Hi everyone, and welcome to the Platform Podcast, your weekly look at all topics about running technology businesses and technology teams that work for the social group. My name is Matthew Reynolds, and I'm your host.
In today's audio essay we're going to be talking about bullet journaling, or rather, how we can boost our own personal productivity by using bullet journaling. It really is a fantastic system for managing our own lives and managing projects. Let's have a look at how it works.
I've been using bullet journaling for about six months, and I love it. I've spent what seems like my whole career looking for a productivity system that would work. I think bullet journaling may be it, which is why I want to talk to you about it on the podcast today.
We all need to keep track of the things that we need to do, and we're all working towards goals of different types. The things that we need to do on each day either feed directly into those goals, or they help us to clear the decks to help us do things that feed into those goals. But whichever way you look at it, we're creating an awful lot of these individual little tasks that we need to do. Most people for this reason end up using some sort of task list, but the problem with a task list is that they just tend to get overwhelming. They turn into this pressurizing mishmash of everything, and it's very hard to keep an eye on what you're actually trying to achieve.
Bullet journaling was invented by a web designer called Ryder Carroll. It's become extremely popular, and there are hundreds of blog posts and YouTube videos on it. I'm going to try and explain the podcast, which is quite difficult because the bullet journaling community works the very visual ways because these things are often designed very beautiful. We're going to go through today how we can build a bullet journal.
The general idea of a bullet journal is that it strips away the practicality of the task you need to do and starts applying a sort of philosophical layer of why you need to do it. It's not just a list of "Here's 50 Things You Need to do Today", it's "Here's 50 Things You Need to do Today and Why." On top of that, there's this mindfulness component to it that can really help us focus and ground ourselves in what we need to get done.
The idea is that you have a small book that you take around with you everywhere. I personally use a Filofax, but a lot of people use a journal that has dotted, as opposed to lined, paper. You see this in bullet journaling that actually they use this dotted paper. You can do it with lined. In my Filofax, I actually use gridded paper, but ... The book itself is divided into separate sections, which I'll come onto, but basically the idea is that onto the page of the bullet journal you write down what you currently need to do (which is the task list component), what you have done (which is the journaling component), and where you want to get to (which is the planner component). Bullet journaling talks about being at the interaction of these three different things: task list, journal, and planner.
There are two important things about bullet journaling that set it aside from typical systems that in particular technologists like to use, right? We've got a computer, we've got a phone, we like to use those things to track what we're doing as well as we like to use those things to do the actual work. Bullet journaling is important that it's entirely analog. You don't use an app; you use a pen and paper, which is mine's in a Filofax. I haven't used a Filofax since I was kid, but it was only getting back into this that I started using it again. I've been trying to use an electronic task list on a computer starting about with a Palm V 20 years ago to try and keep track of the tasks. It seems logical when we're doing that to switch to an app and manage the task and then switch back to the app that we were actually working with. But having to physically break away from the computer, return to pen and paper, creates the intentionality.
Bullet journaling is all about this idea of intentionality, that you do things with intention. You don't just put something on your bullet journal because you think, "Oh, I need to do it." It's this idea that we spoke about. It's: You do it and here's why. The problem with task apps is that even good ones just create a massive list of tasks. If you have a lot to do, your task list is going to get ridiculously long and you won't be able to see the wood from the trees. Bullet journaling doesn't do this because you have to start each day fresh. I'm going to come on to how the actual process works.
You can go back and look at tasks from previous day, but each day is a new day. This is how it stops it feeling like getting overwhelmed by millions of jobs. You may have a million and one things to do, but you can focus and say today, "Actually, today I'm going to go and do these five." And the other x number of tasks could just wait.
The second distinction of the bullet journaling system is the journaling part. For technologists, this is real easy to understand. It's the same as a journaling file system. Whenever we do something, we write it down such as in a journaling file system. Whenever the operating system does anything to the disk, it makes a note of what it did. Or a database does the same thing. If the phone rings, we write it down. If something occurs to us about Project B when we're working on Project A, we write it down. If we read an interesting blog article, we'll write down a note of what we found interesting about it.
This is really important for two reasons. Probably more than anything, this has changed my life in terms of using this system. Because it's an analog system, writing it down actually cements the information in a stronger way. It's not like hitting Alt Tab, typing some information, hitting Alt Tab, and going back again. It's this intentionally different act. If I'm journaling something, I'm recording it using an entirely different part of my brain and an entirely different physical process. It makes it very separate.
Secondly, we tend not to record the sort of information anyway, especially if we're not in ... If we're in a state of flow when we're being interrupted, we don't tend to record down the fact that John phoned or whatever. As we use this system, we create a powerful store of information we can return back to. You can go back and go, "Actually, I was trying to phone round with these people to organize something. Who was it that I phoned? Okay, they're blah blah blah blah blah."
Bullet journaling has a lot of roles, and there's ways that you're supposed to do it but, like all things, you can take what you like and leave the rest. You don't have to do it like this. I think the aspects about the mindfulness and intentionality of it you do have to do, but the other bits are fine. You can modify it to yourself, and I do. I've modified the plan. I'll come back on how I've modified it to make it better for me for managing projects.
There's a load of information out there about bullet journaling. I'm not going to get hugely into that, but the general components are that you have components called a daily log, a monthly log, a future log, you have a separate set of collections, and you have an index. The index I'm not going to talk about here at all, but the index is basically just a list of where you find things in the journal or in the volumes of journals. As you do this, you're going to create volumes of journals going back over the year. You see on YouTube a lot of people who go, "We're going into 2019. Now I'm going to redo my bullet journal and start the new year with a new journal."
The daily log is the thing you're going to be in most often. You used to keep track of what you need to do and what you have done in a given day. Each day you start a new one, and I'm going to come on to the process. The reason why it's called bullet journaling is because for each task, you do a little bullet. You just do a little dot. When you finish a task, you put a cross through it; you turn that dot into a cross. There's other symbols used in bullet journaling. You can make your own, but the dot and the cross is a key.
The daily log is your task list, but it also forms your journal as well because as things are happening during the day, you're going to note down such and such phoned or I got an email or I learned this bit of information, etc. There are two other types of components: the monthly log and the future log. To me these are confused. I don't really understand why you need two different sorts of log but nonetheless, everyone talks about it. The idea of the log is important. Bullet journaling is heavy into this idea of reflections. Again, this is the mindfulness and the intentionality of what it does.
Periodically you have to go back and look at what it is that you have and you have to clean it up. You clean up tasks one of three ways. If you look back at a daily log for the previous week, you look at tasks and it's done because there's a cross right through it, it's done but you haven't crossed it out (in which case you need to cross it), you don't need to do it anymore so you delete it (you just put a line straight through it), or you can move them into the monthly or future log.
The way that bullet journaling works it you use a less-than sign for one and a greater-than sign for another. You use the less-than sign to put in the monthly and the greater-than sign to put it in the future. When you look back at the daily logs, you go, "That task I put that out into the far future or into the near future." This is where the monthly future log really gets confusing because it's like, "If I'm not doing it today, there's ... Does it create a difference between doing it in this month or in the next month?" I don't use it like that, but I'll come down to how I use it in a second.
The collections are another important part of bullet journaling. It's here that you record ad hoc information. A lot of people will say they use this for a list of books or a list of films or places they want to go, or this aspirational stuff. I use it for general information, but in particular, I use it to cement things down that I need to remember. If I'll read an article on 10 different types of mental errors, I'll be like, "Actually, I'm really interested in mental errors. What I'm going to do is create a collection. I'm going to write down those 10." By writing them down, because you're using this process of physically writing, because you're doing it with more deliberate intention, it's easier to remember.
In practice then, the idea is that you start each day with a daily reflection. You start a new daily log page. At the top of mine, I put the day along with random things that popped into my head while also I'll be making my way downstairs to my desk, like how I'm feeling or ideas that need to be included in other projects. This is the morning reflection process. The important part is you go, "Actually, today's a new day, and off we go."
On each daily log page, as things need to be done, you add them in. You don't really need to go back and bring tasks forward from previous days. You can just flick back in the book. At least, that's what I do. If I was doing that, I'd be bringing forward a million tasks over the month each time. Why we use the reflection process to go back and say, "Actually, this is where I'm going to mark these tasks up."
As things happen, I'll note down events or other bit of information. This is the journaling part. If I do something for a project, I'll record what I did. This has a dual advantage of keeping my head straight because I can remember what I've done, but also reminds me that I'm making progress. That can be important if you think you're spinning your wheels and not necessarily getting enough done. You could look back and go, "Actually, you know what? Over the past two weeks, I have done an awful lot."
In terms of how to manage projects, I tend to work on a bunch of projects at the same time. I have a number of different clients, a number of different personal projects, and I need to keep track of what I'm doing with each one. Rather than doing a future log where I'm keeping track of tasks I need to do in the future, I create a separate future log for each project. I'll go through and say, "Actually, I'm not going to do that thing that's on my daily task for today. I'm going to do it in the future, but it's assigned to that project."
Periodically, maybe once a week if I remember to do it on a Sunday (but I definitely do this at the end of each month), you roll up and reflect back on the month. You go through and look at all the open tasks and all the daily logs and all the future logs and you close them because they're done, delete them because they're not relevant anymore, or you move them into a future or monthly log. In my case, the future monthly logs are actually project logs, so I'll allocate those out into separate projects. Again, sometimes, something will happen that causes me to create or add to a collection. Again, this is about actively tracking information in writing, getting it all out of your head as things that are in our head tend to go round and round and round. It's important with actually any form of task management system that you start offloading things that occur into your task management system.
I remember years ago, I used to try to use getting things done. This was a central concept there, that it's like, stop the things spinning around in your head. Get them out. Bullet journal does that, but then it also has this other reflective and mindfulness and intentional stuff around it as well.
Why does this work? I think this is the only task management system that I've come across that seems to include elements of mindfulness and elements of intentionality. The fact that it's a separate physical analog thing that you're using together with the physical act of writing, it makes it very mindful. It basically teaches you to slow down, stay in the moment, and record what's going on. The fact that everything you do has to go somewhere as well makes it intentional. If a task comes up, it's no good just to leave it there forever. It's like, "No. You know what? Is this ever going to happen? Does it need to happen? When? How can I allocate it out?" For me, this system makes it possible to focus and concentrate in a way that I've never known a task management system be able to do. I think it's because of those two aspects. As I said, I really can't recommend it enough.
If you want to get into this, there is a huge community of bullet journaling aficionados out there. Honestly, the best ones are on YouTube, but they are very arty and design-y. If you're going on YouTube to talk about bullet journaling, your bullet journal is going to look beautiful. Try not to be put off by that if you're not too artsy or design-y like me. Mine is terrible handwriting scrawled on pages of a Filofax. It doesn't have to be particularly fancy, but you can see when you're talking to people, when your watching people doing these videos, what they're getting out of it. I think that's really important.
Thanks very much for listening. That's about it for this episode. If you've enjoyed this audio essay, please like and follow us on your favorite podcast service like iTunes or Stitcher or whatever. If you've loved this audio essay then please share it with a friend or colleague that you think would love it too. That's really the best way to help us grow and I hugely appreciate it.
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