What bullet journaling can teach you about using to-do list apps

On July 6th of this year, I officially ended my three-year experiment in trying to organize my life using a physical bullet journal. I know the exact date because I’m looking at my expired notebook as I write this. Apparently five months ago I needed to take photos of the Corsair K70 keyboard for an upcoming review and follow up on a quote I had received to insulate my ceiling. I took the pictures. I didn’t end up insulating my roof.

Since then, I’ve used Notepad to jot down things to remember here and there, but when it comes to keeping track of daily tasks and to-dos, I’ve switched back to the same collection of different notes and to-do list apps that I Used three years ago. These include Notion for long notes and lists, Apple Notes for when I need something immediately, and Todoist for to-do lists and reminders. But even though I’ve ditched the physical notebook for apps, I don’t think bullet journals are a waste of time. In fact, I think my experiment taught me an important lesson about how to stay organized digitally.

Bullet journals can be either physical or virtual (like with this Notion template), but they’re best known as a way to organize a blank notebook into a personal planner. There are page formats for your yearly, monthly, and daily tasks, a methodology for weaving your to-do list between them, and a variety of common symbols and notations to make sense of it all. Ultimately, it’s all in the service of giving you a format to design your own planner and flexible rules for how to use it.

There’s a lot of potential complexity, and people like to lay them out in different ways, but my basic approach each day was to print out the list of tasks, manually copy over anything incomplete from previous days (aka “migrate” them), and tick off each task as the day went on. Some people like to copy over tasks on a weekly or monthly basis, but daily was what worked for me.

The bullet journal’s core is practical, but I was also drawn in by the aesthetics. YouTube is filled with videos of people painstakingly posting them, filling them with delicate illustrations and little visuals that they slowly fill up over the course of the year. I dreamed of having a little notebook filled with neat handwriting and maybe a sketch or two, like those Naughty Dog have their main characters with in their games. I imagined my bullet journal to be as much a scrapbook of my daily life as it was an organizer.

The reality of my truly terrible handwriting meant this never really happened, but that didn’t stop my notebook from becoming a half-decent planner. Important emails were jotted down instead of being marked as unread, upcoming articles were categorized with deadlines and priority levels, and I assigned myself chores on a regular schedule instead of a chaotic ad hoc basis.

But most importantly, this was all done manually, rather than having an app’s internal logic whisk tasks back and forth. Every morning I would be forced to spend a few minutes writing out and prioritizing the day’s tasks – and counting what I couldn’t do yesterday. You’ll be surprised how quickly you get around to doing a non-urgent task after forcing yourself to write it out every day for a week. Other times, I realized that something that seemed very urgent when I first wrote it down wasn’t worth going through when I looked back on it the next day.

Having to manually print out each task transformed a to-do from something I could just file away in an app and forget about to something I had to manage on a daily basis. I had to actively prune and prioritize and think about the tasks that former Jon had overwhelmed current Jon with. did I really need to buy a new pair of suit trousers with no formal events on the immediate horizon? And isn’t it time I let go of the terrible blog post idea? In each case, forcing myself to only think about what was on my list inevitably made it more manageable.

Having to carry around a physical notebook sucks

It wasn’t that I got tired of writing, but eventually I got tired of carrying around a physical notebook. A friend reminded me of a movie I wanted to see while we were at the pub, and I had to jot it down in a note-taking app before transcribing it into my physical notebook later. Or I pass a grocery store on the way home and don’t have my physical shopping list with me. Eventually the lure of keeping things digitally on my phone and with me at all times became too strong.

What I’ve since realized, however, is that it’s entirely possible to keep many of the things I enjoyed about bullet journaling without sacrificing the convenience of apps. Ultimately, what I liked about the notebook was less about its physicality and more about the fact that it forced me to spend real time actively thinking about and organizing my life on a daily basis. And it’s something that’s just as possible to do with an app as it is with a notebook. You just have to avoid thinking that technology can organize it for you.

Screenshots of Todoist's desktop and mobile interfaces.

a:hover]:text-gray-63 text-gray-63 dark:[&>a:hover]:text-gray-bd dark:text-gray-bd dark:[&>a]:text-gray-bd [&>a]:shadow-underline-gray-63 [&>a:hover]:shadow-underline-black dark:[&>a]:shadow-underline-gray dark:[&>a:hover]:shadow-underline-gray”>Image: Todoist

Now, instead of spending time writing out tasks each day, I instead take a trip through Todoist, prune old tasks, change due dates on others, and generally try to keep things tidy. I don’t have to fight my terrible handwriting, and I always have my phone on me when I need to jot something down later. I can still take advantage of the streamlined interface, but instead of filing and forgetting about a task, I force myself to keep track of it.

And while I don’t think I’ll ever find an app as aesthetically pleasing as a YouTuber’s bullet journal, that doesn’t mean I have to give up on pretty design entirely. I like the options Notion has here, allowing you to customize pages with elements like cover images and emoji. It’s enough to encourage me to start thinking of it as an ever-evolving scrapbook rather than a utilitarian collection of documents.

It’s easy to think that an app or to-do list service will take you by the hand and organize your life for you, but if you’re not careful, it can just become a never-ending digital closet with a messy collection of notes filed under “forget.”

I’m still tempted to give physical journaling another shot at some point, especially after scanning through a couple of beautiful bullet journal illustrations in the process of writing this piece. But for now, I’m happy enough to be back on the apps. They are far from the perfect solution, but I have learned that you get as much out of them as you are prepared to put in.

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