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In Every Tool, There is a Hammer: Breaking Bullet Journaling to Work For Me

Happy June, everybody!

I started bullet journaling in May, after my previous (digital) planner system had started falling into disrepair. This is what I learned-- mostly about what my own brain needs to stay organized. Hopefully, this is interesting and useful for people whose brains are not mine as well.

But first...

What is Bullet Journaling?

Bullet journaling is a customizable organization system created by Ryder Carroll that, at its base, is a dated list of thoughts, tasks, reminders and ideas that can be differentiated in type or progress status using different bullet symbols.

The official system also organizes things using future and monthly logs in addition to the daily lists, but the beauty of it is that you can break it to make it work for you-- add things, take them away, shuffle them around. Try things out, then adjust them on a monthly, weekly, or daily basis as you see fit.

Beyond the basics, (which you can watch a video about here) bullet journaling has developed into a fun, artistic internet hobby while still retaining its function as a planning system.

I particularly like the videos of AmandaRachLee and Plant Based Bride, two artistic bullet journalers with wildly different styles. This video by WheezyWaiter is also a fun exploration of why people enjoy the system. He also did a follow-up video four months later with the guy who created it.

So, How Do I Bullet Journal?

The short answer is, by breaking the original system to work for me, the way Ryder Carroll intended-- not really the way he teaches it.

Mine is actually most similar to the way AmandaRachLee does it: a monthly cover page, a monthly calendar and daily list spaces for every day of the month. Then add nice quotes and doodles where it feels right, and maybe some other types of lists as needed.

My other lists that I think are going to stay consistent, for example, are blog posts to make for the month and books I want to read in the month. I also had one for thank you cards to write to professors before graduation, but that's just a May thing.

A Detour into Task Lists and Checkboxes

My previous planner system that I mentioned in the beginning was an app called Pocket Schedule (that I still really like) that was geared toward students. It allowed you to put in class times and assignments, color code them, then set reminders for when things were happening. Basic, but effective.

It started to fall by the wayside towards the end of the school year, as it did during the distance learning phase of my university career. So, I returned to old reliable: weekly or daily task lists on sticky notes.

Almost exactly two years ago, on June 5, 2020, I finished reading Every Tool's A Hammer by Adam Savage. It was a shockingly useful birthday present for someone who didn't really consider themselves a "maker," as that's what it's a guide to being, but one chapter out of the whole immensely-enjoyable book came in incredibly handy:

The 14-page chapter on checkboxes.

Former Mythbuster and personal childhood hero Adam Savage uses an ingenious to-do list method that makes accomplishing tasks visual and incremental, rather than an all-or-nothing endeavor. I have discovered that this is very good for my brain and sense of productivity.

It looks like this:

A dot grid notebook page with 3 list items. The box next to "Completed" is fully shaded, the box next to "In progress" is partially shaded. and the box next to "Not yet started" is empty.

The boxes for completed tasks get completely filled in, the boxes for tasks with substantial progress made get partial shading, and boxes for tasks that have yet to be started are empty.

I've found that this is incredibly useful for visualizing how much stuff I actually get done in a day, since there will be days where a bunch of bigger tasks get marked with "significant progress" as opposed to sitting there unchanged and uncrossed off, leaving me feeling unproductive.

There's also a bunch of other good stuff in the book beyond checkboxes related to the creative process (and Adam Savage's super-cool career in general) and I had a great time with it in spite of not considering myself to be in the category of people who had a creative process. Highly recommend all around-- here's an affiliate link for which I earn commission, if you're interested.

Checkbox detour now completed...

What's the Verdict?

I think bullet journaling is going to work for me for a while. (I may keep you updated.)

The flexibility of the system allows me to add what I need, for as long as I need it, and changing things around doesn't cost any extra-- except maybe some time and resisting the impulse to buy more stationery. Plus, there's the added benefit of not being distracted by having to look at my phone to figure out my next task.

It's fun as a creative outlet, too, and I think the novelty of being able to pick new colors and themes for each month will help keep it interesting. My theme for June is based off of Heartstopper, an incredibly cute coming-of-age rom-com that comes in both graphic novel-- that's an affiliate link to volume one-- and Netflix adaptation forms. The show is only four hours long for the whole eight episodes, so it won't take up too much of your time-- that is, unless you watch it six times in a row, like I did.

Cheers, and here's to the books that had more of an impact on us than we expected.

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