Bullet Journaling

I’ve been intrigued by Bullet Journaling since I first heard about it last August. The person who conceived of the system, Ryder Carroll, explains it very well on the web site, so I won’t try to give a full run down here. Essentially Bullet Journaling is a system for keeping track of your daily tasks and notes using a pen and notebook. If you haven’t seen it in action you’re probably thinking, “Yeah, that’s a diary, moron.” Well it is a little more and a little less than that. At its heart is a concept called “rapid logging,” in which you record brief bits of data as they come to you. Each entry is a short bullet item, where you lead the note with a simple symbol that signifies if the item is an event (an open circle), a task (a check box) or a note (small, solid bullet). Additional symbols can be used to mark an item as important, as requiring further inquiry, etc… If you are trying to implement Carroll’s system completely, you also add calendars and other collections of information.

There has been a flurry of interest in Bullet Journaling, and searching Google will reveal quite a few commentaries on the system. I suspect part of the appeal simply comes from Carroll’s wonderful presentation of the concept. But Bullet Journaling does have some advantages that appeal to me:

  • Speed. Pulling out a notebook and making a short note is faster for me than trying to enter that same information in a digital device at the time the information lands in my lap. If I don’t make the note at that time, then I’ll probably forget to do it.
  • Off the grid. In a time when there is so much uncertainty about the security and privacy of online information, it is appealing to have a system that does not rely at all on “the cloud.”
  • Independence. I like the idea of not having to rely upon software, computer, or cloud companies. Nor is the system dependent upon battery life, or access to wifi.
  • Simplicity. There’s not a lot to remember, just three little symbols, and those symbols provide significant meta-data about the information, as well as a quick way to track the status.
  • Integrated. Lists include notes, tasks and events in one integrated view.
  • Flexibility. There is nothing rigid about Bullet Journaling. Carroll makes it clear that you should use the parts you like, change or discard the parts you do not like. “I hope that you take the ideas presented here and apply/adapt them so they work best for you.”

But there are drawbacks to Bullet Journaling. The ones that seem most crucial to me are the following:

  • Repetitious. As Carroll describes his system, it requires a great deal of copying of notes from one location in the notebook to another. This is probably good practice, as it helps you to not lose track of these details. In fact, it is essential in a system that doesn’t have mechanisms to remind you of these details. But I know that I’d find this tedious, and would not do it consistently.
  • No backup. Lose your notebook, you lose your data.
  • No export. To use the information you’ve gathered, you need to transcribe it into a computer. This is no big deal with short notes, but if you’ve outlined a plan, or made longer notes, this can become inefficient.
  • No search. With Bullet Journaling, you’re supposed to create an index page, where you log the locations of your information in your notebook so that you can find it when you need it. But this is clearly ineffective for real data mining, as all information falls into more than one category. Also it is one more piece of extra work, which kind of defeats the whole “rapid logging” concept.
  • Insufficient calendar. The calendar that Carroll proposes for his system is intended as a method for tracking activity, rather than as a way to manage a busy schedule. Consequently, you still need to keep a separate calendar, which eats away at the efficiency of the “system.”

Some people will find keeping a Bullet Journal liberating and effective. Others will miss all they computing power they’ve given up for this simplicity. I fall somewhere in between, I think. I want to see if I can leverage the best aspects of the system, while “fixing” the disadvantages.

Clearly, some of the cons flow directly from the pros, as in the “off-the-grid” but “no backup” dilemma. I can’t expect to have all the advantages of Bullet Journaling and none of the disadvantages. Where Bullet Journaling really excels, in my opinion, is in the intake of information. It is fast. It is reliable. It is simple. It is flexible.

So, Bullet Journaling is a good front end to an information management system. Does it have to actually happen with pen and paper? Can an app work for this front end? I’m thinking, maybe. Of course, using an app destroys the “independence” and “off-the-grid” aspects of the Bullet Journal system. I don’t think that can be helped, not for me. Because all of the disadvantages of the system that I’ve named make it a non-starter for me. If I’m going to get any benefit from the system, I have to solve those.

I believe I have found a compromise that will work, but before I report on that, I need to use it for a week or two. Stay tuned.

Update: I’ve written further about my bullet journal here.

15 thoughts on “Bullet Journaling

  1. I’m honestly a big fan of scanning my Bullet Journals in when I use one up. I utilize Field Notes books for the system because pocket-size portability beats the freedom of space that a typical notebook would offer. I typically burn through one every month or so and spend a half-hour to forty minutes scanning the notebook, cropping & enhancing, and reviewing the photos before I export the files into a PDF. The books are stored locally, on at least one backup HDD, and in a Google Drive folder.

    Some would consider my method a pain but I enjoy the process. You could emulate what I do by scanning in all of the new pages each month in a larger book, if you chose to stick with the method.

    How did you (or have you been, if you’re still using it) find(ing) the experiment?

    1. That’s an interesting way to preserve our notes. I wouldn’t have the patience to do it, but I can see how it would be rewarding. I am enjoying my bullet journal notebook, more than expected. I am still trying to figure out the best way to integrate it with my computer apps. I intend to write a follow up one of these days. Thanks for reading my blog and commenting!

    2. Try evernote to back up your notebooks. You can take a picture that is searchable in the program. The price is right also: Free unless you want advanced features.

      1. If I’m not mistaken, one of the advance features you get with a paid subscription is the searchability of text in photos… I just don’t want to mislead people who may read this and think that’s part of the free package. Thanks for the comment!

  2. I’m a fan of the LiveScribe system. Take notes on (special, but reasonably priced) paper, but captures them electronically. Newest version is Evernote-connected. OCR is pretty good, especially if you only need to transcribe occasional notes. If you just need an electronic image, it can export to PDF instead.

    1. I’ve always wondered how accurate LiveScribe is. Thanks for the tip, Katherine, and for reading my blog. – Steve

  3. I’ve been using the bullet journal method for about 2 months. Sadly I had made the decision to go back to a paper planner and had just bought a new Franklin Covey (kicking it real old school) with all the fixins right before I stumbled onto Bullet Journal. It has been so effective for me that I barely got started in the FC binder- I’m now trying to find a way to incorporate it out of guilt and buyer’s remorse.

    Bullet Journal just fits my busy lifestyle and the hundreds of bits of info I have to keep up with at any given time. When I do my weekly review (yes I’m a fan of GTD also) I use an app on my phone called Turboscan which automatically turns photographs of each of my pages into .pdf files and sends them to my Evernote for archiving. It takes about 5 minutes each week and I have both my journal and a searchable archive of my notes current to at least within one week.

    It works; I love it; that’s all!

    Ps. Great series of articles!

    1. Thank you for the comments Mark and for reading my blog. I remain very enthusiastic about the bullet journal system. It has really helped me keep track of tasks and daily activity.

  4. Love the idea of the bullet journal. I have so many ideas throughout the day and I’ve found that if I don’t write them down quickly I completely forget about them. I’ll have to look more into this and make it a normal practice throughout the day to solve that!

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