Juan Castro

My new productivity system: Bullet Journal and GTD

Posted at — Jun 29, 2020

For a long time I have tried to use applications for making notes, to-do lists, calendars and other "productivity" systems. However, I have always encountered the same problem: after a couple of days or weeks I stop using it.

About two years ago I discovered the GTD method of productivity. It seemed that I had just found the holy grail and that I was facing the definitive solution to my desire to introduce some productivity methodology into my life. After reading several blogs, reading the book and taking what I could use, I installed some apps and tried to create a new system. The problem was still the same: the workflow I tried to do was too complex, trying to synchronize all my devices and creating complex systems from the methodology that resulted in a rigid system that I could not adapt to my particular needs. I decided to abandon the idea of synchronization and focus on a single device, my smartphone, but then I realized that analysis and long note taking is annoying on a cell phone, for a couple of words it's fine, but to empty 5 to 10 tasks written as somewhat long sentences, ended up being annoying and tiring. The problem now is (and maybe always was) high tech.

One fine day, reading about productivity and alternatives to GTD (I kept blaming the methodology and not the implementation itself) I came across Bullet Journal, an analogical system for taking notes and, according to its slogan, reviewing the past, order the present and planning the future. I quickly started to analyze how to incorporate aspects of GTD into the Bullet Journal and soon after I bought a notebook and decided to implement it.

GTD and the Bullet Journal

The GTD methodology was proposed by David Allen at the beginning of the 21st century as a solution to task notes and to reduce the increasing stress of working life. Mainly focused on a business audience, it is easy to extrapolate the main ideas and adapt it to different areas. The main ideas of the GTD can be summarised as follows:

  • Write down or save absolutely everything, so nothing is forgotten. This is called inbox and it can be a notebook with ideas, the inbox of the email, or the document tray of the office. There are several inboxes.

  • Carefully analyze each entry in the inbox with the help of the famous GTD flowchart. This will guide us to formulate tasks next actions and where they should go:

By SageGreenRider - Own work, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=37606873
  • The calendar should only have appointments and other actions linked to a specific date

  • If a task requires several actions, it is a project

  • Each action is linked to a context (a place, a tool, a person)

For more information regarding the GTD I recommend this Asian Efficiency post where they talk in detail about the methodology.

The Bullet Journal, on the other hand, is an analogical methodology that makes use of the simplest technology: a notebook and a pen. It is a flexible system, totally customizable, we are not in front of a planner with letterheads, but a simple notebook, lined or grid (mine is dotted) where we can write what we want, in a more practical and simple way than in a cell phone. It is halfway between a planner and a diary. The main aspects of the Bullet Journal are:

  • It's separated into "collections" which is just sections of the notebook. Some collections are part of the basis of the methodology and, in theory, should not be eliminated. These collections are:

    • An index (this implies numbering each page of the notebook)

    • The yearly log: a table showing each month and, in broad terms, the events or tasks for those months.

    • The monthly log: includes a calendar on one side and the list of tasks for that month on the other

    • The daily log: the tasks and events for that day. It allows you to write down ideas and notes as well.

For a better idea I recommend https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fm15cmYU0IM] [this video in youtube from Ryder Carroll himself, the author of the methodology.

Creating my own system from what already exists

GTD has positive aspects but also aspects that I feel are unnecessary or out of place for my particular use. The same feeling I have about Bullet Journal. Let's see what I don't like and why.

  • The contexts of GTD: GTD is based on linking each task to a context, which are places, tools or people linked to an action. These can be @PC, @telephone, @store, @work, @alejandra. The use of contexts seems useful at the beginning, more in a digital environment where with a click I can filter the actions, but in an analogical system you don't have so many filtering capabilities anymore; that's why I saw an idea of writing down the tasks in cards and each card is a context, which seems complicated and a bit silly to me, why do I want a notebook then? On the other hand the contexts seem redundant: if I need to call Maria it is obvious that I will do it on a phone, and the activity report I don't need to mention that I will do it on the computer, not to mention that there are tasks I can do in many contexts: sending an email I can do it on my computer, or on my cell phone, whether I am at work, at home or in the truck.

  • The Bullet Journal Index: An index is not necessary for me, maybe it will become so later and I will implement it, but for the moment it seems totally unnecessary and I don't need it to find my information.

  • The Daily Record: Not that I have so many things to do each day, a weekly log seems more appropriate.

  • The exaggerated adornment that the Bullet Journal community promotes: If you go to reddit, pinterest or any web and look for "bullet journal" it is full of super-adorned notebook images with nice drawings, stickers and typographies, something I am not willing to do: besides lacking the necessary imagination, it will take me too long to adorn the notebook and it will lose some of its practicality.

Taking into account the above, I have combined the aspects that serve me from each methodology in the following way:

  1. The Bullet Journal lacks an index

  2. The inbox for individual ideas is a very simple note application on my cell phone. I use my cell phone instead of my notebook because I carry it everywhere and I can copy and paste information from the internet, such as names or links.

  3. I carry the GTD reference file on my PC. An Org-mode file divided into several categories according to the information I decide to store there. I don't use the notebook because on the PC it can survive notebook changes and I can add links to web pages.

  4. I have the "someday, maybe" list from GTD at the beginning of my Bullet Journal.

  5. The monthly Bullet Journal log consists of a calendar and the list of active projects.

  6. Instead of a daily log, a weekly log is used. Maybe in the future, if I need a daily log, I will change it.

  7. I use the Bullet Journal calendar to record appointments. I'm thinking of switching to my cell phone calendar for appointments that have a specific time and leaving the Bullet Journal calendar for deadlines on certain tasks, since the cell phone can remind me of the appointment with an alarm.

  8. The weekly review is done, but it is more convenient and even fun to do it in a notebook than on a cell phone.

Two weeks and counting

I've been implementing this system for about two weeks now. The big problem is that thanks to Corona-Chan I haven't been able to try it out in a real work environment, and many of the tasks I've written down may even feel artificial as I don't have much to do indoors. I hope soon to be able to try it in a real environment and be able to tell if it really works, but so far I have lasted longer with this system than with any I have tried before, even to be a season of "I have nothing to do".

With the Bullet Journal in my hands I decided to make changes to the original system of both this and the GTD, the purists will call it heresy, I call it adaptation, adapting the methodologies to something that serves me even if it means sacrificing nuclear aspects. If in the end it turns out that, because of my modifications, I don't do GTD or Bullet Journal, does it really matter? The rigidity of other systems has taken me away from them and, if I can't call it GTD or Bullet Journal, let's call it the "Juan Castro" methodology because it's the one that works for me, and I recommend everyone to develop their own methodologies, which is to say, that it works for me doesn't mean it works for others.

Translated with www.DeepL.com/Translator (free version)