My favorite organizational tool is analogue

Bullet Journal

People often ask me, “how do you stay organized?” As someone who works in technology it might surprise you to learn that I’ve always preferred a pen and paper when it comes to staying on top of my workload. And as much as I love the minimalism and simplicity of to-do lists, I need more. Enter: the Bullet Journal.

Where apps fall short

When working on large, complex projects with remote, cross-disciplinary teams, I rely on tools such as Jira, ZenHub and GitHub Projects. But, these are overkill for the minutiae of my day-to-day. While I’m a big fan of Trello for some project needs, and have experimented with all kinds of task tracking apps, I tend to run into the same issues:

  • Focus: you have to consciously have these apps open and active, and think about toggling between apps or browser tabs while you work. At best, this is a distraction.
  • Ease of use: it needs to be easy to add, view and check tasks off a list. It also needs to be easy to reorder and group them. I’ve found that organizing a task tracking app becomes a task (and a time suck) in and of itself.
  • Breadth of use: I need to track items that run across different projects, and different areas of my personal and professional life. I need to be able to prioritize these in parallel.
  • Flexibility: staying organized and productive isn’t only about tasks, there is additional information – notes, thoughts, ideas, events – lots of things that happen in a day that I want to capture.

It’s really all about barrier to entry. I need to be able to capture and classify information in real time without having to think too much about it.

Bullet journaling fills this need

When a colleague first introduced me to bullet journaling, I thought, “no way, too complicated.” Collections, daily logs, monthly logs, calendars, indexes and coded bullet point entries felt like too much mental juggling. But after giving up on yet another app, I decided to take a closer look. What I discovered was that, once I got past some of the jargon, a bullet journal is a lightweight framework that adapts to my needs at any given moment. It solves all of the problems that I ran into with temporary to-do lists and other notebooks:

  • I can combine lists with note taking, and capture any kind of information as I go.
  • The simple indexing system makes it so I don’t have to worry about finding things.
  • It’s easy to experiment with. If an experiment doesn’t pan out, I just keep going, nothing is lost and I don’t have to start over.
  • I only need one notebook at a time. I don’t need a different one for different areas of my life.
  • There are even techniques for indexing across notebooks (but I’m only on my second one, so I haven’t come across that need yet!).

My BuJo journey

There aren’t really any rules when it comes to bullet journaling, and I’ve had fun exploring and experimenting with ways to use it.

Things that didn’t stick

  • For a while I was tracking sleep, meals and exercise. It wasn’t difficult, but ultimately I didn’t find value in it.
  • I tried keeping a reading list, though I prefer Good Reads for that.
  • I played with having “collections” for specific projects, but I didn’t find this effective or necessary.

Things that did

My basic set-up includes an index, followed by a monthly log broken into six months across two pages. This gives me a forward looking view and a place to park future items so they don’t get lost or forgotten. Then I start with the current month, consisting of a calendar and two pages for tasks (I started with one, but it just wasn’t enough!). The calendar does not reflect my full schedule (I use Google Calendar for that), but rather highlights time-sensitive items as well as milestone events that impact my planning. Then, I simply rapid log every day.

In addition:

  • I combined it with my 5-minute journal.
  • Some days I’ll do a short version of morning pages.
  • I often practice the One Thing, defining a short list of 3 top priorities for the day with 1 item I absolutely want to focus on first.

Do you bullet journal?

There’s a vibrant community around bullet journaling, full of inspiration and creative ideas. If you’re interesting in learning more:

Shout out to my dear friends and former colleagues Katrina Moody and Dee Teal for putting me on the path to bullet journaling!