bullet journal

Dynalist for Bullet Journaling

I mentioned in my overview article about Dynalist that I keep my digital bullet journal using the app. In this follow-up article, I will be discussing a few specifics about how and why I’ve chosen Dynalist for this purpose.

Note: The Bullet Journal system was developed by Ryder Carroll. I believe it is a trademark of his, so I will try to respect it as such. Whether you choose to use a paper journal, as Ryder suggests, or some digital solution as I am writing about, I do highly recommend you read Ryder’s book, The Bullet Journal Method.

Bullet journaling

If you’re not familiar with bullet journaling, I recommend you can read about it here. The concept is very interesting. It is one of the few information management systems that really has connected with me.

The key aspects of bullet journaling (in my view) are as follows:

Rapid logging. This means being able to quickly record key information, whether that’s a phone number you need to remember, a task you need to attend to, an action you may want to reference in the future — really any information you feel you might want to remember later. 

Visual cues. Being able to scan your entries and quickly determine what each is: Note, Task or Event; and signifiers which provide some additional information about the entry — is it important, is it inspirational, does it need some additional information.

Organizing by date. A bullet journal is a running list of notes, but they are organized by date to help you find them, and to place them in some context.

There are many other optional things you can do to organize your bullet journal, but the above three are the ones most important to me. Some of the others — such as an index, future log, monthly pages — are part of the reason I have difficulty maintaining a paper bullet journal. But having a digital journal eliminates the need for those.


I won’t spend any time explaining why Dynalist is a solid place for my bullet journal. I hope that will be revealed as I describe my process. 

Creating the date entries

The foundation of a digital bullet journal is setting up your dates. You can, of course, manually do this, but that would be very tedious. Fortunately, there is a nifty little free app available that will create plain text files with the months and days of any given year broken out with tab indents. It is a Windows app called Automatic Diary Generator. You can find it here.

You may need to experiment a little to get it to output in a format that works for you.

If you are Mac exclusive, I can send you a text file of the current year. Just send me an email requesting the file and put “2019 Diary” in the subject line.

Once you have the text file the way you want it, open it in a text editor, copy all the text, create a new document (outline) in Dynalist with the title of your bullet journal then paste the text into the new outline.

The screencast below demonstrates how to do this and what the result is.

Mimicking the notebook page

The photo below shows a sample list of entries for March 23:

Per the Bullet Journal system, small dot bullets designate tasks. An X through the bullet means the task is complete. Hyphens designate a note. An asterisk signifies that the entry is more important.

The screen shot at the start of this article shows how I replicated the same information from the paper notebook in Dynalist. Instead of the asterisks, I used color to mark the important entries. I could have used a tag (#important), and then I could filter the entire bullet journal for just important entries.

Linking to “collection” pages

One of the suggested uses of a bullet journal is creating “collection” pages. These are lists of notes related to a specific topic that it will be more efficient to keep together than spread through out your journal. Dynalist works great for creating collections, and using the hyperlink feature means that you can easily reference a collection on a specific day in your journal. The screencast below demonstrates this process:

Summing it up

There are many other ways to adapt the Bullet Journal Method to Dynalist. But the beauty of bullet journaling is its flexibility. Everyone can make it their own. I hope that in this post I’ve given a starting point for how Dynalist can be used for creating a bullet journal.

But I will also say this: Using a paper notebook is probably even better if you can do so. It pulls you away from the noise and distraction of your computer. I’ve managed to maintain a paper journal from time to time, but I have had to be honest with myself. A digital journal — especially using Dynalist — just works better for me.

My new Bullet Journal caddy

I have recently recommitted myself to using a paper notebook for bullet journaling. For the past couple of years I’ve been using Dynalist, a nice web application for this purpose for maintining a bullet journal-like outline of my days. It works well, but I missed a paper journal for reasons I may get into in another post.

One of the things I wanted to find for my bullet journal is a way to carry pens, my ruler and my notebook that was convenient and not bulky. Call this my Bullet Journal caddy. In the following video, I describe the solution I came up with.

The small Cafe Bag-sized Freudian Slip is available from American bag maker Tom Bihn. Be sure to order the small Cafe Bag-sized Freudian Slip.

For more on The Bullet Journal Method and Ryder Carroll’s new book, go here.

New video about NotePlan as a digital bullet journal

I’ve put together a new screencast video, but this time I’m talking about a day planner/organizer called NotePlan. This isn’t the most comprehendible video ever made, but hopefully I’ve demonstrated how NotePlan works and how it might be used as a digital bullet journal.

As I publish this, NotePlan is only available on MacOS, but an iOS edition is slated for release on June 14.

UPDATE: In the video I say that the MacOS version of NotePlan does not append the date to tasks that have been postponed to a specific date, but I got a note from the developer with a correction. Here is what he says:

To show the date where a todo has been postponed to can be switched on in the preferences.

NotePlan as Digital Bullet Journal from Stephen Zeoli on Vimeo.

Bullet Journal Journal!

The Bullet Journal notebook is a fine quality journal from Leuchtturm1917.

The Bullet Journal notebook is a fine quality journal from Leuchtturm1917.

I mentioned in this recent post that there is now available an actual Bullet Journal journal. So, of course, I had to order a copy, which arrived by mail the other day. It is manufactured by Leuchtturm1917, so the quality is evident to the touch. “Bullet Journal” is embossed on the cover, which is a cool but completely useless feature.

The features that might be handy for bullet journaling include the following:

  • A key to bullet journal signifiers. The common, recommended ones are printed in the key, and there are plenty of blank spaces for adding your own custom signifiers.
  • The first four pages are dedicated to the Index. (I don’t keep an index in my bullet journals.)
  • The next four pages are dedicated to the Future Log. (Another bullet journal feature I have not used in the past.)
  • The pages are already numbered.
  • There are three bookmarks for quick access to a variety of sections of the journal.
  • The last eight pages include instructions/suggestions for keeping a bullet journal.
The inside front cover of the Bullet Journal journal features a key to bullet journal signifiers.

The inside front cover of the Bullet Journal journal features a key to bullet journal signifiers.

The journal pages are dotted grids, which work fine for bullet journaling, though I prefer lined grids. The notebook includes a standard elastic enclosure band and a gusseted pocket.

The beauty of bullet journaling is how adaptable it is, including the fact that you can use almost any kind of notebook for your rapid logging. So you do NOT need this journal. At $20 it is a little pricey, but no more than any other Leuchtturm1917 notebook. That said, this is a fine piece of stationery that might inspire you to tackle the bullet journal system and stick with it.

Using TheBrain as digital bullet journal

TheBrain as bullet journal - main screen

For the past 14 months or so I’ve been keeping a journal using the bullet journal method, which I wrote about here and here. During this time, I’ve found using a paper notebook quite fun and effective. I’ve been curious about how these same methods could be used with software on a computer and/or iPad. I’ve considered many apps for this, but none seemed to come close to matching the facility of pen and paper. However, I think I’ve finally found an option that could work very well for me.

The following discussion is a bit of a thought experiment on my part, rather than a report on my successful use of TheBrain for bullet journaling. That is, I’ve still only dabbled with TheBrain for this purpose, but I see real promise and wanted to share my thoughts.

Requirements of a Digital Bullet Journal

Before moving into a discussion of how TheBrain would work for this purpose, I should first define what I think are the key attributes of a digital bullet journal?

  • It would need to be accessible from all your devices, to be instantly available for recording and referencing.
  • Recording a log entry should be quick and easy. This is the “rapid logging” part of the journal process.
  • It should provide a means for identifying the logged item as a note, event or task.
  • It should provide a means for further classifying any necessary follow-up on the item:
    • Priority
    • Delegation
    • Further research needed
    • Etc…
  • I need to be able to “page” through my entries for quick and easy review.

There are many other facilities I might hope for in a digital bullet journal, but these are the ones that are required to match the efficacy of a paper notebook.

With these criteria established, let’s look at how TheBrain manages with a bullet journal.

TheBrain as Bullet Journal

Universal Access

TheBrain runs on Windows PCs, Macs and iPad, but also provides online access, so that you should have little trouble getting access to your information at any time. On Mac and PC, your files are available locally so you don’t have to be online to use them, but you can sync your bullet journal brain between devices relatively easily (though I do find the syncing a bit stodgie).

Rapid Logging

Creating one line entries is relatively easy with TheBrain. Key here is creating a new thought for each entry. At first I tried creating a thought for each day and using the notes section for the logging of entries. This doesn’t work as well because it makes it more difficult to be able to quickly scan your entries during regular reviews. There are other advantages to one thought = one entry, which I’ll get to below.

Classification of Entries

There is more than one way to classify an entry with TheBrain, but the one I feel works best for bullet journaling is using thought types. Each thought in a brain can be assigned one thought type, so I have created the following types:

  • Note
  • Event
  • Task (I’ve got one type for “Action Required” and one for “Action Completed”

One advantage to this approach is that you can visually identify the type of entry by assigning an icon to each type. See the screen shot below:

You can assign "thought types" to your entries to classify them as you wish to.

You can assign “thought types” to your entries to classify them as you wish to.

Further Classification

TheBrain allows you to assign multiple tags to your entries (one of the differences between a tag and a type). This is handy for adding classifying indicators to an entry, because an entry can be high priority AND delegated, for instance. See the screen shot below for how tags work:

TheBrain supplies a number of ways to categorize your information. Here I've got the tool bar open along the bottom of the screen to access the tag window, among others.

TheBrain supplies a number of ways to categorize your information. Here I’ve got the tool bar open along the bottom of the screen to access the tag window, among others.

Quick Review

While it is not the strongest aspect of TheBrain relating to bullet journaling, “paging through” your notes is pretty easy and effective. Everytime you click on a thought (entry), it becomes the active thought and moves to the center of the screen (known in TheBrain parlance as The Plex). You can also switch from “normal” view to “outline” view for a more familiar experience as demonstrated in the screenshot below:

In outline view, TheBrain will show you your entries in a more traditional way.

In outline view, TheBrain will show you your entries in a more traditional way.

So TheBrain meets all the criteria of a digital bullet journal I set out at the start. Let’s see it in action.

Using TheBrain as a Bullet Journal

Here’s how I have setup TheBrain for bullet journaling. (Refer to the above screenshots for demonstrations of what I’m referring to.)

First, I built a brain that has a thought for each day using the method I describe here.

I make today’s thought the active thought, then add bullet entries under this day, classifying them by type as I make them. I would tag each entry as needed. If an entry needs additional information, I can add that to the notes section, attach a URL or as many files as gets the job done.

I pin the current day to the top of the screen to make it a speedy return if I’ve wandered off somewhere else in my journal brain.

And that’s it for the basics. But there are other advantages to using TheBrain for this purpose.

Other Advantages of TheBrain

I have actually created more thought types than the basic three. I have two task types: Action Required and Action Completed. I also have types for book and movie notes. You can make as many types as you want, but I want to keep the number of choices small, as too many options begin to defeat the purpose of rapid logging.

I haven’t used my digital bullet journal for work, so I haven’t needed to do this, but if you’re considering it, you might use tags to indicate colleauges to whom you have delegated a task. Or to mark an entry as relating to an active project. I have tags that indicate my level of appreciation for the entry; for example, rating a movie from one to five stars. Classifying with tags in TheBrain allows you to find all other entries with that same tag, as indicated in this screenshot:

You can view all entries with the same tag by selecting that tag in the tags tool (note that you need to click on the description of the tag, not the checkbox).

You can view all entries with the same tag by selecting that tag in the tags tool (note that you need to click on the description of the tag, not the checkbox).

Because a thought can live under more than one parent thought, I can make an entry about the start of something under one day, and link to the same thought on the day I finish. I would do this, say, for tracking my reading.

I can also easily archive or backup my digital bullet journal by exporting selections of the journal to tabbed text, including notes. See below for how this looks:

Entries exported to text and pasted into my favorite text editor, Ulysses.

Entries exported to text and pasted into my favorite text editor, Ulysses.

Other considerations

TheBrain isn’t cheap. Well yes it is. I’ll explain:

If you want to use TheBrain on more than one device and keep your journal in sync, then you’ll have to buy a license, which costs $299 initially, then is $159 a year. That’s not chump change, and if you’re only using the app for journaling, it may not be worth it to you. But there are two factors that may mitigate this expense. First, you might find, like me, that TheBrain becomes indispensible for other uses, and the expense starts to actually feel minimal. But the other factor may play in as well. There is a free version of TheBrain for personal use (and what is more personal than a journal?), so you can try it out to see if you like it. And, if you only want to keep your journal on one device, then there is no need to upgrade to the pro version. I believe all the features I’ve described here (other than syncing) work the same in the free version. (There’s a comparison chart here.)

The bottom line

You may have noticed that the screenshots above are somewhat sparsely populated with entries. As I mentioned, I have only been dabbling in TheBrain as a bullet journal so far, but writing about it like this has made me a bit more excited by the prospect. If I didn’t really love my paper journal, I would definitely adopt TheBrain whole-heartedly for bullet journaling. And it helps that I rely heavily on TheBrain for other purposes. I’ll report back if things develop further.

Quick bullet journal update

If I needed any proof that I was really committed to bullet journaling it has come in the form of a coffee mishap. About four weeks ago I managed to knock over my cup. I caught it before too much of the dark liquid spilled, but some of it managed to splash into the back pocket of my Tom Bihn Ristretto bag, the compartment where I stashed my Moleskine bullet journal. I sopped up the wayward joe, but enough soaked into the top to give a light brown tint and a slight wave to the upper ends of the pages… you know, how books get when they’ve been wet and then dried.

Anyway, this kind of accident would have normally sent me scurrying for a new notebook and a fresh start on clean, immaculate pages. But I was not prepared to put aside the information in my journal, so instead I decided to treat the stains as part of the historical record I was keeping in the pages of my notebook, just perhaps a little more graphic than my usual scrawling. Much to my surprise, I’ve been able to ignore the damage and have continued to use my notebook as if nothing had happened. I am now fully convinced that I am now a dedicated bullet journalist!

Bullet Journaling with Tinderbox

I’ve written recently about my efforts to incorporate bullet journaling into my note-taking system. You can read about this here and here. As I mentioned in my second post, I am finding the paper notebook fun, handy and effective, more so than I expected. Many notes can live inside the notebook, without being transferred to other media; however, I still see the need to move notes (or take them in the first place) in an app, either on my iPad Mini or my new 11″ MacBook Air.

Before going forward, a note about this latter device. I picked up the Air last month because I was unhappy with the portability of my 13″ MacBook Pro and my ability to take detailed notes on my Mini. The Air isn’t much larger than a regular-sized iPad, especially if you factor in the need to have a portable keyboard. Yet I can take it almost anywhere. It seems to me the perfect companion to my bullet journal notebook. And, the best thing about it, the Air allows me to have access to one of my favorite apps, Tinderbox.

And that gets me into the real subject of this post, using Tinderbox as my digital bullet journal.

My digital bullet journal in Tinderbox (outline view).

My digital bullet journal in Tinderbox (outline view).

Here are some of the reasons I like the idea of using Tinderbox for this purpose:

  • Bullet Journaling uses icons as visual indicators of the type of note. I can use simple icons in Tinderbox for this purpose, as you can see in the screen shot.
  • I can set up prototypes in Tinderbox for each type of note (event, task, note are the standard bullet journal note types). This allows me to automatically assign the icon, a special color and some additional meta data to the information.
  • I can append text notes to any note.
  • I can use agents to help me gather notes, or change them (as I’ve done for completed tasks).
  • Tinderbox adds the date automatically to the note, which I can show in the outline view, as above.
  • Tinderbox’s outline view mimics the journal page in my notebook.

There are many other advantages to using Tinderbox for this purpose, which I will get into as the group of notes grows in my new digital bullet journal and I’m able to leverage those features. (The screen shot reveals a hint or two.)

I’ll explore things further in a future post. In the meantime, here is a screen shot of the agent that I used to change the color of a task from red to gray when I’ve checked it off (see update after the image):

A Tinderbox agent that finds all notes that have a task prototype and are checked as complete. It then turns those notes from red to gray.

A Tinderbox agent that finds all notes that have a task prototype and are checked as complete. It then turns those notes from red to gray.

Update: Mark Bernstein, of Eastgate Systems and the developer of Tinderbox, contacted me to let me know that while the above agent works fine as is, better practice would have been to write the second clause in the query as the following:


As lower case “true” is really the proper form. Mark says (and my experience is that) it will work as is, but might be a tad quicker with the proper format. Thanks, Mark!

Bullet Journal update

I wrote about adopting the bullet journal approach to capturing information in a previous post. I’ve now been using my bullet journal for over a month and it seems like a good time for an update.

I am finding it way more fun and productive than I expected I would. Also, my skepticism about keeping my bullet journal in a paper notebook has gone away. The notebook is working just fine. Of course, I use the notebook in conjunction with computer and iOS apps, which I’ll write more about in another post. In the meantime, I wanted to share a few ways in which my notebook may deviate from others.

The left page and right page on each spread in my bullet journal serve different purposes.

The left page and right page on each spread in my bullet journal serve different purposes.

I split the spreads in my notebook. The right page is for rapid logging (the main bullet journal technique). Here I add the date, then log items per the bullet journal method. The only small adjustment I make is to use a back slash to indicate notes that I have pushed into my computer/iPad flow. I may make a note as to which app the information is in, so that I know where to look in the future.

The left page I initially leave blank. Then I use it to annotate my bullet items when more information is called for. If I don’t need to add further information, I can use a blank left page (or even a blank space on a partially filled left page) for creating undated lists, or adding any information that suits my fancy. For instance, the first left-hand page in my notebook is where I started my project list. After that is filled up (and it almost is), I’ll skip ahead to the next blank left hand page, forwarding the uncompleted projects to the new page. I’ll mark this page for quick reference with a removable tab.

I’m keeping my index in the back of the notebook, marked with another removable tab. I’ve decided not to use my bullet journal as a calendar, as I have a wonderful iOS application for that.

I’ve rounded out my notebook with a Quiver pen holder in which I keep a black- and red-ink Pilot Precise V5 extra fine pens, though I have yet to use the red pen. So far, this system is working quite nicely.

In a future post I will be describing how I add computer and iPad apps to the work flow.

Happy New Year!

Update: I’ve written about how I am using Tinderbox as my digital bullet journal.

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.