Tackle your to-do list like a bullet journal pro.
I’m crazy about to-do lists. There’s something so viscerally satisfying about crossing off a completed task. My many to-do lists help to quiet my obsessive, anxious brain.
And — oh yeah! — they also ensure I remember all the stuff I have to do.
To-do lists are simple in concept: a list of things you need to do. But there are many ways to go about to-doing these to-dos.
In this third edition of BuJoy, let’s explore different methods of list-making so you can get your to-dos done.
Bullet journal’s gold standard method is “rapid logging.” This is a fancy way of saying you write down all your to-dos/reminders/whatevers in simple lists.
Your list may include events like a doctor’s appointment, to-dos like return that library book, or notes like check out that buzzy Netflix series “Behind Her Eyes.”
In BuJo speak, each entry is called a “bullet” and can be categorized using different symbols: dots for tasks, open circles for events, dashes for notes.
You can “nest” your bullets together by pairing related bullets: write reminder notes underneath the work project due that day. The three traditional forms of rapid logging are the daily log, monthly log, and future log.
I’m not going to dwell on the official method, because the official Bullet Journal website has detailed instructions and examples.
Read on for ideas about adapting and expanding rapid logging for your unique needs.
The answer is yes.
Okay, I’ll elaborate. I recommend all three! Using BuJo rapid logging as a guide, I keep monthly, weekly, and daily to-do lists. For monthly lists, I add tasks as they come up.
The beauty of the BuJo is once you write it down, you don’t have to think about it anymore; the BuJo does the remembering for you.
Every Sunday, I make a simple weekly calendar. After consulting my long-term and monthly to-do lists, I find the tasks I need or want to get done each week. Each day, I write my to-do list on a Post-it that I then stick on the opposite page of my weekly calendar.
I like Post-its because they’re small, which helps me avoid overextending myself.
If you want to keep a record, you can stick your new list on top of the previous day’s. If that’s too cluttered, you can throw them out at the end of the day.
Referencing yesterday’s Post-it makes it simple to move unfinished tasks to today’s list. If I don’t finish my weekly Post-it to-do list, I can easily transfer it to the next week, until I (hopefully) finish those tasks and start a new weekly list.
Of course, you don’t need Post-its. Your BuJo has plenty of writing space by itself. But if you’re motivated by bright colors and the tactile sensation of sticking and unsticking, give it a try.
For unique and funky sticky notes, check out these adorable and affordable ones from Stickii.
I have a long-running to-do list of things I need to get done eventually, but not immediately. In BuJo terms, this is a “Future Log.”
Anytime you think of something that you want or need to do, add it to your future log. When making daily or weekly lists, consult your future log for tasks you want to get done now.
You can put any sort of entry on this list:
- mandatory stuff like filing taxes
- aspirational stuff like joining a gym
- fun stuff, like a funny quote you want to remember
- anything you want to reference in the future
To-do lists aren’t your thing? A “done list” upends the concept of to-do lists entirely.
When I first started freelancing way back in 2013, I tried “done lists” for a while. Instead of focusing on a list of things that need to be done, a done list is a record of all you’ve accomplished today (or this week, this month, etc).
I’m including a done list of everything I accomplished the day I wrote this article. If you get overwhelmed by long to-do lists, try making a done list instead. This way, you celebrate your accomplishments instead of focusing on what you didn’t do yet. At the end of each day, take a moment to reflect on your done list.
Look at all that stuff you did! It’s like a pat on the back in list form.
Slowing down and being present does not come naturally to me. My brain refuses to shut up. “Do this, you forgot to do that, send that thing, write to that person, DO IT DO IT DO IT NOW.”
It’s stressful and ultimately not helpful for doing, well, anything. So I invented my own to-do method a few years ago. I email myself every time I think of something I need to do, like pay my student loan or reschedule physical therapy. I put the task in the subject line of an email to myself, then leave it unread until I’m ready to transfer it to my BuJo.
I call this transfer process “culling to-dos.” I even put “cull to-dos” on my daily to-do lists.
My BuJo lives in my home office, so I can’t log to-dos that come to me when I’m running errands or at the doctor. Emailing myself each task I think of allows my brain to move on to its next obsessive thought!
I know the reminder is safely waiting for me in my inbox, so I don’t need to keep it in my mind — or scrawled in pen on my hand.
Your BuJo is yours and yours alone. That means it can be as messy, neat, complicated, simple, colorful, minimalist or [insert your adjective here] as you want it to be.
What’s going to motivate you to actually tackle your to-dos? For me, it’s making it pretty and colorful.
As I’ve written about before, I am all about washi tape, brightly colored gel pens, and hand lettering. But you don’t have to do it like I do.
A friend once confided in me that she was intimidated by the complicated #BuJo spreads on Instagram. She didn’t know where to start. I reminded her that her BuJo won’t be going on Instagram.
The #BuJo influencers’ creative spreads can be inspiring… or they can make you feel you don’t measure up. Your BuJo is a personal tool, not a piece of public art.
I rely heavily on to-do lists and bullet journaling for one main reason: I have ADHD.
For me, ADHD means my mind is often speeding from thought to thought without leaving me time to process. It also means I used to forget supposedly simple things. BuJo changed my life by circumventing my brain.
Take that, brain, my BuJo’s in charge now!
Bullet journaling and list making are great ways to figure out what you need to do, but then you need to actually, ya know, do that stuff.
So how do you do your to-dos? Meet the Pomodoro technique. This simple method revolutionized how I get stuff done. I can’t imagine a working life without it.
A “pomodoro” is 25 minutes spent focusing on a task or set of tasks from your list, like cleaning the kitchen or editing a work spreadsheet. Set a timer for 25 minutes, then get to work on your chosen task — and only that task.
That means you ignore your phone. No texts, no inbox refreshing, no social media scrolling. I promise the world will not burn down if you don’t see a notification for 25 minutes.
When your timer goes off, congratulations! You have completed your first pomodoro. It’s time for a 5 to 10 minute break (you now have permission to scroll away on social media).
Use the break to refresh and reset, then get back to work by starting another pomodoro. Accomplishing a whole to-do list can seem insurmountable. Breaking it up into 25 minute chunks makes it manageable.
I incorporate my pomodoros into my to-do list by making a colored dot for each 25 minutes I complete. It’s motivating to watch the dots increase, and it’s also a nifty way to track how long I spend on each project (i.e. 6 pomodoros times 25 minutes means I worked for 2.5 hours).
This tracking is helpful if you bill clients hourly, and gives you a realistic idea of how long your tasks really take.
For more ADHD-inspired productivity tips, check out this guide I wrote.
Color coding. I put my colorful gel pens to good use with a personal color coding system.
- Purple is self-care like meditation or physical therapy.
- Light blue is cleaning/household tasks like laundry or dishes.
- Pink is writing assignments.
- Orange is money, bills, and taxes.
Make like Elsa & let it go. Bullet journaling gave me permission to let go of stuff. If something sits on my to-do list for a year without getting done… maybe it means I don’t need to do it.
Of course, this doesn’t apply to necessities like taxes… but wouldn’t that be nice?
Maybe you keep skipping yoga class because you don’t actually like yoga. Becoming mindful of patterns that emerge in your lists can help you clarify your current priorities.
Make your BuJo part of your daily routine. The more you use your Bujo, the more you’ll get done. Making lists is helpful, but only if you keep them updated and make headway.
Aim to accomplish one or two of your “weekly” tasks each day, and one or two monthly tasks each week. If you keep that up, you won’t be stressed out come week’s end, frantically completing the tasks you avoided all week.
How do you find the to-do version(s) that works best for you? By trying lots of options. Did one of the above methods pique your interest? Awesome, give it a try! Did none of them resonate with you? That’s okay, too.
The examples above are tried-and-true for me, but you’re likely aware that you’re not me.
Think about what would resonate with you, and give that a try. What’s missing from my suggestions? How can you insert your own personality and needs into list making?
Keep in mind that a BuJo is not a mandate: you can always change how you use it. You’re not being graded. The right way to bullet journal is the way that helps you actually get things done.
Give yourself permission to try it all and only keep what works. It’s okay if your methods change! What works in April 2021 might not be helpful in May 2021. Change your list-making style accordingly.
A to-do list is a simple concept that you can customize to your liking. Whether that’s minimalist, complicated, colorful, or utilitarian is up to you. Experiment with different methods, keep what works, and discard the rest.
Remember: Like all things BuJo, there’s no right or wrong way to make to-do lists. The best method is the one that works for you.
Now go forth and make your lists. You can cross off “read latest BuJoy column!”
Ash Fisher is a writer and comedian living in Portland, Oregon. The light of her life is her corgi Vincent. Learn more about her on her website.