I started experimenting with Bullet Journaling as a way to manage my chaotic to-do lists a couple of years ago. Once I realized that I didn’t have to have a Masters degree in hand lettering and decorative arts in order to participate in this phenomenon, I cracked open my first basic black dot grid journal and started with a few recommended layouts.
According to the BuJo experts, you should start your Bullet Journal with a future log, to map out the year month-by-month. I diligently laid out 12 rectangles and then realized I had nothing to put in them. It was right at the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, and I had no concept of what may happen in any future month. I wrote “Birthday!” in November and pretty much never used the future log again. At that point, the idea of trying to plan out a whole year just didn’t make any sense.
Once I got through my first awkward (and oddly colorful—I had new pens) annual layouts, I dove right into the daily process. I kept it simple (albeit colorful) and just made a bullet list of the day’s tasks, with a second column for work tasks.
As I finished tasks I X’d out the bullet. As new tasks came up I added them to the end of the list, sometimes ending the day with more tasks than I started with. The next day I would write the day and date and start adding tasks, while still working from the previous day’s list.
Just the act of keeping a paper list made a big difference for me. I had various digital tools for managing projects, but having a tangible list really helps me evaluate and focus on what’s important as I go through my day.
Over time, I refined my daily task list process and started planning out the whole week. This allows me to spread out tasks so that I only have a handful on each daily list. For me, having a long task list leads to overwhelm and paralysis, so creating short, daily “will do” lists helps me actually get stuff done.
Apart from being an analog productivity system, the options for how to use your journal are only limited by your imagination. Each page is a blank slate, and you can turn the journal into a creative outlet, or you can just make a daily bullet list. Search for Bullet Journal on YouTube for almost endless inspiration. Some people have made careers out of producing Bullet Journal demos.
I’ve tried and dropped quite a few different types of trackers, monthly spreads, and goal planning layouts. It has been a series of experiments, and like any experiment, most things I have tried have not worked for me. For 2022 I’m sticking with the things that do work for me, while continuing to experiment.
For my yearly planning, I go through a review process and look back over the past year to identify what went well and what didn’t. It is always interesting to look back on what I had planned to do and compare that to what actually happened. Usually reality does not match up very well to my plans, and those gaps are places to learn something about myself and the world.
Intentions vs. goals
I’ve always tried to set personal goals. Maybe not every year, but I’ve learned to appreciate the value of having things to strive toward, even if I never quite achieve them, or don’t achieve them in the way I thought I would. I’ve tried to set SMART goals, with neat deadlines and measurable results. I got accustomed to the strange grief of slipping past deadlines.
I still think short term, achievable goals are great tools for making progress toward a good life or a desired outcome. But I have come to accept that those big, longterm SMART goals are just too unlikely to actually come to fruition in the way I want them to. I can’t control the outcome, so I have come to value progress in and of itself.
That’s why I set intentions for how I want to live, as well as a few achievable goals to make progress in certain areas of my life. Some goals are very specific and achievable within a year or less, others are more experimental, like “have more dinner parties.” I’m not going to set a quota or deadlines for dinner parties, but putting in my goals reminds me to plan one every so often.
My intentions help me lean toward the life I want to build, and lean away from the things I want to leave behind. This year, I used a basic “more of this” and “less of this” approach to setting intentions. These are not things I can check off a list, but at the end of the year I can assess: was there more of this and less of that?
Unlike the future log I created when I could see no future, this year I took a bit more of a pragmatic approach. For each month I chose one habit to focus on. I will still be maintaining and tracking existing habits, but having one area of focus allows me to push myself a bit in that area, while letting others run on autopilot.
I took my achievable goals and spread them out throughout the year, along with any other known tasks, like getting haircuts. I also left a little room for highlights (of each month, not my hair). At the end of the month when I review what I did or didn’t get done, I can jot down a few interesting moments, so I don’t forget what happened.
This is my first year trying this kind of monthly mapping of goals, so we’ll see how it goes. The idea is that I will review it monthly as I set up my monthly spread to pull goals and any outstanding items into my plan for the month.
The monthly spread
I try to keep my Bullet Journal practices fairly simple. I don’t go for elaborate decorations, and my hand lettering is fairly quick and sloppy when I try it. I don’t have a lot of time to spend on elaborate spreads and artwork. But this year I decided to add an artistic element. I’ve wanted to get more visual art back into my life, so I am drawing a bird of the month as part of my monthly spread.
I’ve never had much luck using a monthly spread. I’ve tried the generic list of dates for noting events, but I never really used it. I use my Google calendar for any appointments or other scheduled events. Having it written down somewhere else does not help me, and I never go back to look at it or add new things as they come up.
My new monthly spread is pretty sparse and high level. I list the habits I plan to track, I transfer my goals from the monthly plan, plus anything else I know needs to get done. I also include an “undone” list for those items left over from the previous month. Then I have a small area to list key dates if there are any holidays or big events, and a mini month-at-a-glance calendar for reference.
The weekly spread
The weekly spread is where I live, and it has evolved over the past two years. The core of the spread is the daily “planner” section. In the beginning I dumped all of my to-dos into the first day (usually Monday) and whittled down the long list as the week progressed, while adding new tasks to subsequent days as they came up.
I’ve come to realize that my brain simply rejects lists longer than about seven items. It refuses to process the information or choose a task to work on. In order to trick my brain into actually focusing on any one task, I have to break my inevitably long list into small, manageable ones, which is why I now spread my tasks over the days of the week.
As I plan my week, I try to limit meatier tasks (that take 20 minutes or more) to three per day. I have certain tasks that fall routinely on certain days, like planning meals on Monday, cleaning out my Gmail account on Tuesday, etc. Once I add my “big rocks” and routine tasks to the week, there’s still space for a few small, incidental tasks each day. There is a method to the madness of having only a small space for each daily list!
I have also discovered the power of a “future” list. If there’s something I want to do in the coming weeks, but I don’t have space or time this week, I stick it on the future list. Then I move those tasks into the next week’s spread when I set it up, or add larger projects to my Todoist app, which I still use for longterm project planning. When I set up my weekly spread, I review goals, undone tasks, Todoist and Productive (where I track recurring items like laundry and groceries).
Habit and health trackers
I’m sort of a geek about habit tracking, and I actually do it in three different places now. I use the Productive app for managing all of my habits, including those that happen less frequently. I track my fundamental daily habits and focus habits in a small area of my weekly spread (see above), and for the first time I am playing with annual trackers at the back of my journal (see below).
The four annual trackers are key indicators that my healthy habits are on track. I am tracking drinking (none so far!), sleep score, 3+ mile walks, and closing the activity rings on my Apple Watch. By the end of the year I should have a visual representation of these critical (for me) metrics.
Why track habits? I resisted the habit of tracking habits for years (note that “habit tracking” is still a a habit I track daily, possibly creating a small habit paradox). It was hard for me to see the value in checking off something I do literally every day.
The value of tracking really comes in the development of new habits, or strengthening weak habits. Once it truly is on autopilot, you can stop tracking. I’ve never tracked “brush teeth” as a twice-daily habit, because I have been doing it on autopilot since I was a kid. I don’t track “drink water” because I always do it, but if I want to drink more water (which I do), I might add water tracking to my daily agenda.
Tracking something does really have kind of a magical effect. It increases the likelihood of doing the thing you intend to do by a lot, I would say, though I don’t have the data on this, because it’s hard to measure what might not have happened. I’ve noticed that since I started noting my sleep score every day, it has been consistently higher. I can’t say this is causation and not just correlation, but it is interesting.
I’ve resisted keeping a gratitude journal of any kind, because it just seems like a corny thing to do. But the more I hear and read about this practice, the more convinced I become of its scientific validity. As someone who sometimes struggles with depression, I’m game to try non-drug things that might help. Plus, it’s so easy.
My gratitude practice goes along with my habit tracking in the evening. I just jot down about three things that I feel grateful for in that moment. Sometimes it’s as simple as a change in the weather, or a TV show I’m currently enjoying. I never have any trouble thinking of at least three things I can be grateful for.
Does it “work?” It’s hard to say. My depression has been at bay without meds for awhile now, but I’m also getting more exercise, spending more time outdoors, and meditating daily, so I’m not sure how much I can put down to gratitude practice. I do like doing it, though, so it can’t hurt. There’s something rather nice about just thinking of a few things you like, especially if you’re having a hard time or a bad day.
…and all the rest
My weekly spread is pretty locked in, in terms of my daily planning page, habit tracker, and gratitude list. I’ve decided to use a separate notebook for my day job for now, as my process is a bit different for planning and tracking work stuff. That leaves me with about a half page per week of extra space.
In the past, I have added some weekly stats for things like daily steps and GKI (when I was on the Keto diet). I’ve sometimes created a section for “notes” but rarely wrote anything in it. I’ve now started adding items to a shopping list as I think of them and consolidate my shopping into a weekly splurge rather than randomly ordering things whenever I think of them. This includes items for the grocery list and supplements that are running low.
In the final space I’ve started listing weekly goals. These are largely also represented in my daily tasks, but having a milestone for the week helps keep me on track for the month, or see where I’m not on track and adjust accordingly. I’ve also got a bit of space to jot down ideas for the blog, along with articles in progress.
You’ll notice I have not mentioned a daily spread. That’s because I don’t use one. My weekly spread serves the usual function of a daily spread, only in miniature. I shrink each day down to a couple of square inches, and save a few trees in the long run.
Each week I pick a couple of pens from my ridiculous collection and set up my daily planner on the left side, with sections for habits, gratitude, blog, shopping and goals on the right. I then move over any unfinished tasks from the previous week and add any upcoming routine tasks. Finally, I review my goals and add some milestones and tasks to support them.
Each day, I review the day’s tasks and star one or two “most important tasks.” Ideally, I would do those tasks first thing, but the reality is that my work schedule doesn’t really allow me to work on personal projects in the morning hours, so I have mixed results actually doing my important tasks. But with just one or two of them the odds are good I can squeeze them in somewhere, along with a few quick and easy tasks.
After dinner, I do my tracking and gratitude practice. This involves filling in the little bubbles for today’s completed habits, coloring the appropriate squares on my annual trackers, and writing down three-ish things I feel grateful for. Outside of my Bullet Journal, I log my food in Cronometer, and process my full habit list in the Productive app. It sounds like a lot, but the whole process just takes about ten minutes.
Since I started Bullet Journaling a lot has happened. I got through cancer treatments. I started working from home full time, and then got a new, fully remote job. I wrote most of a memoir. I lost 50 pounds. I don’t think the Bullet Journal magically did any of that, but it sure helped me keep it together along the way. It reminds me of my direction and keeps me on the path that goes that way. It also gives me a way to look back and see what I actually did.
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