getting out a laptop. I'd numbered my pages, and put tape on the important separators, so finding the page was never hard.
What Is Measured Can Be Improved
Personal time is at a premium these days, so I wanted to make sure I was using my time effectively. But I didn't just want to measure time, I wanted to measure something I think is more important: Deep focus.
So I combined my bullet journalling with the pomodoro method of time management. I'd do 25 minutes of deep focus surrounded by five minute breaks, and keep track of them in the journal. If someone walked up to my desk and distracted me, I'd have to abandon the pomodoro. At the end of the week and month, I'd have an overview of just how much time I got to focus on the stuff that mattered.
On occasion, this did actually increase deep focus. If I was getting lower amounts than usual, then I'd know something would need to change. For example, telling those around me that when my headphones are on, leave me in the zone.
I also started keeping track of various other things over the month like how many days involved exercise, work towards personal goals, and time spent reading the books I want to get through. The process directly increased those activities, but it does let me know when it's been a while since I've been to the gym and need to pull my socks up.
What Didn't Work
Any type of scheduling or time-keeping I found to be redundant, given I already keep two different digital cameras for work and personal things. I would put special or important events in the bullet journal just to make sure I didn't forget, but the hard work on that front is definitely covered by my Google calendar notifications. Other people need to be able to look at my work calendar to see what I'm doing, so I'm locked into that method anyway.
It's also common for people to reserve a few pages for what they're grateful for. Some people find this very fulfilling, and the highlight of their journalling experience. I reserved the space, but never really updated it — probably because I mainly wanted this to be a productivity tool, and there's already a place for articulating gratitude in my life with prayer.
All up, I'd recommend it, and I'll continue the practice myself. It's been three months since I started, and I do think I've made more progress on my goals than before. Part of that is due to the act of sitting down and actually thinking about those goals, but if it takes a journal to make that happen, then so be it. Do whatever works. You might find something else about it that you like, but the ritual of just sitting down and taking 10 minutes to look at the bigger picture is what I found most valuable.
There are a million videos on Youtube showing how various people organise their bullet journals, and hacks to reduce the amount of upkeep. I'll leave that to you — try new things, and do whatever works for you.