Bullet Journaling Saved My Todo List

Some time last year Binary Kitten introduced me to the concept of bullet journaling. At the time I didn’t think much about it. It was an interesting concept, but I already had a todo list that I was very happy with todoist and had been using for several years by that point. Why would I need yet another system? OK so there were a few overdue tasks at the top of it that I’d left there “to remind me that they needed doing” in one case for best part of a year, but that’s just how todo lists work. Right?

Wrong as it happens, but it took bullet journaling to show me the error of my ways.

Festering todo list items were what prompted me to move from paper lists (depressing cause you can’t throw them away if they’ve still got tasks on them) to a digital one in the first place. Sometimes you just need somewhere to write out a big long list of stuff that “needs to get done at some point” and I still use my digital todo list like this. What I don’t do any more is set unnecessary due dates on things.

I can’t remember what inspired me to finally try bullet journaling but one day in January I wandered in to Fred Aldous (potentially dangerous for my bank balance) and bought a notebook so I could give it a go. It has revolutionised my relationship with my todo list.

Why it works (for me)

Migrating all my incomplete tasks at the beginning of each month focuses my attention on what I haven’t done and forces me to consider whether I’m actually likely to ever complete that particular task. Effectively this gives me permission to say “that’s no longer a priority, I should take it off my list”.

Writing out all my appointments/events at the beginning of the month is another thing that I find really useful. It forces me to look at the whole of the month in one go, so I can see at a glance where my pinch points are, what restrictions I have on my time and crucially when people’s birthdays are so I can at least attempt to get a card in the post for them. All of this stuff exists in my calendar anyway but writing it out by hand helps me to focus on what is happening when.

In fact I have found this process of writing things out longhand so useful that it’s leaked out into other areas of my life. I now write, for example, a list of the meals we’re going to have this week so that I know what I have the ingredients for and can ensure that we have at least a couple of quick options for days when no one has the energy for cooking. We also have a “weekends” list, which shows the next few months and what we have booked on what weekends.

I still use my digital todo list and calendar

Despite how useful I find my bullet journal I still use my digital todo list and calendar, I’m just a bit more organised about it than I was. There are a few reasons why digital beats paper sometimes:

  • recurring tasks: I don’t necessarily want to put “change bedding” into my bullet journal (believe me adding a reminder to do that has made my life infinitely better). Recurring tasks also mean that I don’t have to remember when I need to do regular things like change my contact lenses or buy new toothbrushes. These are tasks better performed by my digital todo list than my bullet journal as it takes me out of the system. I am no longer a failure point if all I have to do is mark the item as done and it will recur on its own.
  • reminders to do things at specific times: some things need a bump, both my todo list and my calendar have the ability for me to set a due time and a reminder time so that they can nag me about meetings I need to go to, things I need to do (hands up if you’ve ever forgotten to take timed medication) and stuff that I really shouldn’t leave without (letters for nursery, vaccination certificates, passports).
  • ubiquity: I don’t necessarily want to carry my bullet journal around all the time it’s an A5 hardback book unless I’m taking a bag it’s just going to get in the way, I very rarely go anywhere without my phone though.
  • hey Siri, remind me to do a thing: while she does have something of a tendency to mangle the messages being able to shout “Hey Siri, remind me to do x” while I’m driving is really helpful. It means I can stop trying to remember it (and cursing myself later when I inevitably forget) and focus on driving. This does rely to an extent on my being able to map what Siri is reminding me of to the thing I was actually trying to remember.
  • I can attach photographs, urls etc to my tasks and use them a bit like a scrapbook: certainly for things like blog posts or ideas for making things I tend to keep notes in the todo item then when I come back to it I can see at a glance what inspired the thought and any other related items I’ve found.
  • when clients send me lists of tasks I can drop the whole lot in in one go: Todoist has a great multi-add feature which I use to translate lists of tasks sent to me by clients into discrete tasks to complete. I don’t necessarily want to put this level detail into my bullet journal. In fact I generally put client tasks in as one item even if that item contains several sub tasks. Adding the detail to my todo list means I can focus on the task I’m currently doing/am going to do next without having to go back into my email which can be distracting on its own and find the specific bit of the email.

What I changed

Despite the size of the movement Bullet Journalling is an intensely personal thing. As with all journal systems you need to find what works for you. I don’t for example use mine as a goal tracker, nor do I spend hours making it beautiful. For me it’s a tool that helps me keep my todo list under control.

image of the "key" for my bullet journal

I changed a few of the modifiers to make them work better for me and added a couple. Here’s my list (pictured above).

Tasks

bullet meaning
· thing to do
✓ / ✗ done (I favour tick/check myself)
> migrated
< sheduled
? awaiting reply
» postponed

Events

bullet meaning
date related

Notes

bullet meaning
fact/idea/thought/observation

Signifiers

bullet meaning
! priority
* inspiration
👁 explore

Tips

  • If you need to buy a notebook to get started get dot grid or squares rather than lines
  • Don’t make it (overly) pretty - this is a tool for getting your life in order, it doesn’t need to be all flowers and flowing lettering. It needs to work for you.
  • Make it part of your morning routine - grab a beverage, some breakfast and your bullet journal so you can set up what you need to do for the day.
  • Don’t punish yourself if you don’t do it for a few days, equally don’t give up just because you missed a day.
  • Give yourself permission to stop if it’s not working for you.
  • Try not to overload your day. You’ll feel a greater sense of achievement if you have to add things.
  • Try not to make your tasks too big. Instead of ‘clean house’ try ‘clean windows in bedroom’ or ‘clean bedroom’ - if it’s going to take you several days to do it then put the whole task on the month’s task list and break it down into your daily lists.
  • If it will only take a few minutes/seconds to do the thing, do it and don’t bother writing it down (exceptions include not currently being able to do it).
  • USE COLLECTIONS - at some point your bullet journal is going to become a big list of things you did in a month interspersed with notes from meetings, research etc. For short notes and reminders of things I generally just dump them into a day with an appropriate modifier. If you start to see a pattern (one of mine was blog post ideas) then make that into a collection and add them to that.

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