I like collecting things and so it helps that I like organizing things.
Old fashioned methods of cataloging and archiving information seem to appeal to me. Card catalogs from the library, a postman’s box, collections of identical books all in a row, etc. – that sort of thing. Lab notebooks, with their green paper and engineering grid – that, too. The visual reminder of the size of the collection is important, too. It reaffirms the organization.
With all that, it’s no surprise that calendars, to-do lists and general note-taking are also important to me. And like most of my ilk, the quest for a better method has been lifelong. I have years’ worth of lab books. I have years’ worth of Day Timers with their carefully designed layout (I preferred 2-page-per-day). And yet, no binder, no checklist format, no color-keyed prioritizing method survived for very long before abandonment. None look good on a shelf either.
The longest run came with Palm Pilots and PDAs that used “Graffiti” and a stylist. My engineering education left me with a small caps handwriting style that suited graffiti perfectly. I’m not sure what’s wrong with the rest of the planet, but now we’ve evolved to use cell phones with microscopic “soft” keyboards. The to-do list and calendar apps on smartphones do a wonderful job and have many advantages. I continue to use the calendar in parallel with my journal. Pen and paper have the advantage of convenience and speed for a quick note or especially for a sketch. Some people have become proficient in thumb typing on their phones – not me. The other advantage of the apps is their persistence and flexibility in terms of presenting your notes. With a journal, you enter data chronologically and therefore it is displayed the same way. Turn the page and it effectively disappears. No persistence, no searching, no prioritizing or categorizing.
And yet for all its advantages, I’ve never been able to stay with an app. Somehow it feels rude to type something on my phone in front of someone, yet it doesn’t seem as bad to take a note on paper. That’s probably a generational thing.
The Bullet Journal Method
I use Evernote sporadically. A few weeks ago, the email push from Evernote shared a story on the Bullet Journal method and how it could be used effectively with Evernote. It appealed to me right away. Visit the site for a video, photo examples and a nice description of how to use the method. Here are my own notes (with modifications) on how to get started.
1. add a topic on top of the page (like today’s date)
2. number the page
simple dot “•”open square for tasks
a. X = Task Complete
>→ = Task Migrated (from center of box and completely outside of it so it’s easily visible)
< = Task Scheduled
4. an “O” bullet for events (feel free to write about it at length on the next available page)
5. a dash “–”represents notes: facts, ideas, thoughts, and observations (not immediately actionable)
6. Signifiers are symbols that give your Bullets additional context (to the left of the bullet)
a. “*” to give a Task priority
an exclamation point for inspiration
an eyeuse @ for further research, something to look up
7. first few pages are your Index; add the topics of your Collections and their page numbers
8. “Future Log” is a Collection for items to be scheduled months in advance… or that you’ll get around to someday
a. create a six-month calendar (so far, I don’t use this …perhaps a simple list of key events is enough)
9. “Monthly Log” is a calendar and a task list
a. (left page) Calendar Page: list all the dates of that month down the left margin, followed by the first letter of the corresponding day (I’ll skip the letter next month, but this is otherwise a list of key events this month)
b. (right page) Task Page: list what you want to tend to that month, and unfinished Tasks that have migrated from the previous month
10. “Daily Log”: At the top of the page, record the date. Throughout the day, simply Rapid Log your Tasks, Events, and Notes as they occur. Add the next date wherever you left off. Each morning, add yesterday’s tasks to the Monthly Log page.
at the end of the montheach morning, review any unresolved Tasks, “X” out completed Tasks and assess remaining open Tasks are still relevant. If so, migrate it: turn the “•” into “>”run an arrow from the square, then add it to the Task Page of your newMonthly Log. (If irrelevant, strike out the whole line, including the task Bullet.)
b. Migrate any entries scheduled for that month from your Future Log into your new Monthly Log.
I carry the notebook on bike rides, so I suspect it will get wet. Therefore, I purchased a set of three “Expedition” edition notebooks from Field Notes – they are pocket-sized, waterproof and nearly indestructible! Others have done evaluations of different pens that work well on the synthetic paper, and so I bought a couple Uni-Ball Jetstream pens, 0.7mm. They work well.
I am 22 days into the Bullet Journal Era. Within days, I was much more focused on what I had to do. Writing it down added clarification and reinforced it so I was less likely to forget. It was oddly energizing. It also shortened the time before I would follow up with others on open items. It required some amount of force to make a habit of checking the Monthly Log each morning so that I knew what I had to do. If there wasn’t an open item from yesterday, then I wouldn’t need to go to that page to migrate it so I had to force the habit. This was key. Without this habit of checking the task list every single day, the effectiveness would have waned along with the satisfaction of seeing the boxes all checked off.
The difference, for me, compared to other methods is the index and the migration. Of course, the index makes it easy to find things. But it also gives you the freedom to make a Collection Page whenever the thought occurs. No worrying about whether or not there is room. No worrying about messing up that day’s journal entries; just turn to the next page and start writing. It’s very liberating. Then list it in the index. The migration of open tasks to the Monthly Log keeps things from getting lost. You make the note immediately on the Daily Log so it’s within the flow of your fast-paced, short text note taking – no flipping to some dedicated page or app on your phone. The next morning, you migrate it to the list and can add any details you may have neglected.
I use the Field Notes as my all-day, personal journal. I have a separate, full-sized engineering notebook at work. That one stays at work. If necessary, I’ll make work notes in the personal book or vice versa, and then migrate it over. I have forgotten to carry one or the other. When I forget both, any slip of paper will do.
I’ve done two other things based on comments from other bullet journalists. One is a “Waiting On” collection page for things I’ve requested of others that won’t necessarily be completed for a few days. That frees me from trying to remember. I put the date on that row and an open box. If I follow up, I make a note on that same line. When it’s done, I cross out the box. I use this at work. The other thing is a “Habit Tracker”. I use the Monthly Log page for this. Next to the date, I make vertical lines. At the top of each column I write some habit that I want to create (drink water, groom the cats) …things that I want to do every day. Then I cross the box each day that I do that particular habit. As you can see, there are some things that I haven’t done at all, yet. And several of them are really meant to be weekly things, or a couple times each month – so I’ll probably modify this method.
I have found that I have less free time at work. However, I don’t think it’s because I’m spending that lost free time by writing. The bullet concept, in contrast to writing full sentences, doesn’t take long at all. No, I think that I am more aware of what’s going on, of what’s necessary to do, and so I am giving myself more tasks to do. And that in turn requires that I gather more information. I’m more proactive. All of which means that I’m doing a better job of doing my job. The jury is still out as to whether I’m doing a better job of living my life outside of work.
As with any paper journal, it is static. Whatever order you write things down, it stays in that order. The index helps. But if you saw a stray dog and made a note of it. Then, weeks later, someone asked if you had seen a stray dog, how would you find the note and recall what day it was? Would you even try? Evernote suggests you take a photo of every page. They have optical character recognition (OCR) software that converts the handwriting in your photo to searchable text. I tried it. It works, but not 100%. And I think I have decent, small-caps-style handwriting thanks to a decade of engineering education. What if you had a decade of med school? (Doctors have terrible handwriting.) I don’t know yet, but the solution must involve a computer.
However, I don’t feel the need to search for a better method. Unlike pre-printed journals and certain religions, if you don’t think the prescribed dogma works for you then change it. Change all the rules. Steal from other methods. I already have. So has everyone who has posted on their blogs, as far as I know. So I’ve stopped searching for something that fits perfectly. Simply by proclaiming the freedom to change it, the bullet journal method works perfectly with my style of collecting and organizing my thoughts.