How I Bullet Journal

Recently I posted the picture above, noting that I had just moved into my fifth Bullet Journal, and a bunch of people asked for more information about it. I am always happy to spread the BuJo gospel, so I thought I’d share a fuller account of how I use these notebooks.

Essentially, a Bullet Journal is just a notebook that you fill with whatever you want, primarily used for organizing tasks and events and cataloging, well, everything. Mostly it’s a paper planner. Originalists will follow the method popularized by Ryder Carroll at bulletjournal.com, and eccentrics will explore BuJo Pinterest for all sorts of inspiration. (Sometimes I wonder if the really hardcore people spend more time planning their days than actually living them, but their designs sure are spectacular!) I fall somewhere in between: I’ve modified the “original” method to suit my needs, and I’ve incorporated some of the “nontraditional” elements into my books. You can spend as much time as you like browsing all that’s out there, but here I’ll simply explain how I use it.

But first, the “why.” As I got busier and took on more responsibilities, I struggled to keep myself organized and to avoid feeling overwhelmed. (I process stress by wanting to go to sleep…not very helpful for eliminating the actual source of the stress.) Through college and grad school, I experimented with a lot of different task-management techniques. I tried recording to-dos on my digital calendar, I downloaded every organizing app with a free trial, and I bought paper planners that focused on goal setting. I always found them to be lacking in two ways: they were inflexible, and it took too long to enter and tag tasks. Some stuck around (I still use Evernote as a database, but not for tasks anymore), but I left most behind.

Five years later, I have become SO dependent on my Bullet Journal, that it has seriously become one of my most valuable items. When I (used to) go on an airplane or to a meeting, I might check once that I had my iPad in my bag, but I would check ten times that I had my Bullet Journal. It is a second brain for me, and I’ve become so accustomed to using it that if I don’t write something down in it, there is very little chance I’ll remember it. So if I were to lose the notebook, I would be completely lost in my work, and I would leave a lot of people expecting a followup that would never come. Recapturing the data would be a huge job.

I like the Bullet Journal because it helps me break down my tasks and projects into manageable pieces, and it helps me get a sense of what lies ahead each day. I also never feel obnoxious opening it in front of someone else to make a note of our conversation or of a task in a meeting (the way pulling out my phone makes me feel). I’ve also started using it to log three things I’m grateful for at the end of every day, and now, when I look back over the last four years of books, I am appreciative to have a record of what happened and what I was thinking about. When I was officiating funerals in my previous congregation, this is also where I would record my notes for eulogies, so, in a way, other’s lives are captured in these pages. (In fact, my entire tenure at The Community Synagogue––every meeting, every student, every service––is catalogued in my Bullet Journals, which feels special to me.)

So, enough chatter, here’s how I BuJo:

Back when I started in 2017, I did a lot more experimentation with layouts and styles, but nowadays it’s become pretty standard and utilitarian for me. I have four main kinds of two-page spreads: The Future Log, Monthly Logs, Weekly Plans, and Daily Logs. (I think the weekly plan is not in the “original” method, but because my week is structured around Shabbat, it helps me plan out my time.)

Future Log 2020

At the beginning of the year, I set up my Future Log. This tends to be pretty plain, but it’s where I record things that will happen later on. I always start with February, since any January tasks and events will just be recorded right away at the start of the book, and the last section on the Future Log is for next year. When I move to a new Bullet Journal each December, I take those “next year” tasks and put them in the new Future Log.

My basic notation system. (I stopped drawing this key in my notebooks after the first few years.)

Most entries in my Bullet Journals are marked with a dot · (the “bullet” in Bullet Journal). When something is accomplished, it gets an x through the dot. If I draw a line through the whole task (strikethrough), it means I “canceled” it. A > indicates that I’ve postponed it to tomorrow or the next day. The < that I’ve drawn over the dots in the Future Log above mean that I’ve “scheduled” that task to a particular month. Which brings me to the Monthly Log…

May 2020.

The Monthly Log functions as a master list of sorts. On the calendar side, I record the major events happening that month (the colors correspond to the colors of my various Google Calendars: personal, work, Jewish holidays, etc.). On the task side, I record every to-do coming up that month, and the list tends to grow as things arise. Each Friday morning, I plot out the coming week, scheduling tasks from the monthly list onto each day. One of the two bookmark ribbons always stays on the current Monthly Log for easy reference.

April 26-May 2, 2020.

Most weeks, I draw a Weekly Plan like the one above. I like the visual categorization of my events and tasks in the blocks. And yes, I copy down every appointment on my calendar, in addition to recording each task. There’s something about the act of writing each appointment by hand that helps me fully imagine what’s coming up, and it also helps me be more thoughtful about what I’ll actually have time to accomplish. Box filled with meetings? Probably not a good day to work on a major project.

These days, the right side of the spread has a few sections: the top three priorities/goals for the week, Shabbat start and end times, agenda items I want to raise in that week’s meetings, and a space for notes. (In my previous position, I included who from the clergy team was assigned to which Shabbat service and study session, but that format is not useful now.)

A note on Shabbat: I decided from the very beginning of my BuJo journey that I would call the day Shabbat in my notebook, not Saturday. While regular Shabbat observance was already part of my life, this practice has really helped me conceive of the week, and of time, as building toward Shabbat. That’s also why I create the coming week’s plan each Friday morning: it forces me me to check off or reschedule anything from the past week that needs to be addressed, and it takes the anxiety out of planning the coming week first thing on Sunday (especially since I often have Sunday morning responsibilities). In other words, the routine helps me clear my head and (usually) enter Shabbat with a more restful attitude. And then I wake up Sunday with a clear draft of a plan for the week.

The Daily Logs get the second bookmark ribbon, and they appear on the pages immediately following each Weekly Plan. Unless it’s a really busy week, they usually fit on a single two-page spread:

Daily Logs for April 26-May 2, 2020. That was the week Ari and I signed for our current apartment!

Each night, I make a new entry for the following day, and I copy all appointments and tasks from the Weekly Plan into it. Just as with the weekly ritual, the daily ritual allows me to wake up and open the Bullet Journal to a fully planned day, and it gives me another chance to prioritize and move things around based on how I’m feeling or what new things have come up.

During the day, I write down new things that need recording, like new tasks that I’m assigned at a meeting. Then, at night, I can schedule those items to later in the week or month, or to another month in the Future Log. The end-of-day routine is also when I review the day that’s ending for things I’m grateful for. (Yoga, the cat, and Ari show up a lot.) This is as close as I’ve ever gotten to a true “journaling” practice.

Other than those four main layouts, I have done a few other lists and logs in the past. Most I don’t do any more (chore logs, project plans, etc.), because I’ve gone back to doing those on Evernote or Notion, but I still do vacation logs (well, I’ll do them again post-pandemic). They simply take the place of the Daily Logs while I’m away. Here’s a gallery of some of these atypical spreads:

And that’s about it! Try it out if you like, and find a system that works for you. Don’t be afraid to experiment, and embrace when you make a “mistake.” Just cross it out or write over it, and move on. Try something new on the next blank page, and enjoy looking back on what you’ve done before.

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