In a recent Forbes post, I offered five reasons for why analog task management can be more productive than a digital alternative. But in addition to the WHY, I pledged to offer specifics on exactly WHAT and HOW I’ve applied the Bullet Journal system in my own pursuit of productivity.
For fans of my online productivity system hack using Trello, please know that it still works just fine! You will see the familiar blend of Steven Covey as well as David Allen’s GTD principles in my analog system, with just a few modifications and some new Bullet-friendly verbiage.
Before you jump in, I do recommend that you watch a short video in which Bullet Journal founder Ryder Carroll explains the system in his own words. Then, here is precisely how I’ve adapted the concept for my own purposes as a financial advisor, writer, speaker and productivity seeker:
STEP 1: MATERIALS
Although it is more of a system or framework, there is an actual Bullet Journal product, and I have no reason to recommend against it. However, two of the great traits of the concept are that it is malleable and transferrable. Therefore, it works in whatever journal you’re most comfortable with.
My first was in a classic Moleskine notebook—I’ve been using those for years—but I quickly converted to a Bullet community favorite, the unpronounceable Leuchtturm 1917 notebook, for the following reasons:
- It’s slightly wider.
- It offers dotted pages (versus plain, lined or graph) that come in handy.
- The pages are numbered and, therefore, able to be indexed.
- The extra bookmark comes in handy.
Additionally, I took a recommendation from Daniel Pink and converted from my favorite brand of pen to a good-old-fashioned pencil and (travel) sharpener. I love the feel, it forces me to give my brain a micro-break when I need to sharpen and, most importantly, in acknowledgement of our imperfection, it is much more forgiving than ink!
You’ll also need a ruler and I like having a pen/pencil loop as well on my notebook, so that I only have one item to grab when I’m heading out to a meeting or planning session.
STEP 2: KEY
Using a larger-than-average sticky note (a tool that might come in handy in other parts of your Bullet Journal as well), I’ve written out a Key of signifiers that distinguish between types of activities recorded in my journaling.
- Task – It feels wrong deviating from the very signifier for which the system is named—the bullet—but the larger box shape gives me something more noticeable to scan for in my notebook, and the extra time it takes to shade it in upon completion is an endorphin-boosting gift!
- Appointment – The triangle I use looks like an “A” for appointment and is noticeably distinct for the meetings in your day that you simply can’t miss.
- Event – A circle offers a way to distinguish things like birthdays and holidays that don’t necessarily have a corresponding task.
- M.I.T. – Daniel Pink has introduced me to many things, but perhaps the most beneficial is the M.I.T., or Most Important Task. Using a star or asterisk, I signify the single most important task that I’ll work on that day—and from which I expect to receive the largest dose of satisfaction for having completed.
- Deadline – Most of my work has a deadline associated with it. I use an “!” to denote and call attention to those tasks.
- Note – A dash indicates notes from the day’s work.
- Explore – It took me too much time to draw the official Bullet Journal signifier for Explore—an eyeball—so I went with the quicker “?”.
As I go through my day (if only for the encouragement that I’m accomplishing something) or when processing the day’s work (that evening or the following morning), each task and appointment will be noted as one of the following:
- Completed, by shading in the task box
- In progress, with a diagonal line through the task box
- Migrated, with a right arrow signifying the task is bumped to the next day
- Scheduled, with a left arrow signifying the task is moved to the Weekly or Monthly logs
- Cancelled, with a straight line through the task (and almost as satisfying as completed!)
STEP 3: INDEX
The first three pages of the Leuchtturm notebook are set aside, very helpfully, as an Index. Having an index allows you to reference notes that you’d likely return to one day, something that I catalog weekly (more on that in a moment).
By glancing at my Index, you can also see how I lay out the first 10 pages in my notebook (each of which will be discussed):
STEP 4: FUTURE LOG
The Future Log is our first longer-term planning tool, and my mechanism is almost identical to the Bullet Journal, with one notable exception. With a two-page layout, I divide my log into six sections. The first five reference a future month, with the sixth saved for a catch-all section, “Later.” Although every journal will be different, my first lasted about five months.
I primarily use my Future Log to note scheduled travel. Yes, these are duplicated on my iCal, but handling travel well (with respect to my family) is a priority of mine, so I welcome the deliberation. I also include important future tasks and any events in my Future Log.
Now, we really get into the power of the Bullet Journal.
STEP 5: MONTHLY LOG
The Monthly Log is another two-page spread with a simple calendar view on the left page and individual Tasks I hope to accomplish that month on the right page. I use the left side, again, primarily to note any travel I have scheduled for the month. But the task list on the right is really where my efforts for the month will (hopefully) be steered.
STEP 6: WEEKLY LOG
Although the Weekly Log is NOT a component in the original Bullet Journal, to me it is likely the most important view.
It’s another two-pager—on the left, I have yet another calendar view where each of my scheduled appointments for the week are listed, as well as any M.I.T.s that I know about in advance. I use five lines for each weekday and three for the weekend days, leaving five lines at the bottom for important items coming up “Next Week.”
On the right-hand side, I list the Tasks that I hope to complete that week.
Of course, this view is only valuable insofar as it is effectively applied in our Daily Logs.
STEP 7: DAILY LOG
My goal is to do effective enough monthly and weekly planning that, once I get to the Daily Log, it is my sole focus for that given day. I list my Appointments at the very top, followed by any Events. Then, I list my M.I.T. as the first Task, followed by any Deadlines and subsequent Tasks.
After Tasks, I include any Notes I take throughout the day. A single day may only take a fraction of a page (rarely), or it may take several pages. Most days, it’s one or two pages.
The biggest challenge that I face—every day—is only listing a reasonable number of Appointments and Tasks. I’ve learned that my most productive four hours of every day are between 10:30 a.m. and 2:30 p.m., so I preserve that time for my M.I.T. Then, ideally, I try to schedule Appointments—meetings and calls—after 2:30 p.m., allowing time in the morning and evening to process email and complete smaller tasks.
STEP 8: COLLECTIONS
You’ve no doubt already thought of several elements in your world that aren’t accounted for thus far in this system. But remember, customizability is really the Bullet concept’s strength. A great deal of that customization potential comes in the form of Collections.
Collections are, in short, everything else! Each phase of life—and, therefore, each journal—may have Collections that are unique. These can be notated anywhere in your journal and simply added to the Index.
But for those recurring Collections that I anticipate will be helpful in every journal, I create space for them right at the front, following the Index and preceding the Future Log. Here are my regularly featured Collections that might also be helpful for you:
- Priorities: I leave a two-page spread (beginning with the blank page opposite page 1) for my Priorities, broken into six equal sections (like the Future Log). These are my personal values that (I hope) drive my actions in life and work. Yours will likely be different, but mine are Spiritual, Family, Health, Creative, Business and Personal. In each of these sections, I’ll list Tasks that will help ensure these Priorities are actually treated as priorities throughout the life of this journal.
- Waiting On: You’ve completed a Task, and now you’re waiting on someone else. Everyone’s overwhelmed with their own task list, so to ensure you’re not forgotten, I keep a list of items that I’m Waiting On.
- Blog Ideas: My Waiting On Collection only takes a page, so on the opposite side, I keep a list of all my new Blog Ideas.
- Simple Money: Yes, Simple Money is the name of the last book I wrote, but it’s also the label I’ve given my broader personal finance education efforts for the corporate, academic and faith-based communities. Therefore, I preserve four pages just before my Future Log for this Collection. What is your pet project?
STEP 9: PROCESS
The real magic, however, isn’t in simply having each of these modules, but in using them in concert (and hopefully more symphony than cacophony) as an effective system or process. We began by looking at our productivity from a blimp’s eye view with the Future Log, then narrowing our focus to the Monthly, Weekly and Daily logs. Our Process begins there, and works its way up:
- List Appointments for that day at the top
- Add M.I.T. (Most Important Task) next
- Add any Deadlines
- Review previous day; migrate incomplete Tasks to Daily Log
- Review Weekly Log; add urgent/important Tasks to Daily Log
- Add any additional Tasks that arise
- Review previous Weekly Log; migrate incomplete Tasks
- Review Monthly Log and move Tasks to Weekly Log as necessary
- Review Waiting On and follow-up as necessary
- Review other Categories and note new Tasks
- Review previous Monthly Log; migrate incomplete Tasks
- Review Future Log and migrate to Monthly Log as necessary
- Customize your process as desired!
I’m a little slow, so I estimate I’ll need about 30 minutes for daily planning, 45 minutes to plan a new week (including that day) and an hour on the first of the month.
STEP 10: MIGRATION
After you fill up a Bullet Journal—however long it takes—how do you start a new one? I simply take what I’ve learned and apply it going forward. I apply a label, like this, to the binding: “Journal 1: Sep 2016 – Jan 2017.” Then, I can also apply a reference to any Tasks or Notes that will bridge the two. For instance, “1.123” would be the 123rd page in Journal 1.
At every step along the way, I try to ask myself, “Am I being realistic?” My propensity to underestimate the length of time that Tasks require, and to overestimate my ability to achieve them, is seemingly boundless. But the analog process slows things down to a pace deliberate enough that I’m slowly increasing in my effectiveness even as my efficiency necessarily decreases.
If you’ve labored all the way to the end of this post, and you’ve forgotten why all of this is worth it, please refer back to my Forbes post discussing WHY analog productivity is actually more productive.
This system might be unique, but the thought and insight it collects aren’t mine. The original thought is credited to Bullet Journal inventor Ryder Carroll, Zen Habits blogger Leo Babauta, Treehouse CEO Ryan Carson, productivity guru David Allen, and bestselling authors Stephen Covey and Daniel Pink.