Just a Notebook and a Pen

We’re all looking for the perfect solution to our time management woes.

For any time management system to be truly effective, it needs to do two things:

  1. Provide value to your personal & working life, taking into account your unique circumstances and style.
  2. Be enjoyable and easy to use.

If it doesn’t check off those two boxes, it will eventually be a drag to manage — and you’ll end up abandoning it. There isn’t some magical system that will work for everyone. What works for me might not work for you, or anyone else. Heck, it’s downright likely it won’t.

When the topic of time management comes up, most people think of apps like Things and Omnifocus. It’s understandable; apps touch almost aspect of our lives.

It’s boring, but I’ve often eschewed those tools in favor of a simple notebook and pen. Over the last few months, I’ve adopted a variation of the popular Bullet Journal system. I discovered it back in April and it’s been fantastic for not only managing my time but also taking notes and journaling.

At its core, the Bullet Journal is a set of guidelines for turning a notebook into an ideal planner, diary, and calendar. It’s a great starting point if you’re someone who:

  • Has a bunch of to-do lists and sticky notes hanging around.
  • Loves the tactile feel of using paper and a pen, or is obsessed with stationary.
  • Enjoys the idea of using a planner, but hasn’t found one that fits their style.
  • Likes the idea of keeping a diary, but doesn’t know where to start.

The best part of the Bullet Journal system is just how boring it is. There’s a lot of hype online. A quick look through Google or Instagram reveals countless photos of beautiful notebooks filled with flowery calligraphy and illustrations.

Ignore all that.

For some, Bullet Journaling is an excuse to create the most beautiful notebook social media has ever seen. But it’s missing the point. Keeping a paper notebook has drastically improved my productivity.

It might do the same for you.

If you’re like a visual introduction to Bullet Journaling, check out this video. But here’s the basics:

  • Your first two-page spread is your index. You’ll use it to write down topics & page numbers, for easy reference later.
  • The next two-page spread is an overview of your entire year, split into months. Here, you record important dates and events.
  • At the beginning of each month, you transfer the month’s events & tasks onto a single page.
  • Each day, you record your appointments, tasks, and notes in bulleted lists. Each item gets a different type of bullet, depending on its type.

As you attend meetings and complete tasks, you put an X through their respective bullets. Can’t get to something that day? Put a > through the bullet, to remind you to migrate it to the next daily entry. Not going to do it at all? Cross that sucker out entirely.

As I progress through my day, I also jot down quick notes using a dash bullet (“-“).

That’s it! Okay, that’s mostly it. There are other nuances you don’t need to know about to get started.

It’s such a simple system, it’s almost strange to give it a name. But that’s the beauty of it. Having a strict system to follow can actually help you get started — not hinder you.

Since I started following the Bullet Journal system, I’ve expanded my notebook to include pages dedicated to tracking my weight, happiness, money sent, and more. Bringing those seemingly disparate pieces of information into one place — my notebook — has given me a better view on my life & productivity than I’ve ever had before.

Oh, and don’t feel like you have to go completely analog for this to work. My events and appointments still live in my digital calendar. So, why do I continue to write them down each day?

Mostly, because I enjoy it! It helps me feel a sense of ownership and control over my time. Not to mention, studies suggest we might remember things better when we physically write them down — a change I’ve definitely noticed in my own life.

And it’s harder to get distracted, using a notebook and pen. If I need to make a note of something, I can flip open my journal without getting distracted by Facebook, Twitter, or whatever else.

A Bullet Journal won’t replace your smartphone. Or your laptop. Or your calendar reminders. But, like me, you just might find it complements them in a useful way.