What keeping a bullet journal can teach you about using to-do list apps

On July 6 of this year, I officially ended my three-year experiment of trying to organize my life using a physical bullet journal. I know the exact date because I’m looking at my discontinued notebook as I write this. Apparently, I had to take pictures of the Corsair K70 keyboard five months ago for a then-upcoming review and follow up on a quote I received to insulate my roof. I took the pictures. I have not insulated my roof.

Since then, I’ve used the notebook to jot down things to remember here and there, but when it comes to keeping track of daily tasks and chores, I’ve reverted back to the same mishmash of different notes and tasks. list of apps I used three years ago. These include Notion for long notes and lists, Apple Notes when I need something right away, and Todoist for to-do lists and reminders. But while I’ve ditched the physical notebook for apps, I don’t think bullet journals are a waste of time. In fact, I think my experiment taught me an important lesson about how to stay digitally organized.

Bullet journals can be physical or virtual (like with this Notion template), but they’re best known as a way to organize a blank notebook into a personal planner. There are page layouts for your yearly, monthly, and daily tasks, a methodology for weaving your to-do list in between, and a set of common symbols and notations for understanding it all. In the end, it all serves to give you a format to design your own planner and flexible rules for using it.

There’s a lot of potential complexity and people like to organize them in different ways, but my basic approach each day was to write down my to-do list, manually copy (a.k.a. “migrate”) anything that was incomplete from previous days, and check off each task as the day went on. Some people like to copy weekly or monthly tasks, but daily worked for me.

The core of the bullet journal is practical, but I was also drawn to the aesthetics. YouTube is full of videos of people painstakingly formatting them, filling them with delicate artwork and small visual elements that slowly fill them over the course of the year. I dreamed of having a little notebook filled with neat handwriting and maybe a few sketches, like the one Naughty Dog has its protagonists wear in its games. I imagined my bullet journal to be both a scrapbook of my daily life and an organizer.

The reality of my truly awful handwriting meant this never actually happened, but that didn’t stop my notebook from becoming a half-decent planner. Important emails were noted instead of marked as unread, upcoming articles were categorized with deadlines and priority levels, and I assigned myself household chores on a regular schedule rather than on a chaotic ad hoc basis.

But most importantly, this was all done manually, rather than an app’s internal logic throwing tasks back and forth. Every morning I had to spend a few minutes writing down and prioritizing the day’s tasks – and checking off what I didn’t do yesterday. You’d be surprised how quickly you can complete a non-urgent task after forcing yourself to write it down every day for a week. Other times I realized that something that seemed super urgent when I first wrote it down wasn’t worth going through when I looked back at it the next day.

Having to write out each task manually turned a task from something I could just save in an app and forget to something I had to manage on a daily basis. I had to actively prune and prioritize and think about the chores Jon used to do. Did I really need to buy replacement trousers when there were no formal events coming up? And isn’t it about time I let go of that horrible idea for a blog post? Forcing myself to just think about what was on my list inevitably kept it more manageable.

It sucks to have to lug around a physical notebook

It wasn’t that I got tired of writing, but eventually I got tired of lugging around a physical notebook. A friend would remind me of a movie I wanted to see while we were at the pub, and I would have to jot it down in a note-taking app before transcribing it into my physical notebook later. Or I pass a grocery store on my way home and don’t have my physical shopping list with me. Eventually, the appeal of keeping things digital on my phone and with me all the time became too strong.

What I’ve since realized, though, is that it’s perfectly possible to keep many of the things I loved about bullet journaling without sacrificing the convenience of apps. In the end, what I liked about the notebook was less the physicality of it and more the fact that it forced me to actively think about and organize my life every day. And that is just as possible with an app as it is with a notebook. You just have to avoid thinking that the technology can handle it for you.

Todoist is my current favorite app. Image: Todoist

Now, instead of spending time each day writing down tasks, I instead browse Todoist, prune out old tasks, change due dates for others, and generally try to keep things tidy. I don’t have to fight my terrible handwriting and I always have my phone with me when I need to write something down for later. I can still take advantage of the streamlined interface, but instead of saving and forgetting a task, I force myself to keep track of it.

And while I don’t think I’ll ever find an app as aesthetically pleasing as a YouTuber’s bullet journal, that doesn’t mean I have to give up pretty designs altogether. I like the options Notion has here, allowing you to customize pages with elements like cover photos and emoji. It’s enough to encourage me to start thinking of it as an ever-evolving scrapbook rather than a utilitarian collection of documents.

It’s easy to think that an app or to-do list service will take you by the hand and organize your life for you, but if you’re not careful, it can just become an infinite digital locker with a cluttered collection of notes filed under “forgotten.”

I’m still tempted to give physical journaling another try at some point, especially after going through some beautiful bullet journal artwork while writing this piece. But for now, I’m happy enough to be back on the apps. They’re far from the perfect solution, but I’ve learned that you get as much out of them as you’re willing to put in.