In this post, I’ll take you through my bullet journal setup.
What if we could manage our daily lives to create more time? In essence, prioritise our tasks and energy in such a way that we find a multitude of time slots to work on our creative projects?
That’s when I discovered keeping a bullet journal: a productivity bible for keeping your daily tasks, events, ideas and inspiration organised in one place.
Below you’ll see how I experimented with both my own and pre-existing journaling techniques to carve my days with direction and achievement, reminding myself of my most valuable priorities.
Here’s My Bullet Journal Setup
The best thing about keeping a journal is that you get to customise it as much as you wish. Unlike complex to-do list templates, you don’t feel trapped trying to squeeze your tasks into boxes, nor do you feel guilty seeing some sections of the template left blank.
Your book belongs to you, and you can do what you want with it. I recommend journals with either blank or dotted pages and, for practicality sake, with stitched binding (not wired — these are most appropriate for ripping pages out.)
Why Not Lined?
Great question. As we’ll discover soon in this guide, flexibility is an essential element to successful note-taking. Lines are a horizontal prison for our writing and creativity. A blank page is an open mind.
The Importance of Indexing
If you’ve experimented with memo-style notes before you will have likely experienced the mad frustration when searching for a specific idea lost in a cluttered mess of paper on your desk. But by keeping one book with numbered pages (either printed or hand-written) and a dedicated index page at the start of your book, you will find your ideas in no time. The scramble of thoughts in your unorganised brain begin to materialise.
Systems for Bullet Journaling
For an in-depth system, you can see Ryder Carol’s guide for organising your bullet journal here.
The only two sections I use in my bullet journal setup, however, are the following:
- A daily log — for writing down all the necessary tasks for each day, written at the front of the book.
- Miscellaneous notes — for notes made on any projects you’re working on, decisions to make, or simply anything on your mind, written at the back of the book.
If you’re numbering your own pages, I find labelling the back pages moving towards the front as ‘B01’, ‘B02’, ‘B03’ a useful approach.
Your Daily Pages
The most essential element of bullet journaling is keeping track of your daily tasks and possibilities on a dedicated page.
At the start of each day, I draw a relatively-small box in the upper-left corner which I name ‘Unordered Notes’. Any thoughts I have whilst brushing my teeth, having a wash and similar will be added to this box before they vanish from my mind. If you’re working with a relatively small book, you can also use a memo note to jot these flashes of ideas down.
Examples include ‘I need to take the recycling out tonight as it’s a bank holiday tomorrow’ or ‘I need to fill out the finance form today.’ These can be written the night before or whenever they spring up — as they are unordered, there is no right or wrong time.
Once you have written down these injections of urgency, you no longer need to panic, being afraid of forgetting them.
Now the small but important reminders have been scribbled down, you can crack down on setting your key goals and intentions for the day.
Next to my Unordered Notes column, I spare room on the opposite side of the page for a helpful section called ‘Review’. This acts as a small self-reflection tool — a progress-checker somewhat like a condensed gratitude journal. Perhaps you want to rate how well something went today, or write down a lesson you have learned to do something better the next time around.
Now comes the bulk of the page, your Plan Of Action for the day (POA). This is the place to write down your ambitions and goals for the day.
When writing down my tasks I align them all within the left-hand side of the page. Why? The right-hand side is saved for some important annotations that we’ll move on to shortly.
If the task is relatively large or time-consuming, you can apply a psychological hack: breaking tasks down, to make the task seem less daunting. I underline the title of the task and then bullet underneath the smaller steps necessary to achieve the goal. If the task is budgeting for this term, examples of sub-tasks might be ‘Research how much an annual bus pass costs’, or ‘Learn basic commands in Excel’.
When writing down your list, there will likely be further details concerning some tasks you need reminding of. This is where the right-hand side comes in handy. You can use this space to annotate your tasks with any extra necessary information.
I have found this area however to be more helpful when used as a personal space to write down thoughts. Perhaps it’s the intentions of why you want to work on a particular idea, or little motivators to remind you of their value.
In fact, many of my annotations in the past three weeks have been ideas about how I could enhance my journaling technique. That’s my bullet journal setup. One of these was ‘Don’t forget rewriting is good!’ after adjusting my Plan of Action mid-day following some new ideas (something that I’ll be further justifying shortly.)
The annotations can be in the form of questions too. For instance: ‘Can I do this tonight or does it really need doing now?’
By commenting in such ways, you will allow self-reflection to guide you through your day. Your pages are not simply concrete facts; they are accompanied by your critical observations made by your amazingly-complex mind, putting you in complete control. This opening of the mind and freedom of creativity gives you a full 360-degree view of your own perspectives, which has a similar effect to my notes of notes concept.
Quick Access for Success
To categorise the types of notes in my journal, I use the following three colours:
- Red: for allocating times to certain tasks or events
- Black: for the tasks themselves
- Blue: annotations of tasks (non-essential information)
I recommend not filling your pages with too much blue writing (like I have done several times) and instead resort to transferring these elsewhere (for instance, if you’re a user of Evernote or similar note-taking applications.) The reason being that during the day, you will find it harder to locate the critical information you need reminding of if there’s a swarm of blue chatter littered across your page.
This distinction by colours is of course optional, but if you denote times in red they will stand out no matter where they are on your page. It is worth mentioning that your tasks for 10 PM may not necessarily be written at the bottom of the page, as emphasised in the ‘Unordered Notes’ principle.
When writing down your tasks, don’t be too concerned about listing them chronologically. Simply get the ideas down first, then allocate times to them once you have the bigger picture. I’ve found this worked best for my bullet journal setup. Despite several templates being linear, our brains are not, and we should therefore compensate for this.
Of course, it is not guaranteed that you will complete all of your intended tasks in a given day. It is hence that I circle any incomplete tasks in blue, to be completed tomorrow. This makes it easy to locate them the following day when starting fresh. Once a task is completed, I will cross it out in red.
Flexibility Is Key
The most critical lesson I have learnt is not to plan your entire day in one go. This is a recipe for disaster. If you have fixed times for events during the day then, by all means, jot them down, but scheduling your work and free time down to the minute is indeed unrealistic. Circumstances are ever-changing, and our energy levels can turn on a sixpence.
This brought me to a crucial element of my daily log pages which I have not yet discussed: creating multiple POAs.
You needn’t feel ashamed if your plans made in the morning fail by afternoon. We often over-estimate what we can do in a day, but more frequently, additional things crop up in our daily lives. We cannot predict when we’ll receive urgent emails to respond to and likewise (from a leisure time perspective) we don’t know when our favourite game is going to be released.
I would recommend aiming to write 2–3 POAs per day. You can transfer these elsewhere if your page is already full. If we restrict ourselves to one solid plan, we find ourselves in great dissatisfaction, kicking ourselves over what we haven’t done as we attempt to stick stubbornly to our morning over-expectations.
Our brains are not hard-wired to solve a large problem (the problem being the task of organising our day) in one sweep. Rather we should adapt to our inspiring thoughts as and when they come, treating any adjustments to the plan as not something to dwell on, but an opportunity for a new beginning.
The importance of flexibility also applies to the active nature of allocating times. Instead of assigning time frames, I most frequently number tasks by the order they are to be completed (in red pen.) Another system is prioritising tasks by giving them a number of stars representing the degree of urgency.
The great thing about these systems in that they prevent time stress. No longer do you jolt your head worryingly to and from the wall clock or feel overwhelmed by how little time you have for so many tasks.
Concerning the numbering system, whenever I think of a task that needs to be slotted between no.2) and no.3) say, I simply use lettering to enable further flexibility — in this case, task 2b). By planning in this way, you will gain a clear order of everything to be done just by a quick glance at your journal.
Your Creativity Is Limitless
No two days will ever be the same. Likewise, plans for some days may look entirely different to plans for others.
You will discover your own preferences and techniques as you go. Especially if you annotate your journal, the observations you make will guide you in the right direction.
Bullet journaling is more than just keeping track of your tasks, it is a way of keeping track of yourself, your thoughts and emotions. It will give you deeper insights on your life from a range of perspectives invisible to the naked eye.
That’s my bullet journal setup.