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Simple Time Management

1-2-3-4 System in my Bullet Journal.

Traditional Time Management

Time management is about organizing and optimizing the time you have at your disposal. Some traditional time management methods are:

  • Time Blocking - Used for dividing your day into blocks of time, in which you attribute a specific event, task, or activity to each block.

  • Timeboxing - Used for limiting an event, task, or activity to a specific amount of time.

  • Time Tracking - Used for keeping track of your time after you spend it for later analysis of how you can improve your time management.

Time Blocking in my Bullet Journal.

The problem I have with traditional time management is that it is too complex to maintain consistently. Time blocking is great until you have to change your whole day around because your dog got sick. Timeboxing is useful until the arbitrary time limit you picked ends your momentum on a task. Time tracking is helpful until you get so caught up in an activity you completely forget to track it and now your numbers are skewed. 

I am sure there are people who can navigate these traditional time management techniques without any problems -- usually using digital tools to automate most of the complexity. I am not one of those people, and I do not like using digital tools. But I still needed to manage my time, so I worked to come up with a simpler way in my Bullet Journal.

Simple Time Management is Attention Management

I found that the simplest way to stay on track with my time was not to focus on time directly, but to focus on attention. If I can effectively keep my attention on what I intend to do, no time gets wasted. No alarms or timers or daily planning needed.

Zombie Mode for Workdays in my Bullet Journal.

Practical Example: Zombie Mode

“Zombie Mode” is what I call the state of being when I do not want to think and just want to be told what to do next. I have two collections to use when I am in this state -- one for workdays and one for non-workdays. They both contain lists of tasks to be completed for the day, in order, until I snap out of Zombie Mode or the day ends.

Before, when I was in Zombie Mode, I would just waste all that time playing on my phone or trying to motivate myself to choose something to work on. Once I gave myself a list of things I could focus my attention on without having to make any decisions, my time in Zombie Mode went from completely wasted to productive. Even though I am only getting routine and brainless tasks done during that time, it is a vast improvement over getting nothing done at all.

How would one deal with Zombie Mode using traditional time management methods? I am not sure that would be viable. For time blocking, you would have already planned the whole day in advance so when you wake up in Zombie Mode your entire day would be ruined. For timeboxing, you need to estimate how long a task will take and impose that limit accordingly. But Zombie Mode is about doing a series of very short and mindless tasks in order -- I don’t see the point of timeboxing any of those; it would just add unnecessary overhead. For time tracking, there would also be no point. These are just routine tasks; there are no major improvements to make. Again, it would add unnecessary overhead.

In my opinion, Zombie Mode works best with simple time management. All you need to do is make sure you have a list you can circle back to when your attention wavers, and continue where you left off. No need to complicate things when you’re a zombie!

1-2-3-4 System in my Bullet Journal.

The 1-2-3-4 System

For non-zombie days, I came up with a simple time management system that has greatly helped boost my productivity called the 1-2-3-4 System. It integrates easily with the traditional Bullet Journal Daily Log and focuses on building momentum.

Setup and Process

Construct a Daily Log with four signifier columns. The first column is used to mark quick or easy tasks (group 1). The second column is used to mark cleaning or tidying tasks (group 2). The third column is used to mark lengthy or difficult tasks (group 3). The fourth column is used to mark fun or relaxing tasks (group 4). For all tasks you rapid log, put a mark into one and only one of these four columns (I use a checkmark). 

The process is to pick one task from each group for a total of four tasks. Do these four tasks in order (Do a group 1 task, then do a group 2 task, then do a group 3 task, then do a group 4 task). When you are working on this “chain” of tasks, try not to stop until you have finished all four. If you need to pause to deal with an interruption, do that and then return to the chain as quickly as you can. If you need to pause for a very long time, do that but then start a new chain from the beginning (group 1).

How it Works

Why do you need to do the four tasks in order? Well, it’s psychological. First, you do a quick or easy task. These are the best for getting yourself going when you have very little motivation. After finishing that, you have built a little bit of momentum. Next, you do a cleaning or tidying task. These are a little longer but don’t require much mental energy, and you feel a sense of satisfaction when your living or working environment is clean (well, I do!). So when that’s done, you have a lot of momentum built up -- time to do a big task. Now, you tackle a lengthy or difficult task since you’re at peak motivation. Once that’s done, you feel great but physically or mentally exhausted. Finally, it is time for a fun or relaxing task as a reward before (optionally) starting a new chain.

Just like with Zombie Mode, you don’t need to manage the time it takes to complete your 1-2-3-4 chain of tasks; you need to manage your attention. Keep your attention on the chain, however long that takes, until you finish or are forced to pivot to something else.

Systems That Didn’t Work For Me

I have tried a lot of different simple time management systems before coming up with the 1-2-3-4 System. The majority of them did not work for me. These systems still have value, though, because they could be beneficial to others; so I do think it is worthwhile to share them. Here are the main reasons I have found that a system can fall short:

  • The system lacks freedom of choice of tasks

  • The system requires too much time or energy to maintain

  • The system has too many rules

  • The system is too slow at choosing the next task

  • The system requires too much writing or rewriting

  • The system requires you to write down every single task you do which kills spontaneity

  • The system limits how many tasks you are allowed to write down

  • The system hides important or urgent tasks, causing you to forget about them

  • The system cannot handle interruptions or emergencies

  • The system is boring

1-2-3-4 System in my Bullet Journal.

Getting the Right Things Done

The 1-2-3-4 System has been working really well for me. I have noticed that I can get many more lengthy and difficult tasks done than I usually do. Intentionally building momentum in that way has made a significant difference in not only getting more done, but also in getting the right things done.

Conclusion: Is Simple Time Management Better Than Traditional Time Management?

Simple time management is better for me than traditional time management, but that may not be true for everybody. Take some time to try out different things in your Bullet Journal and decide what works best for you. Your Bullet Journal is an organic tool and it will adapt to whatever you choose.

My Favorite Resources for Time Management

Mark Forster’s Books, Blog, and Forum:

r/Productivity on Reddit:

Doist Article on Productivity Systems:

About the Author

Lisa is a Software Engineer located in Southern California. She has been Bullet Journaling since 2016. Her style leans heavily towards the minimalist and the functional. She particularly enjoys inventing and testing time management systems in her free time.

You can find her on Instagram: @plannersimplicity

6 Responses

Sahil Shah

Sahil Shah

November 13, 2023

I just want to say thank you to the author, genuinely this just helped me in a way I cannot explain. It’s been disorienting to choose between better time trackers and schedules and task management systems. I have tried a lot and this is just by far the best and most effective one I’ve ever experienced.

The fact it includes all the tasks while also maintaining a level of simplicity is amazing. I actually was going back and forth between time management systems and task management systems, and I was kind of really exhausted and overwhelmed, as I was not able to get things do, but I was able to track my time and get things done but that was really a hard to continue as it was unnecessarily complicated, and I also was just daydreaming about a system where I can record all my tasks but in a very simple way, and finally…

Thank God! I found this. Just… Thank you so much for this.

Valerie Steele

Valerie Steele

October 26, 2023

this was a great time management article. And I really feel like the 1-2-3-4 system would work for me.

Jen Cragen

Jen Cragen

October 26, 2023

Hi Lisa,

I’m curious about projects that take say 60 hours or so. I tend to chunk them out into sessions as small as a few minutes to as long as possible if I’m in the right mental space to get into flow. I don’t usually know ahead of time which is going to happen in a day, well few days, so tend to focus on the small sessions and think of the longer ones as extra treats towards completion.

That all said, if I were to start with a 1-2-3-4 system and putting in the project to the system, does it change the way I label it based on my feelings for it when I am making the list, or does the project stay in the same column throughout its lifetime?

These are usually projects that produce things that are desirable for the end result, but the middle steps are not necessarily fun, but sometimes they are, and that’s for the same project and type of steps. Energy levels vary, motivation levels vary, and so fun levels can vary.



October 26, 2023

Hi, I want to try this out. I’ve noticed in the screenshots you don’t categorize the routines. Why is that?

Eileen Douglas

Eileen Douglas

October 26, 2023

In the 1-2-3-4 time management system, what are the x’s? Also, do you migrate from one day to the next?

Thanks. I’m going to start this system in January.



October 26, 2023

Woah 😳 Lisa!! I‘m not even 1/3 in – and already ALL fired up. Sounds like you put into words and order – what has been bothering me ___ for years.
(Have to calm down – before being able to resume reading ;). )

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