Bullet Journaling

Just before March, I learned about bullet journaling from "That podcast" with Beau and Dave - then I saw David McKay mention he had been doing it for a while. I decided to take a look at it, after hearing Beau say:

"I've been doing the paper notebook thing for a couple of years now, but I was never very consistent with it"

It sounded like the sort of thing I was looking for, as I agreed with Beau on his statement. It's been a few months now, and I've mentioned it a few times in the Tech Nottingham slack team and it's been something that seems to have piqued the interest of a number of people.

I've had a few questions about my bullet journal in those discussions, and I've also asked for a few for this post after Emma Seward asked me if I'd write it for the Tech Nottingham blog on the subject of my journal.

“Just had a thought, would you like to write a guest blog for TN?”

Absolutely I would! (but I imagine you guessed that as here you are, reading this...)

So, let's jump into the questions!

Emma Seward: Do you just use it for work, or is it a life-wide bullet journal?

My bullet journal is a day-to-day tracker for the things I have on my plate. For me, it's purely functional (I don't decorate pages, or add artistic flourishes etc) so my main use is work. Though certain important events will be added, things such as talks I'm giving, events I'm going to - but it doesn't replace my calendar or my trello board for personal planning, it's in addition to them and is more like a "working list" of the things that matter to me in the present.

With my main use being work, I use it to track tasks I'm going to be tackling on that day, time estimates from planning poker sessions, and items that I want to bring up in the retrospective at the end of the sprint.

I use the key I've created to categorise the items in there, it makes looking back over the past few days work and retrieving information very quick, because only the key / important things go in there. I keep the notes short as a prompt.

While I don't use it for much personal stuff, I'll use it to list out tasks I have to get done at the weekend if I have important things I need to get done.

I'll also use it for planning talks I'm writing, or exploring ideas that I'm working on. Separately to that I have some pages at the back I've set aside to list out things in a few categories that I want to look at in the future, things like code projects I want to work on, blog post ideas, talk & workshop ideas and things I want to learn more.

Jess White: How long does one of your bullets remain before you decide it’s not a priority and therefore will probably never get done?

I review the bullets I have left over at the end of the week, if it's a work item that's not yet complete. At the end of every month, I'll look back over my higher-level tasks I wanted to get done that month (both personal and work-related) and work out what to do based on the 4 D's of time management: do, defer, delegate, or delete.

Do: ideally this is already done, but if we're getting to the end of a period of work and it's still not done, me and the team will work out what it'll take to ensure this task is complete. If it's complete, I'll mark it with an X

Defer: it might be that the task still needs to be done, but can be deferred to the next day, next week etc. If this is the case, I'll mark it as migrated with a > to signify that it's scheduled in at another time.

Delegate: if I have a bit too much on, or if someone else wants to pick up a task I was going to work on, I'll mark it as delegated with a >> so I know that it's not necessarily complete yet, but that someone else is handling it.

Delete: for a task that's been deleted, we've likely decided at that point that the task just doesn't matter. This is rare for us as we're more likely to defer it to another time to explore further and reconsider the approach / scope of the task. If this is the case, I'll mark it with a |.

William Ellwood: Do you bullet journal everyday?

Monday to Friday: yes. As I'm at work I'll be relying on it day-to-day to manage the tasks I've got on my plate. I'll use it to take notes in meetings and for a really quick reference when someone wants to catch up on what I'm working on.

Weekends: sometimes. Unless I have specific things I want to ensure get done etc (such as this blog post) I often won't use it at the weekend to track what I'm doing, but I'll still quickly review the week and (as per the above question) review the things on the list.

Martyn Rushton: How granular do you go with bullets? Do you use them when writing code on a task/commit/feature level?

I generally won't go down to a commit level. I'll stick to a task level, or if a task seems a little big, I'll break that down into some sub-tasks as the most granular level. That's not a set rule, it's more personal preference and what I find works for me. I find that going any lower means I'm focusing too much on the really small stuff that probably doesn't matter.

A sub task is a known thing, I can check that item off the list when it's done, whereas for a commit, I don't always know exactly how many commits, or what commits I'll need in order to get a task done, so I don't feel tracking them would help me. They'd distract me from the problem I'm solving.

Martyn Rushton: Did it take you long to get used to using it? I know that I would have to really push to not use it for a couple of days then forget about it.

This question follows on nicely from the "Do you bullet journal everyday?" question earlier!

At the start, I tried to do it every day to build the habit of doing it. After 4-6 weeks I started relaxing what I was using it for and made it work for me. But I felt I could only do that once I'd stuck to something rigid to get me into the swing of it.

After a couple of weeks, it didn't feel like I had to put in effort to use it. It became just part of what I was doing and it was easier to take a break from it for a couple of days at the weekend and get back into it on Monday.

Recently, I was at a conference for 4 days, I thought I'd really suffer from not using it for that period as I was going to be incredibly busy. In reality, I still used it, in the downtime between talks I'd take a few minutes to write some notes about the talk while it was still fresh in my mind. I think this works as I tend to keep my tasks / notes as short as possible so it doesn't take any significant amount of time to quickly scribble something down.

This also then led to some people coming up and asking about it, so we'd take time in between talks to chat and discuss how it works, what it can do. A couple of other attendees who also use a bullet journal also sat around and we discussed and compared notes. It's surprising how many people have been picking it up recently (myself included, I've only been doing it since March) and everyone does it slightly differently, so everyone has a different idea to bring to the table.

Final thoughts

Bullet journals are personal things. Each one is unique to the individual. Some people use them to track habits and goals. Others use them in an artistic way to give them a regular place to not only jot down their thoughts, but decorate and put an artistic spin on them. Each one is different and there is no wrong way to do it.. If something in the documented / suggested ways of doing it isn't working for you, change it, find what works for you.

I found my groove with it after a few weeks and realised that it was making me mindful of what I've got on my plate. Because of that, I was able to more easily focus on what mattered, and not take on more than I could handle.

I also write differently in my journal, I write in caps, and make it fit within the dotted notebook that I have, this is because I want clear, concise and well-structured items within it.

You're much more likely to continue with it if you make it fit what you need it to be, rather than someone else telling you that you must do it this way or you're wrong.

I wrote a post about my first month with bullet journalling which will give you some information on how I started with it. You can find it on my website here.

Today I've been sat in my favourite coffee shop using my bullet journal to explore ideas on questions asked about my bullet journal in order to write a blog post about my bullet journal.

If this has piqued your interest and you'd like to chat with Matt about his bullet journal, he's @Brunty on Twitter and brunty in the Tech Nottingham Slack group.