Anyone who knows me will probably be surprised that I’m writing about getting things done without a digital device. But as our most recent episode of ‘My Pocket Psych’ illustrated, there’s more than one way to be productive and many people still prefer to use pen and paper.
After quite a few clients mentioned the 2018 book ‘The Bullet Journal Method’, I decided to check it out for myself. I’ll freely admit, I went into it with quite a cynical mindset, very confident in my preferences for digital tools such as automated reminders, Google Calendar and ToDoist. That and the risk that this was a classic example of ‘productivity porn’.
Yet just a couple of chapters in, I began to change my mind. Rather than a gimmick to sell notebooks, the book fairly convincing lays out the rationale for using pen and paper in a largely digital world. That is, to regain focus, to prioritise effectively and to plan ahead.
In a sense, a well-organised Bullet Journal can replace a task list, a reflective journal and a planner/diary. So I decided to try it out for myself.
Mesearch, not research
It’s very important that we’re all clear that my experiment does not constitute compelling evidence. Nor am I suggesting that everyone hop online and order a fancy new notebook. However, in reflecting on writing this post, I identified quite a few advantages I experienced while explore the journal methodology. So please take them for what they are – one person’s experience, not a guide for life.
Additionally, as I tend to do, I deviated from the methodology from time to time. Flexibility is permitted within the guidelines, but I’m by no means a ‘perfect’ journal-keeper. That said, it has been a positive enough experience that I’ve decided to maintain it as a helpful habit, albeit in a simpler form.
More on that below.
Wait – what exactly is a ‘Bullet Journal’?
It’s the term the creator and author Ryder Carroll gave to his way of keeping on top of his workload and appointments just using a pen and a notebook. it consists of a number of different ways of laying out both timelines and tasks in a way that promotes reflection, prioritisation and identification of the absolute ‘musts’ in a given day, week and month.
Here’s a quick video to describe the approach.
What do I think?
I now turn to my own Bullet Journal, where I kept my notes on the book as I listened to it on Audible. Yes, in a notebook. On paper. So very unlike me.
Conceptually, there are lots of overlaps with psychological flexibility. The emphasis on identifying what really matters, the reminder to give appropriate focus to these things and to stop worrying about things outside our control. While psychological flexibility is never mentioned in the book, I kept hearing what I thought were references to its processes.
Simplicity is key to the approach. It requires a simple notebook and pen. While there is now (inevitably) a branded Bullet Journal on sale, you most definitely don’t need it. I used a simple notebook from Muji which cost less than five pounds.
In the few months that I’ve been using this approach I’ve noticed the following benefits:
- Writing by hand requires you to slow down and this is most definitely a good thing. My notes were therefore the result of some thought and reflection, not hastily poured out of my mind.
- Reflecting in the morning and again in the evening creates a nice start and end to the day. This helped me absolutely clarify my top priorities for the day and later, reflect on what ‘d achieved and what I was grateful for.
- While this approach requires repetition in what you write down (e.g. key appointments in a monthly ‘spread’ end up also going into a ‘daily spread’) the act of writing them down gives you the opportunity to question how important they are and also sparks thoughts about what’s needed in advance.
- Additionally, re-writing tasks that are still incomplete can help you identify any tendencies towards either procrastination or over-commitment. This is useful feedback about your working style and the items that remained incomplete on my task list helped me consider how I was spending my energy.
- Writing in a journal is the very definition of uni-tasking. Unlike my phone, iPad or laptop the notebook doesn’t send me notifications or tempt me to look at other apps while I’m using it. It therefore becomes quite an absorbing process, but not a time-consuming process.
- Having a small handful of key priorities noted on a page serves as a great reminder of what I believe my time and attention should be invested in. Keeping it open as a gentle reminder helps me avoid ‘exciting’ distractions that might appear in my email inbox or via a social media stream.
That said, it’s not a perfect approach (what is?!) and I noticed the following personal downsides:
- To get the best out of the notebook, you really need to take it everywhere with you. Where this wasn’t possible, I dictated a quick task or reminder into my iPhone for later consideration. Still, it’s not the same as making a note in the moment.
- As someone who has used apps that automatically back up the data, I lived in a slight but constant dread that I would somehow lose the notebook and the insights it contained. So I started to take photos of key pages with my phone.
- I made the early mistake of looking online for inspiration on how to organise my journal. Please don’t consult Pinterest or Instagram for ideas as both are full of journals that have become art projects. They can feel quite intimidating and look like they take hours and hours to maintain – which I think goes against the whole ethos of this quick journalling approach.
How do I use the journal now?
Yes, I’m still writing in my Muji journal. The clarity that morning and evening reflection gives me is most definitely worth the investment of time and attention. Before I dive into my email inbox, the journal comes first. And before I ‘shut down’ for the evening, I review the day and note anything that needs attention tomorrow.
Each day I make a note of:
- My key priorities for the day, selected from all the available tasks already in ToDoist.
- The self-care / wellbeing activities I’m committed to (e.g. meditation, running, gratitude)
- A very brief log of key events or reflections
- A its of three or four things I’m grateful for at the end of the day
All this fits onto a single page of the A5 notebook, doesn’t involve stickers or glitter or even coloured pens. I write using an erasable Frixion pen in black ink. Simple but effective.
I also maintain a few ‘collections’, such as books I want to read, some home improvements I want to make, ideas for this blog and the podcast and business ideas in general. But that’s about it.
Interested? Here’s how to get started
Simply have a look at the videos on BulletJournal.com, source the cheapest notebook you can find and start writing. It’s not an art project, it’s a tool to give you focus, reflection and prioritisation. So don’t aim for pretty, go for functional and make it something you’re more likely to keep using.
If this is something you already use, let me know how it’s working for you in the comments below. If it’s something you’ve tried and abandoned, tell me why.
And if you haven’t listened to it yet, episode 47 of ‘My Pocket Psych‘ looks at the different perspectives on the analogue versus digital debate, exploring research studies, our own experiences and feedback from our listeners. Check it out below!
Great system from the sounds of it, and you don’t have a trusted system yet. I believe I prefer my gratitude journal, to-do list and scheduling into calendar. Yet, I can see how this works….
Thanks for reading, Volker. I think my use of paper and pen continues to evolve. Anything captured during the day that either a) doesn’t get done that day or b) is planned for the future, will go into ToDoist for future work. I think the main benefit I get from this approach is intentional focus. ToDoist is definitely my trusted system and continues to ‘save my bacon’ on a regular basis!