This post is part of a series on the various ways I've used pen and paper in my life. To learn more about it, check out the introduction, or view the "ink and paper brain" category for other posts.
I’ve said recently that my new journal has made me fall in love with pen and paper all over again. This is that journal. It’s a black hardbound medium Piccadilly notebook with graph paper, and it hardly ever leaves my side these days.
Why has it so quickly become such an important object to me? Well, in part because it’s such a versatile tool. Its dimensions are great for slipping in a messenger bag, so it’s quite portable, but it also gives me substantially more space than a pocket-sized notebook like NOTES or my second brain books. And thanks to Ryder Carroll’s Bullet Journal method of notation, I’ve found it trivial to roll many of the functions I’d previously reserved for discrete notebooks—diarying, making to-do lists, capturing stray thoughts—all into one journal. It’s a book endowed with a considerable portion of my self.
About Bullet Journaling
The Bullet Journal page provides the best introduction to the system, but I’ll give it a go as well before explaining my modifications.
Bullet Journaling is a markup system for pen and paper designed by Ryder Carroll with simplicity, flexibility, and effective organization in mind. It’s fast and easy, but also extensible, and powerful enough to keep my scribblings in relative order. And despite the apparent paradox, having a system to guide my journaling has enabled me to be more bold and creative than I would be otherwise. More on that in a bit.
According to Carroll, Bullet Journaling stands on two legs: logging and sorting. On the logging side of things, it utilizes a minimal notation system of different bullets to facilitate the rapid capture of different types of information. A box signifies a task; a circle, an event; a dot, a note. A small collection of extra signifiers, like a star for “priority”, help quickly add extra information. Once logged, information can then be sorted via page numbers, monthly calendars, and indices.
The best system is the one that feels natural to use, and for the most part, the Bullet Journal feels that way to me. It provides a minimal framework, just enough to encourage me to use my journal more, without becoming a burden.
In many ways, my Bullet Journal is a successor to my “second brain” notebooks, but Bullet Journaling makes it far more useful a tool than they ever were. They were designated all-purpose notebooks but had no organizational structure whatsoever. Retrieving information from them was heinously difficult, since it meant flipping through pages, hoping to catch the note I was looking for among hastily written notes and crossed-out grocery lists. Furthermore, without page numbers or any form of index, I felt a strong pressure to resist fragmentation and keep all my entries in contiguous chunks. This lead me to “block out” pages in advance, and I occasionally neglected to use my “second brain” notebook to record a piece of information precisely because I couldn’t decide where to put it, or if interrupting a “block” was worth it.
The Bullet Journal method alleviates these concerns. Its organizational structure, especially with my modifications, is robust enough that I have no qualms about “interrupting” an entry by flipping to the next available page or spread, since I know it won’t disrupt the flow or make information harder to find. As a result, I throw all sorts of information into my Bullet Journal. It can take it.
My Bullet Journal Method
Generally speaking, I use the standard Bullet Journal method with some extensions of my own to better fit my ways of thinking and habits of use.
First, like the original calls for, I number all my pages and keep an index. Ryder’s original index is equal parts index and table of contents, with listings for specific entries alongside listings of broad recurring subjects. Mine is more exclusively a table of contents, pointing only to entries and lists. I use a different strategy for categorization, which I’ll explain in a sec.
I preserved Ryder’s bullet types and signifiers. The three bullet types (task, event, and note) are versatile enough that I saw no reason to expand on them. I’ve extended the list of signifiers with several of my own, however:
- nightly reflection (crescent moon): Since my Bullet Journal has replaced my older bedtime diary, I wanted a way to quickly identify, at a glance, my nightly reflections.
- quote (double quotation mark): For categorizing those quotes I want to save.
- migrated here (chevron): I’m still toying with this one, but I use it as a counterpart to the migrated task box. The “migrated task” bullet shows that an old task has been moved; my “migrated here” chevron signifies where it landed. I haven’t had to do this yet, but I imagine I could stack up to three chevrons in the signifier, increasing each time I migrated the task—a visual reminder that I’m digging my heels.
- continued entry (ellipsis): I like rewriting entry titles when they span multiple pages, since it allows me to feel grounded no matter how deep into an entry I go simply by glancing at the top of the page. I loathe writing “(continued)” or “(cont’d)”, however. This signifier handily solves that issue; I simply place it before an entry’s title to indicate that there was more content on previous pages.
- Xflip to non-consecutive page X (bold chevron and page #): I’m really proud of this one. Since I often “interrupt” entries with unrelated pages, like doodles or other lists, I needed an in-page way to easily track subjects as I paged forward. When an entry skips one or more pages, I indicate that by putting this little guy in the bottom margin. That way, I know at a glance where the trail picks up again.
In addition, I use a trick I started developing in my “second brain” books: setting important information apart via illustrations and typography. I frequently draw topical icons in the top-outside corners of pages—for instance, a big @ sign for my list of future usernames, or a sword and martini guy for a page of KoL strategy. These make the information faster to find, especially when paired with an index, and having unique layouts or typography gives pages of important info their own “feel” so that I can recall them at a glance.
I got the idea for my final categorization trick from DIYfish’s Life Mapping System and this post by Adam Akhtar. Remember how I said I didn’t use my index for thematic categorization? That’s because I instead have a series of “tags” for common themes, like “Doodles/Drawings” or “DIY”. On the last page in my journal, I mark off specific grid squares for each tag. Then, to “tag” a page, I simply black out a sliver of the outside margin in line with the tag ad the back of the book. If I want to find my drawings, I turn to the back, locate the “Doodles/Drawings” tag, and flip through the journal to find all pages with that square on the edge blacked out. Because my notebook’s gridded pages are sloppily aligned (one unfortunate consequence of buying an inexpensive notebook), I keep a bookmark-sized tag list in my journal’s back pocket to make sure I get the alignment of each tag just right.
When it comes to monthly organization, I’m still working on finding the best process for myself. So far, I’ve used the original strategy of writing the month’s days out as a list, but I’m not sold on it. I may try the more graphical annual and monthly calendars that Chelsey Dagger has demonstrated in her “Rocket Journal”—in part because those visual systems will stand out better to me than the calendars-as-lists. Other people, like Kim Holmes and Eddy Holt, have identified the lack of a calendar as the biggest weakness of the original Bullet Journal, and I fully agree. Good thing it’s such an extensible system!
At the end of each month—I say “each”, but I’ve only done this twice so far—I take a (figurative) page from Angelia Trinidad’s Passion Planner and review the month. What went well? Who or what am I grateful for? What did I learn? Where do I want to focus my energies next month? I’m not goal-oriented enough for the Passion Planner to be useful in full to me, but I love its idea of monthly reviews, and plan to keep that up in my own journaling.
And since I’m not above using digital methods to complement my analog ones, I just began using Dave Rea’s new site, Indxd, to keep a digital index of this and future journals. I trust my pen-and-paper organizational methods now, but when I’m eventually on Bullet Journal #3 or #4 (or beyond), I imagine I’ll be grateful for the power to look through my indices digitally.
All together, these components work to make my Bullet Journal more than a glorified notepad. It’s an extension of my brain, a real cornerstone to my self. And I love it.
Magnus, thanks for your comment!
I completely agree with your observation regarding “falling off the horse”, so to speak. I love how lightweight the Bullet Journal method is, in part because, like you, it keeps me from worrying that I must constantly keep my journal up to date.
Indxd is indeed for indexing topics, though I use it as equal parts topic index and table of contents. I hadn’t seriously considered Evernote indexing, though the thought had crossed my mind; perhaps I’ll try that out sometime soon.
Thanks again for your comment.
Thanks so much for posting your experience. I think that sharing these observations of what works and what doesn’t helps everyone refine their personal method.
I, too, started using the Bullet Journal method last fall and it hasn’t been perfect but here’s what I love: In older systems (e.g., Getting Things Done), if I got horribly busy and fell off in my use of the system…my whole world turned into chaos and restarting or reorganizing was a huge chore. Not so with this method. If I go a day or a week or a month without using it…restarting is as simple as going to my last point in time…carry forward my unfinished tasks and reindex.
I looked at the Indxd site and that seems like a great idea. It seems like this is just a site to index topics across notebooks? If you wanted to take that a step further, have you considered Evernote? I photograph or scan (at least) important pages into Evernote and I can search for text within the photos or scans. Just a thought. Altnerately, you could just take a snapshot of the index pages of each notebook and those are searchable from within Evernote.
Thanks again. I enjoyed reading your experience.
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