by Jakob Hutter
Note taking may seem like a simple task of processing information and writing down ideas, thoughts, and other important information any time. However, it earnestly takes skill, time, and effort to be able to later retrieve this information and use it for impactful decision-making requirements or effective communication. Despite the digital methods of note taking available, pen and paper continues to serve humanity well.
Over the last few years, and largely through trial and error, I finally found a system of journaling that allows me to plan, track, and organize my life. This system, commonly known as Bullet Journaling, utilizes bullet points (hence the name) as its main structure. Created by digital product designer and author Ryder Carroll, the Bullet Journal method is an efficient way to track the past, organize the present, and plan the future.
If you take a few minutes to google this method, you’ll see plenty of images that may leave you feeling overwhelmed and anxious. However, these images are usually stylistic interpretations of the method and are not necessary for someone looking to begin their bullet journaling journey.
To begin, you will want to get a notebook to fit your needs. I recommend a Leuchtturm 1917 dotted notebook because of its usefulness in customizing different layouts. Additionally, since it is about the same size as the military green notebook, it also serves as a convenient size for carrying throughout the day. Once you have your notebook, you will then want to start creating your index and key.
The index allows you to quickly provide a brief description and page number for quick and easy reference. The key also serves as a quick reference to the various symbols that you plan on using throughout your notebook. This can include dots (·) for tasks, circles (Ο) for events, triangles (∆) for appointments, and even color codes. However, you should feel comfortable annotating your key in a way that works within your preferences.
Throughout the next couple of pages, you will then create the future log. The future log serves as your calendar of events over the next year. Just like any other calendar you may have, use these pages to annotate personal events like birthdays, holidays, trips, appointments. Professionally, you can track inspections, paydays, leave, and goals.
Once you have completed your future log, it is then time to create your monthly log spread. When it is time to get to the current month you are starting at, this layout will typically include a traditional calendar layout or a running list of events on one page. For example, with the additional space that I have using the traditional calendar layout, I have space to list major tasks to accomplish that month, personal goals, financial budgets, and miscellaneous events occurring over the next month.
The heart of your bullet journal should be the daily log. Each day you create a list using the symbols you identified in your key. This typically will include bulleted lists of tasks to complete, events schedules, and notes to write down throughout your day. I dedicate a couple of pages for each day, with the left side serving as my daily spread as described, and the right side as a notes page when attending meetings or other conversations that I want to recall later.
Since the bullet journal method is designed to be completely customizable, I have included some other layouts that can be helpful:
Books Read: Throughout the year, I like to keep track of the books read or audiobooks listened to. It is a great motivator to see the list accumulate over time as I meet personal reading goals. Plus, it is fun to take some time at the end of the year to reflect on everything that I have read and listened to.
Bill Tracker: In tracking my finances, I dedicate a few pages to record bills to see how certain expenses vary over time. This allows me to keep track of all the expenses I have with my wife and ensure all are paid promptly. You can also create spreads that track expenses, savings, and debt over time that align with your personal goals.
Weekly Spread: At the end of each week, I begin preparing for the next week using this spread. I have found that this provides an opportunity to add more detail into entries that may not be visible in the monthly spread. Additionally, it provides the ability to move or migrate any tasks that were not accomplished the previous week.
Habit Tracker: Since you will most likely carry your bullet journal around with you, it can be helpful to detail any habits that you want to intentionally be accountable for. Personally, some habits I tracked include exercising, reading thirty minutes a day, and drinking water. Checking my progress throughout the month allows me time to reflect on my progress and adjust, if needed, the next month.
Recommendations: Everything that I have mentioned thus far will be towards the front of my bullet journal or close to the monthly spread. Normally, however, I maintain a recommendation layout in the back of my notebook. Whether it is from something I see online or through face-to-face conversations, I enjoy hearing from others on things they are reading, listening to, or watching. For example, if a Soldier is talking about a book that they are enjoying, I will take a few moments after that interaction to write it down and potentially add it to my recommended books list.
While I have shared the key elements and some optional layouts that I have found work for me and align with my goals, it is important to also share some of the benefits that I have learned using this method.
First, and despite the initial learning curve to master the process of bullet journaling, it can potentially save you time in the long run. As mentioned previously, this method is great for the practical and flexible ways it can meet individual needs. The bullet journal method serves as a deliberate tool to get things out of your head and track them systematically. This further allows you to focus on potentially more pressing issues that are occurring.
Second, the functionality of the bullet journal makes it a hybrid of other organizational tools you may already be using. Using this method can allow you to maintain one source as a calendar, tasks and reminders list, bill tracker, habit tracker, reflection journal, and more. Due to this, it can help physically declutter and make you more efficient.
In addition, it can inspire you to be more productive and motivated. Throughout each day, I have an easy-to-follow list of tasks that clearly define what I need to accomplish for that day. I feel accomplished being able to see all the work that I was able to complete by the time I leave work which, in turn, allows me to relax and spend quality time with my family. It can also be a nice way to identify the items that were not accomplished and make those more of a priority the next day.
Finally, it can serve as a very useful record to recall previous conversations, meetings, and other events. For those that enjoy history, being able to go through old bullet journals has been greatly beneficial for reflection and seeing change/growth over time. Through this system, I feel confident that I will reap the benefits in the future.
In closing, I will leave you with a final quote from Ryder Carroll, the method’s creator. In an interview, he describes bullet journaling as, “giving people an empty house that they fill with their own life. Only add what serves you and be patient with yourself to give yourself a chance.” Simply stated, allow yourself to test this method and see if it can work for you.
1LT Jakob Hutter is a Kansas Army National Guard logistics officer currently serving as a Forward Support Company Commander for the 1-108th Aviation Regiment in Topeka, Kansas. In addition, he also serves as the Kansas FLIPL Program Manager. He has a Master of Science in Organizational Leadership and received his commission from Kansas State University in 2016. He is passionate about the science of Army logistics, the art of military leadership, and combining both to provide effective sustainment.