I’ve tried many task management systems over the years, both online and offline, but no matter what the virtues of any given electronic solution, I’ve always found myself going back to pen and paper for the day-to-day tasks. The sheet of chicken scratch on the desk next to me just sings out to have its items checked off, and it’s harder to ignore than even an online system that nags me with alerts.
I also take notes by hand sometimes, or work out ideas in rough outline form by hand. Sometimes I just need to write things down to figure them out. Something about getting back in an analog state of mind changes the way I think about things and helps me amble through a problem in a way that doing the same task in a digital text editor doesn’t manage.
So over the years, I’ve wound up with todo lists and notes and scribbles all mixed in together on a single page of a legal pad. It looks something like this (a fake one I worked up to illustrate the situation, but very very close to reality):
See a todo list at the top, and then the uncompleted items shifted to another list below, all mixed in with random other notes. Using this method, when I wish to take more notes and need a new sheet, I lose my todo list. And when I’m really busy and having trouble making progress on my tasks, I copy and recopy from sloppy page to sloppy page with no sense of how my tasks are moving forward (or not) through my week.
Earlier this year, my task lists started getting really long (really annoying to copy and recopy as I punted items forward day to day), and I decided I needed a better solution. Enter the bullet journal, a sort of cultish analog thing-management system that uses simple notations and a dedicated task book for managing just this sort of information.
I almost didn’t look into the system because the name turned me off. It made me think of writing crummy 8th-grade prose for a participation grade about whatever my language arts teacher was forcing me to read. Or it sounded like some kind of therapeutic thing that just isn’t my style. Or it sounded like some kind of bullshitty capital-S System, which also didn’t seem like it’d be likely to be my style.
Only it is. Or, a modified version of it is. If you search the web for bullet journals, you will find a lot of really frankly impressive stuff. People devote hours and hours of their weeks to making their bullet journals lovely, and I’ll confess that I spent non-trivial amounts of time looking at examples of bullet journals and wishing I were more artistic. I bought a few different sorts of books to try bullet journaling in, and I also bought a little ruler for drawing a simple straight line at the top of each of my pages. I bought a set of colored pens (thinking to signify task types with color, which has tended to be a good signifier for me for this sort of thing) and a set of highlighters. The pens didn’t work so well, but I use the highlighters a little to help me understand task type (meetings are highlighted in blue, super high priority things in red, and that’s mostly it). I prefer checkboxes to the little dots that bullet journaling suggests, and initially I didn’t use any other of the fancy notations, though now, when I carry a task forward to another day, I do use the right-arrow to mark the task as processed (if not done). Sometimes when I’ve got a long list, I circle things that haven’t been marked as processed, to help them stand out. A sample spread for me looks something like this (also fake, but representative):
Nothing too fancy. In fact, it’s pretty sloppy. I don’t deserve to count myself among the ranks of true bullet journalers. But it works really well for me. I’ve been using the system for two or three months now, and I love it. No longer are my tasks mixed in with random notes. No more do I flip back and forth between notes and tasks I failed to complete yesterday. Tasks are in my task book; notes remain in my trusty legal pad.
Besides this separation of concerns, main features that are working well for me include load balancing my week and having a handy record of my work. When I review my prior week on Mondays to account for what I’ve been up to, I just flip back through five or six pages, and the highlights are all there. Sure, small tasks or conversations pop up throughout the day that don’t get recorded, but all the big stuff is there. Further, I have a sort of history of what I got stuck on. If I pushed the same task forward for several days, I can draw conclusions about the difficulty or importance of that task. Or, if I find myself pushing the same task forward several days, I may finally decide to highlight it in red to get the sucker off my list at last. Some people plan their weeks (or months, or even quarters or years) more carefully in advance, but I usually just try to end each day figuring out what I need to do the next day or carry forward.
This brings me to the other killer feature — load balancing. What frequently happens for me is that lots of unexpected things pop up over the course of a day or week. I’m asked to read (or write) a draft of something, or some unplanned meeting lands on my schedule, for example. Different things contend for my attention with different levels of urgency, and I push a lot of things forward. A Monday will often fill up pretty quickly, and what this system lets me do is see when I should try to get things done. If Tuesday is already getting pretty cluttered and Wednesday has one or two items but Thursday doesn’t even have a page header prepared yet, I might move a couple of lower priority Monday tasks forward to Thursday. This lets me reduce mental clutter for Monday (I mark them as processed with the handy > character) and keep working on the things that need to get done sooner without feeling overwhelmed by a long (and growing) task list.
Lots of people use bullet journaling for both work and home, for goal setting, list-keeping, event planning, etc. My home life consists mostly of hanging out with my family and reading books, so this isn’t something that has bled into my home life, but it’s been a really positive task management system for my work life.