Vicky’s bullet journal best practices (so far)

When I was in my fast-paced tech job and overwhelmed with shit to do, I became obsessed with time management systems. My first love was Getting Things Done by David Allen. It really helped me get through some crazy times but the process was pretty cumbersome and outdated (lots of calling people ON THE PHONE and filing papers in drawers). Over time I experimented with a bunch of different systems, including creating daily to do lists in every conceivable form — on paper, on the email I wrote each week to tell my manager what I was working on, on the giant whiteboard in my office, in Outlook using Tasks, or even creating an index-card-based Hipster PDA that was both incredibly simple and elaborate at the same time.

Then, early 2014ish, I came across bullet journaling.

Brilliant! I love that it’s entirely paper-based. That it’s simple. That you don’t have to fit your thoughts into preset templates and can write small or large or neat or messy and it still works. And I love that it has the potential to be beautiful.

I’ve probably completed four or five of these journals so far and over time have tweaked my usage from the original.

Here’s what it looks like for me today:

  • I use a single notebook for everything. Grocery lists are right next to notes on the paper I have to write for my boss. This felt weird at first but has helped me become so much better at managing my home life.  (The only exception is travel. For each trip I take I actually make a separate notebook. Tasks in these small notebooks are eventually transferred to my master notebook but the small travel book becomes a souvenir. Maybe I’ll do another entry on that some day.)
  • Every month I start with a simple printed out calendar and an updated to-do list. I find it too time consuming to draw in my own calendar, even though it’s much prettier that way. The to dos, as per the original bullet journal video, are a result of going through all of the tasks from the last month and transferring any that remain open to the new month. I almost always come up with a few more to dos during this process as I sort of clean out my brain. I mark each new month by washi-taping the edge of that page. That way it’s easy to find when I need to check on to dos or see the full month view.

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  • ​I start every notebook out with a six-month forward-looking spread. This is surprisingly helpful to me — when I start it’s usually mostly empty but as I go I add in trips and big deliverables and important events and that six-month time horizon helps me see big things on the horizon.

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  • ​I used to write notes on the books I’ve been  reading, but now that we’re using the Common Place Book, I probably won’t need to.
  • ​I tape in photos of things I love here and there, especially after I return from a trip. Sometimes they’re actual photos but more often they’re just basic color printouts from the office copier. Super easy to do and it brightens the notebook and reminds me of how beautiful the world is every time I look at it.

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  • ​I use the back of the book for master lists. Sometimes these are pages dedicated to coworkers where I keep a running list of things I need to ask that person about (I did this a lot when I managed a team). Sometimes I keep track of big projects and goals here — more often than not these are personal. For example, you know I have this goal to go to every National Park in the US? I write out the ones I still have to go to in the back of each notebook. I don’t often refer to it but every now and then it serves as a little inspiration in a boring meeting.

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  • I take copious notes during meetings or when reading work documents. Sometimes they look good, usually they don’t. But I remember things when I write them down so this is an important step for me. Sometimes I am bored and have to write about that.
  • I washi tape in business cards from new contacts. I keep the info digitally but I like having the cards and keeping them in the notebook serves as a visual reminder for who I’ve met and where.
  • I love a good mind map. There are a bunch in my bullet journals.

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  • As you probably know, I am extremely goal-oriented. I like to use the journal to identify and track goals. Sometimes this is a yearly kind of thing, sometimes it’s printing out a list of all of the artwork from the intranet and checking them off as I find them (the place I work now has an AMAZING art collection).

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I do NOT:

  • Number pages or create indexes. I did when I started but found I never used them.
  • Create weekly spreads. I rely on my digital calendars to manage meetings and personal events. I don’t get anything additional out of replicating them on paper.
  • Use the full-range of cute shapes to mark my entries. As much as I like the little eye for explore further, I find myself writing out “need to learn more” instead of the shape. It’s a personal failure. My brain doesn’t work that way. I am pretty religious about the basics for tasks — cross out for complete, > for moved forward to next month, strike-through for no longer relevant.
  • Digitize my bullet journal. I tried this after my first one — I snapped photos of each page and uploaded to my Evernote account. Evernote has OCR so I liked the fact that I could conceivably search my writing. It didn’t take very long and the OCR worked pretty well but I find that I never ever went back to look at these notes. It was easier and more enjoyable to just flip through the physical notebook on my shelf.

Something I haven’t done yet, but want to try:

  • Habit tracking. I love the way these things look and I especially like going back and adding to a page over time. Don’t know what I’d track yet though. Going to yoga maybe? Riding my bike? Not sure. I need to think about it.

Let me know what you end up doing. I love talking about this shit. 🙂

“We’re always lucky,” I said and like a fool I did not knock on wood.

My fourth favorite book in the whole world is Ernest Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast. I had to read The Sun Also Rises in high school and I hated it and because of that, I didn’t pick up another Hemingway until I was in my early 30s. If I’m going to be absolutely honest, I have to say it was because of that Meg Ryan and Nicolas Cage movie City of Angels. I sincerely love that movie, embarrassing as it is to admit. There’s a scene where the two of them are in a library and Cage’s character picks up A Moveable Feast and reads from it:

“As I ate the oysters with their strong taste of the sea and their faint metallic taste that the cold white wine washed away, leaving only the sea taste and the succulent texture, and as I drank their cold liquid from each shell and washed it down with the crisp taste of wine, I lost the empty feeling and began to be happy and to make plans.”

And the very moment I saw that scene, I wanted to eat an oyster, which I had never done, and I badly wanted a glass of cold white wine. I love oysters now and for me there’s no such thing as a white wine that is too cold or too crisp and I’m pretty sure it’s because of that sentence. Could there be a more perfect description of that taste combination? The words are so simple and the sentences so unadorned and right this minute, at 10 am on a Wednesday sitting in a library carrel, I am nearly desperate for a cold glass of crisp white wine.

I read the whole book a few years later, immediately skyrocketing it to near the top of my favorite books. This is Hemingway before Hemingway was the Hemingway you’re introduced to as a student. There is no bull fighting, no wars, and no womanizing. It’s a memoir of the years he spent in Paris in his 20s. He was very poor, and in love, and he had a small child who he adorably refers to only as Bumpy. If you’re into literary history there are a whole bunch of to-be-famous friends he writes about: Gertrude Stein, Zelda and Scott Fitzgerald, Ezra Pound. I found that stuff interesting but not the main draw. The main draw was how Hemingway talks about food.

“I brought mandarines and roasted chestnuts to the room in paper packets and peeled and ate the small tangerine-like oranges and threw their skins and spat their seeds in the fire when I ate them and roasted chestnuts when I was hungry.”

Roasted chestnuts and mandarin oranges don’t actually sound like they’d go together, but this sentence, in a section about how cold it was in Paris then and how they were too poor for regular food, so he squirrels away little treats to eat when he’s done with his writing for the day? It makes chestnuts and oranges sound like the most spectacular luxury you could imagine.

“They always caught some fish, and often they made excellent catches of the dace-like fish that were called goujon. They were delicious fried whole and I could eat a plateful. They were plump and sweet-fleshed with a finer flavor than fresh sardines even, and were not at all oily, and we ate them bones and all.”

Same thing here — eating fish bones and all isn’t that attractive to me but I read this and I want to be on a coast somewhere in a big fat fisherman’s sweater, ready to eat even a lowly sardine, if I have to.

“I knew several of the men who fished the fruitful parts of the Seine between the Île St.-Louis and the Square du Vert Galent and sometimes, if the day was bright, I would buy a liter of wine and a piece of bread and some sausage and sit in the sun and read one of the books I had bought and watch the fishing.”

Does that not sound like the most perfect lunch you can imagine? I big jug of good cheap French wine, a soft baguette and some charcuterie. Jesus. I’m so hungry now.

“The beer was very cold and wonderful to drink. The pommes à l’huile were firm and marinated and the olive oil delicious. I ground black pepper over the potatoes and moistened the bread in the olive oil.”

YUM. I don’t even know what pommes à l’huile  is. No wait, I do, because Elise is a good influence on me and I looked it up. Warm potato salad with fresh herbs.  I will say it again: YUM.

Hemingway explains this obsession food well, I think, when he says, “When you are twenty-five and are a natural heavyweight, missing a meal completely makes you very hungry. But it also sharpens all of your perceptions, and I found that many of the people I wrote about had very strong appetites and a great taste and desire for food, and most of them were looking forward to having a drink.”

Lest we think that Hemingway was an entirely different man than his reputation would lead you to believe, one of the best quotes in the book is this: “There is not much future in men being friends with great women although it can be pleasant enough before it gets better or worse, and there is usually even less future with truly ambitious women writers.” Blerg. Whether he really was the machismo asshole history paints him as, or just the product of a much different time, you have to at least give him credit for being so honest.

PS: As an aside, I have recently listened to this book on audio. It was summertime and I listened to it with the top down on my car, quite loud so that I could hear above the hum of traffic. I awkwardly listened to a very un-PC exchange about homosexuality between Hemingway and Stein in the hospital parking garage one day. Ms. Stein was a lesbian who happened to hate gay men. Yowsers. I got a very very very dirty look from a woman walking past my car.