rainy garden

a place to grow

A practical post today, I think, because a friend requested it, and because I don’t want this blog to be all feelings all the time. I want to talk a bit about how I’m working to improve things on a pragmatic level, and this is one of the things I started a while ago that’s become even more important now. I reckon if you want tools that work, take advice on them from someone who’s a total mess — if I’ve managed to sustain using them, if I’ve managed to improve my life with them, that’s got to be a good sign. So.

I love my bullet journal. Lots of people do, right? You’ve seen them on instagram, or maybe you are one of them – filling any available hashtag with gorgeous works of art, calendars surrounded by glorious sketches, aspirational handwriting, seasonal watercolours, elaborate spreads.

I am not one of those people. Some days I can barely figure out the steps to get ready for the day, some days I hyperfocus on a project for sixteen hours, and in either case it doesn’t leave me much time to make a planner look beautiful. I can’t imagine spending more time on my planner than on the tasks in it. I know for lots of people it’s therapeutic! I wish I was one of them! But I’m not.

Maybe you aren’t one of those people either. Maybe that’s why you’re reading this. It’s okay. Bullet journalling is great, and it’s measurably improved my life, and I haven’t a hope in hell of ever making it look nice, but that’s fine too. Here’s how I do it. Let’s start from scratch. Sorry for length.

Note: I am not saying this exact system will work for you

Everyone is different, and the beauty of a bullet journal is it’s flexible. If you hate my spreads, you can always make up your own. The key, in my opinion, is experimenting; if you find yourself not using something, or wishing your structure accommodated for a particular thing, take it out or build it in accordingly. In my opinion, the entire reason this is better than a regular planner is that you can change it when it’s not working. Just keep an eye on whether it’s working.

The other key is in not minding if it’s ugly. It’s fine if it’s ugly. It’s cool if it works.

(Also, if you REALLY want it not to be ugly, just put some stickers in it. Stickers make everything better.)

The structure that works for me

There are various ‘zoom levels’ of representing time in bullet journalling, from multi-month 'future logs' down to daily lists. I’ve tried all of them, and I usually feel like I’m duplicating information, so I don't worry about most of them. Most of the time, I stick to daily spreads. If I’ve got a particularly busy or chaotic week coming up, I’ll lay out a weekly spread on Sunday night or Monday morning too. But most of the time, I use Google Calendar as my calendar, and stick to the paper bullet journal for daily, rolling to-do lists.

My daily to-do list

Here’s a typical daily to-do list for me at the end of a day.

I don’t dress it up or decorate it much, and it doesn’t really look a lot like the bullet journals you see on Instagram. But the key is the bullet journal system for classifying tasks. By the end of the day, there should be no empty boxes.

  • A filled box means I finished the task
  • A half-filled box means I started it but didn’t finish it
  • A line through the box means the task is cancelled for some reason
  • An arrow through the box means it rolls over to the next day
  • An ! in front of the box means it has to be done today, no rolling over.
  • Triangles are used in the same way as boxes, but represent timed errands or meetings — things I have to leave the house for by a certain time, essentially.
  • Bullet points are notes for things I think I might want to remember I did on that date later on (like picking up a prescription, which I have to do every four weeks, or things that feel big and emotionally significant).

The next day, I start my new list with any boxes that have arrows or are half-filled.

A list evolves throughout the day as I remember new things I need to do. Tasks aren’t ordered by importance, except for the ! to denote urgent ones. Big tasks — ‘work on PhD chapter’ are in the list with small tasks — ‘respond to Mum’s text’. Sometimes the small tasks are the hardest for me — that’s one of the reasons this system works for me.

On the days that my executive dysfunction is worse, I will often notice the tasks getting more and more fine-grained — I’ve had to write out a list with the steps to running a bath or cooking a meal before, and it makes it much less overwhelming. It also feels good to check them off. Sometimes the list is shorter and more general if I’m having a good day. Either is fine. It adapts to you.

The other nice thing about this is that because you’re using a blank notebook, if you have a day off or you’re sick or struggling or too busy it doesn’t matter. I do this all the time. At least once a week. It’s fine. When you’re ready, open up the book again, and start the next day on the next page. No gaps, no blank pages. We carry on.

Note: A weird thing I do that might be useful to you, or not.

For some reason, I am way more productive when I have both a paper to-do list next to me and an identical digital to-do list on my screen. So when I add a new item, I write it in the book but also type it into my to-do list app (Todoist is my favourite). You don’t have to do this. It just works for me, so I do it.

My weekly spread

As I say, I don’t always do this. If there’s nothing remarkable happening that week there’s no point, I just use Google Calendar. But if there’s lots of changing schedules I need to stay on top of, it can be nice to have a page next to my paper to-do lists to look at and see what the next few days look like.

I just draw out boxes on the page with a ruler (which I keep in a pocket at the back of my notebook, otherwise I’d never remember it!) and copy my calendar into it. Again, having a digital and a paper copy helps properly drum things into my head for some reason. I just have to keep it simple so I don’t spend more time planning than doing.

That’s mostly all there is to it

A key thing for me is using a modular notebook, which lets you keep multiple notebooks in one cover — I use a Midori Traveler’s Notebook, but if you search ‘traveler’s notebook’ or ‘fauxdori’ somewhere like Etsy, you’ll find similar versions. It also probably wouldn’t be very hard to make your own compatible cover), if you’re that way inclined. The first notebook is for my daily/weekly logs. The second is a series of longer lists of things like project ideas, wishlists, things I’ve bought. This means when I fill up a notebook with daily lists, I can replace it with a fresh one without losing the longer lists in the second notebook. I also have a zipped pocket attached to the cover which I keep a mini ruler and some stickers in, as well as a bluetooth tracker so I don’t lose it (I know lots of people don’t like the idea of bluetooth trackers which I completely understand, but I bought mine a few years ago, when I realised that eight of the ten times I’d cried in the previous week had been because I’d lost either my keys or my wallet, so now I own a few of them).

I also have a third notebook with monthly calendars in, but as I mentioned above, they haven’t really worked for me and I will probably not replace this particular part of the system.

I don’t know why this works for me

It doesn’t give me perfect executive function or magically make me organised — what this guide leaves out is that I forget or can’t motivate myself to do a bunch of these steps constantly, including right now on the day I'm posting this — but somehow it helps a lot without wasting too much time on the planning itself. And when I do forget to do it, somehow the system doesn’t fall apart. Which is all I can really ask from a planning method.

It’s been a while. And everything has changed.

In my first post here, I mentioned in the long list of things I wanted to work towards that I wanted to re-evaluate my relationship, but wasn’t ready yet. But sometimes you enact a change yourself, and sometimes it’s thrust upon you.

On the 16th of October, my relationship ended. And it needed to end, I think; but I didn’t want it to, yet. We weren’t good for each other, and we weren’t communicating productively, but there was a huge part of me that wanted to see if I could fix it, first. But I couldn’t.

The timing was good. I am staying in the flat we lived in together. My ex left the night we separated; I spent a week or so surrounded by our shared things, alone, with no idea what would happen next. My best friend was scheduled to travel from the US to London for a work event the following week, and the timing couldn’t have been better; I stayed in central London with him for the duration, in an odd unreal bubble of suspended animation, and in that time my ex moved out fully.

My friend extended his trip in the wake of the breakup, for which I will be grateful forever. We travelled back to my flat together, and, seeing the space stark and half-empty, I cried. During that week, he helped me plan a flat that felt like mine, took me shopping for lights and coffee tables and clocks and all the things that were now missing from the space. He helped me choose and print out art to go on the walls. He helped me clean. Some time during the preceding week, the fridge had broken, and although I’d wanted to cook for and host him properly suddenly I couldn’t even begin to make plans. He cooked for me during that week, showed me recipes I could make myself when I was settled. I never expected any of this. He had planned it all.

He helped me make spreadsheets to keep track of my social life, to ensure I wasn’t spending too much time alone or neglecting people I love out of a fear of bothering them. He let me cry on him in the middle of the night and in the middle of the day. He pushed me to invite a mutual friend over for dinner; my first dinner guest, I think, since I first moved here three years ago, during that week.

Everything felt new, and I felt — I still feel — supported and loved in a way that I had never previously thought I deserved. I feel incredibly lucky to have a friendship like this, I know that many, many people don’t, and I want to reach a point of stability where I can both connect so deeply with other friends, and take on that role of helper for them when they need it and might not think to ask.

I ended that week full of hope for the future. It’s been much, much tougher since that transitional period, since I’ve been here truly alone, but I’m trying really, really hard. Everything on my list of plans is both more difficult and more important now, and even though I expect to fail over and over as I work through it it doesn’t make it any less painful when I do. I feel as if my mind and my heart need to catch up with everything that’s changed around me, and I’m not there yet. But I have the best toolset I’ve ever had, better than I could ever have imagined, better than I could ever have put together on my own.

I’m trying. And the point of all of this was always to try.

The idea of formalising and making oneself accountable for a life change was something I picked up from Dottie James on YouTube, who was presented to me by an algorithm and whose ‘Trying Change’ project I found interesting. My situation is a little different from Dottie’s, and while her project was a useful springboard for me, this is something I need to find my own way through, not only because we’re all different, but because, specifically, of how I’m wired.

Late last year I was diagnosed with severe inattentive ADHD. Early this year I was diagnosed with what would once have been called Aspergers but is now referred to as simply autism spectrum disorder, or ASD.

The former is a disorder of executive function: time-management, organisation, attention, emotional regulation. When interested, I have intellectual and creative superpowers. When disinterested, I exist in total inertia. These traits have been screamingly obvious to everyone around me my entire life, but as a girl growing up in England in the 90s nobody knew about ADHD. I always thought it was invariably a disorder of hyperactivity alone. It isn't.

The latter is murkier to me. My interests are intense; so, so intense. They have saved me from the inattention that descends on me when bored. They have allowed me to succeed academically. I am an expert pattern-finder, particularly verbally; I’m not so good at non-verbals (I am not the stereotypical ASD person who doesn’t understand wordplay or verbal sarcasm; I love both of those things, and have consciously collected and learned them since childhood, although I am gullible and easily tricked by sarcasm if I’m not looking out for it). I am told my social interactions are unusual. I still don't fully understand how. I know that I struggle to maintain friendships; that I can act and let my hyperactive tongue run away with me and be the quirky eccentric, but that when people realise that's a permanent state, they begin to leave. But I'm not sure anyone I know would have placed me on the spectrum if asked. Many of the late-diagnosed women on the spectrum I know worked out for themselves they were autistic, then went to seek diagnosis. I didn't have the self-awareness for that. The label was thrust upon me and I'm still making sense of it.

What I do know is that I am more sensitive to the sensory world around me than I think I realised. I had always thought I was simply overreacting — to pain, to heat, to touch, to sound — but I have been encouraged to explore modifying my environment and I am finding that it affects my comfort and energy levels and mental health more than I could ever have imagined.

ADHD and ASD interact in strange ways. I am terrified of change and thrive on routine but struggle to impose and maintain it. I create environments which are intrinsically stressful to me simply through disorganisation. I am extroverted and delighted by social interaction but rapidly exhaust myself and need more alone time than many people I know to balance it. I am only now beginning to admit these things to myself; that they are real, and not just grounded in laziness or stubbornness or being a bad person.

What all of this means is that change is perhaps more difficult for me than for others, in multiple ways, simply because of how my brain works. I need to be stricter with myself; I need to try harder. But I also need, perhaps more than most other people, comfort; an environment that allows my brain to work at its best. I need tidy and secure and the right kind of light and the right kind of sound and enough rest, but not too much. And to impose that reliably...I need to try harder. And I need to let go of my self-consciousness, handed to me over three decades, over needing things other people don’t.

I am now on ADHD medication, and while initiating tasks, managing time and my emotions, and concentrating on things I’m not interested in still (as far as I can tell) appear harder for me than others, the difference is incomparable. But I’ve gone my entire life with no ability to plan or organise or initiate. I’m out of practice. I’m learning from scratch. I am also in therapy with a therapist who seems to understand the sensory world better than I do. Who asks me what I need and doesn’t berate me when I say I don’t know but is trying to help me work out what those needs are, after decades of denying that I had them at all.

It’s going to take time. But I need to try.

I'm changing my life because I need to, because I have to, because I'm stuck.

I'm a mess. That's okay. What's not okay is that I'm not happier.

I've struggled with being a person my entire life. I'm clever, I'm quick, I'm talented, at times terrifyingly so. I'm incredibly creatively prolific, I'm a graduate student staying afloat. From the outside, my life looks pretty enviable, I think. I'm getting better at acknowledging that.

But the daily life activities other people consider basic, and my relationships and friendships are in a perpetual state of descent into chaos, and I want to try harder to make them better.

I want:

  • To form and maintain meaningful, supportive, energising friendships
  • To get better at saying no
  • To get better at asking for things
  • To re-evaluate my relationship. I don't think I'm ready to talk about what this means yet.
  • To keep in contact with my family
  • To clean my house
  • To streamline my possessions
  • To cook more (or at all)
  • To become grounded enough in my body to recognise my physical needs
  • To stop using other people as a barometer of my worth
  • To work consistently on my thesis
  • To work outside my house more
  • To know and respect my own physical and mental limits, without being afraid of them.

I feel stuck, and I want to move forward. I want to always be moving forward.