Note in advance: This is not intended as an introduction to the Bullet Journal method; it is about my personal, subjective experiences using it.
Many times in the past I had halfheartedly tried to journal, but I never stuck with it for long. Most of the times, I journaled on my computer by just opening a text editor and starting to type.
It was only about two years ago that I finally implemented a habit of journaling when I stumbled across a method called Bullet Journal which works really well for me. In the following, I would like to try to explain why this is so.
Let’s get started by mentioning a few noteworthy things about Bullet Journaling which set it apart from more traditional methods of journaling:
It favors short notes (so-called “rapid logging”) over lengthy prose in order to get things out of your head and onto the page quickly.
It is more than just a journal, but has built-in support for task tracking and note-taking and can be employed for various other purposes as well.
While these things are certainly a bit unusual (well, except for the hand-writing, which for a few thousand years and until a few decades ago was the only way to journal), they don’t really explain any of its benefits over other methods. So what exactly is it that makes it work so well for me? Here are some reasons I am aware of:
It feels amazingly good to hand-write. This really suprised me when I got startet; I had not expected this at all. While I would not say that I prefer digital methods over analog methods in general, I do have a tendency towards employing digital methods when possible. Having used the Bullet Journal method for a while now, I can definitely say that hand-writing is an essential part of journaling for me. For some reason I cannot fully explain I feel a lot more connected to what I am writing; journaling becomes much more intimate that way. Also, I like the sheer act of hand-writing; it just feels good to move my pen over the pages.
Closely connected with the last point: If I hand-write, I feel like I have the permission to make mistakes. Whenever I set something up digitally on my computer, at some point I figure out a better way to do it and then immediately feel compelled to adjust everything I have done that way before to the presumably better way I just figured out. Contrarily, hand-writing makes it nearly impossible to change things once they are written down; it is then simply there on the page and will remain there (unless you resort to more radical treatments like tearing out the page or erasing what you had written). And that somehow relieves me of the burden to rework things I no longer consider fit. I can just accept the fact that at the time of writing, I considered what I wrote and how I wrote it the best way of doing it and live with the fact that I may no longer hold this belief in the present, and then adjust. In my hand-written journals, you can see a kind of evolution (not in the sense that it develops towards some goal, but that it changes with time), or maybe rather a history.
On the other hand, from my digital writings, you can barely infer when it was written (of course it may be possible to deduce it from the content, but not from the form, which is always more or less the same). In a sense, my digital writings are stateless, or timeless (its form always reflects what I consider best at the present moment, and at any given time only its latest state is visible), while my analog writings are more evolutionary; just from looking at the pages, you can see that they were written at different times. And that makes my hand-written journals much more living; they evolve along with me.
I enjoy writing in my journal. It is not something I feel I have to do, but it is something I want to do and look forward to. This is actually a crucial point for making the habit of journaling stick in the long run, and is therefore extremely important.
It is not just about journaling; task tracking and note-taking are two other important functions of the Bullet Journal. Task tracking works amazingly well, too. Over the years, I tried various methods of task tracking, again mostly digital. Two tools I used for a longer period of time are Remember The Milk, which is an online service, and Taskwarrior, which is a CLI application. I really wanted to like Taskwarrior, since it is open source and I love CLI tools. And in fact, I did like it to some extent (and I appreciate very much that it exists), but using it somehow never felt very natural to me. I even tried using simple text files for a while (inspired by Gina Trapani’s Todo.txt), but it also simply did not feel natural. As for calendars, I used in particular Google Calendar (a long time ago…) and — on the other end of the spectrum, so to speak — Remind, another CLI tool which I am still very fond of. But as a matter of fact, I stuck with none of them. With Bullet Journaling, on the other hand, everything feels completely natural, and once again I think an important aspect is the hand-writing, which somehow seems to connect me more to my writing.
I think one crucial aspect of task tracking is that, when migrating open tasks at the end of a month, you are practically forced to review them and asses whether they are still important. And since tasks need to be rewritten each time they are being migrated (so that they don’t get lost), one tends to spend more time on the question if they are really still relevant. The difference with more traditional task tracking is that usually, after a task is written down on a list, is can just remain there indefinitely, since there is no necessity to act on it in any way. Over time, you just get used to the fact that it is there, and maybe you keep telling yourself that someday, you will complete the task. With task tracking as it is implemented in the Bullet Journal method, however, a task will never just sit there on some list. Instead, you are forced to review it at regular intervals and incur to write it down again the next month if you decided it is still relevant. Of course, you can still migrate tasks an arbitrary number of times. The benefit of migrating them, however, is that you cannot forget about them or simply get used to them being there.
Of course, nothing is perfect, and so there are also certain drawbacks with Bullet Journaling. Maybe the most important one for me is that, being purely analog, it is not easily searchable (or to be more precise: it is easily searchable, since you just need to start somewhere and read until you found what you were looking for, but searching can become time-consuming and tedious if you don’t have a good idea where to start looking in the first place). This in particular concerns notes, which I usually take for later reference. But I am totally willing to accept this drawback, as well as a few other minor ones, since in my opinion the benefits far outweight the drawbacks.
Also, I don’t particularly like the hype about the Bullet Journal (which, of course, is not a fault of the method). If searching for “Bullet Journal” on the internet, one is presented with an abundance of sites showing pictures of Bullet Journals with beautiful, artistic drawings in it. You could even get the impression that Bullet Journaling is all about beautiful drawings and in fact more of an art form than a form of journaling. Often, articles about Bullet Journaling contain statements like “I wish my Bullet Journal would look as nice as…”, or “I wish I would have the talent to draw so beautifully…”. Honestly, while I appreciate the (often emphasized) fact that the Bullet Journal method is very flexible and can accustom to very different needs, I really don’t understand this trend of apparently spending more time drawing fancy pictures than journaling. I like the very opposite — plain, minimalistic text with a little bit of markup, very much in the style of the Bullet Journal’s inventor Ryder Carroll, with a focus on rapid logging. This is the form of journaling I feel myself drawn towards, and this is pretty much how my Bullet Journals look like as well. Let my quickly add, however, that it is certainly not my intention here to imply that there is a right and a wrong way to Bullet Journal; everyone is of course free to use the method in whatever way he wishes and works for him.
Let me state a few more details about how I use my Bullet Journal:
As already briefly mentioned above, I tend to stay close to the form presented on the official Bullet Journal website. Of course, due to the flexibility of the method, you can come up with an arbitrary number of your own bullet types, signifiers etc., but in my experience, what is presented on the Bullet Journal website is absolutely sufficient, and I like its simplicity (no need to spend unnecessary time drawing complex symbols). In particular, I use only one signifier not mentioned on the Bullet Journal website: It looks like a very simple, stylized hourglass and always prepends a dot. The corresponding entry does not represent a task, though (as indicated by the dot), but something I am waiting for (like a task to be completed by someone else). I find it very convenient to track things I am waiting for and originally introduced a specific collection for this purpose. One reason for tracking such entries in the daily log instead was that I am then forced to migrate them at the end of the month, which makes sure I review them on a regular basis. When employing collections, on the other hand (in particular if they contain somewhat dynamic data), there is always a certain risk to just forget about them after some time. I have not yet decided which method works better for me and might as well switch back to my original method eventually.
One other way in which I deviate a bit from the “original” form and use it not quite as it is intended is that I tend to write somewhat longer entries which can often not really be considered rapid logging. While I still make use of bullets, quite a few of my entries do contain full written out sentences. While I see the benefits of rapid logging, I often feel that I lack important details if I don’t provide a certain context. Then again, distilling information to only what is essential is not easy; it is a skill that needs practice. And if using the Bullet Journal method hones my ability to edit and to focus on the bare minimum of what is necessary, that would just be one more benefit of the method.
While my Bullet Journal is the only journal I use, it is not my only means of storing relevant information. I use it mostly for somewhat dynamic data (after all, it’s a journal), while I store more static data elsewhere (otherwise I would always have to transfer it once I start a new notebook, and it would just take up too much space). Often, however, the distinction between these two types of data is not perfectly clear, and I’m still struggling a bit with deciding what precisely to store and not to store in my Bullet Journal.
In short: I consider my Bullet Journal as my RAM, while I use different tools as my mass storage.
I use custom collections sparingly. There are two reasons for this: The first is that I feel designing a collection for a specific purpose is usually simply not worth the effort. I don’t want to plan what I write; I want to write.
The other reason is that I usually don’t have any need for custom collections; most of the time, I’m just fine using standard collections containing note bullets (and even standard collections I only use after I have convinced myself that it makes sense to create them).
One of my few custom collections (albeit a very simple one) is a kind of tracker called “90 Years”. It consists of a spread filled with 1080 dots (corresponding to the number of months 90 years consist of). Whenever I complete one month of my life, I turn the corresponding dot into a cross. Thereby, I can always see at a glance how many months I have already lived and how many months remain until I will turn 90 (provided I live long enough).
What is the purpose of this tracker? It serves as a memento mori by reminding me of the passage of time and the decrease of the time I have left on earth. If I am very lucky I will live for 90 years; anyway, even if I do reach this age, I will most likely not live much longer. By visualizing a lifetime on two pages, the finiteness of life is made very obvious, and it makes it immediately clear that there is no time to waste on non-essential things. It is my version of an hourglass, so to speak.
And yes, it does take a while to draw 1080 dots, but I do take the time with every new notebook I begin.
Finally, I would like to mention one very subjective experience with my Bullet Journal: It feels very organic in a way that is hard to describe; it is a little bit as if it more and more becomes a part of myself. In the end, though, I think it is much more important to journal at all than which method is employed.