The GTD Bullet Journal experiment

5 minute read

A few weeks ago, two of our officemates (this guy and this guy) did a Level Up Lunch on visual notetaking and the Bullet Journal technique.

I like to think I am someone who seriously get things done, but I have to admit I was struck by the simplicity and clarity of the system and the possibility that even while I am great at getting things done with Taskpaper, I do recognize that I still pile things into and roll things forward into future weeks arbitrarily, often just removing the problem I had with days getting overloaded with other systems, to future weeks with Taskpaper. I really liked the idea of the Monthly versus Daily calendaring, as well as the Event logging that seemed inherent in bullet journaling. And, well… it’s always good to shake things up, so I decided to take the plunge. I’m on the cusp of the 45 day mark, so I felt I should share my findings so far.

On the basis of the guys’ recommendations, I ended up grabbing some of the beautiful Rhodia A5 webnotebooks with grey dot grid. I highly recommend them, even though I was sceptical at first. It’s amazing to write in, the cover feels great and for some reason, the quality of it makes me be much more concise and prudent about what I write down (I’m sometimes using 3x5 cards for throwaway notes, I summarize and subscribe.).


For reasons I can’t grok, I do seem to be more productive with the bullet journaling. I keep a lot of balls in the air running our consultancy, and considering how many other GTD systems I’ve tried, if this month is not anomalous for some reason (and it seems just as insane as most, if not a bit more so), I’d have to say it’s also allowing me to better balance work and personal life. Does it reduce stress-levels? Too soon to tell, and it’s possible I don’t trust it enough for its flaws (which we’ll speak about below), but it has made me also think deeply in terms of what I’d want in an electronic tool which could manage a number of other things and where even the mighty Taskpaper falls slightly short.

My evidence for increased productivity is that not only have I managed to keep up with tactical/operational day-to-day work tasks, I’ve also managed to free up time to get longer term strategic and long-running tasks done in the past month. It certainly surprised me how many more as well. I also seem to have had more time for reading, writing (witness this blog post, for example), Mandarin and guitar which I’m going to put down to simply being that much more productive within the constraints I need to get stuff done (again, more indicative at the moment rather than proven and I did do a bit of a scheduling reboot where I started slotting time chunks for things like guitar and Mandarin practice.)

So, what is working and what isn’t?

Things That Work Well

  • Separating out Month goals (and events) from Daily tasks (rather than focusing on my weekly bundle with Taskpaper) lets you see how much strategic progress you’re making separately. Really makes you see if you’re really making progress on things or simply grinding dailies.
  • Counterintuitively, rolling over daily tasks manually actually makes you more productive by having you reflect on them which makes you prioritize, rethink, cull or kill them outright
  • The combination of event logging, note-taking and task management is vastly more powerful than simply managing todos and, it would seem, more effective
  • Arbitrary metadata you can add is surprisingly powerful (I also sketch little diagrams/cartoons for effect and to amuse myself.).
  • Capturing on only the essence of important things on a daily basis, especially in note taking in meetings allows you to focus on decisions, actions, requests/tasks and delegations, is both more effective and also helps me remember the other things in the meeting better (while discarding minutiae)

Things That Don’t Work

  • Bullet journaling fails utterly on the planning of future tasks. I need a way to have some sort of Tickler system for things that need to happen in the future
  • No easy way to search, index or rearrange information other than the way in which it is presented (something I love about Taskpaper with its comprehensive filtering/searching)
  • Related to future planning and ticklers, followups are equally impossible and something I am still adding into Taskpaper (and I hate keeping 2 books)
  • Delegation is quite difficult. While I’ve come up with a system as to who had something delegated to them and when, the same lack of a tickler system causes issues.
  • Not having things in a digital and backed up form makes me uneasy. Also, paper journals do not seem as future proof as Taskpaper and the other plain text systems on the computer I have

Things I’ve Learned

Busy is not productive. I feel like I’ve got a number of things done this month that I’m not sure would have been as easy to accomplish with my Taskpaper system, as easy as it is to use and with the advantages it has to convey. There is something to the separation of tasks and especially the manual rollover that seems to make things work

I have a number of systems on my machine currently, which I’ve largely reduced to plain text systems, both for their ease of manipulation and for the fact that, regardless of which programs I’ve used, I get increasingly annoyed a few years down the line when the new hawtness is no longer around, I need to migrate, export/import or whatever and don’t have a sense of being able to look back easily. Obviously, this is something that a paper journal does well, but it’s made me wonder how extensible that system would be to other things (besides Taskpaper, I also use a plain text journaling system called jrnl with editing in vim for both daily tracking/logging, and a more long form journal. Could these be reconciled with a better electronic journal task manager? (or would it simply be doomed to mediocrity trying to do too much? How extensible would a simple screen-a-day system be for doing something.

At the start of the year, I had set myself the idea of re-implementing Taskpaper on the terminal along with some additional features I wanted. Working with Bullet Journaling has essentially taught me that the original interface I had been thinking of, effectively something much like Taskpaper, was probably wrong, and that I really may want something closer to a day by day journal that has event, tasks management and collection planning features. Hard to say.

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