13 min read

Productivity Systems: Bullet Journaling

Productivity Systems: Bullet Journaling
Photo by That's Her Business / Unsplash

As previously noted, I tend to look for productivity systems that are total and holistic. I'm also willing to criticize them for my purposes at least on ostensibly rigorous or thorough grounds (other than "effort" or "effectiveness"). The 3 major ones I have spent the most time with are Bullet Journaling, GTD, and HPX. In this post, I am focusing on Bullet Journaling, perhaps one of the most popular holistic systems around, and for a few good reasons.

I do not intend to spend much time on what Bullet Journaling is, there are already a myriad of discussions of how to use it. I will only say that the potential for artistic expression, while a major draw for some people, has no bearing on my use, as my use tended to be "pure" vanilla BuJo with any minor and appropriate modifications or extensions that are all pretty standard. The BuJo home page is there for the best definition of what I mean when I say BuJo versus some of the other much more intense setups.

I like to examine my systems based primarily on the value delivered on the basis of the unique or distinct driving principles in practice and in theory, that is, even after modest adjustment, how effective are the defining principles? Every holistic system in code some flexibility to account for individual circumstances. But I feel many people say they are using some system when they have changed or modified the system so much, usually violating or discarding a number of explicit or implicit principles, that it might be more accurate to say that they were inspired by the system rather than using the system. I say this even about systems that try to skirt this by loosening up the definitions and requirements in an attempt to be less dogmatic. A system may try to be an opinionated, but any truly unopinionated system is useless, as these systems are useful precisely because their canonical forms push the frame at thinking of the user toward certain approaches. Thus, I try to judge a system by how this underlying mentality drives in user of a system.

As I see it, bullet journaling has the following defining features:

  • Mindfulness and awareness, particularly through a system that enforces constant exposure to daily, weekly, and monthly items via the migration and recording methods.
  • Analog. Unlike many systems that either can be digital or analog or strongly favor digital, Bullet Journaling is entirely predicated on the assumption of an analog system.
  • Single bound notebook. Much of the design of the Bullet Journaling system is meant to enable productivity through only a single bound notebook through various organization and migration techniques, rather than abandoning the form factor for other types of notebooks. Some people have taken to maintaining multiple journals, but the principles of BuJo's is fundamentally about putting many subjects and areas of focus into a single append-only stream in a single notebook.
  • Append only. A somewhat unique feature of Bullet Journaling is the focus on allowing new information to be added simply by using the next blank page or spread. This means that a full BuJo is really full, without any blank pages, or at least very few of them.
  • Log/list-centric. At the heart of Bullet Journaling is the list or list item. Pretty much all of Bullet Journaling is about getting information into a compact list format and then arranging these lists in useful formats and transferring elements from 1 list to another in useful ways.
  • Intermingled. Perhaps more than any of the other systems, Bullet Journaling encourages the intermingling of Past, Present, and Future as well as information, action, and planning into a stream of data. There are frequent points in the life cycle of the system where these intermingled elements are reorganized somewhat, but this intermingling element is an intentional design element as far as I can tell.
  • Action/checklist oriented. The BuJo method, like many methods, de-emphasizes time allocation as the main unit and focuses on using the action or todo item as the core unit instead. Like GTD and other methods, it encodes a fluid time allotment assumption as a default. GTD goes so far as to explicitly emphasize a fluid time model (the calendar is sacred) as a general good; depending on the user, the same may be said of Bullet Journaling and maybe even more so.
  • Spontaneous. Various methods have different means of encoding freedom into their system. Much more than GTD or HPX, BuJo encourages spontaneous todo and action planning. Whereas in GTD, a capture device would normally be used to queue information for later processing into the working system, and in HPX things are even more conservative than that, BuJo merges the capture and working system into a single module. On the spectrum of spontaneous vs. architecting systems, BuJo is very far on the side of spontaneous. New actions and data go right next to each other as items in a daily log. This almost guarantees reflection on this new information throughout the day, but BuJo also builds in a daily reflection. This means new information and recorded elements will interact with your working system by design if you maximize your engagement with your system.

What really defines Bullet Journaling is a collection of information recording techniques coupled with a set of task management practices. The practices are designed to put you in a position of review over those tasks in order to encourage more clarity over your life and embed a sort of forced prioritization, which is why the analog elements are so foundational.

Having used Bullet Journaling through many notebooks and in a wide range of circumstances, I certainly see the appeal of the system and why it is so popular. It may also have some unique advantages that might not be possible anywhere else. Before I start criticizing it, we should get really clear on why it is so good.

BuJo is very easy to start and yet highly personal. The simple combination of your favorite pen and notebook is very appealing in a minimalist way. The workflow is also easy to understand and use because it builds on simple note taking and todo tracking habits that many of us may already have. There just are not that many barriers to adoption, and the upfront cognitive load is minimized.

BuJo also feels satisfying on a number of levels. The flexibility of picking modules and being creative with your journal can have a big emotional appeal to many people. You can begin to feel a sense of control as you begin to write things down . Physically marking off items as you complete or migrate them is a viscerally satisfying and sensuous experience, especially if you are using a pen and notebook that you like.

There is also that Zen-like sensation of rolling with the punches driven by BuJo's all-in-one, append only design. Since you are only using a single notebook, you need to have a means of flexibly handling all kinds of information into your system. An append only approach is a scalable and accessible means of achieving this level of flexibility. You do not need to do any pre-planning for layouts or the like. As long as you make good use of your index, you will be able to find what you want. This makes it very easy to add new information into the system, and because it is so easy, things feel much easier to manage. There is another element to this sense of ease and that in-the-moment adaptability: task-orientation. It is much easier to add an item to the end of a freeform list than most anything else. This combination of freeform insertion of content into a single notebook combined with a delayed but planned review gives a sense of spontaneity in a way that other, more structured systems do not.

While I do not think that artistry is the main point of BuJo, the tinker-friendly nature gives so many knobs and opportunities for self-expression that one cannot ignore this appeal. You get a structured system that lets you explore and feel in control of planning and your many tasks and todos. It is hardly a surprise why this method took off. I can think of few productivity systems where the end result of using the system is a beautiful, personal, and historic log of your life as a set of bound journals.

So much for the advantages, which I consider real advantages and not just a set of platitudes. As appealing as BuJo is, it has a few fatal flaws that have kept me from using it for some time now. We can examine this from the 7 principles I outlined in my previous post on productivity and also through the lens of the 3 timeframes. Let's start with the 7 principles.

  1. Holistic? On this one, BuJo scores very well. It is flexible and mostly all encompassing in its scope.
  2. Deep Work Optimized? Unfortunately, this is where BuJo really starts to fall short in my opinion. The system tends to encourage a breadth of engagement instead of Deep Work. While being task-centric, it does not have any official treatment on what makes for a good task, which is a known limiter in Deep Work. It also, as a system, does not encourage time and space boundaries, something essential for Deep Work. The analog nature of the system helps to avoid digital distraction, but the nature of the system means exposing yourself constantly to the breadth of your life, which is not a good design for a deep work system. While it may be a step in the right direction for some people who need to become more aware of their lives, the modularity and topic intermingling of the system leaves too much room for distraction for anyone with too much of a creative personality and who may lack an innate focus in their behavior; many of just that sort are likely to be attracted to BuJo, making it especially important to note this limitation of the method.
  3. Unified treatment of High-level and Day-to-day? BuJo does integrate an intentional element of reflection and mindfulness into its core modules. This helps you to examine your tasks critically and ask yourself coarse questions regarding scheduling and commitment, but this is really about it. The emphasis in BuJo is extremely tactical in nature, so elements of high-level questions and planning only come through in small elements as they manifest in your notes and tasks. Some extra modules contain more domain specific ways of logging habits, eating, exercise, and so on, but these are still primarily elements of the tactical and are just alternative representations of tasks.
    This is not to say that BuJo prevents or avoids high-level and strategic thinking, and plenty of people have incorporated some sort of high-level planning in their lives while using BuJo, but most of this is free form and BuJo gives you no assistance here except giving you a place to write down these plans and maybe some notational conventions to use in the form of rapid logging.
  4. Scales to many different types of work? In short, yes. BuJo is exceptionally adaptable and can be utilized in just about any environment.
  5. Addresses procrastination, motivation, and busy work? The short answer is, just barely. The mindfulness elements of the practice do help to answer the question, "do I really want to commit to doing this?" But this really only comes into play at specific times that may not be aligned with the real decision making timetable. Furthermore, the task-centric element of BuJo divorces it from hard and fast time commitments, leading to time disconnect and making it much easier to overcommit. Since there is not enough mechanism in place for deep and isolated work, and you are constantly exposed to so many options, the system has a tendency to encourage busy work and procrastination through "least resistant" tasks. Given this, there is also the well known issue of undone tasks growing and triggering motivation issues. All in all, BuJo, with its task-centric methods does not score high in this category, though it is hardly the worst I have ever seen, and many popular systems suffer the same or worse issues in this respect.
  6. Prioritize using a time scarcity model? Bullet journaling's prioritization comes in the form of daily, weekly, and monthly migration. During each migration you are given the choice to maintain a task in the active set, making it an active priority; Remove it entirely, removing it as a priority at all; Or, you can defer it to another, more coarse grained list, such as your future log (monthly) or weekly spread. This scheme only loosely correlates with time and is roughly equivalent to having monthly, weekly, and daily To Do lists with a review process for these lists. Fortunately, the system is technically agnostic about attaching more time constraints to tasks, but it is certainly optimized against this. It does not provide any particular aids in budgeting time. As such, I must score it low in this regard as the core emphasis in the design has a tendency to reduce or encourage a reduction in time scarcity awareness rather than help or improve it.
  7. Energy efficient? Handles decision fatigue? Bullet journaling assist with decision fatigue in one main way, where to go to add new input. There is no organizing process in bullet journaling that will require much thought. When you inputs come in, they are simply appended to the daily log or they are added to a new spread. This is about where it ends unfortunately. The combination of many unscheduled tasks and the intermingling of many different priorities and areas of focus makes for a system that is not at all optimized with energy efficiency in mind and one that is likely to require too much mental energy to find prior information or to know what to do next without some extra discipline and forced outside the system.

That is an analysis based on my aforementioned design principles, but what about the 3 time frames? The 3 time frames are about examining how system performs winning gauging the past, present, and the future.

If you like having a detailed chronological record of your thoughts, actions, and life when you look back at your past, you would be hard-pressed to find a system more tailored to this desire. The indexed chronological logging of Bullet Journaling is undoubtedly right at the core of the system and it is probably the strongest element/aspect of the whole system. This makes the system excellent for browsing back through and reliving a point in time, much like a scrapbook may serve the same purpose. Indeed, the fact that a BuJo is essentially a practical scrapbook probably has much to do with its popularity as a base medium for so many artistic BuJo's you see all over Instagram and the Internet at large.

Unfortunately, BuJo's chronological nature limits its effectiveness in using it as a reference source and for looking back to study your past work on anything specific rather than merely your life in general. I consider this a major limitation because I primarily need to refer back on materials that may span multiple pages on a single topic that may have been produced over an extended period of time. When using BuJo, this material had a tendency to fragment throughout my notebook. This meant reading through a lot of irrelevant material constantly as well as making it difficult to keep relevant materials on a specific subject in close proximity since my notebook may grow and fill up quickly, putting some of my material that I wanted tquick access to (but only when working that project) in a past notebook. Much of this information would be of a sort that would be impractical and undesirable to migrate with each new notebook.

So, depending on your desired access patterns, BuJo may or may not help you manage and account and engage with your past. It is important to spend some time thinking about these access patterns in your use case because BuJo can be ideally optimized in one case and very frustrating in another.

The Present timeframe addresses how much a system helps you engage with the present effectively. The measure of meaningful engagement in and with the present is essentially how well a system keeps you in flow. Flow involves meaningful, clear, and measurable metrics of progress on things that matter to you and enough challenge to be fulfilling if accomplished while also feeling attainable (attainable but not yet attained), and an actionable means/plan for attainment. Another aspect of flow is mental or physical space for concentration. You must minimize distraction mentally and physically for best performance. How does BuJo stack up when evaluated in the Present timeframe?

As discussed in the 7 principles, the information mingling in BuJo means an unfortunately high opportunity for distraction. The task-orientation can provide opportunities for a clear measure of progress, but only if you already have the effective habits of separating goals and tasks as well as linking specific tasks to the achievement of some meaningful goal, which are two things not expressly encoded in the BuJo system. Its roll with the punches spontaneity means it has a tendency to encourage an excessive degree of multi-tasking. All of this put together means that BuJo may help give you a system for recording the present, but it does not help establish the good habits for maintaining flow and concentration in the present, and its tendency to mix data and maintain tasks rather than time-focus makes it somewhat less than ideal for maintaining a high degree of engagement in the present.

What of the future? What tools are given and what philosophies of use are available in the canonical BuJo universe? Unfortunately, not much and nothing particularly special. BuJo's item/list/task orientation is a weakness here as well, in my opinion. The Future Log is a nice way of managing a small number of month-specific items and you can obviously earmark certain items for a certain day and time, but the append-only nature of the list obviously means a less visual layout without a typical ordering. There is also simply not sufficient space to go into too much detail there. This means it can be very difficult to maintain both a visionary and on-the-ground view of life at the same time. The same issue appears when we consider the Monthly Log, where the design emphasizes task-focus with a "the calendar is sacred" attitude. This makes it easy to commit to many aspirational tasks that have no firm time commitment.

BuJo is also pretty silent on the matter of goal-setting and achievement, specifically on envisioning the future and then planning for its realization down to actionable elements that will remain psychologically connected to the end goal. This is a major limitation. The BuJo structure and stock set of modules (and even most of the add-ons) are not organized around this high-level/low-level matching and ahead of time planning, but if you have some other set of techniques and habits around goal-setting and implementation planning, you can likely use the outputs of that work in your BuJo planning ;module, especially when combined with some extra modules like the daily schedule and habit tracker modules; however, many of the more useful modules in this case bring a BuJo much closer to a traditional planner and thus defeat some of the uniqueness and style of a BuJo while increasing labor costs over more traditional solutions for arguable benefit.

In summary, while the archival aspects and freeform modularity of Bullet Journaling have a lot of appeal, especially to creative and systems oriented types, the difficulty of applying sound focus principles to the system, as well as the overly task-centric nature of the system makes it too limiting in power and efficiency of purpose for me. For those who already have solid temperaments concerning focus, execution, and applied vision, this might make an useful augment to these already valuable main habits, but I am not able to view it as an adequate main productivity system as it is advertised.