Bullet journals are a popular and effective way of making plans, staying on top of to-do lists, and give some extra motivation in the form of beautiful layouts or filled-in habit trackers.
Recently, I've started to see my bullet journal not only as a tool to plan the future but for self-reflection by looking at the past.
"Those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it."
While it's important to be organized and have a clear vision for what needs to get done, there are a lot of lessons to be learned by a monthly review with your bullet journal as a guide.
Having such a visual, tangible reminder of the past month makes it easy to see patterns in your own behavior.
I've collected five very specific questions that help me personally in finding what worked, what didn't, and why - and how to move forward with those answers in mind.
Now that it's been over a year since I started getting into bullet journals, I find it all the more fascinating that I still discover and learn completely new lessons from it. Lessons about myself, my use of time, my productivity, and my subconscious behavior patterns.
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1. Did you avoid one task in favor of others?
Ah, the good old "migrating" of tasks.
Especially when it comes to self-determined deadlines I've found myself pushing the same task from one day to the next to the next...
Look at your bullet journal to-do lists.
Which tasks did you migrate? Do you remember why? Was it because of time constraints or a change in priorities?
Or look at your monthly goals:
Is there an entire category that fell under the bus? Did you add more tasks to some categories instead of finishing work you'd put off?
I can see this very clearly on my project mindmap for January:
The month started with a balance between work, product creation, and my personal project (the comic category on the image above) but as I went along, I kept adding more product ideas. At the end, I'd accomplished a lot there - but nearly nothing in my comic preparations!
The upper half of my project mind map shows a similar pattern: I got two additional blog posts done but let my Youtube channel slip away...
Productive Procrastination is still Procrastination!
Yes, I'm happy with my new Etsy additions and some other projects I'd been working on. But I still have to face that I nearly ignored an entire goal I'd set for myself!
Find the REAL reasons you were avoiding a certain task:
For the example above: I've realized that working on comic pages - especially in the storyboard and writing stage - needs a lot of calm and focus.
But I kept telling myself that I'd sit down and concentrate once I'd finished all of the day's "real" work.
Now that I look back, the problem is obvious: Once I was done with work, my brain was mush. I couldn't concentrate anymore.
Instead, I'd sit down and doodle those new Etsy products, do simple Photoshop edits, and other mindless tasks.
You might have similar hang-ups for those tasks you kept pushing off, that you couldn't concentrate on, or just never "found the time" for.
- Maybe you were missing a step in your preparations.
- Maybe you feel intimidated by a part of the task and need a moment to tackle that with full awareness.
- Maybe you need to schedule your days differently to make room for that task.
Adjusting and finding a solution:
I need to put personal projects that DO require lots of concentration at the start of the day, when my mind is still fresh, instead of leaving them as a 'reward' after the day's work is done.
2. Were you focused or did you hop from task to task?
Again, look at your daily layouts, at your most productive days and your least productive days. How many different tasks did you work on?
I've found that the more variety I put on my to-do list, the harder it is to focus.
Pomodoro Sessions are Hard but they Work.
I love the Pomodoro Technique. I've got a whole blog post praising it and showing how I use it! But it's also hard work and needs a bit of a push to get started.
I can look through my daily layouts and see on which days I was productive on my own, on which days I used the Pomodoro technique for some extra focus, and on which days I got lost in multitasking.
Solution: Choose one Focus
I decide on ONE main focus (maximum two, if time allows for it) for each day and dedicate a large batch of time to just that task.
I created this little project overview above for my weekly layouts just for those kinds of weeks when I should be focusing on a lot of things at once. Instead of working a little bit on everything each day, I gave myself a clear focus each day.
That doesn't mean you work on only a single thing all day and ignore all your emails, smaller project updates, or basic survival. Just assign those to short Pomodoro sessions, or get them done first thing in the morning, instead of multitasking all day long.
By the way, if you like a bit of outer space in your bullet journals: Just for the rest of February, I've made my printable weekly layout with hand-drawn planets & moon available for free in the download library.
3. Did you set too many goals for each day?
Now, I'm all for setting far-fetched optimistic goals and then working hard to reach those!
But it's important to not overreach constantly.
I'd sometimes add so many tasks to my bullet journal each day that even while writing them down - and knowing that some of them would take up to five hours - I already knew deep down that I wouldn't be able to keep up.
See your Limitations, Let Go of the Impossible
I made my daily layout boxes quite small, took up some extra space with nice calligraphy, and set my goals according to my limitations.
- If it looks like way too much work, it's probably way too much work
- If it looks bad, it's probably bad.
As in, if your plans for a project look vague and don't excite you at all, it's probably because they aren't good ideas in the first place and need some more thought put into them before you dive in head-first!
It also helped to remember that a habit tracker is actually a whole other to-do list set on top of what was written in daily layouts.
Not all of my habits are quick ones and while I don't aspire to every single one on every single day, it's still a good half-dozen of tasks each day!
4. How did your focus, mood, and energy shift?
We've all got our ups and downs.
I noticed how I'd feel more or less energized, motivated, or focused, throughout the course of a month.
I'd have phases when I'm more focused on the external, then internal. Creative or physical. Energized or calm.
Each of those suits a different set of tasks and I believe that recognizing the patterns and knowing yourself is a great help in optimizing your plans!
Of course, life often doesn't care about your mood when it throws work at you, but you can still tweak around the edges to fit the days to your current energy levels and area of focus.
My habit tracker helps me look back at all those small things I'd otherwise just forget about.
I can see during which time of the month I was more into weightlifting, more into calm yoga, or more into just sitting down to draw.
There are phases during which I got a lot of blogging tasks done, others when I enjoyed sketching, and then days that had me take a step back and do a bit of self-care. I've learned to go with that flow as much as I can!
5. What made you happy?
This might sound frivolous. But: Pretty layouts and completed task lists are such a satisfaction for me!
Each finished day that left me with a neat, pretty daily layout in my bullet journal would also mean that I myself felt more orderly and neat (and pretty haha) - and the emotion transferred to other parts of my life, too!
Especially when the actual work you do isn't glamorous, there's a great satisfaction in bringing aesthetics and practicality together.
"How you do anything is how you do everything.
That can mean a bullet journal layout, a sticker in your planner, or a clutter-free desk in a clean room. When I took time to be mindful in my journaling, that also meant mindfulness and focus came easier to me in other aspects of my life.
Look through your bullet journal. Which spreads were fun to keep up with? Which layout inspired you? Which old page still is your favorite?
Do more of that in the future, and evolve the ideas you enjoy most!
I hope you enjoyed looking through my January monthly review and that the questions I ask myself for self-reflection can help you, too! What are some lessons you learned about yourself once you started planning or journaling?