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.
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.)
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).
(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.
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.