A few years ago, I was having lunch with one of my (male) banker friends. Hearing about my life organization and how it all fitted together, he turned to me in awe (and some fear) saying “your life is like a domino, if one of the pieces falls, it all falls apart“. Little did he know the impact those words had on me. Probably said at the wrong time without him knowing, I felt suffocated in my domino, not in control, full of fear of what piece would fall next. I think he meant it as a compliment.
As I kept all the pieces up in my domino (or maybe not all at times), I knew I needed a system to help me. I always considered myself an organized person but the truth is, over the last years, I would forget things that were important to me, I would procrastinate on things I needed to do in favour of irrelevant stuff, I would really not feel in control.
By the Spring of my second maternity leave, I remember sitting at my dinner table with a notepad full of things to do. I was trying to live through all those things you plan to do when you “have time”. In case you did not know, that does not happen in mat leave but you still plan for it).
I was trying to prepare a change of school for Little Girl C and, I was preparing to return to work, managing the accounts of 2 houses in London and Lisbon and who knows what else. I remember the list was endless and it never ended. Each time I looked at it, I did not know when to start and I felt I was making no progress. Moreover, by then I had given up on having a to-do list for the charity. I was overwhelmed and in a panic that not even while I was off work I could feel in control.
How will I cope once I return to work?Me
The Bullet Journal
It took 6 months for me to find out. Not many pieces fell in the meantime, but I was struggling with the mental weight. In a dinner with my friend Madalena in January, she talked to me about this thing called the Bullet Journal. I was immediately interested. I was a bit scared about how pretty hers looked (I am not that artistic), and about the amount of time she seemed to spend on it, but the concepts hooked me up from the beginning.
That same evening I took the best of Amazon Prime and 2 days later I was starting my very first (and expect not the last) bullet journal. It was a 12£ experiment, and I did not know if it was going to work. But knowing Madalena, I figured this could be the right thing for me. I decided to commit to it, and just pull through the first month or two, even if it did not always seem to make sense.
The bullet journal was “created” by Ryder Carroll. You can see the basic video on their website about how to set up your first journal. However, it was their Instagram page that ended up making me take the experience to the next level and change my life with the “art of intentional living”.
The Basics of the Bullet Journal
Let’s start with the basics, what are the basic concepts around the bullet journal?
- A notepad, easy enough to carry around with you at most times. Discrete (or not) enough that you can have it open any time at home or work or the middle of your commute. Mine is pink, a conscious choice I made to deviate from my sober self;
- Numbered pages, which allow you to put everything in there, be it a calendar, notes about a book you read, your Christmas list or the meal plan. The benefit of numbered pages is that they come with a table of contents where you can easily list what is in your journal. That way you always know where to find the notes you wrote about fundraising 6 months ago or your list of book recommendations. There is no need to carry around multiple notebooks for different topics or to worry about bookmarks and such;
- A simple key, which allows you to daily mark your tasks as complete (“x”), moving to the next day (“>”), moving to another point in time later in the future (“<“), cancelled (strike out) and also priority (“*”). I admit that I use the later less. Every task is written in bullets when created, and then this key allows you to make your way through it
- A Future Log, which is a place where you lay out the next 6 months and the key things you need to see achieved over that time.
- For me, this was one of the most significant differentiating points. My to-do list used to be very long, a lot of times because of all the things I needed and/ or wanted to get done. But many things did not have to be done that day (or even that week) and were cluttering the list.
- With a Future Log, I can be realistic when I can do some more long-term things and plan accordingly, depending on what I know about that month. When I planned to do my carpet cleaning for the year, I decided August was the best time, so I put it on my list to get it organized in July and never thought about it again for the next 6 months;
- A Monthly Plan, which is where you lay out the month ahead and key dates/ events. You list all the tasks you want to get done that month.
- I started with a simple list, but now run a 4 buckets to-do list (in a single page). One for me, one for my family, one for UPG and one for ALG.
- This is the short and medium term list with all the tasks you have at hand. It will link closely with the daily log but it is a great source of information when you want to open a new day where you feel like you have a bit more time to get things done, as you can immediately refer to it.
- Also, when you open a new month, you will go through last month’s list and migrate all the tasks not completed into the new month (or just decide they are not important enough)
- A Daily Log, which is a place where you write down your to-do list, in bullets. I split it into “My Tasks” and “ALG/UPG Tasks” to keep it visually more organized for me. You may have 2-3 days open ahead, but not necessarily that much more. I find it helpful to have today and potentially tomorrow, but I no longer feel the urge to plan the entire week by the day. I know my tasks are on my monthly log, and I add to each day either new things that come up or things from the monthly log that I know I have time for. It is important to close every day by giving tasks as completed or migrating them, so you can always start the next day organized.
The concepts seem easy enough, the video is pretty self-explanatory, so how do you make good use of your Bullet Journal (aka “BuJo”)?
This is a 3 piece puzzle: plan, use and close
- I open my BuJo when I first sit down after dinner, to ensure I spend my free time intentionally. I may start with easy wins of admin that can get done, and it is in the charity that I most benefit from the planning. It is easy to get lost in a large number of emails I receive daily, news from the field, team interactions. However, I try and complete a few tasks first and then perhaps read emails as I get tired and before I head to bed (yes, the charity is my night job for those that did not know);
- Before I close my day I make an effort to quickly run through what I left open and I may start an easy log for the next day with what I did not finish or I make an assessment if the item is still due on my list and urgent, especially if it has been there for a few days or I clearly can tell I am procrastinating;
- When I first sit on the bus or tube in the morning, I open my BuJo to start my day with the right intention, knowing what I may have to deal with during the day and sometimes using a couple of minutes to plan on more long-term items.
Sara, really, how long are you spending on this journal?
If we exclude all the self-care bits I will talk about shortly, probably intentionally 5-10 minutes in the morning and in the evening as I close, and I have it open often to check on my next thing. Certainly much less time than what it is saving me.
I learnt about my limitations and about my priorities in a very visual way
- I learnt about the concept of over-scheduling very fast. When I did my first month in January, I had a large number of tasks put into every day. At the end of each day, I would invariably finish a few but most of them got “transferred”. As I got more disciplined I learnt that the 2 hours I give myself in the evening are just not possible for 10 things to get done (unless they are really tiny);
- I learnt about some things that are hard for me to start, so I started to break them into smaller tasks, so they feel less daunting and it stops me from procrastinating. A good example is the review of the charity project accounts files, which as much as I love doing frustrates me. Ideally, I would like to spend 2-3 hours in each file at any time and do it all in a row, as efficiency is lost, but I don’t have that sort of time so I don’t start it. And so now I don’t write “project accounts”, I actually pick a project to go through and start with that;
- I learnt about the concept of irrelevance or timing irrelevance. Over time there were multiple things that made it to my to-do list and just stayed there, never getting an “x” next to them. As I kept on adding “>” I got the discipline to challenge myself on whether this task was even something I needed to do. Many times the answer was no – and I crossed it out. Others it was “yes, but not now” – and I migrated it to a month where it would look more feasible. There is no excuse to say that we have no time. What it means is that it is currently not a priority, and that is why it is not getting done
Sara, really, did you finally stop trying to do everything?
No, not at all. The funny thing is that as I remove things that are cluttering my space, I no doubt add more than what I remove. In fact, I am doing so much more today than I was a year ago, including writing here and calling myself a writer. In public.
So is this it, a to do list that changed your life? That is kind of sad...
I hear you, but if you are not yet convinced, you are welcome to read a bit longer. The BuJo changed my organizational side, but the output was not about how much I got done.
My mental health was what was mostly impacted by my bullet journal, or shall I say my mental fitness? How so?
- Achievements: since the first month, I finish each month with “what I have achieved this month”. Following Shilpa’s advice, I decided I needed to pat myself in the back (a few times) at the end of each month. The timing coincided with me closing the month with a LOT of tasks incomplete. I knew I needed something to counteract my feeling of failure so I created my achievements list. These are grouped by my key buckets – home, family & friends, work, charity and self-care. I never stopped since, and this is one that certainly takes me at least 20 minutes each time. In a difficult month, it is even more important to get it done.
- Self Care Log: March was the Self Care Month for the BuJo community and some suggestions came up on Instagram about keeping a log of your self-care. Examples included emotional, personal, physical, social, professional, spiritual and environmental care. I thought this was much more than I could cope with, so I picked
- Emotional care: how do I feel 1 to 10 with a word to go alongside it
- Physical or self-care: do I go to the gym, do my nails or have any illness
- Relationship/ social care: do I see people outside work and home?
- Personal development: podcasts, books, writing, conferences or training.
- Family Log: Alongside the self-care log, I keep a family log, a column for Hubby B, a column for Little Girl C and one for Baby S. In there, I track their feelings but I also track important milestones. I now cope much better with the fact that I have barely made any progress on their baby albums in the last 6 months. I found a practical way to register when S has a new word or C has a special moment. One day, they will make it to a baby album, when I make it a priority.
- Goals: My monthly log now includes goals for each of my key areas: self, home, ALG or UPG. It is only 2 months old, but it is helpful as it is not the same as having a task that I fail every month and need to think on whether to tackle now or later. It is a goal that helps me prioritize my free time. Since I set myself a goal to read 1 book per month, I have actually done so. And in the new year, I have extended this further…
- Gratitudes: For over a year (I admit I lost track of time, could be two), I have written down daily gratitudes and shared with 2 of my close friends. We all aim to do it daily and we share it in our WhatsApp group. Doing it on the phone and sharing was the best way to get me into the routine of doing it. Whenever I spend too long not doing so, Shilpa always checks on me as she is certainly the best of the 3 in keeping with the routine. The peer pressure is great and the outcome is amazing. It is sometimes tough to find gratitude in difficult days. But it is exceptionally nice to reflect on the gratitude of a past day with joy. I have for the last month started writing these down on paper, together with my opening of the next day. I tend to do them in the morning, to start the day with a positive tone. (Many people do them in the evening). I love seeing them on paper on my Bujo (and I still share them on WhatsApp).
- Affirmations/ Intentions: This is a new area that I am testing, associated with the practice of being grateful. I seek to start my day with an intention or an affirmation about myself. I probably only do it half the days but I am finding the results truly impressive. In a particular tired morning, I wrote “I recognise that I am overwhelmed and tired today, as I have a lot to do. I will focus on a few projects and not be frustrated with the number of meetings preventing me from doing work”. It worked. Most times, it works.
When a wave of crime increased in the area, I have to admit that my first thought went to my bullet journal. Yes, I did love my Apple Watch and I did not want to lose my iPhone, in case my pictures were not all backed up. But my bullet journal held so much good information about me and my life that I would sometimes carry it in my hand on my way back from the car, in case someone wanted to take my bag. I have overcome this not, but it shows you the importance of the little pink book to me.
The Bullet Journal may be just a notepad, but it has truly made me intentional. It truly facilitates the concept of living my life intentionally. And I am grateful for that.