33 Days Later: an Update on My Use of the Bullet Journal Method Task Tracking System

The Bullet JournalIn short, success.

In this post, I’ll talk about why I like it so much, and what I’ve learned from using it for the past 33 days.

You may remember that in prior posts I had criticized the Bullet Journal method for being a “recycled version” of the Franklin Covey method. Then, I rethought my criticism, as my own method, a.k.a., the “sticky note” method, was not better. I decided to give the Bullet Journal method a go.

I began using the Bullet Journal method on January 1st, 2014 as part of my New Year’s resolution to stay on task better. I am writing my dissertation, and I don’t have time to waste.

It works.

Two and half years ago I went completely digital. My calendar, address book, and task lists are all on my laptop and shared via the cloud to my smart phone. It’s very efficient, with the added bonus that I don’t have to lug around a paper notebook or journal of some kind.

Efficiency can be deceptive, though.

Why I Like the Bullet Journal Method

I had dutifully followed David Allen’s advice for Getting Things Done (GTD): I offloaded any and all tasks out of my head into my lists, that were divided by Projects (e.g., “home”) and Contexts (e.g., “@errands”).

The problem is that the lists began to get too long, and I began to lose track of them. I would look at them and feel overwhelmed, although I would not admit it to myself. As I have stated previously, Getting Things Done is a great system, and OmniFocus is a great tool with which to implement GTD. But, they didn’t work for me. As I wrote in a previous post, I had started to use sticky notes to track short term, immediate tasks, and longer-term tasks I typed into OmniFocus.

Digital equals better is where “efficiency” becomes deceptive.

By switching from paper to digital task-tracking, I no longer had to tote around a notebook. However, because I no longer had to manually track my tasks from day-to-day, week-to-week, and month to month, I had stopped tracking my tasks at all in any real sense, and prioritizing what I need to accomplish.

What I like about the Bullet Journal method is that the act of manually transferring my tasks from day-to-day, week-to-week, and month-to-month forces me to be more aware of that I need to do, what I have done, and, what is feasible to do within the time frame I have available. It does take more time, but overall, it saves me time.

I have become a better time manager and project manager as a result of using a paper-based system again**.

What I’ve Learned from Using the Bullet Journal Method

(1) Set up your next day’s task the day before; don’t plan the entire week ahead

When I set up the monthly calendar for January, I wrote out the days of the week for the next 5 days and divided my tasks up. It looked something like this. (For privacy reasons, I’m not going to post my actual tasks. This is an example.)

w

Don’t do this. Lay out your tasks day-by-day. Write your next day’s tasks out at the end of your current day, or at the start of your next day (the current day is better.)

Why? Because you don’t know how many tasks you are going to have per day, or how much space you will need for each days’ tasks. My first approach assumed I would accomplish each of those tasks each day, and that I wouldn’t need any more space on the new days to move over any unfinished tasks.

In addition to new tasks, you will also need room to add in new notes, events, inspiration, ideas to explore, sublists, or other personal entries.

At most, now I add in only two days of tasks at a time. If you need a master task list, then set aside 2-3 pages for the monthly task list (on the right, below).

calendar

(2) Add in your own personal notations.

Per John Cooper’s Bullet Journal tips and tricks, I use “>>” to denote more personal notes or journal-type entries.

(3) You Can Still Integrate with the Digital World

For example, I use my digital calendar as the canonical version, and I add in weekly events from the digital calendar to my paper monthly and daily calendars. I like having my monthly events laid out on the digital calendar, that I can read anywhere via my smart phone. It does mean I do some duplicate work, but it is efficient in that I don’t always need to tote my task journal around, but I do need to track my appointments. I always have my smart phone with me, and it does free me from having to carry around the journal. You may find your own method for integrating your paper and digital worlds.

(4) Learn Your Limits

I’ve learned that I rarely accomplish more than 5-7 major tasks a day. I may still list 10-12 per day, but I know I won’t accomplish them. I list them for tracking purposes. Alternately, I can put them in the monthly master task list and move them over to the daily calendar, when appropriate. If you do the latter, then set aside 2-3 pages for your monthly index of tasks.

(5) The 80/20 Rule Still Exists

20% of the tasks take 80% of my time. I have learned to plan for this. Also, I leave open 20% of my time for interruptions, tasks taking longer than expected, or other unexpected time takers.

(6) I’m Still My Biggest Problem

Disciplining myself to focus on the required tasks at hand is still my biggest problem. It doesn’t matter what method I use, if I cannot discipline myself to focus and get work done, then the method won’t work. Like most people, I have days of blazing productivity, and other days when BuzzFeed (or insert-web-site-name-here) is my new best friend. For example, as I write this post I really should be writing an academic paper or analyzing my dissertation data. Regardless of the time organization and task tracking method we use, we each have to be focused and disciplined.

(7) Your Mileage Per Journal May Vary

I used 63 pages of my Moleskine for the 31 days of January. Your mileage may vary, but I expect each journal to last me about 4-5 months. I transferred a lot of sticky notes to my Moleskine when I began using this method, but I expect to use about 40 pages per month going forward.

If you’d like to use a nice notebook, but don’t want to spend money on a Moleskine, Barnes and Noble has these Piccadilly Essential Notebooks in black and sky blue on sale in the bargain bin section of the brick-and-mortar store and online as of 1 February 2014. Normally, they sell for $15; yesterday, they were selling for $6. They are slightly narrower, but barely, than a Moleskine, but they are thicker, too. The paper is acid free, medium-ruled, and they contain 240 pages. They are good quality journals. I picked up four, as I plan to stick with the Bullet Journal method for the near future.

Piccadilly Essential Notebooks

Overall, I’ve been very impressed with the Bullet Journal method. It does work for me, and I hope it will work for you.

I would love to hear your tips and tricks for time management and productivity increases, especially with regards to the Bullet Journal method.

**Note: you can also use GTD as a paper-based system, but I don’t think the GTD method is the right one for me to use.

Comments

    • says

      @John Doe, I’ve love to write it. I’m working on my dissertation currently, and I am trying to finish it ASAP. As soon as I can push that out, I’ll write an update. Or, maybe in a bout of procrastination, I’ll update it.

  1. Jean says

    Thank you so much for this article. I have recently been diagnosed with adult ADHD (not that I was surprised!) and need all the help I can to get my life on track. I started using the bullet journal system in September, and it was going well, but I got frustrated because I kept having to manually carry over incomplete tasks. Rather than regroup, and put fewer things on my daily “to-do” tasks, I started playing with the system! (Always blame the system, right? Ha!) I spent an embarrassing amount of hours playing with layout, creating color coded weekly spreads, and basically going down an elaborate rabbit hole. Upon reading this, I am re-inspired to continue using the more traditional bullet journal format, (it really is so simple!) but being more realistic. Thank you. Really.

    • says

      Jean, I do know that “rabbit hole”. Please let us know how going back to the traditional Bullet Journal method works out for you. I have stayed with the traditional method, but I may integrate adding in Linsey’s suggestion on my next monthly update.

      • Jean says

        Hi Jewel!
        Things are better already. I forgot to mention that I really appreciated that you mentioned using the bullet journal system in tandem with a digital calendar. I HAD NEVER THOUGHT OF THAT! I have had an iPhone for years, but have stubbornly refused to utilize it for my calendar/planner/appointments. I have always been a user of paper planners! I am very stubborn about it! I love being able to look back in my planners at things that have happened. But the reality is: I am chronically late, and I do miss appointments. I use my phone for everything from Facebook to idle cribbage playing while waiting for my oil change. Why NOT use it for one of it’s really powerful functions? Reminders!
        So…I downloaded the Canary calendar app on my phone, just to try it out. And I’m back to bullet journalling. The bullet journal gives me that physical something to refer back to, while the digital calendar is there to remind me what the what is on any given day. I am optimistic!

        • says

          Jean, I am so glad to hear that my method is also helpful to you. I, too, tend to be chronically late. I like to be able to set the reminder function to give myself plenty of time to get somewhere. Good luck, and let us know how the Canary app works out for you.

          • says

            As someone recently diagnosed with ADHD, I’m really excited by this system. I’m really similar to Jewel (well, we both have the same issue,) and I really like this customization. I’m really frustrated by digital apps…

  2. says

    Thanks so much for this post…

    I discovered the Bullet Journal method today in an effort to get re-inspired. Your thoughtful and detailed post here has inspired me to jump in. The GTD method was a life changer for me but I have to admit that all aspects of it did not work for me and, as some commenters have implied, I would find that I’d just get really good at collecting overwhelming lists of tasks that I had not accomplished. It quickly became the journal that gave scope to my procrastination or inefficiency.

    I think the biggest problem with productivity methods like this (and perhaps why your post inspires me) is because it isn’t simply a way to make lists. Notes are better linked to the tasks they are needed for. Things that are not accomplished are not easily buried.

    The other commenters seem to suggest another problem that I, too, have: How often do you carry forward the tasks that you didn’t finish? In doing GTD, I found that sometimes daily was too often. Sometimes, however, it was required. For example, I’m a busy physician who also manages a group practice as well as many other related “hats” that I wear. If I had a task to start a quality improvement project perhaps that could wait a week or a month rather than being carried forward every day to remind me of how much I’d failed to accomplish it. On the other hand, “Call Mrs. Smith with her lab results” may be something much more urgent and can’t wait a month.

    In reading about Bullet Journaling, I think there are some people who’ve merged it with GTD by using notations for context (e.g., @office, @phone) but I think I’ll start with the basic method you’re using with my smart phone being a detailed calendar and a way to get photos and scans of documents into Evernote which I use as a reference material repository.

    One question I do have is whether or not you use Bullet Journaling for a tickler/reminder function. If I have an RSVP for a conference that’s months away, I need a way for that to bubble back up to the surface.

    Love the post. I’ll definitely be back!

    • says

      Thank you for your thoughts on the Bullet Journal method. I’m still struggling how to carry forward tasks that are repeating and often. One thing I do is leave myself several pages for the monthly master index, and put tasks in there that are more ongoing. I then take specific subtasks from that master index of tasks and move that into the daily task list. Hopefully, by the end of the month, I’ve done what I need to do.

      When I need a reminder, I still use the digital world for those. I add something to my digital calendar or to the reminders application (I use a MacBookPro and an iPhone). I plan to write an update in the next few weeks on my use of the Bullet Journal method and how it’s been working out, 9 months later. I’m still using it, which I call a success. I haven’t used a task tracking system this long since the paper Franklin Covey planner.

      • Linsey says

        I have dedicated about 5 pages in the back of my bulletjournal for months in advance calendars. I simply produce a horizontal line across the page and on the top list, for example, November 2014 and below October 2014. Then I split the two halfs into halfs again with 1-15 on the left hand side and 16-30/31 on the other side, for the days of the week.

        I definitely suggest trying this because it is something to refer to for future appointments, events, etc.!

  3. says

    I just found out about the bullet journal on yesterday and I am eager to give it a try. Like yourself I was using the GTD method by David Allen, and I don’t think it’s quite for me. I sometimes have lots of items on my action lists as well, and you’re right it does seem overwhelming. I am finishing a MOOC(Massive Open Online Course) at http://www.coursera.org called Learning How To Learn. It is a superb course that I would recommend. One of the techniques given in the course was using the Pomodoro technique to quell procrastination. The technique is to set a timer for 25min and turn off all distractions, focused intently on whatever task you need to get done, and also very important, reward yourself after completing the 25 min session. This is called having a more “process” oriented approach as opposed to having a “product” oriented approach. The product for instance may be, “Become fluent in Spanish in 3 months”. The process would be to set aside “mini-sessions” of focused mode thinking over a period of time that will eventually lead to the outcome of the product. It can be overwhelming to look at the Product(Goal), but it is much easier to focus for 25min at a time. I also learned the concept of “Transfer” in this course, which is when you apply something you learned in another area to help you understand something in what you currently grappling with. For example in the GTD, Allen says that you can’t “do” a project, you can only do the actions steps that lead to the outcome which is the project. I think this is the same thing as being processed oriented. Another point made in the course is “Lady Luck Favors the one who try’s.” Just by planning you are trying, and that in itself will help prepare you for opportunities that appear to others who don’t necessarily work as hard planning as just mere Luck. In actuality there is no such thing as luck. I have learned and I am still learning that the quality of our actions determines the quality of our lives. All modes of action(Thinking, Speaking, and Physical actions). Peace be with you, and thank you for your article.

    • says

      Thank you for your comments. I’m going to try the 25 minutes of focusing. I usually try for 50 minutes, but that doesn’t always work. Re: luck, I do believe in a bit of it. I think we all have a certain set of circumstances in our lives that we have no control over. We **can** control how we react. And, sometimes, serendipity occurs. However, as Thomas Jefferson once said, “I am a great believer in luck, and I find the harder I work, the more I have of it.”

  4. Jane says

    Meg, I loves this post. I am wondering how you would handle my current quandary: I am a 2/3 time professional mother, so each day I have both kids and work stuff to do. I am self-employed as a psychotherapist, so I don’t have a boss breathing town my neck and am on my own in terms of self-direction/motivation.

    I find I haven’t found a system yet (I like paper more than digital, which I use for calendar very efficiently) that I can elegantly handle both. I work three days a week, but even then, I have mom stuff to do. Any suggestions? Do I blend both home and work stuff? I have found that when both are on one to-do list, I often go towards the home stuff as it is easier (usually.) My work life (building my business, tweaking my web presence, planning for classes I teach) often takes the back seat, and yet ultimately, it provides me with tremendous fulfillment (and income!) Any thoughts are welcomed! Thanks! Jane

    • says

      I think any system relies on self-discipline, ultimately.

      I have a similar problem, which is that I am a doctoral candidate, and I am writing my dissertation. I have a 20 hour a week research assistantship position that pays an annual salary and for my health insurance. I have two dogs and a house that still needs “running”. (Pets aren’t children, but they are little beings for whom I am responsible, and they require exercise, love, and food, too.) I find I tend towards one or another. I work on my dissertation, and then ignore the R.A. work. I do life stuff — grocery shopping, cooking, and pet and self-care, like exercising, and that takes time away from the core of what I am supposed to be doing, which is my dissertation and my R.A. work. Mostly, I let other people and social media distract me too much. I, too, work from home.

      The only thing I can tell you is that you are going to have to be more disciplined, and cut out any distractions. Set aside time per week that is “golden” and you focus on your paid work during that time. Pretend, if you have to, that you do have a boss breathing down your neck. :) I started doing this a few weeks ago, and my productivity has improved tremendously.

      Does anyone else have any comments or suggestions to help Jane?

      • says

        I have a separate notebook for work and home. If I have a work event/task that I need to remember at home, I’ll also write it in my home journal. Likewise, if I have a personal call or task to do at work, it is duplicated in my work journal. I always carry my personal journal. I keep my work journal at work. Not sure how helpful that is!

        • says

          Oh, no, that’s very helpful. I think it is a great idea! I hadn’t thought about separating the two sets of tasks into two notebooks. I can see where it would be simpler and easier to separate them, and leave one at work. (I work from home, so I will continue to keep personal and work in one notebook, but I can see where, depending on the job, this could be an extremely convenient way to track work vs personal tasks.) I like the replication of tasks between work ==> personal and personal ==> work, as well. Thank you for your advice.

          • says

            I’m giving the Bullet Journal a try beginning today — I also work from home and have a family of four (plus pets) and I volunteer at the kids’ school each week. I can’t separate work from personal, but I too am easily distracted. I’m also trying to incorporate the Pomodoro technique to increase my ability to focus. I appreciate your sharing and look forward to hearing what works and doesn’t work as you continue on your journey.

            Thank you!

            • says

              Great, let us know how it works out for you. I also have a hard time focusing, but I’ve found the 25 minute Pomodoro short stints help.

  5. Alan says

    Has anyone hybridised the bullet journal method, or variations thereof, with any of the productivity methods offered by Mark Forster http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/3668.Do_It_Tomorrow_and_Other_Secrets_of_Time_Management is one example that I am currently using with a ‘day-to-a-page A4 Diary.

    Paper seems to engage me more than any digital solution. The digital solution is best suited as a calendar for me; makes much more sense to use this as a ‘prompt’ to start thinking of something, rather than carry progress ( i.e. next actions)

  6. MegCalcote says

    I recently discovered the bullet method and have been using since (I think) February. I just LOVE it. it was very similar to what I already do with my notebooks, but added a few extra things to make my notes that much more organized.

    I do one thing a little bit differently than you (at least I think I do if I understand your description properly) that may help (or hinder?) you. I don’t re-write tasks that are left uncompleted every day, or even every week. I only do that once a month. I find that I really like a fresh start, but trying to re-write everything that’s left uncompleted every day or even every week becomes a huge time suck that just left me feeling like a failure who can’t get everything done. I only re-write tasks that haven’t been finished at the start of every month. The first of the month is a perfect time for a fresh start to me – I’m filling in my calendar for the month (per the system) and seeing what’s left. I’ve also found that I feel more productive because I actually move fewer items at the month changeover than I do on the weekly changeover. I think it’s because we all have busy weeks and slow weeks and on the slow weeks I can usually go back and catch the things that are still waiting on action. I also write DONE at the top of a page if I’ve finished everything on it so I know I can just keep flipping.

    Thanks for your post! I’ll have to keep an eye on your thoughts as you continue to use the system. I just love the simplicity of the bullet journal. Also, I found a great pinterest board where someone is using Bullet Journal. She uses some modified versions of the bullets that I think I might implement. Namely she can easily indicate what’s in progress which I LOVE since I often have long term projects that get started and may take several days to complete. http://www.pinterest.com/Sumana/bullet-journal/

    • says

      Meg,
      I find I go back and forth re: carrying over tasks. Some weeks, I “float” them, which means I don’t forward or cross them out on a daily basis, but once I week I get my tasks sorted and I cross out and forward then. Other weeks, I carry them over or cross them out on a daily basis. I do find that I can only accomplish 5-7 tasks per day, which I think I mentioned in another comments post. If I count personal, too, then maybe 10-12. So, I have found that breaking things down more can help.

      Thank you for your comments, tips, and the pointer to the Pinterest page. I’m following that board, now.

  7. blaiseliu says

    Love your “Don’t Do It” section and the link to “Personal Notations”. May I know how many dots (notes) do you have in a typical day? If you think of something that should be done in the future days, do you record them as notes?

    • says

      Thank you for your comment.

      I’ve found that I can accomplish 6-7 dots/bullets of items, with perhaps a few sub items. Either I need to break those down further, or get faster! If something needs to be done in the future, I put that under the “monthly” section at the beginning of the new month. E.g., “April 2014″.

  8. John says

    Excellent article…I can tell you’re productive…but thanks for sharing what wasn’t working….I’ve long held that there is a “techno-gap”..and that we havn’t solved everything by tech….your post was educational, informative and inspiring (ie if productive girl has these problems…and is going back to hard copy..that gave me confidence to do it) one of the biggest sellers of the bullet journal system…is the guy’s confidence and speed that he works that video)…not to sound elitist..but an older co worker…not that intelligent….killed all of us in productivity with a simple system – similar to the bullet journal that worked for him…he would consistently have the most “done” things on his list…so anyway…thx

    • says

      Thank you, I don’t always feel I am productive! I think it’s a constant push-pull between the convenience of technology and what is most effective. A simple phone call is often far more effective than an email.

  9. Jennie says

    I’ve been using the bullet journal system for March and also some forward planning for April by dividing my journal in half (its only just over 100 pages in total). I love it! There were some things though that I wanted to include but would like to be able to access in future months throughout the year eg gift suggestions, yearly savings plan, yearly goals, event details for a trip Im taking at the end of the year etc. If I include them in the current journal then I have to either revert back to that journal throughout the year or transfer them into future journals. My fix for this was to start a yearly bullet journal as well as my current one. It can house all these lists and is small enough to carry around with my other journal but mostly I just use / leave it at home.By including all months of the year in this journal you can also address the issue of future planning. Of course another fix would be to buy a notebook with enough pages to last a year to start with? Thanks for sharing your experience with this system I really enjoyed reading your articles.

    • says

      Thank you very much for the link. He does have some nice twists. I look forward to reading about how he has incorporated the bullet journal into his digital workflow.

  10. Tiago Palhota says

    Thank you for your post!
    What do you do when you can’t finish a task that was supposed to be done? Imagine that you had to something on day 1 and you were not able to do it. Although you think that next day you will definitely finish it, do you write the task again on day 2 or just mark as completed on day 1 after you do it on day 2?

    Thanks

    • says

      Tiago, thank you for your question.

      You migrate the task. If you’ll see on the 4th image down on my previous post about the bullet journal (http://tamingdata.com/2013/12/31/the-bullet-journal-time-organizer-method-ill-give-it-a-go/) — it’s the image that shows the Index page for the new notebook on the right with notation symbols on the left — an empty checkbox is the symbol for an uncompleted task. If you complete it, you insert a checkmark in it. If it is irrelevant now, strike through it. If you don’t complete it and you transfer it to the next day, place an arrow to the left of the empty check box to notate that you have migrated it (see the “migration” notation on that 4th image down on that previous post) . That is Ryder Carroll’s method. I do something slightly different, which is my adoption from the Franklin Covey Method. I draw the arrow over the box, like a strikethrough, as I find this visually a better notation for me. I have to leave for work now, but I’ll post a photo later today.

      • Tiago Palhota says

        Thank you very much for your help and time!! I’ll definitely give it a try!!!
        Have a nice day :)

      • Lisa Panagos says

        I do something very similar to this, but I draw the strike-through arrow in the opposite direction (arrow pointing to the margin of the page). Next to the arrow, I write the date to which I’ve migrated the task or event because it’s not always the very next day. For instance, sometimes meetings are rescheduled for a week or two later due to scheduling conflicts, and work tasks that were very important may have their deadline pushed out due to circumstances. Including the migration date helps me see at a glance where to go without having to search every day after to find the migrated task or event.

Please let me know what you think....