In the never-ending quest to be more productive, many of us have turned to tech for help. The rise of productivity and self-improvement apps has been hard to ignore, and these days many people use multiple apps across their devices and wearable gadgets to keep on top of things.
But this surge in high-tech productivity tools is fueling a low-tech revival. Bullet journaling is a prime example of this – it’s an intentionally long-winded and manually intensive analog approach to time management. But beyond feeding off nostalgia for a slower pace of life, does bullet journaling actually work?
What is bullet journaling?
A bullet journal is basically an entire organizational system in a single notebook. You can use a bullet journal as a calendar and a diary, a brainstorming notepad and a to-do list. Because the pages are blank, you can use your journal in your own way, unlike journals with pre-printed pages. This flexibility is one of the reasons bullet journals have become so popular – because you can adapt them to the way you work. Some people fill their bullet journals with fancy lettering and visual flourishes, others prefer to keep it simple.
There is a general structure behind bullet journaling though, following this pattern:
- At the beginning of your bullet journal, you create an index for easy reference.
- You create a daily log, a monthly log, and a future log to list tasks, write notes, and create a minimalist calendar.
- You can log what you’ve have and haven’t done, and track anything you want – hours worked, miles run, units drank, hours slept, etc.
- Each month (or each week) you review everything you wrote, and if you haven’t achieved something, you either move it across to next month’s goals, or decide the task isn’t meaningful and cross it out.
Pros and cons of bullet journals
People who use bullet journals say it helps them achieve their goals, eliminate unnecessary tasks and declutter their mind – and this mindfulness aspect is another reason for the bullet journal’s popularity. It’s been called a mindfulness practice disguised as a productivity tool, and an easy way to focus on what’s important. Since bullet journals usually combine personal and professional tasks and records, keeping one can also give you a holistic view of your life and work.
But not everyone is a fan of bullet journaling. For one, they’re extremely time-consuming. You have to set up everything yourself – numbering each page, writing future logs, monthly logs, daily logs, keeping an index. The time used planning your journal and writing everything down could have been spent actually doing things, and it can turn into a form of procrastination.
Whereas most planners are straightforward, bullet journals introduce you to new concepts like logs, migrations, modules and collections, which can feel intimidating at the start and take a while to get used to – being so involved, adopting the approach becomes quite a commitment.
Alternatives to bullet journaling
Before pouring all your energy into one untested approach, it’s worth considering all the different options available to you. We all work in different ways, and while bullet journaling’s popularity is undeniable, it’s not for everyone. Luckily, if you want to become more productive without using such a long-winded system, there are many other options. Here are some of the most popular alternative methods for keeping track of your productivity, reflecting on your performance and recording goals and activities:
If you prefer writing things down by hand, you might want to consider keeping a work diary (also known as a productivity journal). Although these are still analogue, they’re less intense versions of the bullet journal. In a productivity journal you write out your goals, document anything important (e.g. how long a task took, what you struggled with, what you’d do differently next time) and then use these insights to improve. Writing things down can be therapeutic, and just like a bullet journal, many people who keep productivity journals believe it helps them clarify goals and focus their minds.
Time trackers create a productivity log of everything you do each day – down to the time you spend on tasks, apps, websites and projects. These insights help you build a more effective schedule – which time boxes tasks competitively and plays to your productive peaks – and review how you actually perform against your plan. Aside from saving you time, it creates a fully accurate account of your progress. Unlike journal records, automatic ones are completely objective; they reveal the intricacies of how you work, rather than how you think you work. This enables you to unearth any unconscious behaviors, distractions and processes that hold you back.
At the furthest end of the high-tech scale, there are apps which use AI to break down your productive performance for you. Smart tech like Dewo can assess the quality of your focus, highlighting how often you context switch and multitask, how much effort you waste on low-value email, chat apps and meetings, and how much productive “deep work” you actually get each day. Such apps can even actively help you protect your productivity, by automatically blocking distracting notifications when you enter flow states and scheduling meetings for minimal impact on available focused time.