Last year, I discovered bullet journaling for the first time. Bullet journaling is a planner system developed by Ryder Carrol, consisting of notebook layouts and an encoding system to help a person keep track of their short and long term goals. If you’re new to the concept, I highly recommend watching his introduction video. After a year of experimenting with this, I want to share my method bullet journaling.
I initially wanted to use bullet journaling to help me stay focused and productive. However, in the last few years I worked many late nights, sometimes juggling multiple jobs at once, ran meetups, gave jet lagged talks around the world, gave up weekends, free time, and vacation time to travel for conferences and mentor other developers, and pulled countless all-nighters to get it barely done. While there are many reasons for this behavior that are too deep to go into in this blog post, this lifestyle drove me to a low point in my life. Bullet journaling, for me, is a way set my health as a priority and improve my boundaries rather than a productivity or goal setting tool. The physical act of writing down a task and seeing it on paper next to all my other tasks for the week helps me realize how taxing saying “yes” can be and reminds me to ask myself if that effort is worth it. The journal is also used as a tool of reflection and awareness so I can change the habits that aren’t working in my life.
Many bullet journal layouts are designed for a dedicated notebook: a table of contents, pages mapped out for months in advance, and so on. I prefer not to juggle several notebooks, so I keep my work notes, personal notes, informal sketches, and my bullet journal pages in one unruled notebook (A5 double ring Muji).
Every Sunday, I divide a page into 6 boxes: one for each weekday, and the last for the weekend. I look at my digital calendar for important work meetings, appointments, and anything else, and write down their date and time in the correct box. Rather than encode my items using Carrol’s bullet encoding system, I highlight to-dos and appointments in separate colors. As more appointments, meetings, and invitations pile up on the week, I’ll write them in and highlight accordingly. When I need to run errands or do other tasks, work related or not, I’ll create a checkbox.
“But Joanne, isn’t this what a calendar app is for?”
Here are the reasons I prefer this method:
- I can’t write notes about my meeting to myself in my calendar.
- I use Linux, which doesn’t have an OS X equivalent calendar that I like. I need to juggle 4 different google calendars.
- My phone calendar is connected to my phone, a dangerously addictive device.
I’ll occasionally also play around with the design of my weekly spread. This gives me a bit of time every week to do a small creative thing solely for myself. I create these layouts one week at a time so I can leave the rest of the notebook empty for notes and writing throughout the week.
Monthly tracking and planning
I have lost interest in every habit tracker app I used in the last several years, but I’ve been pretty successful in tracking my habits using paper. The goal of the tracking page is to track habits without judgment, rather than set lofty goals for myself, I only wanted to be aware of what I was doing from day to day. However, after tracking my habits for the last two months, I’m now finally exercising and meditating almost every day. My mood tracker (the bar graph above) is completely subjective, but it helps me be more aware of my emotional state. If I notice I’ve been feeling bad for a few days in a row, I’ll ask myself if I’m doing the things that help my emotional state and at least take steps to do something that makes me feel better about myself.
This month I tracked 5 habits, and next month, I’ll probably only track exercise and meditation. I learned that throwing a bunch of new habits at myself isn’t a good way to make them stick.
I set aside a few pages at the beginning of the month for focused journaling. I’m doing a journaling exercise I heard from Alex Banayan on The Ground Up podcast. The exercise requires the writer to answer three questions: “what filled me with enthusiasm today?”, “what drained me of energy today?”, and “what did I learn about myself today?”. This type of short, focused journaling has been helping me unpack my emotions without being too ramble-y, and I plan to continue creating layouts and space each month for journaling exercises.
While this type of life organization hasn’t stopped all my unhealthy life choices, it’s helped nudge me towards healthier habits. A weekly spread filled with too many to-dos reminds me that it’s okay to say no to people, writing a short journal entry helps me look at my thoughts from a different angle, and looking at the doodles and designs I made makes me feel good that I created something just for myself. This type of journaling has been like a mirror, it’s given me a much better picture of my own life. If you’re feeling overwhelmed or unfocused, pick a pen and a notebook and look into bullet journaling.