Ascetic Bullet Journal

Bullet Journal - an analog method for the digital age. It is a system of maintaining a journal that is simple, flexible and yet thorough at the same time. The method has an instruction manual but users are encouraged to adapt the bullet journal experience to suite their own needs. And adapt they do. And they adapt it by using more bullets, adding additional pages, creating elaborate custom-made layouts, and making their notebooks pretty. Here I describe my attempt at going the other way.

The Original Method

The bullet journal is a collection of lists. A huge oversimplification, one might say, and, perhaps, be correct but the statement will seem less bold after examining the underlying structure.

The main idea behind the bullet journal is to transform a regular journal into a bulleted list. To be a viable substitute for a journal this list has to contain different types of entries and so different bullet symbols are employed in order to distinguish them from one another. Tasks are started with a dot that gets crossed out when the task is completed or turned into an arrow if the task is migrated to another place. Events like birthdays and other special occurrences are entered with an empty circle. And general notes, thoughts, memories, and experiences are marked with a dash.

On top of this the bullet journal is composed of different kinds of lists, called “spreads”. There are 3 main types of spreads: the daily log, the monthly log, and the future log. In addition other custom-made collections can be added as required and might include things like calendars, habit trackers, holiday plans, contact lists or anything in between.

The standard way to operate a bullet journal is to write down tasks, ideas and events inside the daily log during the day and arrange all of those entries to their dedicated parts of the journal in the evening. This way events that are scheduled long in the future will be transferred to the future log, entries relevant this month will go to the monthly log, tasks related to selected projects will move to their dedicated collections while everything else remains in the daily log. In order to keep track of all the lists the first few pages of a typical bullet journal contain an index page that acts as a table of contents and needs to be updated every time the journal acquires a new list.

Making it Simpler

My wish for a simpler journal didn’t come from an obsession with productivity, progressivism, or bottom line-ism. The main problem with the bullet journal method is maintenance. Separating the entries into multiple locations and transferring them from one place to another, for me, was too much. What I was looking for is, quoting Steve Losh, a “list manager for people that want to finish tasks, not organize them”. In order to achieve this a lot of parts needed to be removed.

Bullets

First thing that I had to adjust was bullets. The original list of bullets divided into tasks, events and notes wasn’t really clear to me. Is an appointment an event or a task? If I lend my car to somebody and am waiting for it to be returned - is this a task, or a note, or an event with no date? The set of available bullets didn’t seem to cover all possibilities. After some reflection I realized that the way I was reading the journal was almost always in 3 distinct modes:

1) Referencing things that happened in the past
2) Looking for a spare task to pick in my free time
3) Checking what is coming up in the future

To reflect this observation the bullets got transformed into:

—  Past      things that are written after the fact like notes and memories
•  Present   tasks that can be picked up at any time
○  Future    events and appointments that will happen some time in the future

With this set assigning bullets to new entries becomes obvious. All one needs to ask is how the entry relates to time. Did it already happen? Will it happen in the future? Or can you choose the time for it to happen?

Logs

Of all the default logs only the daily log remains.

Future log is removed. The future log serves the purpose of holding all the upcoming tasks and events in a separate place. I never had too many of them so they never posed an inconvenience simply being scattered throughout the daily log.

Monthly log is removed. Monthly log is a strange page. It holds both the events that will happen and notes about things that already happened. Throughout the month it seems to transform itself from being a planner to becoming a diary while never serving both functions at the same time.

Index page is removed. Since all that is left at the front of the journal is a running list of bullets there is no longer a need for any index. And at the same time - no need for page numbers as well.

Custom collections are moved to the back of the notebook. In the original system various collections are scattered throughout the journal and intermingle with daily logging. Some notebooks in the market even have multiple distinct page markers to help the users track different parts within. But I never considered this messy layout of a bullet journal a positive feature. Moving all custom collections to the back of the journal solves the issue.

Result

Each day I simply mark the date in the top left corner and start adding entries as they come up. The typical page of such a journal might look something like this:

07/01

○  07/10 12:30 Blood work at hospital
-  Really heavy rain today, had to stay in after work
•  Return book to the library
X  Fix lights in the garage

07/02

○  Waiting for approval of filed tax returns

07/03

•  Read the first chapter of "Des Esseintes"
-  Found the lost pair of keys
•  Help son practice his driving skills
•  Decide about the places to visit while on vacation

07/04

○  07/07 8:30 meat Jim at the airport

Practical Advice

First - do not use signifiers. Signifiers will only interfere with the bullets, add noise, and make you return to organizing things. Instead, before picking a task to work on, get a mental picture about what is waiting ahead by scanning all the open “future” events. Then, on the second pass, look at the “present” tasks and pick one based on intuition.

Second - embrace rapid logging. Entries in the daily log, following the original bullet journal method, should be entered once and stay where they are written. This also means that incomplete tasks are not transferred from one day to the next. Hence, when searching for open tasks, you should also look at items written under all the previous days. Appointments can be an exception to this rule: if you find it convenient to list appointments under today’s date for reference then feel free to transfer them there.

Third - migrate when convenient. Since open tasks are not migrated from one day to another you will sometimes have to look at previous pages. To not have to flip through the whole notebook each time you should migrate old tasks based on how many pages you need to turn in order to reach them. As an general rule I migrate all the tasks that are written more than 3 pages away from the current day. This way migration is turned into a continuous process where, instead of migrating everything every month, migration is done more frequently but only the oldest tasks are affected.

Finally - do not fill your journal with junk. Tiny errands, like washing dishes, that cannot in principle be forgotten are not added to the journal. Same goes for low value journaling entries like tracking the weather. By not adding certain things to the journal you make the things that get added stand out that much more.

Use Cases

Deadlines

The actual deadline is written as a future event while the tasks related to the deadline are listed as separate task bullets.

○  07/20 deadline for submitting the business proposal
•  Estimate the initial labour and real estate costs
•  Finish writing the proposal
•  Have Fred double check the final version
•  Send the proposal to submission@proposals.biz

Then each time when reviewing the future “○” events you will get reminded about the approaching deadline and this will help you choose the next appropriate task to focus on.

Waiting For

I’ve seen people struggle with this. Many seem to dedicate a separate collection to track all the things they are waiting for as there doesn’t seem to be an appropriate bullet in the original system. The proposal here is to simply treat it as any other future event:

○  Waiting for Fred to return my car
○  Susan owes me 100$

Recurring Tasks

If some task has to be done repeatedly (i.e. every month) it gets crossed out once completed and then immediately added again as a future event with a new date.

06/04

⦻  07/01 Pay the bills

...

07/01

○  08/01 Pay the bills

Partially Completed Tasks

The task that is partially completed gets marked with a “>” as being migrated and then is added to the end of the list:

07/01

>  Write the first chapter for my new book

...

07/04

•  Complete the first chapter for my new book

This way it moves away from the older tasks and gets written among the fresh entries.

Goals

Goals are just deadlines you set for yourself and can be treated as such:

○  07/20 last day I am drinking coffee in the evenings

“Maybe” Tasks

The first appropriate action for things that might be done some time in the future is deciding whether they will be done at all. Therefore such items can be written as a simple task that can be completed at any time:

•  Decide about taking photography lessons

Decisions with a deadline are written as any other deadline:

○  08/15 Royal Blood concert
•  Decide about going to Royal Blood concert

And if the number of such “maybe” items gets too large and drags on then they can be transferred to a dedicated spread at the end of the journal.

Habit Trackers

Habit tracking consists of monitoring some tasks that you want to be doing daily. Therefore they are added at the end of the day as a past event. A numeric counter can be used to see the number of successful day streaks. For example:

-  Vitamins (3) No Coffee (8)

Would indicate that you remembered to take your vitamins 3 days in a row and didn’t have a cup of coffee for 8 days straight.

Pieces of Information

Telephone numbers, book titles, addresses, and other data typically will be acted upon and are not time sensitive. Hence they meet all the criteria for a normal “present” bullet and get added as such.

• Jim's email address: jim@millionaireintraining.com

The bullet would be crossed over upon serving its purpose, like writing an email to Jim, or turned into an arrow once the email address is transferred to another place.

Summary

After making all these changes I have no future log, no monthly log, no index page, no page numbers and no signifiers. The organised collection of various different lists became a single list. No more decisions about where a particular entry should go to. No more index updates. No more spread preparations. No more searching across several logs and collections in order to be sure you didn’t miss something important.

In short - no more maintenance.


  1. ◦  https://bulletjournal.com/

  2. ◦  http://stevelosh.com/projects/t/

  3. ◦  http://markforster.squarespace.com/blog/2017/12/2/simple–scanning–the–rules.html