Ascetic Bullet Journaling

The Bullet Journal - an analog method for the digital age1.

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. However few seem to go into opposite direction and make things simpler.

Here I describe my attempt at going the other way.

The Original Method

The bullet journal method is a collection of lists.

A huge oversimplification, one might say, and perhaps be correct. But the statement might seem less bold after examining the underlying structure.

The bullet journal employs different symbols for different types of entries. Tasks that should be completed when appropriate or at a particular time in the future are marked with the task bullet, a dot. Lines describing events like birthdays or other special occurrences are started with an empty circle. And general notes, thoughts, memories, and experiences are marked with a dash.

On top of this the bullet journal also has separate sections for different kinds of lists. The very first few pages of a typical bullet journal holds an index page that acts as a table of contents. Each separate entry in the index (referred to as “spread”) is given a page number. The spreads are of 4 types: future log, monthly log, daily log or a custom-made collection for things that fall outside of the first three.

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. Any other custom-made collections are added as required and might include things like calendars, habit trackers, diary entries, contact lists or anything in between.

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 was not about enhancing its productivity but rather reducing 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 Losh2, 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 any time
○  Future    events and tasks 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?

The log

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 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.

Usage

A quick demonstration of how this stripped down version of a bullet journal might look like.

Typical Page

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

○ 07/10 12:30 Blood work at hospital                       07/01
- Really heavy rain today, had to stay in after work
• Return book to the library
• Fix lights in the garage
○ Waiting for approval of filed tax returns                07/02
• Read the first chapter of "Des Esseintes"                07/03
- Found the lost pair of keys
• Help son practice his driving skills
• Decide about the places to visit while on vacation
○ 07/07 8:30 meat Jim at the airport                       07/04

The nice thing about it is the clear separation between tasks that I control (present) and tasks that are outside of my control (future). In general when picking a task to work on I first scan through all of the open “future” events in order to get a mental picture about what might be coming next. Then on the second pass I only look at the “present” tasks and pick the one based on intuition3.

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.

⦻ 07/01 Pay the bils                                       06/04
...
○ 08/01 Pay the bils                                       07/01

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:

> Write the first chapter for my new book                  07/01
...
• Complete the first chapter for my new book               07/04

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.

Things That Stay Out

Tiny tasks, like washing dishes, that cannot in principle be forgotten do not get added to the journal. Entries like these would eat up space and make it harder for you to use the journal for “de cluttering your mind”.

The Result

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.

I think it’s a wonderful way to keep a bullet journal.