New year, new Bullet Journal!


Happy new year friends!

They say how you spend NYE night sets the tone for the year. If that’s the case, I’ll be eating Indian takeaway with my girlfriends and going to bed at 9:30pm. I’m VERY ok with this plan after the eventful couple of years we’ve had.

I followed up the quiet start with a quiet ‘going back to school’ activity: prepping my Bullet Journal for the new year.

While I love my digital task manager Omnifocus, for the last couple of years I’ve been supplementing it with the Bullet Journal method (#BuJo) designed by Ryder Carroll. Doing part of my organising and planning work by hand, in an actual notebook, slows me down and helps me think through problems and roadblocks in my work.

Below I have put together a step by step explainer of how I set up and use my Bullet Journal for academic work (including teaching), with a focus on prepping for the coming year.

If you’re not already bullet journalling, I hope this helps you get started. If you’re already a fan of #BuJo, or you’re a supervisor, maybe send this post to the PhD student in your life who will benefit from juicing up their organisational strategies 🙂

Getting started:

Really, you just need a notebook and a pen to get started and old notebook will do. But I can never resist an Excuse To Shop (ETS), so I use a fit for purpose Leuchtthurm pre-formatted bullet journal.

I prefer to work in pencil rather than pen: it feels more ‘low stakes’ and creative, and it’s easier to clean up mistakes. I use Blackwing 602 pencils, which are nice and soft without being too smudgy, and have the added advantage of a built in eraser that is designed specifically for that pencil (I used to be an architect – clean pages are important to me!)

The most genius part of the Bullet Journal is the way you create an index of your note book as you build it. This means you can always find your notes again. Leave a couple of pages blank at the start of the notebook, then number the rest of the pages. Go back and write ‘Index’ at the top of the first couple of pages and you are ready to start.

If you buy the ‘how to’ Bullet Journal book by Ryder Carroll (which I recommend if you want to really get into it), the whole process of setting up a bullet journal can seem a little complicated. Heed the sage advice of my podcast Co-host Dr Jason Downs: keep it simple at the start by just doing daily logs.

Annotations and daily logging

Every day I start a new page with the date at the top and start writing down stuff, in any order it comes. Tasks and notes are gaily jumbled up, but the annotations mean the page is legible at a glance. Here’s what a typical day ends up looking like:

I ignored the annotation system Ryder Carroll developed when I first started, which was a mistake. The annotation system makes order from chaos and helps you quickly find your outstanding ‘to dos’ as you scan the pages.

There are lots of possible annotations, I only really use two, which you can see on the page above:

  • A simple bullet point dot (.) for a task. I put a X through the dot when I am done or add a greater than sign (>) if I have moved the task to the next day. If I abandon the task, I put a line through the whole thing.
  • A hypen (-) for a note: notes are just memory aides I jot down as I read or listen to someone talk in a meeting.

Now look at the page again – see what I mean about order from chaos? Those naked bullet points are the outstanding tasks that need to be dealt with. The rest are either completed or moved, so my eye can skip over them. I don’t bother noting the page numbers of individual daily logs in the index; it’s better to use the index to keep track of your collections – let’s look at these briefly.


Every now and then, you’ll want to make a special page or two dedicated to a specific topic, task, project or set of notes: what Carroll calls a ‘collection’.

Starting a collection is simple – just go to the next clear page and write the name of the collection at the top. I put a box around the name so I can pick out my collections when I am flicking from page to page. Here’s a collection page in my latest #BuJo for the On The Reg podcast:

I keep this page open while we are recording and just jot things on it – sometimes I put notes here during the month as I think of things to talk about. This is a good example of a collection for an ongoing project. You can see there is more than one entry for On The Reg in the index:

You can create continuity between collections by ‘threading’ the page numbers. Look at the collection page image a little more closely, see how I’ve noted the other page number there too?

Threading helps me flick backwards and forwards in my bullet journal and see disconnected collections as a whole. A simply genius idea from Ryder Carroll!

Collections are a good way to store information you reference a lot – sort of personal FAQs. For instance, the most common question I am asked by my team or students in email is ‘when is the next Bootcamp?’. Here’s a collection I’ve started to compile with all my teaching engagements; it’a a lot quicker than scrolling through my calendar to give people the answer:

Collections are my favourite part of bullet journals, here’s some more collection types I’ve found handy in academic life:

  • Notes from a specific paper or book – doing a literature review is much easier when you can reliably find your notes again using an index.
  • Thoughts or ideas about specific problems and topics
  • Meeting notes and agendas for collaborative projects
  • A ‘maybe later’ list of writing ideas
  • Notes for teaching – handy to have in front of you, especially if the presentation machine in the room is borked or you can’t plug your laptop in.
  • A list of online subscriptions and their renewal dates.
  • Books you’ve lent out to people (with their phone number so I can reliably get them back)…

… Really the limit is your imagination when it comes to collections.

That’s all the information you need to get a really useful bullet journal going, but I did promise some new year planning ideas, so let’s look at a few.

Monthly Logs and spreads to help you organise yourself

Just like the daily log, the monthly log helps you keep track of what’s happening in your life, but from a more ‘zoomed out’ perspective.

There’s lots of ways to set out a monthly log. If you google it, you’ll see heaps of beautiful looking monthly logs with decorative flourishes. You’ll need stencils for these (yes, I have them) but your basic and perhaps most useful monthly log format is simply a list of dates down one side of the page. Here’s my January 2023 log, the lines break the months into weeks:

This isn’t enough to organise my life – I am a heavy user of electronic diaries and have many shared calendars. You may wonder why you’d do a monthly log rather than just put stuff in your dairy, but let me tell you, the simple act of making a monthly log has saved me from double booking myself an embarrassing number of times. I think this is because Time is an abstract concept that is much easier to deal with when you make it visual and concrete in a #BuJo.

This year I’m supplementing my monthly log with a Collection of monthly tasks. These are all ‘to-dos’ without strict deadlines, but with some level of urgency:

It’s good to have a list of moderately urgent tasks that can be done at any time – they are good starting fodder for your daily log if you are not sure what to do today. There’s a mix of professional and personal on my list – the beauty of the Bullet Journal is that it’s a way to keep both sides of your life in hand. Often tasks without deadlines support other, longer term goals like fixing health issues or developing ideas, but they are the kind of tasks that easily slip out of sight and out of mind. Tracking them like this keeps your eye on the ball so to speak.

You can, if you like, make a yearly log too. I do these, but to be honest, I don’t get much value out of them. The only time I want to zoom out to a year is planning teaching and I usually do this with my whole team, on a whiteboard. For writing projects, I need to work in smaller chunks, so I’ve started making ‘spreads’ of four months at a time:

Yes, this spread was made with the aid of stencils 🙂 I cross each day off so I have a visual reminder of how much time I have left to key deadlines, which I usually mark with a coloured highlighter (I haven’t got that far in my planning yet).

This is a new spread for me. The boxes to the side of my calendar will be used to record monthly ‘wins’, handy for my performance review at the end of the year. The box at the bottom of the left hand page will be used to put in key deadlines when I have them. The flags on the right are just … because.

There is a fine line between #Bujo and scrapbooking and I am not afraid to cross it.

Data is life

A lot of people have used the Bullet Journal collections to achieve goals like giving up booze or losing weight. I’ve started many a health based collection, only to abandon it, but I was recently inspired by the ‘peak hipster’ bullet journalling in this video.

The pandemic has not been kind to my body and I am trying to get back into shape this year. As a start, I used the inspiration from the video to start tracking sleep against a couple of other health goals:

On the top graph I am tracking amount and quality of sleep. I’m (un)lucky enough to have sleep apnoea and use a machine to help me breathe at night, which means I have accurate data on length of time I slept and the AHI reading (how many apnoea events).

Below the sleep tracker I am simply noting whether I did the activities I’ve decided I need to do more often: go to the gym, stop to eat a proper lunch, and my own writing. I also put a dot on this graph when I encounter a stressful incident or problem.

The placement of the two graphs makes it easier to see the health data more holistically. It’s four days in, let’s see if I can keep it up, but I’m already seeing a strong connection between exercise, stress and sleep!

My On The Reg pod cohost Dr Jason Downs is going real fancy with his health tracker this year. Below is the elaborate spread he made to track his gym training and progress towards the next Brazillian JuJitsu belt:

I find Jason’s spread confusing, but that’s irrelevant. Each #Bujo is unique: made by a person for that person.

I find other people’s #BuJos fascinating. Ann H from Mastodon shared with me the spread she uses to track her small online business, which I imagine could be adapted to all kinds of financial tracking purposes:

I hope you enjoyed this little tour through some basic #BuJo practises: I hope you are inspired. Doing this simple ‘back to school’ activity has already improved my attitude towards the coming year – I hope it’s a good one for us all.

I’d love to hear about your own Bullet Journaling ideas – you can chat with me on Linkedin or via Mastodon – links are below. Although I am still a presence on Twitter, I am not responding there as I want to deny a certain billionaire my intellectual and creative energy this year!