If you’ve never sat bolt upright in bed at 3:17 a.m. convinced that you’ve missed a critical deadline, congratulations. You should bottle your secret and sell it to the rest of us — along with every other productivity guru currently writing a book or developing an app. The supply of productivity systems seems to be expanding, which tells me something: A lot of us are awake at 3:17 a.m.
Over the years, I’ve tried several paper and digital systems to get a handle on the daily stuff of life. Inevitably, though, I end up with notes and reminders in multiple places — usually covered with Post-it notes. I’ve realized two things. One, it’s easy to fall down the rabbit hole of mastering a complicated system’s quirks instead of getting real work done. Two, for this area of my life, I like pen and paper more than electronics.
I rely on a laptop, smartphone and tablet like everyone else. I get a better grip on “things to do,” though, when I’ve put pen to paper to write it down, much like students who take handwritten notes in class versus taking notes on a laptop. Besides, paper doesn’t need to be charged, or it doesn’t lose data in an upgrade, crash at the most inconvenient time possible or serve as algorithm fodder for whoever is buying access to your information this week.
Using the Bullet Journal Productivity System
While wading through my sea of Post-its, I stumbled onto a Twitter discussion of “bullet journaling.” People were raving about it, and their experiences with other productivity systems sounded a lot like mine. Ever the optimist, I decided to give the Bullet Journal a try. After all, it was free — the only cost is the price of a notebook and pen, which I already had.
And, as it turns out, it’s a simple system that works!
The Bullet Journal is an analog productivity system created by art director and interaction designer Ryder Carroll. The best introduction to the system is the video and website, but its basic premise is simple: Write down in a notebook every task you have, every event you need to attend or any idea you might want to pursue as they come up — don’t wait until later. Mark each task, event and idea with its own different-shaped bullet to show you at a glance what it is. Use the notebook sequentially, numbering pages and creating an index as you go, so you can always find what you’re looking for. Review and update your journal daily, keeping tabs on things that don’t get done until they do get done.
So, a litigator with a family might make these notes on the evening of August 3, planning for August 4. Events are denoted by an empty circle bullet, tasks with an empty square, ideas with a solid circle.
As planned, she meets with Mr. Smith on August 4. He’s just moved his mother into a new nursing home because at her prior nursing home, she had several serious bedsores and fell three times and the nurses made at least one medication error. Our attorney agrees to investigate whether a negligence action against the prior home is advisable. She gives information to a staff member to enter into her case management system for everyone in the office to use, and she makes task bullets in her journal for her own use:
Then she gets an email from her son’s math teacher — her son hasn’t turned in his homework for a week. She makes a task bullet to remind herself to follow up that evening.
On her way home, while she’s waiting in line to pay for the prescription and milk, she realizes that the accident witness she deposed today mentioned another witness who wasn’t listed in the official traffic crash report. Then she thinks of a marketing idea she’d like to try for her practice, and how nice a weekend away would be.
Check Them Off!
Our lawyer checks off the events and tasks as she completes them, and that evening, moves the ones she doesn’t get done to the next day, August 5, along with other events from her calendar. She designates a new page to collect marketing ideas, and another to plan the trip to Chicago.
She’s captured all her ideas and to-dos in one place, knows what’s coming tomorrow, and sleeps soundly.
So get out the notebook and pen. The Bullet Journal is simple enough to understand and use immediately — it gets tasks, events and ideas out of your head so they won’t rattle around and wake you up in the middle of the night. And you won’t be swamped by Post-its in the morning.
Mary Taylor Lokensgard is a recovering attorney with over 15 years of experience in private practice, including plaintiff’s personal injury litigation, estate planning and administration, and elder law. She’s now working for herself as an independent writer, and she tweets @marylokensgard.
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Originally published in July 2014.