When it comes to productivity, I’m a 100% paper person. For the past few years, I’ve been using the Planner Pad to organize my schedule, but my daily to-do list is often longer than the allotted space. I end up using separate lists that leave me with multiple places to track. When I (finally) discovered the popular Bullet Journal method, it seemed like the perfect solution, so I decided to try it out for a month.
If you’re not familiar with the Bullet Journal, it’s a productivity system that uses the pages of a blank journal to fulfill various functions. You create a Future Log for tasks and events for the future, a Monthly Log that is an overview of the current month, and a Daily Log for the tasks of the day.
The heart of the system involves capturing your thoughts by rapid logging, a series of notes that replace detailed to-do lists. Quickly jot down your thoughts for the day on your Daily Log, then categorize them using symbols: “-” is for a note, “o” is for an event, “.” is for a task, “x” is for a completed task, “>” is when you migrate a task to another day, and “<" is used when you schedule a task.
Ryder Carroll, a web and digital designer, created the Bullet Journal as a way to cope with his ADD. He later shared the idea, which he calls "BuJo," with friends and eventually with the public, recording a video tutorial and launching a website.
“It was a different solution to challenges, and I figured maybe, just maybe, somebody would find it valuable,” he says, adding that he had no expectations for the project. “I thought maybe a couple hundred people would find it mildly helpful to them.”
Carroll’s method was featured on LifeHacker and here on Fast Company, and the site went from 100 to 100,000 unique visitors in a matter of days. Clearly, people found it helpful. In fact, search “Bullet Journal” on YouTube, and you’ll find thousands of videos of people sharing their experience.
Carroll’s new book, The Bullet Journal Method: Track the Past, Order the Present, Design the Future, takes a deeper dive into the system he created, helping beginners and current users make the most of their journal and sharing the stories of BuJo community members whose lives it changed.
My learning curve
I was anxious to get started, but like any new system, the Bullet Journal can take a while to get used to. Normally, I plan out my week in advance, assigning tasks to available hours, providing a sense of control. That said, my plan often goes awry. Things take longer than I anticipate or unexpected tasks pop up, and I’m always erasing and moving things around.
The traditional Bullet Journal doesn’t include a Weekly Log, and you fill out your Daily Log in the morning or the night before. This made me uncomfortable; the reason I’ve stuck with the Planner Pad is that I see my whole week at a glance. Two weeks in, I eventually realized that the beauty of the Bullet Journal is that it can be whatever I want it to be. So I added my own Weekly Log as a way to get a better sense of my week. I used the “>” when I migrated it to another week.
Another thing I had to get used to was capturing notes on the journal. I don’t normally do that in my to-do list or planner, and I wasn’t sure why this was important. I started by taking notes when tasks took longer than I had planned, and this turns out to be helpful.
“A big part of the Bullet Journal is studying the experience, not just creating a tasks list,” Carroll explains. “You can go back and see what you tried, what worked, what didn’t, and how you were feeling during that time. Was a project emotionally taxing, or did you enjoy the process?”
Before I started my Bullet Journal, I watched a few videos of others who had found the method to be life changing. This gave me some stress about doing it right, and Carroll says that’s common. “I see a lot of people challenged because they want to do everything perfectly,” he says. “This can be disheartening and create false starts. One thing you don’t realize is that’s part of your story. Every mistake is okay; it’s evidence of trying to learn.”
Another mistake I made was diving in too soon. The Bullet Journal method doesn’t require fancy tools; all you need is a pen, a notebook, and paper. I grabbed an old spiral notebook I had lying around. While it worked, it was unattractive. To take the system seriously, I would recommend using a nicer notebook.
I also didn’t make the most of my Monthly Log. The two-page spread is supposed to include a calendar page with a list of the days of the month, plus a tasks page for recording activities for the month. I regularly have seven to 15 work tasks to complete each week, and it felt overwhelming to record them on a single page for the month. Since I created a Weekly Log, I wasn’t using my task page, and I left my calendar page blank because I wasn’t sure what to do with it.
Carroll told me the calendar can be used one of two ways: “Write down a list of things coming up, or use it to write down things after they happen, which turns into a timeline or highlight reel, good things and bad,” he says. “For me, it’s more about context than about planning.”
Carroll says a monthly tasks page can serve as a tool to center yourself. “Take a step back and look at what you’re working on,” he says. “Evaluate priorities, and only add what’s valuable. Look through previous months to see what tasks were left open. Only migrate tasks that add value.”
Sticking with it
After using the system for a month, I feel like I’ve got more to learn. In fact, Carroll recommends giving the Bullet Journal more time than I did. “You’ll have a light bulb moment where you realize there are tasks you don’t have to do,” he says. “It takes two or three months to start seeing how it affects you. It’s not about getting as many things done as possible; it’s about getting fewer things done, but things that matter.”
Carroll likens the Bullet Journal to meditation or yoga. “It’s one of the only tools that helps you take a step back from life,” he says. “We’re always moving forward, and technology is moving us even faster. When you use apps for scheduling, you can start in one place and end up somewhere different, not sure where transition happens. The Bullet Journal makes you unplug and engage with your notebook. It’s the only place you can be, and a lot of interesting things can happen.”