Bullet journals have recently gained popularity as a productivity tool. It is great way to track habits, set goals for the day, the week, the month and keep yourself accountable. You can include some form of mindfulness practice in it as well. Plus let’s be honest, our brains are pretty shit at storing information – you probably don’t remember most things you did 3 days ago as much as you like to think you remember.
If you listen to any productivity hacks and the successful people they interview, a common theme with many of them seems to be a form of journaling habit. This becomes clear from reading things like the Tools of Titans by Tim Ferriss or watching the 30 Days of Genius series on CreativeLive, just to give examples. Another factor in the rise of popularity are the beautifully drawn, fancy-looking bullet journals on Pinterest.
But don’t fool yourself, bullet journals are not a magic cure for all your productivity ills. If you completely lack discipline, this will be one more time-wasting thing that you do in the name of productivity, but just use to put off the real work. But if you use it right, it is great at keeping you accountable and reminding you of the work you need to do!
Why I Started
The main reason I started bullet journaling is because I felt unproductive. I wanted to track existing habits, like the type of sports I do, and to build new ones. Also, my brain is great at storing random information like camera specs or recognizing cars, but it is horrible at retaining everyday information, so having a way to deposit that is awesome. Finally, there is another, quite unusual benefit to it – I’m in a long-distance relationship, so it’s a way for my girlfriend to catch up with what I’ve been up to that I may have forgotten to tell her. Of course, most people won’t show their journals to anyone – and I wouldn’t show mine to anyone else, but Aisling!
I first dabbled with bullet journals last February. I just started really small, in an old math notebook and tried writing stuff daily. I barely wrote anything about what I did during the day, but it was good for tracking sports and photography-related work. It lasted maybe until early March, then it kind of fizzled out. Honestly, I think it was because I didn’t give myself enough space to write and the template was too constraining. So, I started again last May and since then I have a bullet journal entry for every single day!
How Not to Do It
Browsing Pinterest for bullet journal ideas can be intimidating, since it’s full of amazing drawings, colorful charts and fancy habit trackers. Please don’t be fooled into thinking that’s what bullet journaling is about! If you start so fancy, I can almost guarantee you that the habit won’t stick. Because yes, during the enthusiasm of the first few days it’s fine to spend 20-25 minutes drawing and decorating stuff, but on a busy day, you just want to knock the whole page out in 5 minutes… But that of course would mean not doing the decoration, so you will just push it off until tomorrow, then you’d have two days to catch up with and you are busy again. So, you put it off again and again and you’ll never get back to it and your whole experiment will have only lasted a week. Trust me, I’ve seen this happen many times!
The other mistake is starting off waiting to find the perfect journal and of course a corresponding fancy pen set. Just grab the simplest math notebook and start! What if you don’t like it after a week? You don’t want to pay a fortune for a fancy Moleskin journal if you’ll only use it a couple of times! Test it and once the habit has formed, you can go fancier.
How to Start
I will say this again – DO NOT START FANCY! The habit is going to disappear in no time if you put too much pressure on yourself. Habits usually take 21-30 days to form, so think about this carefully! What is the level of effort that you’d still be willing to put in on the worst or busiest day of the next 30 days? That’s the level of fancy that you want to aim for.
Grab a simple math notebook, maybe 1-3 pens and decide what you want to track and what template you might want to try implementing. This blogpost will give you some ideas to start off and there are a million resources out there to help you. And don’t worry about sticking to any one template, just have a general idea of what you want to be doing and keep doing it daily! There is really no one correct way to do bullet journals.
Even if you don’t start your journal on the 1st day of the month, I still find it useful to write out what I want to achieve that month. But don’t write general bullshit stuff like ‘doing more exercise’ – that will get you nowhere! Write ‘doing sports 5x/week’, that’s something concrete that you can track! Your habit tracker should measure exactly whether you are on track to achieve the monthly goals.
My monthly goals are usually in a few different categories. I generally have some sports and outdoors related goals, like doing X number of hikes, long bike rides, runs, etc. I also do goals for my photography, such as learning a certain new technique or to do X number of photoshoots. Finally, I collect other random stuff that I want to achieve that month, like doing Duolingo daily or reading 2 books. The important thing is to keep the goals clear, actionable and measurable.
Arguably this is the most useful part of your journal! This is a page where you can tick what recurring habit you’ve been sticking to and what you need to catch up with. You can track sports, waking up early, writing, studying, Duolingo, farting, whatever the hell you want!
I decided to track sports not as a single yes/no, but to break it up into four categories: workout means TRX, abs, pushups and other bodyweight exercises. The other three are running, hiking and biking. This gives me way more information, but of course it doesn’t look as neat as a single row of checked boxes!
I also track social-media activity. As a photographer, it is good to keep up daily posting on FB and IG, doing stories, etc., so this helps keep me consistent. I don’t work on my blog every day, but I do post every week, so it is nice to see what days I work on it.
Finally, I have an ‘other’ category, where I track things like Duolingo, reading and my 2 Euro saving project. The latter is just a fun thing I started, throwing a 2-euro coin in a jar every day until the end of my EVS project… Maybe you’ll find out what I used it for in July!
This is also key in your quest for productivity. This should be on the top of every day’s page in your journal and they should be the few things that you want to do on that specific day. Limit these to four, because if you have more than that, it becomes counterproductive. You will say that 6 out of 8 is done and you fool yourself into thinking that you were productive, when really you put off the 2 most important and difficult tasks. These should be really about your priorities – and when you have 8 priorities, nothing really is a priority. In fact, I think it would be an interesting to do just a single box per day. But for me it’s also useful to have reminders, so while I usually have 1-2 truly important ones, I’ll have 1-2 like ‘grocery shopping’ or ‘doing the laundry’ on slower days.
Top tip: write the checklist for the next day before going to bed, so when you wake up, you already know what tasks you have, and you are ready to jump right in
Even though I track exercise in my habit tracker, I also write down what exactly I did each day. If I run, I will write down how long it was and what time I did it in, if I did an abs workout, how long it was, etc. This gives me a better idea of what I’m doing, because doing a 2 km run and a half marathon is hardly the same thing, but in the habit tracker I just tick ‘run.’
This is not really a must, but I do think that having a couple of set questions that help you reflect on your day is a good way to remember all the things you did that day. There are a million things you could choose here, I just happened to start with these two and I just stuck with them.
The first one is ‘Small positive thing,’ where I will try to think about a small thing that really stands out in my day. It can be a beautiful sunset, a random conversation I had with a stranger or a call with my girlfriend… Or of course good food, that’s a pretty common one for me! You could say that it is a form of mindfulness or gratefulness practice.
The second I use is ‘Random observations.’ Here I usually write one or two things that I’ve observed that day that I find interesting. Sometimes it’s related to sport, like what I need to improve, sometimes I observe something on the street, such as how a new shop or café opened, or something completely random, like when I realized that the Mercedes Citan was really a rebadged Renault Kangoo. Told you, my brain is full of random, useless car information!
This is where you really write out what you’ve been up to on any given day. Don’t constrain yourself, if you have a lot to write, go on and write 2-3 pages, but don’t be worried if certain days barely get half a page. In my current journal, I usually write one page per day, but on more interesting days, I will go write two or three. If I’m on an interesting trip, I regularly do several pages each day!
But what should you actually write here? Definitely not boring crap that you do every day like how you went to brush your teeth at 08:00, but also don’t feel pressured to try to make your day sound more interesting than it really is. I aim to collect a good, brief impression of what I did that day. I will also add any interesting thoughts I had, any observations or conversations that sparked my imagination. I also started taking notes about the podcast episodes that I listen to and the books I read. I like to organize each thought into a separate bullet point and alternate blue and black pens to help keep things looking neat and not like one big blob of homogenous text.
I’ve already rambled about this – it is really up to you what you do, but make sure it is something you can keep up, because this is one of the main reasons why people stop journaling! For a while during the summer I tried drawing a little sketch in the top-right corner of each page, but after a month, I realized it’s not something I can keep up. I still do it maybe once a month if I feel inspired or maybe I’ll put a good quote I heard that day in that corner.
Other Things You Could Add
Mood trackers can be a very powerful way to visualize and track how you feel about each day and it can be used to recognize patterns, such as triggers that cause bad days. Since I have the emotional fluctuation of a desk lamp, I really don’t need this, but for those with easily changeable moods, it is an amazing tool.
As you’ve heard already like 10x, I can be a forgetful person, so the more I can rely on checklists and trackers, the better – and since I’ve used them so much, you may not even realize that I can be forgetful! One thing that I periodically use is a travel checklist. Before going on a big trip, like when I moved to Spain, I dedicated a page to collecting all the crap I need to pack. I’m a very experienced traveller, so I normally don’t need to think much about packing, but when I’m moving to a different country, it’s useful to make sure I have a full list of items needed. Maybe start a week or two before leaving and just tick off everything as you pack it.
Finally, you can do all kinds of deadline reminders, calendars, budgeting, track anything you want to track and so on! There are a million resources out there (Pinterest is an awesome one) or just come up with your own!
It took me a long while to get used to writing every day. It is not easy, and it will take discipline, especially on busy or really boring days. But if you stick to it, I’m sure you are going to enjoy it. And if not? Well, you can just stop any time. An old math notebook is free and you have pens lying around anyway, so all you did was waste some time! For me bullet journaling is one of my top three productivity tools, beside doing daily sports and waking up early. It is not only about productivity, but also being very consistent in everything I want to do and I feel like I have become a more observant person because of it.
It has helped me stay consistent with my sports activities and I can see a very real improvement in performance since I started tracking them. The main reason why this blog gets updated consistently is because my bullet journal reminds me to do it! It helps me organize my days better, makes me think about the biggest priorities and keeps me accountable. You may think that simply ticking a box won’t motivate you to do these things, but it is a surprisingly powerful incentive.
In my opinion, bullet journals will beat any productivity app or gizmo you come up with. It’s easy, it’s analog and it is not only about productivity, but also reflection. It is customizable, since it’s entirely up to you how to do it. So, take all my advice with a pinch of salt, go crazy with your ideas and do whatever the hell you want with your journal! All you need to do is keep it simple enough, so that you can remain consistent.
PS: Here are some useful resources for bullet journals – THIS article on Popular Science, Tim Ferriss’ books The 4-Hour Workweek and Tools of Titans, as well as of course a simple search on Pinterest.