Bullet Journaling

Learning how to use a bullet journal has been one of the most important things to happen in my life.

Yes, I’m comparing the use of a paper book intended for organization up there with events such as my marriage or the birth of my son, and no, I’m not trivializing either of those things by comparison.

Let me put it this way: bullet journaling has almost single-handedly given me, someone with severe ADHD, the capability to structure my life in such a way that I can attempt to accomplish my dreams. If I hadn’t learned how to do it, I would undoubtedly not be in the blessed, fortunate position that I am in today, supporting my family with web development and making games on the side.

I know there’s plenty of resources out there that talk about bullet journaling; my intent here is merely to tell my own story: how my life was prior to bullet journaling, how I implemented bullet journaling techniques, and how I use bullet journaling today. In doing so, perhaps you may be convinced to try bullet journaling yourself; or, if you already use a bullet journal, you might see techniques you can take to augment your own journaling methods.

Shoutout to Todd Mitchell of Code Write Play, whose inquiries about my bullet journaling experience led directly to me writing this article!

Life Before Bullet Journaling

As mentioned, I have ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder). This malady is caused by a deficit of chemicals in my brain which help it to focus and make judgment calls, functionalities that are critical if one wants to have any measure of success in life. Because I struggle with these things, my life is made exceptionally more difficult. While medication significantly helps with regulating the chemical levels in my brain, it doesn’t magically grant me the ability to focus perfectly and make good decisions; I need to supplement the medications with good habits and routines. Ironically, forming good habits and routines are things which require focus and sound judgment.

How do “normal” people form good habits and routines, beyond “just doing it” (an ability that is not readily available to me)? They use planners and scheduling calendars, setting up a written means to refer back to what they want to do, not needing too much of a push to get it done. Why can’t I do the same?

Here’s the catch: Sitting down and figuring out what I need to do is boring. For someone with ADHD, being bored feels like torture, like dying (that may sound hyperbolic, but, trust me, it’s not far from the truth), so it’s something I innately want to avoid doing. Even when I force myself through something that bores me, the sheer amount of mental willpower required to do so drains me utterly.

On top of that, most planners, in terms of books that are specifically designed for the purpose of making plans, have a set structure that you are required to conform to in order to use. Things like “Daily Todo List” or “Monthly Plans”, all given specific sections on a page, with little to no room for customization. I’ve yet to come across a planner whose design matches what I feel comfortable with. Do I know what feels comfortable to me? Nope! But every planner I’ve attempted to work with felt dreadful to use, and something that feels dreadful gives me zero motivation to keep using it, especially when it isn’t yielding positive, impactful results.

A logical followup would be to wonder: why not make your own planner, then? Surely, you can figure out what you need and design your planner accordingly, right? Sadly, ADHD also impacts my ability to visualize what works for me. Often, that means I don’t know what I really want. In the moment, something might feel like it would work for the long term, but days later that same strategy might prove chafing to my psyche, for reasons I couldn’t foresee. It’s already difficult, figuring out how to structure a planner that works for all cases; it’s even tougher when I need to use it mid-development to organize the rest of my life. While I did attempt to create custom planners, time and time again they not only proved to be more work than I was willing to force myself to do, they weren’t effective enough to be worth the hard work in the first place.

Without the aid of planners, I resorted to many disparate means of keeping track of what I needed to do. Notes left in places I’d likely be around; notes scattered all over my desk, where I spent much of my day; stacks of things left out on the floor, increasing the chance that I’d remember to deal with them… The overarching problem, aside from it being a disgraceful cacophony of approaches, is that at no point did these scattershot solutions solve for making plans beyond the immediate here and now. If I wanted to do a project, I had to spend all of my spare time focusing on that project; otherwise, I’d get bored of it, or forget about it entirely, and bounce off to the next more interesting project.

I hope these words paint the picture of my life before bullet journaling. I was getting by, technically. But I felt powerless to make true progress on the things I wanted to do.

How I Got Into Bullet Journaling

My wife bought a bullet journal for me in 2016, as a Christmas gift. I intended to try it; in the back of my mind, however, I didn’t feel like this was going to be any different from other times I’d tried to learn new planners. I’d had years of failure and pain built into my memories, and these discouraged me from wanting to make a serious go at bullet journaling.

So, the journal sat around the apartment, being ignored. 2017 came, and passed by. All throughout the year, I kept telling myself I’d give it a shot, and still I never got around to it. At the time, I already had a career in web development, and I was doing my best to keep learning more about web development to improve my chances at getting better-paying jobs. What time wasn’t being spent on that was spent recovering from the difficulty of spending so much of my focus and attention on one specific goal.

Near the end of 2017, Rebecca and I decided that we wanted to try and start a game development studio. Making video games is something I’d always wanted to do, but it wasn’t until now that I felt my programming skills were solid enough that I could attempt to act on this desire. However, I needed to continue building on my web development skills to continue making money from the career that pays our bills. That meant I would have to find a way to juggle working on multiple projects simultaneously, for month after month, year after year; I specifically struggled with this exact thing because of my lack of ability to plan. It became clear: I needed to improve my planning skills, or none this game development stuff would come to fruition.

I finally had the drive to change, and at the beginning of 2018 I committed to forcing myself to learn how to bullet journal.

I don’t recall if it was a New Year’s Resolution or not, to be honest. It could’ve been, but I simply don’t recall. Personally, I’m not much of a New Year’s resolutions person, anyway; why wait for the new year when you can make a resolution anytime you want?

How I Implemented Bullet Journaling

I started by watching tutorials on YouTube about how bullet journaling works. How To ADHD (by Jessica McAbe), in particular, had great tutorials on bullet journaling that proved helpful to me. To my surprise, I learned that there is no strict formula to making a bullet journal work; you are encouraged to take the parts that work for you, and not worry about the parts that don’t. That was already a major difference from my previous attempts to learn planners: I got to decide what works for me.

Of course, just using a rule-lined notebook technically accomplishes the same thing. The crucial difference is that there were suggested systems for me to use, giving me more than a blank page to work with. At the core of bullet journal philosophy is the daily list of todos: each day, I make a new entry in the bullet journal and write down all the things I need to get done that day. At the end of the day, I mark down what got done, what I moved to a different day, and what I chose to not get done. That is the one habit that was asked of me, to ensure I always make this daily list; this was a far cry from planning systems of the past that made me feel as though I had to plan weeks to months at a time.

What that daily todo entry looks like, visually, is up to me. The bullet journal I was given used dot grid notation, and it is an underrated, but crucial, aspect of making bullet journaling work for me. Personally, ruled paper always suggests that I have to keep my writing between the lines, and it visually discourages me from making any sort of lines that broke from that horizontal structure in any way. Blank paper gives me the freedom to create whatever I want, but it is a lot of effort to make consistent spacing and lines, which are things that help keep me focused. Dot grid paper, on the other hand, provides a symmetric grid of small dots, giving me a sense of where the structure should take place, while not providing explicit lines that make me feel restricted. Honestly, the dot grid paper played a huge role in getting me to buy in to the bullet journal methods.

This is how my first bullet journal was structured.

How Bullet Journaling Helped Me

With simple guidelines, and simple structures on dot grid paper, I slowly integrated use of the bullet journal into my daily routine. It made more than a noticeable impact; it shocked me with just how powerful and effective it was, especially compared to all the other methods of planning I’d attempted throughout my life.

For the first time, ever, I was able to make consistent progress on multiple projects simultaneously. Having a daily reminder of what I needed to do helped me remember what to work on, and having an easy means to keep making a schedule helped ensure that it wasn’t too hard to put my plans to paper. Being able to see at a glance what I needed to do also helped prevent me from jumping off on more interesting projects. This is what I’m working on, I’d tell myself, I want to keep at it so I can finish it.

Incidentally, now that I was writing down my plans, I got better at deciding what I needed to work on. I could research how to do some kind of task, and break it down into parts that I could subsequently schedule. On top of that, the dot grid paper was also great for taking notes down for these projects; the bullet journaling method actually encourages this, as keeping thoughts near your todos helps keep your thoughts nearby without losing them on scattered scraps of paper.

Perhaps most importantly, I made progress on projects. I didn’t bounce off of them, I didn’t have to keep them in the front of my mind, I just did them. For someone like me, this was an awe-inspiring experience. I could actually have a plan to do something, and pull it off while still living other aspects of my life. I’d never known this experience before, and I absolutely loved it.

I also had a much easier time remembering to pay bills on time!

Customizing My Approach

I’ll freely admit: I don’t do bullet journaling exactly as described by the tutorials that I watched. That’s perfectly okay! Using the bullet journal approach, as I’ve stated before, is about adopting the parts that work and discarding the parts that don’t. Where the “official” approach doesn’t provide a feature I want, I’m totally free to add that feature to my bullet journaling method; where it suggests something that I don’t find useful, I ignore it.

For example, the official method suggests creating a “Future Log” that encompasses the next six months, and contains the things you want to accomplish in the distant future. I didn’t find scheduling things out for six months particularly useful, so I created my own approach. It uses the monthly page suggested by the original approach, but I instead make two monthly pages: one that contains the dates and events I need to track for that month, and a “Notes/Tasks/Plans” page which contains the things I want to keep in the back of my mind over the coming month, including plans scheduled further out into the future than a month. This is what works for me, and I’ve not yet seen reason to adjust from it.

The way I structure my todos and notes has also changed since those initial days. Before, I simply placed todo lists at the next blank page in succession. It worked to keep things simple, but I quickly got annoyed with having to hunt between pages of notes to find past todo lists. I decided to impose my own order for todo lists and notes pages: pages from the start of the book are todo lists (daily, weekly, and monthly), while pages from the back of the book are my notes pages. When the two meet, that’s when I start a new bullet journal.

Additionally, the structure of the daily and weekly todos themselves has changed. At first, it was simply making a list on a page where space fit; if a page had enough space for multiple daily todos, I’d add multiple lists. That wasn’t organized enough for my tastes, so I chose to use a half-page structure. Each page would contain two days worth of lists, and no more. After reserving one of the halves for the weekly list, I had a consistent structure where one week’s worth of todos would be predictably spread across exactly four pages. Giving myself a small amount of space for lists also helped me realize when I was trying to put too many things on my list for a given day, and spread things out accordingly.

After using this for nearly a year, I decided to make one more change: instead of each page containing two days worth of todos, each page would represent a single day. The pages were still divided in half, with the top half being dedicated to todos, while the bottom half was reserved for me making notes about things that happened during the day. This change was inspired by a realization: I have trouble recalling what has happened throughout the course of my life. If it wasn’t a major event, it was something I likely wouldn’t be able to recall easily. That troubled me enough that I decided I wanted to have a means of recording at least something about what happened on a particular day. To be honest, it kind of annoys me, but I consider it important enough for my future self that I continue to do it. And since it doesn’t take more than five minutes (if that), it’s not annoying enough for me to give up on it.

Finally, I’ve added my own symbols to the ones officially suggested. Instead of listing what’s different, however, I think it’d be more useful to simply list what symbols I use, since that’s the part which really matters, anyway.

My symbology:

  • A single dot is an unresolved todo.
  • A dot with an X is a todo that was completed.
  • A dot with a forward arrow is a task that I’ve migrated to a future date.
  • A dot with a backwards arrow is a task that I accomplished on a previous date.
  • A task that is crossed out is a task that I chose not to do (and didn’t migrate to a future date).
  • A question mark is a task that is optional. It needs to be resolved, but I’m being clear to myself that it is not required to complete.
  • An exclamation point is a task that I must complete now or in the immediate future.
  • A dot within a circle is an event that is taking place.
  • A question mark within a circle is an event that might happen, but not for certain.
  • A dash is a note that I want to keep in mind on a daily basis. Keeping it in the daily todos helps me keep it in memory, even if it isn’t strictly a task to accomplish.

I do choose to use the “Bullet Journal”-brand journal, for two reasons: it contains all the journal features I want, such as dot grid paper and three bookmarks, and I have a thing for keeping all my journals consistent, so I continue to buy the brand that I was originally given. Though I don’t mind paying more for my journal material, there are definitely cheaper options which are just as valid!

The structure my bullet journals have used for the last few years. I still have yet to consistently make salads.

Augmenting the Journaling

Bullet Journaling is the planning system that has finally stuck with me, but there’s a catch with all planning systems: you have to remember to use them, or they aren’t effective! To that end, I’ve needed to adopt various strategies outside of the bullet journal to help ensure I don’t forget to keep it up to date.

I try to keep my journal physically located in a centralized location in the place that I live. Right now, this is at the top of the stairs, which I have to pass by every day. Seeing the journal helps jogs my memory that I need to do something with it.

Another thing that significantly helps me is the use of phone alarms. I was already using these to help me remember when I need to take my medications, so it wasn’t hard for me to add additional alarms to remind me to periodically check the bullet journal to ensure I’m not missing time-sensitive things (like calling a doctor’s office during open hours).

An odd thing that I also employ is the use of a habit tracker app on my phone. At least, it seems odd to me, because most of the time I don’t care for systems that employ streak-keeping as the means of positive reinforcement, and most of the time I outright ignore other apps which employ that tactic. For some reason, however, I feel strongly enough about keeping up my habit of completing the bullet journal that, when I see it ask me if I’ve done it yet, it’s enough to get me to stop what I’m doing and go resolve my tasks. Maybe it’s because I care enough about making bullet journaling work that I don’t want to see evidence that I’m flaking away from it? Regardless, this helps ensure that I don’t forget to update the journal over multiple days (which is easy to do with a forgetful short-term memory).

Even though bullet journaling is by far the least painful method of journaling I’ve tried, I do still find it annoying and boring to have to sit down with it and make plans. To help combat this, I’ve designated Thursdays as the day of the week where I force myself to make the plans for the following week (and month, if it’s the last Thursday before the end of the month). That way, I only have to sludge through the boredom one time a week, and it rarely takes more than 10-20 minutes to get everything resolved. I picked Thursday because it gives me a couple of days worth of buffer, should I be unable (or unwilling) to make the new schedule that day.

The Continuous Happy Ending

I opened this article by saying learning how to bullet journal was one of the most important parts of my life, right up there with traditional life-shattering occasions. Before, my lack of focus and good judgment made it very hard to keep working on projects and achieving my goals and dreams. Once I committed myself to bullet journaling, my life has changed dramatically and positively; I can confidently say that, without it, I wouldn’t be having a life as good as I have it today.

I wouldn’t be a game developer. I wouldn’t have a good job that pays well. I wouldn’t have a hope of doing the things I want to do.

If you’ve struggled with making plans, if you have ADHD, if you want to do something that might just change your life for the better…try bullet journaling. I wholeheartedly recommend it.

Speaking of game development, Rebecca and I have released our first game, Sanity Wars Reimagined! Play it on Itch.io to see the progress we’ve made over the past several years, and follow me on social media to see what we’ll do next!