There are plenty of productivity hacks that could help you stay on track of all the things you have to do, on both a professional and a personal level. You might have heard a lot about bullet journals lately, but you’re not really sure what they mean, how they can help you, and how you can get one started yourself. No worries, we’re going to clarify all that in a few minutes.
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The Magic of Bullet Journals
A bullet journal is basically a very complex notebook that helps you keep track of all aspects of your life. It’s a productivity hack created by Ryder Carroll, and one that is aimed at helping you keep track of stuff in your own way. There are certain elements that are specific to the concept of a bullet journal, but there is also a lot of wiggle room, as you’ll soon learn to understand.
Long story short, a bullet journal is a system that helps you keep track of everything. It can fulfill multiple roles at once and help you with a variety of different things. It can be a journal, a sketchbook, a brainstorming pad, a personal and business calendar, and more.
Even before we know the concept of a bullet journal existed, we’ve been tracking things using writing tools, pieces of paper, memo notes, sticky notes, phone apps, and the like. Whether it’s a grocery list that you have to put together or the financial goals for the upcoming month, people are no stranger to bullet-point lists. As the creator of the bullet journal himself described it, “it’s an analog tool to track the past, organize the present, and plan for the future”.
Elements of a Bullet Journal
While you can purchase a notebook that’s designed specifically to serve as a bullet journal, you can do this with pretty much every empty notebook. However, for the purpose of the bullet journal to make even more sense, we’re going to have to talk about the key elements and describe their role, so that you can gain a deeper understanding of why this analog system has proven itself efficient for so many people.
The index will basically be the first pages of your bullet journal. You can think of the index as a table of contents for your bullet journal. This is where you can number the pages, create a list of the main entries in your journal, and even continue adding more information to the index as soon as you also add it to the other pages inside this planner.
The future log basically represents a list of all the things that you have to do for a predetermined period of time, like for the next six months, for example. You can basically divide the page into even spaces that will allow you to create to-do lists for the upcoming months. Once you’ve created the outline for your future log, you can go back to your index and record the page numbers so that you’ll always find the future log with ease by simply consulting the index.
Move onto the next two blank pages and label them with the current or upcoming month. The page on the left will be your calendar. At the beginning of each row, you can write down each of the dates in that current month. Then, next to them, add the initial of each date. If you have May 1st falling on a Friday, you can just write “1 F”, while “May” will be written at the top of the page.
The right page will serve as a monthly task list. It basically serves as a support for you to write down all the tasks that you have to accomplish that month. In the spirit of the name of this productivity hack, you can add a bullet point before each task that you write on this page. When you have created the outline for the calendar and written down the tasks you have to see through, number these two pages and then go back to the index to add them.
Move on to the next two empty pages, as this is where you’ll start recording your daily log. You will basically have to write the current or next-day date at the beginning of the page and start documenting all your tasks for that day. Each task should have a bullet point before it, and make sure that you formulate the task in a clear, simple, and short sentence.
But there’s a catch: each of the entries that you write in your daily log will have a different sign before it, showing that you’re classifying each of the tasks into a different category:
- Every task will have a simple bullet point at the beginning of the line.
- Every event will have an empty circle at the beginning of the line.
- Every note will have a dash at the beginning of the line.
The purpose of this labeling system is to help you quickly scan the tasks, events, and notes that you record during the day, so you can find information faster whenever you need to. Also, you can place a star at the left of the task if you need to label it as really important. The creator of this bullet journal system labels stars as being signifiers, signs that add additional priority information to a certain task. This can also be scaled up to cover a yearly log.
A collection is basically a list of related tasks and notes that are organized in a more efficient manner. To create a collection, turn to two blank pages and name them with a specific topic. This is where you’ll be documenting the related tasks and notes by simply copying them onto these pages. Number your pages and add the collection to the index, so you can find it easier when need be.
Making the Best of Your Bullet Journal
Now that you know what are the core items that lie at the backbone of this productivity hack, it’s important for you to know how these elements work together to create a more efficient version of yourself.
Let’s assume May’s almost ending, and that you’re ready to set up your monthly and daily log for June. As you are ready to set up your tasks, review the month of May and all its daily tasks to see if there are any of them you haven’t completed. You can mark with an X all the tasks that you’ve completed and then pay close attention to the tasks that you haven’t yet finished.
You will have to assess each uncompleted task and determine if you really want to move it on to the next month. You may discover that some of the tasks you’ve been postponing aren’t really that urgent, and sometimes not even worthy of your attention. Should you discover that a task isn’t worthy of more time, simply strike it out and never look back again. The tasks that you still want to see through can have two different signifiers:
- The tasks that you haven’t completed and want to get through to next month can be labeled with a right arrow. All of these tasks should be copied into the new monthly log that you’re just putting together.
- The tasks that you haven’t completed yet and would like to do sometime in the future, but not next month, can be labeled with a left arrow. Think about what month you’d like to handle these tasks, and then move to the future log and copy them into the corresponding month. Caroll calls this process “migration” and it is designed to help you focus on the unfinished tasks that still matter in the near future, helping you make sense of the clutter and make you be more efficient with next month’s planning.
When you have related tasks and notes that go together, you want to create a collection for each of these. These are great for keeping track of several things that you have to do in order to achieve one bigger goal. For instance, you can make a collection for a certain DIY project, or use a collection to put together a shopping list. It works for personal and business-related problems, and might also work for staying on top of expenses and financial goals.
What Is a Habit or Goal Tracker?
A habit tracker is exactly what it sounds like: a way for you to make yourself accountable for all the things that you have to do during a day. It also helps you track goals for the entire week or the current month. It is a great way for you to establish your priorities and make sure that you always know what you have to do, while also making you feel a little bit responsible for seeing everything through.
A habit tracker can be a major productivity hack if you have a little bit of willpower and are willing to take the time to really organize your tasks. It is no secret (and no shame) to be aware of the fact that we all need some help tracking our habits and learning how to hold ourselves accountable for the things that we really want to accomplish.
Whenever we try to employ a new habit or let go of an old one, we sometimes set unrealistic expectations. For instance, if you’ve been drinking soda every day for the past 10 years, giving up soda all of a sudden might not work for you, so you’ll have to set lower and more realistic goals until you finally get that soda-drinking need out of your system.
If you spend most of your days sitting on a chair at work/at home, it will be difficult to go to the gym seven days a week starting next month. A habit tracker is going to keep you accountable for your habit goal, but also put you into that mindset of having more realistic expectations.
Why Is a Habit Tracker Beneficial?
But, what to track, you ask? To those who have never used a habit tracking system, it might seem futile to actually write down your habit-related goals in a layout like this because they think they always have them in the back of their minds. Those people might not be aware of why just a tool would be beneficial, so here are some of the reasons why habit trackers are awesome:
- When you are trying to adopt a habit, it is very easy to forget to do it. They say that you “can’t teach an old dog new tricks”, but that’s because they’ve done things differently their entire lives. Some of that is still true when it comes to people as well. A habit tracker will act as a constant reminder that you HAVE to act. Using a particular set of visual cues, people learn to see habit tracking as achievements, kind of like the ones you unlock in games. Research also suggests that people who keep track of their goal by writing them down are more likely to act upon them compared to those who don’t.
- Habit trackers keep you going. Let’s make a parallel comparison here. How does it feel when you read a book in electronic format as compared to reading an actual hardcopy? There are plenty of people who love regular books because turning the pages is a cue that makes them feel like they’re actually progressing through the story. The same mindset can be applied to habit trackers. Looking at what you’ve done and what you still have to do is going to boost your motivation. When you see what you’ve accomplished, it feeds your ego and makes you want more. That’s just how humans work: progress can be addictive as long as it feels palpable.
- They act as a constant reminder that you are moving forward. You can think of habit trackers as motivational sticky notes that you’d leave for yourself all around the house. When you’re trying to let go of an old habit or adopt a new one, it’s very easy to lack the motivation to do what you have to do on some days. Habit trackers will basically remind you how far you’ve come.
- They provide instant gratification. Every time you’ve done something that contributes to that habit and you are ready to cross it off the list, you start to feel immediate satisfaction. Marking your completed routine with an X on the calendar is a palpable reward that tells you you’re one step closer to your goal.
- Last, but not least, habit trackers allow you to stay honest about the things you can and can’t achieve. As we’ve set before, we tend to set unrealistic expectations. With a habit tracker, we can get a better sense of what we can actually accomplish without putting too much mental strain on ourselves.
What Habits Should I Track?
What makes the habit tracker a really amazing tool to work with is the fact that you can set realistic expectations related to the habits and ideas that you want to pick up let go of. Let’s assume for a few minutes that you want to create a habit tracker because you want to adopt a healthier lifestyle. That would assume, for instance, that you want to eat healthier (we’ll label that with an F for food), go to the gym more (we can label that with G for gym), and get at least seven hours of sleep each night (which we can label with an S for sleep).
There are great pre-made templates you can find online, but sometimes it’s best to start from scratch so you get that custom feel. To start creating your habit tracker, you want to start off by making a monthly log, writing down the date and the initials for the weekdays next to the corresponding date. On the bottom of the page, write the keys that you need to keep track of (in this case, it would be F, G, and S). If there is any collection that you want to create that’s related to one of these habits (like a list of food that you’re planning to add or eliminate from your diet), you can add the page of that collection next to the key of the habit in question.
Next up, copy the key to the name of the month. You basically write FGS at the edge of the page, on the same row as the month, leaving room for calendar events. Then, add a task bullet for each day of the month, considering on which days you have to do that task in order to stay on track. For instance, if you only want to eat healthier from Monday to Saturday, and have Sunday as a cheat day, you will add six bullets under your F column, one next to each day so you have a weekly list.
Every time a day goes by and you have completed that task or seen that habit through, you can cross that bullet off with an X. Now, at the end of the week, you might notice that you left some bullets unmarked because you weren’t able to complete all of those tasks. Let’s say you had a really important meeting Friday morning and spent Thursday night awake to prepare a presentation. You didn’t get the hours of sleep you intended, meaning you can’t mark that bullet with an X on that specific day.
Consider Next Week
As you prepare to mark next week’s bullet, try to be more realistic and imagine what you could actually accomplish based on the results of the current week. If you know that you’ll have to stay up late on one night, it would be futile to assume you’ll actually get seven hours of sleep, so don’t mark that on your habit tracker. This part is super important and it’s actually the part where most people quit. Instead, you should set realistic goals for the upcoming week. Call them baby steps, if you will.
Breaking it Down
The mindset is basically this: instead of beating yourself up for what you didn’t accomplish, look at what you have accomplished and start next week’s goal with that. If you only ate healthy food 4/6 days this week, aim for the same four days next week as well.
But here is where things get a little more interesting. The page where you’re actually tracking your habit is designed to look like a monthly log. That means that you have a calendar that’s waiting to be filled with tasks. However, instead of using that space to write your tasks for the month, how about you use it to record important events that have happened.
Here’s how that works. Let’s assume that you didn’t sleep well Thursday night because you were up late preparing for a meeting. On that specific late, write down that you spend 5h on making a presentation. When you have a clear sense of what you did that pushed you back, you will get a better view of the big picture and correlate your habit tracking with what it is that’s keeping you off track.
Did you eat a burger on Monday night because you didn’t have time to cook? Mark that on your calendar. You didn’t get enough sleep and missed the gym the next day? Mark that on your calendar. The more you are able to identify what draws you back, the easier it will be to eliminate the distractions and setbacks that are standing in the way of you meeting your goals.
While this is almost everything you need to know about a bujo (bullet journal) and habit trackers if you want to implement such a productivity hack in your life, there is one more important question that we have to address before we close the topic: for how long should you track a habit? The scientific response is 66 days because that’s how long experts have discovered it takes to adopt a new habit. However, the answer is much more complex than that.
To know how much you’ll need to track a habit, you have to understand what your mechanism of dealing with habits is in general. Is something a habit once it becomes automated? Once you can remember to do it even without writing it down? Is there a specific goal you’d like to reach and then stop? The answer is totally up to you.