Part of the Legend page from my Bullet Journal

My Encounters With The Bullet Journalling System

Table of Contents

This is NOT a guide on how to Bullet Journal

I just want to strongly emphasize that this article is not a writeup on how to bullet journal. If you want to know that, you should go check out the original creator’s website at: https://bulletjournal.com/

What follows is my personal experience with Bullet Journalling. An apparently ongoing one, it seems.

The Chaotic State of “Taking Down Notes”

I have ideas that I jot down throughout the day. Sometimes, they are simple one line thoughts. At other times, they are multiple page brain dumps that are accompanied by mechanical sketches and tables of values.

All of those “notes” have one thing in common: disorganization.

In order to see if a particular idea was in a given notebook, I would need to search through the notebook, at length, and _hope_ I find the note I had jotted down. There was literally no rhyme or reason to how information was recorded onto those pages. The only goal was to jot down whatever was on my mind and in whatever order that seemed appropriate at the time.

I’ve tried creating digital documents to collect this information and make it searchable. However, the lack of structure and consistency meant that my notes files would also become lost in the myriad of folders on whichever storage device I had committed them to.

I liken the situation to having whatever you ever want or need… but it is somewhere inside of a massive junkyard. Now, imagine this junkyard having been building up, pile after pile, for decades. Yeah.

Painful.

Finding Something, But Not Realizing The Value

I was first introduced to Bullet Journalling in 2012. Several of my co-workers were avid note takers. They were also very keen on the types of notebooks and journals they wrote in… as well as the pens they used. I became an instant fan of this. They had mentioned something called the Bullet Journal System. The system itself isn’t hard to understand. The approach is very straightforward. But…. at the time, I wrote it off because I viewed the Bullet Journal System as no more than a paper version of a PDA(Personal Data Assistant). Ie, you are taking the task of managing the structure of the data and keeping track of the location of the data, instead of having the computer do the heavy lifting.

Because I had the mindset of “automate everything”, the idea of manually performing the task that I had relegated to computers, rubbed me the wrong way. So I took a few days to become interested in it, but ultimately, forgot about it.

Seeing Someone Apply A Structured Journalling System

A few years pass and I find myself ever struggling with keeping information… accessible as well as useful. My notes continued to be what my 5th grade teacher referred to as “chicken scratch”. ~lol~ Though I can still read it… most of the time. >_> 2014 rolls around and I’m at another company. There is a new round of new hires and one person caught my attention with their incredibly structured notebook.

How structured was it? Their note taking setup consisted of:

  • A 6x9in unlined journalling notebook.
  • A pen for each color: black, blue, red, and green.
  • A highlighters for each color: yellow, pink/light red, light blue, light green.
  • A small straight edge.

The pens and highlighters were bundled together, but always kept with the book. The straight edge was kept in a pocket in the journal. I instantly fell in love with the order and structure. They were kind enough to let me observe over their shoulder while they noted things down and updated their tasks. Things which changed state or were otherwise completed/abandoned were highlighted through. Things got migrated as pages filled. They told me that there were several journalling systems out there: the original Bullet Journalling and a derived version called Dot Journalling, being the two most used. What’s the difference between the two? As far as I could tell: Bullet Journalling was the original and the most straightforward and barebones. Dot Journalling took that and expanded on it; adding specific dividers, markings, page structures, etc. All of which were mentioned as optional “Modules” or “Artistic” intent in the original Bullet Journalling. Like most people employing these systems, the co-worker who applied the system had customized it to their own personal needs and aesthetics.

Unfortunately, I had the exact same cognitive response: why are we taking on the tasks that we have relegated to computers!?

I was still a strong believer and proponent of “automate everything”. So, once again, I took notice, bought pens, tried journalling, but ultimately, lost interest and abandoned it.

Third Times The Charm… Hello Again, Bullet Journal!

So here we are in 2021. Some seven years after my second encounter with Bullet Journalling. By now, it is a commonplace method of note taking. It would not be a stretch to consider it a wide spread phenomena… to the point where there are countless articles, books, and journals available for the sole purpose of Bullet Journalling.

This time, it was my wife who mentioned it to me. She had heard about it from a friend of her’s. More specifically, I overheard my wife listening to an audio book about Bullet Journalling… written by and narrated by the creator of Bullet Journalling.

At this time, I have to say, I was in a very different state of mind. Over the last seven years, I had changed. While I still greatly valued automation, I _finally_ realized that no matter how great the automation, if one wants to be able to efficiently and effectively use a system, they must have a good understanding of the inner workings. So, I took to listening to the audio book. I was also making use of a Livescribe Symphony smart pen I had acquired a couple of years before, and was already in the process of attempting to start journalling. The smart pen, gave me a bridge between the analog and digital world.

Bullet Journalling And Structuring Data

So, as I listened to the audio book, I took a journal I had started using. Tore out the first 20 pages that were filled with my jumbled notes, and created a Bullet Journal Index. I added entries for the Future Goals. And I added a Legends entry that I could reference regarding the markup I would be using. Basically, I was using the core Bullet Journalling system.

An excerpt from my Livescribe Symphony smart pen page log for the Legends page of my Bullet Journal.

As I started to apply the basics, I found myself doing a few things, which turned out to be common problems. -_-;;

  • Writing too much on a given page.
  • Not leaving enough room for adding notes or changes later.
  • Leaving enough blank pages between sections.
  • Writing in as clear a handwriting or print style as possible.

I found that with each entry I added, I was thinking more about how the information I was trying to put into the journal related to the rest of the book. The page referencing method that the Bullet Journal system employed felt very familiar. References, indirect references, pointers, linked lists, double linked lists, FAT, inodes, etc. Basically, employing Bullet Journalling allows you to turn a paper and pen journal into a structured storage medium that can be queried. But this isn’t new. We already had “Table of Contents” and “Glossaries” in existing print books. The difference, though, is that those concepts were for books that were already completely drafted, edited, and fixed.

The Bullet Journalling System allowed one to treat the written page like the storage mechanisms of flash drives. Writing blocks of information, storing a reference to the block of information, and providing context regarding the reference to the block of information.

This time around, my mind did not reject the concept, but soaked it up, and embraced it.

Adding A Couple of Markups

There are two markups in Bullet Journalling that I added to:

  • “<” something gets demoted back to the “Future Goals” section.
  • “>” something is migrated to the next day, month, journal, etc.

Borrowing on how those two are used in Bullet Journalling, I added the following to my own journal:

  • “<<” link and reference to an earlier mention, which should link/point to this page.
  • “>>” link to a later/future page, which is a continuation of this item or an expansion of this item.

In this manner, I can chain related information as well as allow for one to always find their way back, in either direction in the journal. This borrows the concept of the “doubly linked list” data structure in Computer Science.

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Author: Wing Wong
Husband, Father, and all around technology tinkerer. :)

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