Task Management & Bullet Journal

Confession: time management has always been a challenge for me. I’m easily distractable, and I’m exceptionally bad at attempting to do more than one thing at a time. When multiple “fires” get lit I lose most of my productivity on task switching and to overwhelm.

I’ve tried several time management apps for computer and phone. Yet, I always end up spending too much time fiddling with the app to try to make it work well, or forget to look at my handy computerized to list after I’ve typed it. For a while, I thought EverNote was going to be a winner. But I end up, every time, back with good old pen and paper to-do lists, and they work better than any app I’ve tried. I also remember the items on my task list better when I write them out by hand than if I type them. The act of writing helps with the transfer of information to long term mental storage.

I can’t remember where I first learned about Bullet Journal, but I suspect it was on Lifehacker or BoingBoing. I knew as soon as I watched the short video introduction by creator Ryder Carroll that this might be a system I could actually use. Bullet Journal works because it’s more than a task list. It provides a space to bring together tasks, meeting notes, reading notes, inspiration for future work and research, lists of various kinds, and questions that need answers. It’s also a hackable system, as the thousands of youtube videos about how people use and adapt it attest.

Here’s the basic system, as outlined in the introductory video:

1. Acquire a quad-ruled notebook, not too small and not too large. You want a notebook that’s compact enough to be carried with you, but not so small that you don’t have room to write. I use the 5″ x 8″ Moleskine, or a Moleskine knockoff when I can find one.
2. Number the pages. Without numbered pages, you won’t be able to find anything later.
3. On the first facing page, start an Index page. Being able to find all those notes you took and pages where you noodled on about a project idea you had is what makes the journal usable.
4. On the left side of the first two-page spread create a simple monthly calendar by listing the days of the month down the page, filling in the days of the week beside them. On the facing page, create a list of the tasks you know need to be completed in that month. Once this is done, note the starting page number for that month on your index page.
5. On the next two page spread, begin creating your daily calendar by writing the month and date, then listing under it the tasks and appointments for that day.

The symbol set is what makes these daily calendar pages easy to scan and mentally parse: squares for tasks, circles for meetings/appointments, an exclamation point for inspiration/short notes, an eye for notes about topics you want to explore more deeply.

These basic shapes can be annotated with stars or asterisks to indicate priority items. I added a symbol to mark personal items, so that I can combine my personal and work to do lists. With the symbol, I am able to easily find the items I need to based on where I am. Filling in half of the square on the diagonal marks partially done tasks. Any item that becomes irrelevant is struck through with a line.

At the end of the month, per the instructions from bulletjournal.com, mark through any tasks that have become irrelevant, place an arrow in the boxes for tasks that are moving forward to the next month, and update your index page.

Easy peasy.

I’ve been using a bullet journal for about a year, and I really love it. I’m happy to report that Eric and Scott have adopted it, as well, and seem to like it. A few things aren’t working for me, though, not because of bullet journal, but because of how I’m using it.

The journal is great for keeping daily tasks on the radar, but I’m finding that I’m not tracking longer term tasks as well as I’d like. The long term tasks associated with larger goals just never seem get moved from that beginning of the month task list onto the daily pages. I’ve also noticed that tasks not completed on any given page sometimes get dropped when that page is no longer in view.

The remedies for these issues are pretty simple. First, I need to apply agile methodology to breaking down my large projects (work and personal) into the smallest incremental tasks possible, just like I would if it were a large project to which multiple people were contributing. I’ve decided that I need a personal kanban board so that I have a clear picture of all the tasks associated with a project and the priority I’ve assigned to them, which task is in progress, which tasks are completed, and I’ve got the wall space in my cube picked out for it, since electronic, app-based kanban boards have proven ineffective for me, too.

Second, instead of waiting to transfer tasks at the end of the month, I’ve started transferring them when I turn a page. Tasks that are on my current two page spread, no matter what day of the month it happens to be, include any tasks that were left undone on the previous two page spread. The first time a task gets shifted, it gets marked with a star to make it a priority item. Tasks that are shifted a second time are examined for why they’ve ended up in “the procrastination pile,” which is a whole other blog post! The point is, if a task is moved twice, there’s a reason why it’s not getting done. I have to get to the bottom of it and either complete the task or delegate it or consciously decide that it’s not something that needs to be done.

The last benefit of bullet journaling is it forces me to pause at the end of every single day to set up the next day’s tasks and appointments. My mornings used to always start (OK, they sometimes still do!) in a rush of organizing my schedule for the day. It was stressful, ineffective, and created the feeling that I was always running to catch up with myself. By pausing at the end of each day to set the next day, I’m mentally prepared and ready to focus when I sit down at my desk, which is a much calmer and healthier way to approach my work.

Do you use bullet journal? I’d love to know what you think and how you’ve hacked it.

Ronda is the project management and training specialist for the SLab; the one who wrangles projects and helps SLab staff to find time and space to do their work; bringer of order from chaos; herder of metaphorical cats; a librarian by both training and inclination; fascinated by organizational and personal development; personal coach; comic book,…


  1. I’ve been using Bullet Journaling for ~2 years now. One thing about using a system such as the bullet journal, you have to keep in mind that no one system is perfect right at the start. As you have done, I’ve changed parts of it to suit my own needs. That’s the great thing about this system…it’s so easy for the system to evolve to what you need. For me, I find I still like putting my appointments on my phone (smartphones are smarter now than they were 2 years ago)…it’s something I always have with me and I can set audio reminders…which a paper journal can’t do.

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