When people used to ask me if I Bullet Journal, my gut instinct was to say “No, I don’t. Sorry.” Because I don’t have one notebook, one pen, an index, a monthly log, or collections mixed in with my daily logs.
But while I don’t follow the method to the exact letter, I have taken pieces that I felt were super important to me, things that have made my planner, and my entire productivity system, better. I think that the beauty of the system is that you can take what works for you and leave what doesn’t. The Bullet Journal method is customizable to the individual, after all. And for me, that means intentionally not choosing some of the BuJo methods in favor of others’ methods.
When I read the Bullet Journal Method book for the first time, I was blown away by its main point: intentionality and mindfulness. The book promoted the fact that a person needs to think about why they write things down - tasks, events, lists, everything! It’s one of the reasons that the method is in a physical notebook and not a digital one.
At the time, I had been keeping a DIY planner, which is a plain notebook I’ve customized for myself, and was just … mindlessly adding tasks, lists, and spreads on a whim. I didn’t really think about the spreads that I was drawing or why. I wasn’t thinking about why they weren't working. I was really struggling with my planner system, and I didn’t know how to fix it.
The Bullet Journal Method made me confront myself and my relationship with my planner. When I read about the purpose of migration and the thoughtfulness behind “is this task really worth writing again?”, the book made me pause. Was I really thinking about the things I was writing down? Was I really thinking about the things I added to my planner? Did I need to?
No. No. Yes!
And so I pulled out a blank piece of paper, and I started scribbling. What did I need to change about my system that would make it a better fit for me? How could I change my planner to make myself more intentional, and less mindless?
It turns out that I didn’t like having to write (or draw) out my own monthly and weekly logs/spreads every month. It was taxing and exhausting and I would end up not using my planner at all - even if it was only a single-pen log. I needed to offload that task to a pre-drawn, pre-printed planner.
I also didn’t want to rewrite information that I knew I’d need for a few years, so I made a separate insert/notebook for those things that didn’t get lost every time I switched notebooks. The Bullet Journal Method made me realize that having a planner system that takes a lot of setup energy isn’t what works best for me. It’s not how my brain works.
I need dependability and stability in some areas and rapid flexibility in others. Monthly and weekly spreads need to be printed out ahead of time with minimal set-up energy, future logs are right out (as Monty Python says!). But I also need to go and move and change and be creative as the wind takes me, so I also keep a dot grid notebook for my daily pages, short-term projects, and brain-dumping.
The method also promoted customizability: making the BuJo system your own. I was doing that, in my own way. I was customizing a planner system to fit me. And it turns out that it’s not fully Bullet Journal, and it’s not a fully pre-printed planner either.
Through the intentionality and push towards doing what works best for you, the method taught me how to look at my planner and ask myself “What is working right now?”; “What is not working right now?”; “How can I change what isn’t working?”; “How can I keep doing what IS working?”
I ask myself these four questions at the end of each week, now. In my Weekly Overview Spread, I have a column that I leave blank each week until my weekly review. Then, I write out each of those questions:
- What Went Well?
- What Didn’t Go Well?
- What Should I Change?
- What Should I Keep?
I go through and answer, in bullet point format, both in how my planner worked and didn’t, and in how my life worked and didn’t. I sit with these questions and really think about my answers. It doesn’t take long, I don’t leave too much room to make it daunting. But I find physically answering these questions has greatly increased my conscientiousness about what I’m doing. These questions that the Bullet Journal Method taught me to ask.
Usually, my answers are small. The format of my rolling weekly looked weird. I used checkmarks instead of ‘x’s’ to mark off a task and I didn’t like that. That sort of thing. I try to only mention and actively change things I can manage in one week’s time (in my weekly review).
I’ve also recently added a spread to my planner I titled “Planner Experiments”. Each month, I try to pick three bigger things in my planner that aren’t working - things like habit trackers or cleaning lists, or where to put learning notes. I write out the problem and a possible solution. I then write out the purpose I want this part of my planner to have, and I spend the month testing out that possible solution. At the end of the month, I will re-evaluate and either try again or continue what I have found has worked.
Without the Bullet Journal Method, I would have tried random things without worrying about their purpose in my system and in my life as a whole. And I would still be where I was - constantly irritated and disappointed with my planning practice without any real way of fixing it.
My planner now evolves as my life changes, because of these mindset shifts. I find I am more content and more able to handle life in general. I wouldn’t necessarily call it the infamous planner peace, but it’s close. My planner isn’t stagnant, because life isn’t stagnant. “The only constant in life is that it changes” - and your planner should too. But instead of discontent or planner hopping, it could be mindful action and change based on intention.
I did also pick up process tips from the method as well that are fundamental to my system: a dot grid notebook, a personalized icon key, rapid logging dailies, migrating tasks and notes, a weekly and monthly review, having collections lists, and having a way to reference them. But I think you could go and read the book or the BuJo blog to learn about these things - I plucked them right from there.
Intentionality was my biggest takeaway from the Bullet Journal Method. I think that even if you truly love your pre-dated planner, there is nothing wrong (and actually, there is everything right) with being mindful of how you use it and asking yourself:
- What is working right now? What isn’t?
- Do I need to change anything? How?
And almost naturally, the second biggest takeaway follows: customizability. Because in the end your planner - Bullet Journal or not - is only supposed to serve you. And the only way to customize a planner is to think about what you truly need and what you don’t. If you are honestly asking yourself what is working, and actively looking to modify what doesn’t, you will already begin to customize your system to your individual needs.
One book, one pen, or all of them. If it’s yours, if it makes you more intentional, and if it helps you lead a more mindful life, then that is the Bullet Journaling mindset, in my opinion.
When people used to ask me if I Bullet Journal, my gut instinct was to say, “No, I don’t. Sorry.”
I have now instead begun to say, “Yes, in part, and let me show you how.”
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