In my last blog post, I mentioned that I recently started using a bullet journal. I came across the idea when I was doing research about habit formation. There are a LOT of articles online about bullet journals. They seem to be having a moment. Or maybe they’ve been around for a long time and I am just clueless. In any case, lots of people have written about them. I don’t remember which article I started with but I soon came across the work of Ryder Carroll, the inventor of the system trademarked as Bullet Journal.
So what is a bullet journal? The official Bullet Journal web site says that a Bullet Journal is “the mindfulness practice disguised as a productivity system.” I find that statement a bit pretentious (even though I think it’s mostly true). I think the Best Self site has a clearer definition: “A bullet journal is a combination of a diary/calendar/to-do list/planner/general organizer! Using bullet points as the core way of capturing and recording information, a bullet journal is a tool that helps you organize your life and get stuff done.”
Although I had my own “productivity system” that was working pretty well for me, I decided to start a bullet journal to really learn what it is all about and to see whether some of the ideas might be helpful for students who are struggling with habits that get in the way of their goals. What I found is that I love this system. With some caveats. The big caveat is that I think Carroll’s system is too complicated–at least for me. So I’ve modified and simplified the system and use only what seems to be working for me. (One other, less important caveat is that Carroll has also trademarked BuJo as the name of his system and I REALLY hate that.)
First things first. All you need to create a bullet journal is an idea of what you want to track and plan, a notebook, and a pen. It’s preferable if the notebook is a grid notebook but definitely not required. To get started with mine, I bought this metal stencil and this set of pens. The stencil makes it easier to create the pages in the bullet journal and the pens are just fun. There are tons of tools that you can buy to create your journal but I would recommend keeping things simple until you really know how you might use your bullet journal.
The core of my bullet journal are a yearly list of goals (I started mine in December), a list of goals for each month, and weekly to-do lists that are divided into days. I spent time brainstorming what I want and need to accomplish this year, both personally and professionally. These are my big, broad goals for the year written as a list. I then created what Carroll calls a Future Log. This is where you can record things that you know are going to come up in the future. You might record birthdays there. Or tasks that you want to remember to do at some point in the future. Here’s what part of my Future Log looks like:
I add things to it as they come up. At the start of each month, I use the Future Log and my yearly goals to start thinking about a monthly to-do list. Here’s my monthly list for January (with the more personal things blacked out). You’ll notice that most of the items have a check mark next to them. That means I completed that task. Some of the items have an arrow next to them. Those are items I didn’t complete and need to carry over to the next month. This system of symbols meaning different things comes from Carroll’s original work but he uses many more symbols and I found that to be overwhelming.
On Sunday nights, I create a weekly to-do list using the monthly to-do list (and my electronic calendar). I try to schedule each task to a particular day of the week. Here’s what the first week of January looked like (again with personal items and people’s names erased):
I am finding this system to be really helpful. I have a lot of anxiety about forgetting to do some small task and this system is alleviating all of that anxiety. The system is also helping me to prioritize my time. Something about looking at the tasks I have from this big picture viewpoint is helpful for prioritizing. And it definitely helps me to be more productive. Now if I have a half hour between meetings or other commitments, I can look at these lists and figure out whether there’s something that I can work on in that amount of time.
But the parts of the bullet journal that have gotten me really excited are the parts that I think Carroll would identify as the “mindfulness practice.” I have created lists of blog post topics that I add to as they occur to me so that I don’t forget. I have created lists of books I want to read, TV shows and movies I want to watch, and games I want to play. I have a list of topics to talk to my supervisor about at our next meeting that I add to as things occur to me. I have a page of quotations from things I’m reading that I want to remember. Having all of this material in one place, a notebook that I carry with me all the time, makes me feel very mindful of my life.
But I have saved the best for last–the habit tracking pages. I made a list of habits I wanted to develop and mark on the habit tracker each day whether I did the thing. Here’s January’s habit tracker (with the habits themselves blacked out):
I find this tool to be the most motivating thing about my bullet journal. I used a very simple way of tracking habits but there are many very cool examples that are far more fun visually.
I started looking at bullet journals as a tool that might help some students to be more successful (whatever successful means to them). But I have found it to be really helpful and inspiring for me. There is no end of what you can add to a bullet journal. There are tons of examples on the web but be careful about getting overwhelmed by the visual attractiveness of some of them. The attractive bullet journals are very cool but your bullet journal should be a tool for your life, which means it won’t be perfect. You’ll probably have pages that have things crossed out and pages that you end up not using and some pages will be really basic and not pretty at all. Mine is full of stuff like that. I’m still experimenting with how I want to use the tool. And I don’t want to spend all my time setting things up in the bullet journal. I want to spend my time doing the tasks listed in the bullet journal, watching the movies and TV shows, writing the blog posts, etc. Anyway, I’m loving it so far. I’d be curious to hear if anyone else uses a bullet journal or is inspired to start one.
I am currently Professor of Digital Media at Plymouth State University in Plymouth, NH. I am also the current Coordinator of General Education at the University. I am interested in astrophotography, game studies, digital literacies, open pedagogies, and generally how technology impacts our culture.