How to Use a Bullet Journal to Boost Your Productivity

This popular new pen-and-paper system can help you prioritize your to-do list and run your business more efficiently.
The Bullet Journal has become a small business. Here's how you can use it to make yours more efficient. (Photo: Becky Starsmore/Shutterstock)

The average person supposedly has some 70,000 thoughts per day. As a small business owner who wears many hats, you probably have more. Your to-do list and ideas for growth likely account for dozens or hundreds of them. Capturing it all and knowing where to start can be challenging, especially when there’s just too much going on.

Solution: a Bullet Journal.

It’s an old-school (pen and paper) system of organizing tasks, notes and events with new-fangled thinking behind it. It was developed by Ryder Carroll, a Brooklyn-based digital product designer who needed a way to keep himself organized. He created the Bullet Journal website to show others how he used his invention.

“I expected this to be for a couple people who are kind of eccentric like I am about organization stuff. It’s not like I’m hyper organized, I struggle with it, and that’s why I developed these tools. I offer the tools to others in the hopes that it will help. And apparently it does.”

The Bullet Journal system, aka #bujo, has attracted a devoted following.

The journal has four modules: an index (where you indicate the page numbers of all the other elements in your notebook), a future log (where you store “items that either need to be scheduled months in advance or things that you want to get around to someday”), a monthly log (consisting of a calendar and a task list), and a daily log (where you “Rapid Log” tasks, events and notes as they occur, for example, “Call mom” or “buy thank you notes”).

To organize related tasks and ideas, you’ll create collections (these can go wherever you like — any blank page). They are places you can jot down ideas on a particular topic in the course of the day, or organize monthly ongoing tasks for a specific project.

A key aspect of the system is the concept of migration — migrating ideas from your Rapid Log to your collections, from your collections into your monthly and daily calendars or from your calendars into the collections. As you go, you’ll check off tasks that are complete and strike out tasks that become irrelevant.

Carroll developed the journal to organize his personal and work tasks, but as the Bullet Journal took off, sharing his notebook became a small business all its own.

Here we share tips from Carroll on how to embrace the Bullet Journal system and how he uses it to help him run his own business.

Keep your collections broad but specific enough

“Collecting” your ideas offers two benefits. One, when you write a task down you’re less likely to forget it, and two, knowing that your idea is in a safe place, you can more easily focus on the task at hand, whether that’s serving a customer, placing an order or even getting a good night’s sleep.

According to Carroll, it’s best to keep your collections vague but not too vague. He uses collections called sales opportunities, art direction, marketing, potential collaborations, etc.

“I try to keep my buckets significantly general,” he said. “There are these very big things that always need to be addressed, and this way there’s always a backlog of those things to do.”

Keep bullets short

Bulleted items are short objective sentences, such as “Call vendor” or “Roger’s 5th work anniversary.” Instead of using a plain bullet for everything, Carroll uses a dot for tasks, an “O” bullet for events and a dash for notes. (Notes can be facts, ideas, thoughts or observations — but again, keep them short.) There’s a specific system for crossing them off.

Use threading

Threading is one of several “hacks” Carroll has integrated into his own notebook. Say you create a marketing “collection” on pages 14-20, but you fill up all the pages and continue that collection later on in the book. Threading is simply writing down at the bottom of the page the page number where that collection continues. For advanced bullet journalers, you can also thread notebooks.

“Some people create these very intense collections that they want to refer back to a couple of years later, so you indicate the notebook and the page number, and you can easily refer back to it,” he said. “It’s like adding hyperlinks to an analog notebook.”

Don’t focus on the artwork

An Internet search for “Bullet Journal” will turn up some pretty elaborate results — calendars decorated with drawings, diagrams and colorful pie charts. But Carroll cautions against spending too much time on the artwork.

“My concern is the people who start bullet journaling with the art, because the drop-off rate and the rate of failure is significantly higher.”

Put your name and number inside the front cover

The downside of using pen and paper: there’s no easy backup. Carroll said the journal should be a tool, something that you can sacrifice, not a precious object — but he still puts his name, phone number and a monetary reward inside the front cover.

“I lost a journal once coming into Grand Central in New York. And I was like, ‘Oh that really sucks.’ And then a week later I got a call from the lost and found at Grand Central saying they found my notebook. I didn’t even know Grand Central had a marble booth with a guy there. You’d be shocked at the stuff they’ve got — hundreds of suitcases and my little notebook.”

Let your notebook grow with your business

Carroll’s notebook has been “in development” for some 20 years. Early on, each new iteration had major innovations in terms of how he used it or how things were organized. As he refined the system over time, the innovations became smaller, but they never stop. Whether it’s creating a different set of collections or applying newly discovered “hacks,” your Bullet Journal should work for you, not the other way around.

“Every new book for me is a like a whole new ball game. I love that about it,” he said. “I can reinvent it every single time.”

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