My Bullet Journal Inspired Notebook For Keeping Sane
By Michael V. Hannigan
I’ve lived most of my professional life on a deadline.
For 20 years, I was a small town newspaper reporter and editor. That meant plenty of stories, plenty of deadlines, plenty of names and meetings … plenty to keep straight and organized. The pace can be demanding.
Then I went out on my own as a solopreneur and the amount of information I was juggling somehow increased. There is always another meeting, another project, another something that I have to get done.
At home, my wife and children all have their own schedules we have to organize. I am active in my church and community, as well.
Hey, I have a lot going on over here!
I am sure you can relate. I know my schedule isn’t unusual. We are all busy these days.
The problem is trying to keep everything organized so that you know where to be and when. You sure don’t want to forget that honey-do your spouse asked you about two weeks ago.
I’ve tried just about every organizational system over the years from paper calendars to smart phone apps. I’ve created thousands of lists on thousands of pieces of paper. I’ve spent hundreds of dollars on planners big and small.
They worked for a time, but none of them could fit all my needs so I stopped using them.
Until I found bullet journaling.
Bullet journaling is about taking short notes and organizing them with symbols (bullet points) and repeatable page designs called spreads. With these concepts, you can create a personal organization system that fits your needs and can adapt when your needs change.
When I first heard about this a few years ago, bullet journaling was about keeping things straight. Since then things have blown up a little bit and the website describes it as “a mindfulness practice disguised as a productivity system. It’s designed to help you organize your what while you remain mindful of your why. The goal of the Bullet Journal is to help its practitioners (Bullet Journalists) live intentional lives, ones that are both productive and meaningful.”
Bullet journaling can also be an artistic outlet for some people. One of my guilty pleasures is to scroll through the #bullet journal hashtag on Instagram and look at all the beautiful layouts.
Sorry, my notebook will never look pretty and never be zen. It is simple and straightforward, but it is not too much of a stretch to say that bullet journaling has changed the way I do business and made my life better.
The notebook I developed with the bullet journal principals is about two words: simplicity and flexibility. I rarely leave the house without it and I work in it every day.
Here are the tools I use plus some alternate add ons:
The heart of the system is the actual notebook itself and I go with an old-school wide ruled composition book. They are inexpensive and practically indestructible, which is why they have been around since the late 1800s.
At 100 pages, I can usually get about six months of daily use out of a composition book.
Many people buy expensive, leather journals for their notebook, but I want something I can pound on without worry. Also, many of those journals don’t lay flat enough for me when I am working. The composition book does.
Another bullet journaling standard is a dot grid notebook for people who like to draw intricate designs. If you’d like to try that out, you can get composition books in the dot grid flavor.
My favorite pen is the Pilot G-2 with black ink. I have been using it for years. Like a composition book, the G-2 is inexpensive, easy to find, and indestructible.
I go with the 1.0 mm line because I write with a heavy hand and the fine line version doesn’t feel as good when I am writing.
While I’d rather use a G-2, I will pick up any pen if I don’t have one. I always prefer black ink, but will use blue if I have no other choice. I don’t ever use colored pens, but this is because I am partially color blind.
That is really all I need for my notebook system: A wide ruled composition book and a black pen. But there are some bullet journal tools that could be useful for others.
- Ruler – I use a ruler sometimes when I am building my main page layouts. About once a week.
- Post-it Markers – Small strips of the ubiquitous colored paper to highlight sections.
- Washi Tape – Decorative tape designed specifically for notebooks.
- Binder clips
My notebook revolves around a few simple rules that keep me on track and organized. I believe the most important characteristic of my notebook system is flexibility, so I don’t have many absolutes, but here they are:
- Consistent Set Up — I set aside time every week to build the next set of page spreads. It doesn’t matter what else is going on, I must sit down and spend about 30 minutes doing this or the whole system falls apart.
- Numbered Pages — Some expensive bullet journal notebooks come with numbered pages. I number my own. I do this because it makes it easier to find information I need on a recurring basis.
- Symbols — The original bullet journal as invented by Ryder Carroll had seven symbols. I only really use two.
- “.” signifies task or event. It gets X’ed out when complete.
- “-” signifies an item in a list.
- Put Everything in the Notebook
And that’s it.
Let’s get down to the nitty-gritty. How do you make this organizational system work for you? With recurring layouts called spreads in bullet journal lingo.
These are the core layouts I currently use:
- Monthly Spread
- Weekly Spread
- Tracker charts
- Note blocks
The important thing about this system is that it is flexible. The exact shape and design of these layouts change according to my needs, which is something you can’t do with a planner or scheduling app. (TIP: Create these layouts when they are needed and not too far in advance, otherwise you lose your flexibility.)
I also use an index and a yearly overview, but those are self-explanatory.
You can find many other bullet journal spreads online, but these are the ones I use.
The first thing I set up going into a new month is the 2-page Monthly Spread.
Keeping with my theme of making it easy, it is one line to each day and date. Here is how I set up April 2020. Just put your meetings and important tasks on the right line.
You can see at the end I have a section for “Notes.” If I schedule something later than April, I will put it there. Then, when I set up the next month, I will check the Notes section and see if I have anything I need to bring forward.
Simple, right? (TIP: Feel free to add some color or washi tape flair if you are more artistic than me.)
This spread also has a tracker, but we will talk about that later.
This is where most of the daily work happens. I am constantly updating this 2-page spread. The first example is what it looks like immediately after I set it up. It gets busier and has more entries as the week goes on.
First step is to divide the two pages into six equal blocks. I put Saturday and Sunday into one block. (TIP: Always do this spread on facing pages, even if you have to skip a blank page to do so.)
I list meetings and appointments down the left side of the block. Tasks go down the right hand side. I always check the Monthly Spread as I set up the week and make sure to add relevant notes.
These are the first pages I check in the morning and the last pages I check as I finish up my day.
There are always things to track in life. Things for work, home, health, family, etc.
In the Tracker example above (Monthly Spread), I have created a chart to track the stats for some Facebook pages.
I create and retire these Trackers as I need them, which is their real strength. You can set one up for anything you want to record and stop using it when it isn’t needed any longer. (TIP: Your tracker will be more effective if it records only a few things. Don’t try and put everything related to your health in one tracker, for instance.)
There is a bullet journal component called a “brain dump.” It is when you are overwhelmed and you spill everything in your brain out onto the page. Many people swear this helps them, but that isn’t something that works for me.
As a content creator, however, I love using Brainstorms. Here is an example of how I used this technique to prepare for a speech.
First, I wrote all the things I was thinking about the speech. I wasn’t worried about consistency, I was only trying to get everything out on the page.
Then I looked at all the ideas and started grouping them together. You can see I even used a little color to help me organize. I put these groups into a list.
Finally, I took the groups and turned them into an outline for writing my speech.
(TIP: Brainstorms don’t have to be huge. I use the technique all the time. For instance, I did a small Brainstorm for the intro to the speech example.)
I thought this last part was important to include even though it isn’t really a layout. Everything goes in my notebook: meeting notes, research, phone calls, etc.
I date and separate these notes with a line. Notes that I often refer to get listed in my index. (TIP: Take a photo of important notes in case anything ever happens to your notebook.)
And That’s It
That’s my system!
It is simple, easy, and convenient. It costs next to nothing and offers unlimited flexibility. It can be tailored to meet anyone’s exact needs.
Organizational skills are important in life regardless of your job or status. Ben Franklin said, “For every minute spent organizing, an hour is earned.”
Start earning back time and a sense of calm. Pick a system and get organized!