I’m the kind of person who is full of plans for monumental projects. Just in the last few months I have started my third novel, scoured the internet for land to buy so I could become a farmer, and wrote up a plan for a wedding photography business. I am full of things that I think I can and should do. And when I’m working on those things, I work really hard.
The problem is that I tend to run out of momentum, and then I leap to something new before I ever finish something. Or, I have so many tasks to complete that I lose track and don’t accomplish any of them. I am a fountain of ideas sitting in the middle of a desert of finish-lines.
My loved ones have tried to help me. My husband tried to show me how to use several different digital calendars, but I found them inflexible and dull. My mother gave me planners and journals, but again – I craved flexibility. I wanted more space in some areas, less in others. A few summers ago my father remarked on a little book I’d started writing about my summer – a project he often assigned to his sixth grade class – by saying, “And as usual, Megan’s is beautiful, but unfinished.”
In this way, I have floundered towards my goals in haphazard, uncertain ways. To write a book, I knew I had to write, and so I did. And then I knew I had to edit it, so I did. But what about building a platform? Querying agents? Keeping up with reading in my genre? So many tasks necessary to becoming a successful writer went undone. And sometimes my random ideas intruded on my writing time, because I lost sight of my ultimate goal, or simply got lost.
I needed to be able to check of tasks as I completed them. I needed to write down my goals on real paper, and break them down. I also needed lots of room to scribble down ideas as they popped into my head.
After many abandoned attempts at organizing, I gave up. It seemed that staying on task just wasn’t for me.
Until about nine months ago, when I discovered the Bullet Journal.
I’d seen so many people touting the benefits of their beautiful journals on Pinterest and Instagram, but I dismissed the concept as not for me. They looked so fancy and time-consuming, and I didn’t have room for all that nonsense in my life.
Then people in my Yoga group started talking about them, and intrigued by their conversations, I did some Google searches. As I looked around, I saw examples that were both elaborate and simple. And many of the bullet journals brought to mind the planners that I used in high school. Summer was wrapping up, and it was just the right time for some back-to-school nostalgia. I decided to give the Bullet Journal a try.
Now my little notebook is my constant companion, and my guide when I’m wondering what to do next. It hasn’t made me a different person, but it certainly has helped me become a more organized. I can confidently move from one task to the next, simultaneously working on a manuscript, social media, a blog, and querying agents, in addition to my normal life, without getting confused. I have the satisfaction of marking off very small tasks as I complete them, which helps me stay motivated when working on projects that won’t be finished for months, even years.
This is how I’ve done it.
One of the first things I did, after putting in my journal’s index and monthly calendar, was define my goals. Normally, I’m not very ambitious or specific about what I’d like to achieve with my writing, but on this page I went all out. I established that in the next ten years I want to become a profitable writer. Written out on paper, it looked a little scary and laughable, but there it was.
I was careful to pick a goal that I have some control over. I could have written out that I would like to become a New York Times best-selling author within ten years, but I have no control over whether or not that actually happens. That’s up to lots of other people, not me. I do have control over publishing my work, however, since self-publishing is increasingly an option.
Then I broke down all the things I needed to do in order to make that goal a reality. I included the tasks that I needed to tackle to get from where I was to where I wanted to be, like finishing edits and sending query letters. I also included building skills and creating a community.
When I’d made that list, I could move on to creating a more detailed break-down of my timeline. I set a five-year goal, a one-year goal, a half-year goal, one-month, one-week, and one-day goals. That gave me something to accomplish right away, as well as markers that I could check back with at different points to see how I was getting along.
Then I used my journal to make sure I was accomplishing all this.
For those unfamiliar with the bullet journal system, it allows for breaking down increments of time pretty much however you like. I keep daily, weekly, monthly, and yearly logs. Some people go for hourly – but that’s a bit much for me.
The daily logs are super simple. At the end of every day, I create a to-do list for the next day. And I like to include a lot of things, like making dinner, doing yoga, and writing. Filling in the little box beside a task is gratifying, so I try to include as many little things as possible.
This helps me stick to my routines when my days get hectic and unpredictable. Sometimes I don’t have time to write when I schedule it, but I can still give myself credit for doing it later in the day.
Because I make each part of the journal as I go, rather than having a layout all set up before I get started, I’m also able to include actual journal entries in my pages. I even have space to sketch and doodle if I feel like it. Best of all, my bullet journal doesn’t have a ton of wasted space, either. A day can take up as much or as little room as it needs to – or if I’m lacking in diligence, I can even skip a day without leaving empty boxes the way I would with a regular planner.
Every week on Sunday, I lay out my plan for the next seven days. This is where I’ll assign myself goals like querying, or make my editing and blogging schedule. I also have spaces on this page for getting down my blogging and general writing ideas, so that they don’t land on random pieces of paper that inevitably get lost.
Yes, I’ve lost a lot of really good ideas by putting them down on spare scraps of paper, or on random pages of a notebook holding a manuscript in progress.
I have the option, with the type of layout I use, of assigning a task to a certain day, or making it a more vague, “as I have time” kind of goal. For me, this kind of flexibility is really important.
I also have a little box for notes, which is where I write down the bigger-picture tasks that I achieve throughout the week. Here, I put down the chapters that I finish, how much I revised, how many blog posts I made. It’s also a good space for capturing those “ah-hah” moments when things came together, and I realized how to make things work.
As someone who isn’t always very good at acknowledging my own progress and successes, recording these small steps towards my goal is important to keeping my momentum and motivation.
A lot of things happen in my journal when I move from one month to the next. At the end of a month, I use a page to analyze everything that has worked well in my bullet journal, as well as the things that aren’t working. Then I take that information to draw up a plan for the next month. I set small goals that will move me closer to my main goals.
I take that evaluation, and use it to set up my calendar for the month ahead.
As with my weekly log, I make goals that I can work on as I have time, and also write tasks that I want to accomplish on specific days. I used to keep a habit log, but I found that time-consuming – also, I frequently forgot to fill it in, so I let it go for now. Maybe someday it will come back when it’s needed.
The monthly logs are probably the part of my bullet journal where I do the most work and analysis. At the level of the year, things move slowly. But this is also where the large view of things becomes clear.
With the information that I collect in my weekly and monthly logs, I’m able to do a thorough analysis at the end of the year of what I’ve accomplished, and how that has moved me closer to my ultimate goals. This is an opportunity to celebrate the things that normally would get lost or appear insignificant in the midst of what I do every day. When I feel discouraged, it’s great to be able to turn to the page where I record all these things, and see just how much I’m getting done that I might not be able to see in the daily logs.
Then, as I do with my monthly log, I am able to establish goals for the year ahead. I can determine what I still need to learn and the tasks I need to tackle in order to get closer to my big goals. This year, for example, I’ve set a goal for querying fifty agents, and another goal of finishing the first draft of a new novel. These are tasks that seem completely overwhelming, but broken down into monthly, weekly, and daily tasks, they become very manageable, and I’m well on my way to completing them, in spite of the some unpredictable changes in my life and daily schedule.
I’ve mentioned that I love the flexibility of the bullet journal several times. It will probably come as no surprise, then, that my favorite, and probably my most useful pages in my journal are the ones that stand apart from the established layout. Because the journal has an index, I can use space anywhere in my journal to break down an idea or a problem that I’ve encountered.
Some of my random pages include fleshing out characters, analyzing problems with the narrative arc, describing what I want to accomplish with a manuscript edit, and ideas for posts on this very blog. My bullet journal allows me to step outside the march of the days and the weeks, without ever leaving those pages. This is a system that works very well for me: I’m not the kind of person who is able to keep track of multiple journals at a time, so I need everything contained in a single book.
When I’ve worked through a problem by writing down all its bits and pieces, I can then add the action steps to solving it in my daily, weekly, or monthly pages.
I imagine that if you don’t have much experience with bullet journals, all of this sounds way too complicated and unwieldy. I thought so too, once, but I’ve found in practice that a bullet journal actually simplifies things. That’s because it is taking all these complicated tasks, that often overlap with other complicated tasks, and breaks them down, makes them specific, tangible things.
If, like me, you find that there are times when you aren’t sure what to do next, and you find most scheduling systems don’t give you enough flexibility, then I encourage you to try a bullet journal. You don’t need anything fancy – when I started, all I had was an index, a calendar, and daily task logs. As I became comfortable with those, I added in my weekly pages, and then monthly as well.
For more information about bullet journals, check out the original bullet journal website here. And then, if you’re like me and you want some more visual examples, then check out Pretty Practical’s discussion on setting up here. Or this article at Buzzfeed. Or this very detailed guide on Tiny Ray of Sunshine.
Then give it a try! If it helps you get closer to your goals, then its well worth the effort. Or, if you have a different system of staying on track, I’d love to hear about it.