Smart Suggestions in Depth: Bullet Journal

I was searching for something that would give me the blend of simple notation but with added context that would allow me to better focus on ongoing projects (a noted weakness of mine). With these two primary needs in mind, I stumbled on to the bullet journal system as a potential solution.

Bullet Journal is billed as a great analog system for scheduling and keeping track of things that need to get done.

I’m not normally a fan of pen and paper, but I’ve found that my mind has been so ready to assume that a computer or app is going to remember something for me that I lose the ability to organize or view those notes as anything but discrete points of information. Adding traditional note taking with a more coherent foundation of bulleted lists and indexes would give me the context that I felt was missing. In addition it would be a bit of insurance in case one of those miraculous pieces of advanced technology fails me.

What is Bullet Journaling?

The Bullet Journal is a system, not a product. There are no special products one has to buy to get started. All you need is a notebook and a pen or pencil. The system is so named because it is primarily built around bulleted lists.

If you’ve used the website Workflowy, you may be familiar with the power of the rather simple bulleted list. It’s a great way to visualize and organize at the same time. In the case of the bullet journal the advantages include:

  1. It’s efficient (mix of low cost to high information retention)

  2. It’s low tech (no crashes, pencil and paper are readily available)

  3. It’s very flexible (one can add and adjust the system to fit one’s needs)

 

To get a better sense of it check out the Bullet Journal introduction video:

Initial apprehension​

One of my first concerns was the amount of repetition involved in this journaling process. Setting up each month appears to be a bit of a pain. And then you have to repeat the steps for the next month, ugh!

But it’s not that bad, it takes a couple of minutes each month to build up the next month. No biggie, and then perhaps a little extra time copying over any notes that are transitioning month-to-month. Yes, it’s slower than Evernote or whatever calendaring app you may have, but think of it as a little ritual or ceremony and it’s not so bad.

Bullet Journal

Nevermind the ugly handwriting. This is the Bullet Journal “in action”.

Materials

I started this attempt with a good pen and a cheap notebook. Creator Ryder Carrol recommends a Moleskine journal, which is a fine bit of hardware, but one can easily get the same functionality from a composition notebook. I find grid ruled to be most useful as you are going to be writing vertically as well as horizontally.

As far as pens go, you cannot go wrong with the Uni-ball Jetstream. They write phenomenally and cost just enough that you’ll be sure to take care of it while not being so expensive that you’ll be afraid to lose it.​

One of the added benefits of Bullet Journaling is that it slows me down. Not in a way that is tedious as when Evernote takes forever to load, but in a productive and contemplative way where I review more of what I’ve done and need to do. As the journal grows I can rely on the index to jump between months, and in my little variation also major tasks. By jotting down events as I tackle them I can also build up a list that, if it ever came to it, I could use as proof of my work during the day.

Shortcomings

It’s hard to fault the system when it’s so flexible. I happen to think that the bullet journal is not especially good at extended “deep dives” into topics. Since much of the journal is based on chronological notes, knowing how much space to devote to an idea while leaving room for the rest of your daily notes is not always practical. However, if you wind up going for a long streak on a particular topic you could simply make notes of those particular topics in the index at the front of the bullet journal.

This is where things like Evernote and other online solutions can supplement the journal. Instead of committing a page or more to the particular details of a process or situation I can simply make a note in the journal to refer to my additional sources. In this way I’m creating a personal data network where I keep certain files online and other information off line and they work together. I think of Evernote(and increasingly, Springpad) as being my “street view” of a specific piece of information (for example, a link to a knowledge base article or  a step by step teardown) and the bullet journal is my overhead view where I see not only that particular project that I need to address right now, but also what I have done and need to do later.

Additional impressions

I didn’t tackle this idea alone. After suggesting it on the podcast, Jim and Ed also decided to give it a shot. Jim already has his own post-it note system, so his already working system didn’t leave much room for improvement in his life and workflow. However, Ed and I are both satisfied with the Bullet Journal. It’s a slightly more formal way of treating a regular notebook and after a few months there is a satisfying record of accomplishments and progress.

Conclusion

I wish I had known about it when I was in college. It would have saved me a lot of headaches and disorganization- I simply piled all the notes in head on. Even just using an index to track ideas and to keep dates organized and more searchable would have been huge. If you have ongoing projects, this may be a good solution for you.

 

About

Ben writes about technology both real and imagined at his blog blackrectangle.net. He draws inspiration and guidance from Mystery Science Theater 30000. You can find him just about everywhere.

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