03 Jan

This is how I Bullet Journal

Hi, I’m Tobias Buckell, a science fiction writer, and this is how I Bullet Journal.

I mentioned I’d started bullet journalling on twitter and people were curious and suggested I create a blog post.

So in September, I had been seeing people mentioning Bullet Journals and seen some Instagram links and Pinterest accounts about bullet journaling.

I was a bit put off by it all because there were pictures like this (these aren’t actual Bullet Journals, but emblematic of the sort of thing that kept me from engaging initially):

Or like this:

It seemed like a group of scrapbookers vomited all over to-do lists. I bounce off the scrapbooking aesthetic. I wouldn’t mock it, those examples above are beautiful. But, it looked like it could, maybe, you know, be a lot of yak shaving or vacuuming the cat before getting stuff done:

Yak shaving is a programming term that refers to a series of tasks that need to be performed before a project can progress to its next milestone. This term is believed to have been coined by Carlin Vieri and was inspired by an episode of “The Ren & Stimpy Show.”

I don’t know if that’s fair, but to me (and I emphasize that ‘to me’ part), needing fifteen different colored pens and the right paper, stencils, and so forth, to get a to do list done, that seemed like madness.

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But then someone I really respect (who had the same reaction to it all) told me they were thinking of doing it. Always curious to examine new personal time management tools, I told that person that if they did it, I’d also try one out for a month as a personal experiment and see what I thought.

Bullet Journalling Attempt #1

I went online and purchased a Luechtturm 1917 A5 Notebook as devotees of the system recommended it. I overnighted it, along with a nice gel pen (also recommended). Why reinvent the wheel?

Here’s a youtube video review of the notebook:

Nice notebook!

I then watched the official Bullet Journaling youtube video by the Bullet Journaling inventor:

There. I was ready to start and be awesome! I was relieved to find out that the creator of the Bullet Journal didn’t recommend using fifteen different colored pens and stencils.

I grabbed my fancy new pen, opened my fancy new book, and started following the instructions on the video…

…and promptly biffed it.

I’m ADD, I’m dyslexic, and I made a bunch of mistakes making my first pages.

However, I was determined the experiment continue. I realized that using a pen terrified me because I kept making mistakes. I also wanted to be able to rip out pages if I screwed them up (Bullet Journallers say you just create a new page, or decorate around the mistakes, but, I wasn’t feeling it at the start of the experiment). So I drove up to Staples, purchased an A5 binder with some paper and, on a whim, I snagged a bunch of mechanical pencils.

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I booted up the video and started again.

Within a week of keeping that loose-leaf, three ring binder, I came to a few conclusions:

1) using a pencil helps me lose my worries about making a mistake on the page.
2) with pencil I didn’t need loose leaf paper.
3) man, that Luechtturm had really nice paper, regular American school paper was shit.
4) this is the most important: whatever may or may not work with Bullet Journalling, the idea of indexing my notes and scribbles was revelatory.

Okay, about number four. That’s like, paperclip obvious. It’s so obvious in retrospect I don’t know why I wasn’t doing this in high school or college. But honestly, I have gone my entire life writing things down on scraps of paper as they occur to me, and then collating them onto the computer.

One of my most popular posts is “How I Write a Novel” and you can see that I do actually use paper for brainstorming:

But I get that into computer quickly as I can because it’s then organized and searchable. And when I was planning things, my desk would look like that.

But creating an index, that was interesting. Because now I suddenly, like a light bulb going off, realized I could create not only daily to-dos, but project to-dos, and flip back and forth. Even better, while I used a variety of to-dos via digital software, some projects of mine were getting so complex that I needed a way to glance at the 30,000 foot view quickly.

Surprisingly, there is no official graphical user interface for a novelist 10 years into his career who needs an at a glance look at what’s going on with all his novels in one place.

But with an indexed paper system I could built a two page spread with all that data, including my own symbols for different things happening to the books and…

…all of a sudden I understood all the custom scrapbook-y stuff I was seeing. These were personalized UIs. And creative output, of course.

I quickly created a sketch of a two page spread that would allow me to see all the complicated things I was doing for my novel career, and right away I was like “yeah, I’ll be opening this up every time I talk to an editor, or agent, or accepting a deadline.” I could see everything I was up to on one page.

Bullet Journal #2: Considering aesthetics

So, the Staples binder was a shitty quick solution. The paper was cheap. The binder was cheap. And I hated the rings. Yeah, writing on the right page was easy, but writing on the left? I had to hold my hand in an odd way. I took to writing on only half the page. In the second week, I got online and started ordering possible Bullet Journal systems.

Here is what I ordered:

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Upper left is the shitty Staples A5, 3-ring binder. I liked A5 size because I could stick the notebook in a backpack pocket, or take it with me to a panel to take notes.

On the upper right, I snagged a Japanese 20-ring binder with some nice paper.

On the lower right I purchased a very nice 6 ring system with a luxurious leather holder that could take credit cards and extra pens and pencils, plus it had more space in the middle. Many diarists in the US use that gapped six ring system, I found out. Incidentally, my wife took up that notebook for her own Bullet Journalling (it is infectious apparently).

On the lower left is the system I settled on: the Kokuyo Systemic Notebook cover.

Here’s a product shot of the whole thing:


For the pencil (it has this great pen loop) I have a Uni-Ball KuruToga 0.7mm Mechanical Pencil which is magical because it has a mechanism in it that rotates the lead every time you pick it up, so that the pencil comes down sharp on the next stroke. I use the diamond infused lead for the super sharp lines. Pencil isn’t as sharp as pen, but this pencil really helps compensate for that.

I used that to build out my to-do list and project management, heavily using indexing so I can jump around and find what I need.

Each Kokuyo twin ring notebook lasts me about two months. I think I could get three out of them, but I haven’t tried yet.

I also added a Moleskine Cahair slim notebook on the left panel of the Kokuyo Notebook cover. So my project management happens on the right, with the twin ring, and on the left, I write down ideas and writing snippets.

Bullet Journalling: What I do

So I have an index, then I create some pages for quotes. Two pages of my favorite quotes, one for life, one for writing.

Then come the future pages that Bullet Journalling recommends. They don’t work as well for me so I’m slowly deprecating them. But my month page is a thing just like normal. Then I start doing my daily pages (dailies some people call them).

My page looks simple, I don’t adorn, I have the shittiest handwriting. Here’s a sample fake page:


Date at top (because that helps me know what day I wrote things on).

Priority: I write in two to three (no more than three) priorities for the day, things that absolutely have to be done. Like ‘refill meds’ so that I can continue living.

After a skipped line I write “Today will rock b/c:” and then fill in why it will rock. This is something I picked up from a neurophysiology researched, how to work/live better journalling exercise I read about. If I can’t fill that out, that means I’m not looking forward to anything on this day. Seeing a blank after that is a clue I need to stop and think about why or what is in the way of me having even a small thing to look forward to. Often it says something like “Today will rock b/c: I’m going to have a Choco Taco after dinner!”

Then I have my daily to-dos that I’ve filled out in the morning or the night before. I use a box for these (instead of a dot), and if the box is half filled it’s in progress. I like coloring in the box after I achieve a to-do, it makes me feel happy, accomplished, and kick ass. It’s dumb, but there you go.

I interweave journaling and to-dos, which is what blew me away about some Bullet Journallers. It’s not official, I don’t think, but I use a circle to denote a journal entry. So right under the to-dos I’ll often have something like:

Bubble: “Man it’s colder than all fuck outside, this is so depressing. I hate being cold all the time. I hate winter. Etc” I wanted to start journaling because I’ve read a lot of research showing its positive impacts. Interweaving the to-dos and journaling mean I do this organically throughout the day, and can also meta-comment on my mental state regarding some of the to-dos.

I can add new to-dos as they occur to me interleaved through this all as well.

And lastly, I use a plus sign to denote a thing I did that wasn’t scheduled:

+phone call from XYZ. We discussed ABC project. 1pm-1:30.

These plus activities are added in for things I know to do, interruptions, last minute etc.

With all this in play, I can look at each day and see that ‘oh, I failed on my to-dos but a crisis happened’ or what have you. Journaling helps me express myself and engage in meta-cognition.

I use a triangle to denote warnings, or things I’ve noticed.

Triangle: you didn’t get enough sleep and are feeling like shit. I was perusing my journals and noticed a number of patterns flagged by triangles that I was able to get ahead of.

Lastly, I try to write at the end of the day if I was grateful for anything. Gratefulness journals are again, shown to by psychologically helpful.

I’ll take notes on a lecture, or call, right on the page of the day, then go index them after I’m done (a significant lecture will get indexed from front, I keep a project page called ‘call log’ and log the date, time, person, and quick summary on that page, which notes the page of the diary that is on, that call log is a project page indexed by index). Sounds complex, but I’m able to keep a surprising amount of info organized easily, and generating it is easy.

Project pages. I mentioned that I have a novels project page. I also keep pages that log books read, tv shows watched and my thoughts, movies and my thoughts, each audiobook I’m listening to. These are as I go logs.

I also keep lists. I have lists of movies recommended to me written down, and books recommended to me.

Specific complicated projects all get a page.

One of the most useful pages ever for my mental health was “Things I’m Waiting On.”

Open loops, things that are undone and in-progress, that I have no control over, keep me up at night. When I created my first ‘waiting on’ page, I had 43 items on there. It was a relief to list them all out, collating the items from various project pages. I list contracts I’m waiting for, checks, people getting back to me about questions, things being shipped, etc. Knowing that it was on a page that I could update really took it out my perpetual worrying back mind. It also let me put dates next to them so I knew how often to ‘poke’ the project on a set, regular reminder schedule.

I also have pages for ‘life goals’ ‘year goals’ ‘places I want to see’ and things like that.

Project pages are more decorated up with lines from a ruler, and things to help me graphically understand what I’m up to. I can’t share these really, right now, as they have either personal info or info about projects I can’t talk about. But really, there are lots of arrows and things written sideways and all custom designed by me to get the gist of what happens next.

One thing I have learned from Getting Things Done, each project breaks down parts by next actions on those pages, so I understand what I have to do next and can copy a next action onto my daily page as an easy to do.

So to create an internet business project page, first step might be ‘investigate open domain names related to ‘theme of business’’ after that ‘register the domain’ because each of those are concrete, actionable steps that I could almost assign anyone, that I can follow when brain dead. Obviously creative stuff is not something I can assign, but if I were to assign it to another writer, how would I write it? (Say: write one page of X. Or brainstorm 3 ideas for X. Or ‘spend 30 minutes brainstorming ideas for X). That is how I break it down for creative stuff.

That is basically been how I spent the last four months, and I actually think it saved my sanity because the crunch of work I had to achieve in the last four months meant I depended on this heavily.

My only issue was that two months per notebook sucked. I think I can squeeze three out of the Kokuyos, but I am currently testing out a Luechtturm 1917 that I think I can 3-4 months out of and that will be nice, as I won’t have to copy over my project pages every two months.

But man, I love that clear plastic cover and the immediate index of the Kokuyo, so we’ll see how this goes over the next two months.

10 thoughts on “This is how I Bullet Journal

  1. Your post arrived just in time. I’ve been doing pretty well on my bullet journal since September, but the election and the holidays have me more up and down, and I was beginning to wonder if I would get back on track. Thanks for opening a window on how you’ve made it work for you. Most of all, it’s reminded to make this process my own. Peace.

    • I used the Bullet Journal to create a whole page of reactions and concrete plans for things I would do in reaction that weren’t reading the news and social media obsessively and getting depressed. It took up two pages, but helped me concretize my next steps.

  2. Are you familiar with the Levenger Circa notebooks? They’ve got a great minimalist scheme for shifting pages around that’s very flexible, and they use great paper for their notebooks and refills.

    And, on a completely unrelated note, do you remember the old 43 Folders website? It was where Merlin Mann wrote about exactly this sort of stuff, until he fled screaming from the idea that he would someday be remembered as that guy who blogged about hacking notebooks and productivity schemes.

    • I didn’t try out Levenger though I did see a Levenger compatible system or maybe a Levenger at Staples that I tested out. It didn’t strike me as much as what I have, but I think it’s better than any of the rings binders for sure.

      I do remember Merlin Mann, that’s where I first got my obsession with personal hacks from. There and Lifehacker, I read those two blogs every day. Mann and Cory Doctorow put GTD on my map, which helped me learn a few things about how to process projects and contexts more effectively.

  3. Huh.
    A new concept to play with. Looking at the photos from the early part of the post, it looks like they’re trying to mate it with mind mapping.

    • Those are just Instagram examples of overly complex to-do pages that I snagged really quickly, FYI 🙂

  4. I’ve been doing a line-item to-do list on the computer for a few months; I sort of cobbled it together after hearing about a few different systems at a business workshop in October. I’ve actually never heard of bullet journalling until now (apparently I’ve been living under a rock) but this looks like a cool system, and being able to carry it around is a plus. But my first thought is exactly what you mentioned at the end — having to copy all the project pages every time you get to the end of your notebook. :/ I have a lot of project notes that I’ve been keeping in computer files for years, for stories, books, series, etc., and… yeah, no.

    But for daily/monthly to-dos and briefer notes, this does look like a cool system. [ponder]


    • Yeah, it’s a pain, though, I’m finding that copying pages over (not 2 months, but maybe every quarter or 4 months) leads to me analyzing what I want to continue over very carefully, and acts as a de facto filtering process. I became more active about looking at a project and saying ‘okay, for two months I’ve lived with this idea but I’m not crazy about it anymore, let’s make the big call: kill it forever or keep it on the books, or retire it to a one-line ‘someday/maybe’ bucket list item on my ‘life goals’ list.

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