Bullet Journal: One Book to Rule Them All

I recently began using a Bullet Journal. Longtime readers who recall my going paperless days might find this odd. My going paperless experiment was just that–an experiment to see how far I could go without paper. Eventually, I decided that there were good reasons (for me) to continue to use paper. I’ve been carrying around Field Notes notebooks for years. I use notebooks for work, and large Moleskine notebooks for my journal/commonplace book. So why a Bullet Journal, and why now…?

I. Why Bullet Journal?

Moving back to paper

To understand why I opted for a Bullet Journal, you first have to understand how I work today. After going paperless for many years, I opted to circle back to paper. There were several reasons for this, but the most important to me were:

  • I was tired of spending my day staring at screens.
  • I was frustrated by the complexity of apps available for the simple things I wanted.
  • I was impressed by a remark Walter Isaacson made in his book Leonardo Da Vinci.

Isaacson pointed out that more than 7,000 pages from Da Vinci’s notebooks survived to today–a stretch of 500 years. He asked how many of our tweets and Facebook posts will survive even 50 years. Paper, it turns out, is a durable medium of information storage.

My notebooks

Field Notes

Over the last few years, I have used notebooks with increasing frequency. It started with my discovery of Field Notes notebooks in June 2015. Since then, I have a Field Notes notebook with me at all times. I use it as my short-term memory, and in the years since, I have filled 16 of them.

A page from my first Field Notes notebook (June 2015)

Composition Books

A little over a year ago, I began using traditional Composition Books for all of my work notes. I use these for everything:

  • Meeting notes
  • Capturing step-by-step instructions
  • “Lab” notes for when I am coding or trying to figure something out.
  • Outlining presentations I have to give.
  • Notes from conferences

They all go into these Composition Books. I like them because they have 200 page each which means one book usually lasts me a couple of months. The result is a kind of chronology of my day-to-day work. I number each book, and the pages in each book, and have started to do some light indexing of them to make things easier to find.

Commonplace Book/Journal

I have also been using a large Moleskine Art Collection sketchbook as my commonplace book/journal. I’ve filled nearly three of these books over the last year. I use them as a kind of paper-based multimedia collection of longer form writing. I write about my day, or notes and thoughts on books I’ve read. I record kids’ milestones, and paste in pictures from trips we take. I figure that someday, my kids might find it amusing to rummage through these books to see what my life (and theirs) was like when we were all younger.

One thing I did in these books from the start was to sequentially number each entry. This sequencing continues from one book to the next (I don’t start over at 1 again). This means I can index it to the entry number as opposed to a page number. It makes things less complicated.

A typical page in my commonplace book

But something was missing

I’ve grown used to this division of notebook labor. I have my Field Notes notebook with me all the time. I’m always jotting stuff down, and it often proves useful when I summarize my day in my commonplace book.

Occasionally, I’d find myself making to-do lists in my Field Notes notebook. Or I’d note a task from a meeting in my Composition Book. But I had no good way of finding all of these spurious to-do items, and no good mechanism for checking them off and making sure they were completed.

Over the years, I’ve used many different to-do apps. I probably stuck with Todoist the longest, but I found that (a) even that made it too complicated to quickly capture tasks, and (b) it required me to have some kind of device nearby to do so. Several people had told me about Bullet Journal, but it wasn’t until recently, as I started to prepare for our December vacation and felt overwhelmed with tasks, that I decided I needed to do something to manage the work coming out of my notebooks. So I bought the Bullet Journal Method by Ryder Carroll, and read it. It made sense to me, and I decided to give it a try.

II. My Bullet Journal

Filling a gap

Almost at once, I saw exactly where a Bullet Journal would fill a desperately needed gap: the One Book to Rule Them All.

In this revised system of mine:

  1. My Field Notes notebook is still my short-term memory, and I still carry one with me wherever I go. Now, however, if I have a task, I can add it to the Daily Log in my bullet journal so that I don’t lose track of it.
  2. My Composition Books aren’t going anywhere either. They now act as the raw, detailed notes for all work-related things. Tasks can go into my Bullet Journal, and for my larger projects, I now have collection in my Bullet Journal that I use to better manage those projects. The nice thing is that if I have a task in my bullet journal, I can add a reference back to the more detailed notes in the composition book just by adding a number, e.g. “see 4.129” (book 4, page 129).
  3. My commonplace books still acts as the place I do my longer-form writing. If there is something I want to refer to here from my Bullet Journal, all I do is refer to the entry number, e.g. “see #921.”

Rookie mistakes

Choosing the wrong notebook

Though it seems that most Bullet Journalists use the Leuchttrum 1917 notebook (or the official Bullet Journal variant thereof), I decided I would try to use a Field Notes notebook instead.

It took me one day to realize the problem: in that day, I’d filled up 18 pages of a 48-page notebook. I thought it would be useful to be able to carry the notebook in my pocket, but I could see that it wouldn’t be useful to have to carry dozens of them around with me.

At the same time, I saw a number of examples of interesting things, especially the Calendex idea–a combination calendar and index. That wouldn’t work in a small book like the Field Notes version. And so I bit the bullet and ordered a couple of Leuchttrum 1917 notebooks and that is what I have been using since. Turns out, I like it much better than the Field Notes notebook for this purpose.

Smudging the structure

I liked the Calendex and that was one of the first things I Leuchttrum 1917 bullet journal. But I quickly realized the pen I use, a black Pilot G-2, smudges when used for things like the structure of a page:

My calendex, smudges and all

I’m not giving up my Pilot G-2, which is my favorite pen, so what I decided instead was that I would do structure work using a pencil. In the image above, you can see the left page was done in pen (and is smudged) but the right page structure was done in pencil. Works for me!

Look and feel

There are some amazing looking bullet journals out there. It seems to me that for many people, a bullet journal is as much a form of artistic expression as it is a productivity tool. I found myself going down a rabbit hole of sites and videos of incredible journals, and I was flooded with all kinds of ideas–until I put on the brakes and a basic goal:

  • Keep it simple: my goal is for function not necessarily a beautiful book

If I didn’t set this goal, I could spend days envying other people’s examples and not using my own book for the purpose I have.

Four days in

I’m four days into my Bullet Journal, and I really like it. I am still getting used to things like the daily reflections. 

A page from my daily log

At first I was a little confused between what goes in the monthly log, future log, and what goes on the daily log, but I’ve settled on some simple rules that  work well for me so far:

  • Daily log is for capturing stuff without much consideration–just getting down and out of my head.
  • Monthly log/future log is for tasks that I have thought about and decided they are worth recording there.
  • Don’t migrate tasks to the daily log from other places unless it is a priority.

I’ve also managed to create some collections. I have one for planning what we need for our vacation later this month. I have another one for a work project, and yet another for a project in which I am archiving all my old stories. 

I’ve also used it for notes for things like blog posts. Indeed the images of notebooks that I sketched out at the beginning and middle of this post were born on a page in my bullet journal:

Conclusion

I’m just getting started, but so far, I like what the bullet journal is doing for me. It is serving as the central nervous system for all of my other notebooks and already helping me get a better grasp on the tasks that have been growing wild.

And if any bullet journalists have suggestions, please drop them in the comments!

Published by Jamie Todd Rubin

Jamie Todd Rubin writes fiction and nonfiction for a variety of publications including Analog, Clarkesworld, The Daily Beast, 99U, Daily Science Fiction, Lightspeed, InterGalactic Medicine Show, and several anthologies. He was featured in Lifehacker’s How I Work series. He has been blogging since 2005. By day, he manages software projects and occasionally writes code. He lives in Falls Church, Virginia with his wife and three children. Find him on Twitter at @jamietr.

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4 Comments

  1. The biggest benefit to a Bullet Journal for me has been that it defaults to NO. If you don’t actively move a task into a new journal, or forward, then it doesn’t hang around to bug you later. No little red badges here.

  2. I agree with what Curtis said. That was the main benefit that got me off my text file–too much junk accumulated too quick. Additionally (and this was something you alluded to), once I realized that the entries would likely outlive me, I wrote my journal (tasks) differently. Much less short-hand abbreviation and more something to be more easily reviewed later.

  3. Curtis, that’s a good way of putting it. After reading the book, I was still unclear about how to handling those kinds of forward migrations (open tasks to the next day), but I caught a video (possible one of Ryder Carroll’s, saying that he only ever moves previous open tasks onto the current daily log if they are urgent. That makes sense to me.

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