Why the bullet journal beats to-do lists

I used to be very bad at organisation. As a student my side projects were yet to be born and my main concern in life were handing a paper in on time. I never kept a daily planner, to-do list or diary and would rely mostly on my memory to tell me what was happening and when.

Since graduating and picking up side projects along with a full-time job, I felt a need for a system to keep my life organised.

For two years I turned to list-keeping. Keeping a running to-do list of tasks was great in that it allowed me to quickly jot things down so I wouldn’t forget. While I was writing tasks down, there was no sense of organising them. Nothing on the list was prioritised, nor did tasks have deadlines or due dates. I’d sit down each morning and decide what to work on based on what I felt like — not what was most important.

I knew a needed a better system as I wasn’t taking responsibilities for my priorities. While I’d write down a task, actually completing it was often left to chance.

I’d heard my friend Charli Marie talk about the bullet journal system before, but had mixed feelings about it. To me the bullet journal system felt complex, daunting and time-consuming. Perhaps you’ve probably seen the beautiful Instagram-worthy spreads online and, like me was put off.

It wasn’t until I watched this video that I understood the point of a bullet journal. It wasn’t to be a visual scrapbook or diary, but to discover or develop an organisational system that works for me.

Once I let go of the expectation that my bullet journal had to look visually appealing, I started to research it more. I decided that beauty wasn’t the goal, organisation was. Letting go of the perfectionism expectation allowed me to realise that the bullet journal system is adaptable and customisable — you can use it however you find most productive.

After receiving a blank bullet journal I began to define some requirements for my personal system. This helped me to stay focused on the goal of the journal, and not get carried away with unnecessary distractions like making it ‘looking good’. My requirements were (and still are):

  1. To have a system that’s efficient and doesn’t distract from the goal
  2. Ability to plan for the future and set deadlines to keep myself accountable
  3. View weekly overviews to keep tabs on my work level

Since using the bullet journal the way I use it has changed. I’ve explored different ways of using it and adapted what wasn’t working to fit in with what does.

If you’re feeling overwhelmed with your current task management system, I recommend trying the bullet journal system. If you do, I’ve got a little advice:

Set your own requirements — What is the number one thing you want the bullet journal to help you achieve? Decide on what’s most important for you; whether that’s organisation, task management, future planning, accountability etc. When deciding on your system, make sure these requirements are being fulfilled first before exploring creative expression (unless that’s one of your requirements).

It’s not all about work — While the bullet journal is great for keeping on top of your work tasks and events, there’s many ways you can use it for non-related work activity. For example you may want to track or log social, health, mindfulness, finance or learning activities. I keep track of how often I learn to code or attend a yoga class in a month. This helps me to see when I’m learning and being active.

Invest in quality tools — Your bullet journal will be used every day, so it’s worth investing a little into your notebook and pens. I personally use the Leuchtturm1917 dotted bullet journal. The paper is study, numbered and it has a guide to bullet journalling at the back for reference. Alternatively I recommend Moleskine notebooks if you’re looking for more of a blank canvas. Lastly the pens I use are Pigma Micron, which come in a range of colours and weight. I’ve been using these pens for about four years — my favourite.

Be open to trial & error — It’s probably going to take a bit of time and exploration before you find the best system for yourself, so give yourself freedom to explore an do it with patience. Don’t be afraid of ‘ruining’ your journal. Rather, be open to customising or changing it along with way to suit your own needs. If something isn’t working, be open to trying something new. Your life or schedule is likely to change over time, so don’t be afraid to adapt your journal to fit your changing lifestyle.

Keep it simple — The most important part of bullet journalling is that you make it a system that works for you. Using your journal shouldn’t be cumbersome or time consuming. Make sure you clearly identify important tasks so they’re not buried underneath distractions. I recommend keeping your journal focused and legible. Adding unnecessary clutter or overcomplicating it buries your tasks and can become a distraction.

If you currently have a system that works well for you, that’s great. Unless there’s a gap or limitation with your current system I recommend keeping to it. Disrupting something that’s already working perfectly can be uncomfortable. Just stay open minded and be willing to change it when it’s no longer working.