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The single biggest concern people seem to have about starting a bullet journal is time. Or more precisely, the lack of it. Setting up each page from scratch, picking colour schemes, adding charts and diagrams, and so forth calls for hours they don’t have. After all, don’t we all want to plan our day and move on as quickly as possible?
Perhaps you’re in this position. You like the idea of a customised planner tailored fully to your schedule and goals. You’re drawn to how a bullet journal allows you to keep your life together in one place. However, you doubt your artistic skills and whether you can make it work within your schedule. Maybe you started a bullet journal at a quieter time, but when the items on your to-do list piled up once more, the effort you put in no longer justified the benefits. With a sigh, you let the habit go.
I have to admit, I’ve been far from consistent. Throughout this year, I’ve drifted in and out of bullet journaling, sometimes missing a few weeks, sometimes getting a bit aimless with my spreads. As someone who switches between a few planning systems systems, I opted for quicker ones to organise my schedule. As I accepted that I did not have the hours to invest in my bullet journal, however, my whimsical attachment to it never faded.
That’s until I decided to change my approach. I thought: why do I think I need to spend hours on my bujo? More like, thirty minutes to set up, followed by five or ten minute a day to update, if things are kept simple and straight to the point.
In my previous bullet journaling post, I spoke about the bittersweet nature of the inspo we see online. Sure, the spreads are beautiful and artistic. But being no artist, I could never replicate them. Yet when I first started my bullet journal, I put too much pressure on myself to make each layout equally as creative, add as much detail as possible and uncover the skills I haven’t used since GCSEs. Finding zero time time to produce such results in light of my other priorities, I recognised that a minimal approach may be the right option for me.
At the moment, I prioritise simplicity, clarity and effectiveness. Especially in day-to-day planning. After all, a to-do list that’s well structured and gets straight to the point can be the one productivity-boosting ingredient you need because, you know, we all love the feeling of putting little ticks in boxes after a task is over and done with. Finding a system that works for you takes trial and error, which is why I’ve featured numerous ideas anyone can replicate and explore.
Remember that no one bullet journal is the same: make yours as artistic and intricate or as plain as you want. These five ideas require minimal setup time and are tailored towards people who want to journal consistently within a hectic schedule, but feel free to adjust and customise them in line with your aesthetic preferences as much as you want! Or, just use a pretty highlighter like I did to give the illusion of artistry.
This method is brilliant if you find that you’re constantly at work, but nothing ever gets done until the last minute (or during sleepless night). Chances are, you struggle with identifying your priorities and fill your schedule with tasks that need to be done, but not as urgently as some of the others. In the past, I’ve had friends show me their linear to-do lists that made me wonder why they thought it would take them an hour to read one chapter of a textbook or check their emails!
Identifying and writing down your priorities makes it far easier to bring your attention to where it needs to be. Draw out a table with three columns. Label one ‘must do’. These are the non-negotiables, the things you have to tick off by the end of the day. ‘Should do’ encompasses tasks that are important and contribute to your goals, but perhaps don’t have strict time limits or the same urgency as the ‘must do’s. The last column, ‘keep in mind’ is for lowest priority tasks, or ones that you can postpone to a later date.
Leave space on the side to write out the tasks in no specific order. Afterwards, assign them to the right columns. Alternatively to drawing a table, write the tasks in a linear fashion and use a key for prioritisation.
- Use colour psychology: for example, try writing your ‘must do’s in bright colours that signal urgency.
- Be very clear about what your goals are at a given moment in time: these should correspond to all your ‘must do’ tasks, and most of the ‘should do’s.
- If you can and don’t have enormous handwriting, leave space to take notes and brief reminders to assist you throughout the day.
2. Think bigger
A layout for everyone who is a goal-setter and getter by nature: the people who like to look at the bigger picture and why what they do on a daily basis matters in the long run. Focusing on the ‘why’ remedies feeling like you’re going through the motions, living from day to day, your goals looking further away than ever. All of us need that extra boost in motivation from time to time (yes, even the superwomen you follow on Instagram).
As with the above, prioritisation is key. Pick your three most important tasks for the day. Or, the ones you wish you could avoid by a mile but have to get on with nonetheless. For each one, firstly write down what the task is. Then, outline what the final result should look like, as specifically as you can. Finally, make note of what long-term goal rationalises your effort. Can’t think of one? Perhaps, you’ve identified a time-waster!
Task: find and organise sources for essay.
Aim: at least 5 primary sources/ finish before 12:00/finish the paper to the best of my ability ahead of the deadline*
Goal: achieving specific grade/becoming a better researcher/winning an essay-writing competition
(*The ‘aim’, as you can see, can be as specific and quantifiable, or more far-looking without being as broad in scope and long-term as the ‘goal’.)
Underneath, leave room for notes, reminders and lists of other, lower priority tasks you would like to complete that day.
- Estimate how long each item will take to set yourself a time limit and promote more focused work.
3. Time Blocking
This option is tricker to set up than the others because it calls for you to draw out a calendar and precise time slots, but the result is 110% worth it. Many people (myself included) switch to time blocking as an alternative to imprecise to-do lists and see massive improvements in their productivity. Time blocking, how to optimise it, and the benefits you can expect is a huge topic (do let me know if you’d be interested in a separate blog post). However, at the most basic level, you ‘time block’ by allocating items on your weekly/daily to-do list to slots in your calendar, thereby limiting how much time you have to something.
The main benefits? Well, writing down tasks on a piece of paper with no further guidance frequently leads to distractions and procrastination. You sit with the same, unchanged piece of paper at the end of the day, wondering why nothing got done. Picking a specific time to work on one specific task discourages clutter in your schedule and wasteful multitasking, and maximises discipline. It puts you in charge of where your hours go. You can estimate how long things take, be realistic with your time and get better at prioritsation.
There are many ways to approach time blocking. I’ve featured a basic bujo layout here to get you started. Draw out a table across two pages with a column for each day of the week. Assign a time block to each row. An A5 bullet journal is not big enough for blocks smaller than thirty minutes – 1 hour. If you want higher precision than this (for example, when life is busier than usual), opt for a digital calendar. Scheduling their day in thirty minute increments, however, seems to do the trick for most people.
Leave room below the calendar for your keys. As you can see, there’s one to sort tasks in terms of priorities. You’ll quickly be able to check how much of your schedule important/urgent activities take up. Similarly, I use colourcoding to highlight which area of my life each block relates to. For example: education, career, self-improvement, fitness and wellbeing, relationships… The last key measures performance and leaves room for flexibility. Pick symbols to indicate which tasks you completed, didn’t finish and postponed.
- Leave empty slots in your calendar to give yourself room for error and migrate tasks as needed.
- Experiment with creating your own keys and systems. For example, some people use different colours and symbols to identify the nature of the activity. Writing, appointments, social occasions and the like.
- Be realistic. Schedule in time for rest, exercise, and recreational activities. Time blocking, after all, is all about finding a good balance and being intentional with your breaks. And, of course, still get everything done.
Sometimes, we struggle through our to-do lists because the notes we write down aren’t specific enough. A vague outline or instruction does little to guide us in the right direction, leaving us to jump in without clarity and focus.
I get it. We like to spend minimal time jotting down what we need to do. That, after all, leaves more time for actually doing it! But taking a few minutes to describe each task in more detail always proves beneficial. For example, ‘write blog post’ is a good starting point. Adding the topic, how long I expect it to take, desired word count, whether I want to finish or simply make a start turns a simplistic point into an actionable, structured plan. If you need to go grocery shopping, note the essential items or a place to refer to for your full grocery list. If making time to read, specify how many chapters. Give yourself an initial sense of direction.
Draw out a table and label one row ‘task’, the other as details. If unsure how many tasks you’ll have, don’t draw the columns in when setting up for the week. Instead, add them on a day-to-day basis. A third, optional row I added is ‘review’: a space to briefly reflect on the task afterwards, whether that’s writing a few words or ticking to indicate completion.
- Try making keys to save space and time. For instance, colours to reflect on how tasks go, symbols to signify which ones have to be migrated, numbers to indicate priority, etc.
- Use post-it notes if you run out of room.
- Experiment with drawing the table vertically/horizontally to find what works best for you.
The main aim of this layout is to help you balance the different aspects of your life, compartmentalising everything in terms of purpose and making sure the right amount of stuff from each group is present. For example, are your ‘wellness’ boxes blank a few days in a row? Are you scheduling in one too many coffee dates, in light of an essay that needs to be written? Most of us have multiple goals in multiple areas of our life. This setup will help you keep on track to all of them.
Identify four or five significant areas of your life. This should include items you’d like to improve on, too. Next, simply draw out a table with a row dedicated to each item. If you want, leave space to write down an unstructured to do list before filling in the table. I like to do this as a way of ‘decluttering’ my mind, before I go on to group the items as needed.
- The idea behind this can be applied regardless of how you like to schedule your time, whether that’s time-blocking, chronological to-do lists, or even calendars outside of your bullet journal. Simply colourcode your tasks to visualise how your life fits together as a whole.
- Use this technique if you struggle with following through on your goals. Identifying something as a key area of your life in your bullet journal will assign importance to related activities.
My bujo journey so far has consisted of ongoing trial and error. I picked up many (personal) do’s and don’ts along the way. But that’s what makes a bullet journal far more special than a conventional planner: it’s a learning process that helps you understand who you are, how your mind works, what way of planning matches your personality. I love trying new layouts and if successful, improve my time management skills. That’s why I encourage you to give the bullet journal a go and watch it become an asset in your life, or take it back to the basics if you’ve fallen out due to time constraints.
Let me know in the comments: do you have a bullet journal? Do you prefer to keep it simple or artistic, and what’s your approach to daily logs?
The bullet journal and highlighters I use: