Bullet journalling without the bull: how I get absolutely anything done at all

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.

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.