It is Sunday, and I am resolutely resting. My iPad is propped up on my lap, and I am about to indulge in some blogging.
Advent is when I like to start my new year, partly because it is the start of the liturgical year and I like being countercultural, partly because it gives me an excuse to procrastinate all the Christmas things. So over the past couple of weeks, I spent time setting up a new notebook.
Are you familiar with the “bullet journal” productivity fad? If you have so far escaped knowledge of this, and you are prone to declaring that there exist no individuals who have time for such activities, I have a suggestion: Take a look at the original concept by the man who coined the term and then this minimalist self-proclaimed ugly version by a woman working in tech before you do any such fool thing as google “bullet journal ideas.”
Especially without the -pinterest tag.
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Paper notes and lists have always pleased me more than digital ones. I have a near-religious devotion to the utility of taking class notes on paper. I write out daily to-do lists for my K-8 homeschoolers. I still make my grocery lists on paper forms, and I go through post-it notes and index cards terrifyingly fast.
Some transitions I have made. I was one of the last people I know to move from a paper calendar on the wall to a Google calendar, but it has been years now and I am completely comfortable with it. I have stopped making paper flash cards for the students I tutor and have encouraged them to get onto Quizlet. I store some lists (notably, meal plans) on Wunderlist so I can access them from anywhere. I use my email inbox to capture miscellaneous thoughts I have now, and email ideas to my future self via followupthen.com. Every Saturday I shoot out a series of emails to all the homeschoolers I supervise with their assignments for the week.
But I can't see myself going full digital quite yet. I still love thinking on paper, and I am used to finding information I've written down by flipping through a book. So I carry a paper notebook around in my bag, next to my iPad.
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What I do NOT do:
- write out a year-at-a-glance page or month-at-a-glance pages
- have an expensive boutique-quality paper notebook
- elaborate layouts
- numbered pages and a table of contents
- daily to-do lists
What I DO use it for:
- periodically writing out master lists (“brain dump”) of tasks, projects, and “someday/maybes”
- making notes of things as I go through my inbox each day or two
- thinking through things by writing about them
- planning how to spend time
- blocking out project timelines in the form of a mini-calendar
- taking (or rewriting) notes to organize information
- taking notes I’ll never look at again just to help me listen and pay attention
- as handy paper to write the odd grocery list
As a system it is semi-intentional. I observed how I do and don’t use it, and constructed a standardized (not idealized!) algorithm.
As I was transferring information into my new notebook this year, I decided to add a tabbed index, but not a table of contents. In a journal where notes are added chronologically, tables of contents get too jumbled up for me to find them useful. Instead, I created just a handful of broad categories and used a blacked-in square at the edge of the page to tag pages.
The categories are:
- Pages copied from last year’s journal and core pages
- Task lists and brain dumps and notes from going through inboxes
- Planning out projects and time
- Thinking on paper
- Insights I want to remember
There’s a last category, but instead of giving it a tab I write it from the back toward the front by turning the notebook upside down and backwards:
- Notes just for listening
This lets me treat the back of the book as a simple chronological notebook of things I was trying to pay attention to. It keeps the organized matter at the front from being interrupted by scrawls of low importance.
So in the very front of my notebook, which is just a quadrille-ruled composition book with a plastic cover, I have made:
- a page with my contact information
- the tabbed index with the list of categories
- a page of long-term goals (roughly ten years out)
- a page labeled “Backlog” of tasks that aren’t urgent but I want to get around to
- a couple of pages of memory-joggers for when I am making task lists.
There is also a set of pages of reference information that I copied forward from last year’s notebook. For example, the long-term school planning chart (picture above) that tells me what grade everyone will be in each school year for the next ten years.
My system starts off with a master task list, a.k.a. a “brain dump.” This corresponds roughly to a monthly review and task migration in the minimalist bullet journal system, or to a weekly review in GTD, but I don't do it at set intervals. I dump my brain whenever I feel that it is starting to fill up with loose ends of things that I need to remember, or whenever the existing lists start to feel out of date. It is a mini fresh start, best done on a Saturday morning after one and a half cups of coffee.
I usually make a brain dump onto a two-page spread, and often put items into categories, depending on how I am feeling. Sometimes I categorize by people: a list for self, for Mark, for each of the children (or sometimes just a KIDS list), extended family and friends, community. I often do that if I am trying to jog my memory and write down all my current responsibilities toward other people.
Other times I categorize tasks by context.
Context means the environment where I can perform the task. The idea is that when I find myself in a particular context, I should work from the part of the list that contains the tasks I can do most easily there.
Sometimes context is a physical space and sometimes it is more of a state of mind, or both. My contexts include
- Web (researching, purchasing, reading, other)
- Phone calls (for which I need quiet)
- At home, with quiet access to my school materials, archives, and files
- Household tasks (for which quiet is not necessary)
- Brick-and-mortar errands and shopping
- Coffeeshop work
- Tasks to delegate to someone else
- Complicated multistep projects (not really a context, but important to put on the same page as the brain dump)
This is what I call the intermediate step between the brain dump/master task list and today’s to-do list. It is kind of like a daily review. I don’t do it every single day, although I probably should.
The concept of the yesterbox comes from Tony Hsieh, who wrote about it concisely here. It works brilliantly with the technique of using your email box as a way of collecting tasks and thoughts. I already email myself reminders pretty often, so I have found it useful. The basic idea: Yesterday’s inbox is today’s to-do list. Every day you must deal with the emails that came in the previous day, and then you may call yourself done (with email, anyway). There’s some fine print at the link for how to adapt it as needed, but that is the basic idea.
I have employed synecdoche, calling the whole daily review a “yesterbox,” to remind me of this focus. I open the notebook to a new page, date it, and then start going through my email from yesterday (including any email reminders I sent myself). Here I write down new tasks that the emails suggest to me. I also add events and scheduled tasks to my digital calendar at this time—these do not go into my notebook, since I will get an electronic reminder about those. And I note things coming up on the calendar. Anything else that comes to mind, too. I also look at notes I made for myself yesterday (i.e., yesterday’s yesterbox) and carry things forward as seems appropriate, or delete them if they have become irrelevant, or cross them off if I actually accomplished them. In any case, I can stop when I get through all the emails and reminders that came in yesterday. Or, if I wish I can look at older emails and at new ones that came in today.
I do not use the yesterbox as today’s task list. It’s too long. So the next thing I do is:
THE INDEX CARD
I make my daily to-do list on one side of an index card. This prevents me from making a to-do list that is too long.
I write down things I know I must do today first. Then I select tasks from the yesterbox list and copy them onto the index card. If I know I am not going to get to a yesterbox task today, I might copy it back onto the master task list if it is not already there. That would be the best and most organized thing to do, but I often don’t have the self-discipline to admit to myself that I am not going to get to it today. So sometimes just leave it there for now where I will be able to see it tomorrow and carry it forward onto the next yesterbox.
If my card is not full, I go back to the brain dump (working master task list) and pull tasks from there to put on my index card.
The index card goes in my pocket or purse and follows me around. I sometimes write information on the back, like a phone number I need to call. At the end of the day, whether I have finished everything on it or not, I put it up on the prayer shelf above my desk and forget about it.
Most of the tasks are duplicated in the notebook, so I won’t lose any vital information. Shelving the cards, finished or not, up on the little shrine of sorts where I keep a crucifix and some devotional images, is a way of letting go of the day’s obligations and making peace with my imperfections. A stack of to-do cards grows there, like a little pile of offerings. Every so often I throw them away.
This is a relatively new addition to the notebook, but I have high hopes for it. It comes into play when it is time to make a new brain dump. My plan to try for this year is to migrate every non-obviated task from the old brain dump: either forward onto the new brain dump, if it is still relatively fresh; or, if it has fallen to “if I get around to it” status, backward onto the backlog. Anything that I just don’t need to think about anymore (I missed my chance, or somebody else did it, or it became irrelevant) can get crossed out, but things I still hope to do will be captured either on the new brain dump, or saved in the backlog for possible future consideration. The old brain dump is no longer active or useful.
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Well, that is a decent overview of my hybrid digital-paper system, such as it is. No glitter, washi tape, stamps, or fountain pens allowed. And I break my own rules all the time. Does it still count as a system? Well, I am on maybe my fourth notebook in as many years, so I think it does. I still probably use it to procrastinate more than anything else, but it makes me feel organized, and sometimes that is enough of a boost to get some things done.