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When bullet journaling or making a to-do list, first, ask yourself: does this thought actually belong here? NYT PIC

AS a tween, whenever my dad wanted me to do something for him, like deposit a cheque or write a letter or call customer service, he’d stop mid-instruction, give me a stern look and ask, “Are you writing this down?”

Imagine a 12-year-old eye roll here. To my mind, I had an airtight system in place, relying on made-up medleys with a simple beat: check, letter, call Time Warner; check, letter, call Time Warner. If this sounds like a terrible strategy: You’re right, and it rarely worked.

My dad’s instincts were on point. We now know that the brain truly can’t be trusted to hold or remember more than a few thoughts at a time. That’s why I decided to pick up bullet journaling, a system created by Ryder Carroll that organises your to-do list, your schedule and your journal in one notebook while giving you free rein to design it according to your lifestyle.

It has become a social media sensation over the last few years, with more than three million related posts on Instagram alone and a dedicated following inspired to create blogs and innovations to the original system. I was drawn in by its flexibility and the beautiful spreads created by others, but in practice, I couldn’t keep up the momentum.

In his new book, The Bullet Journal Method: Track the Past, Order the Present, Design the Future, Carroll goes back to basics, explaining the practice and his reasoning behind each element, which include an index or table of contents, a future log for upcoming events or tasks, and daily and monthly logs for more granular planning. One can create custom collections, blank pages that can take any form, even just a simple list. “It’s not about how your journal looks, it’s about how it makes you feel and how effective it is,” writes Carroll.

He clarifies ways to use the bullet journal for every step of project management: brainstorming, determining the desired outcome (he even recommends writing a mission statement at the top of the project’s collection page), defining subcollections and doing necessary research.

For longer-term projects or those that contain many moving parts, like learning to cook, Carroll recommends breaking them down into sprints — “independent, self-contained projects” that can be completed within two weeks or a month — and creating collection pages to track your progress.

I decided to nix the elaborate spreads and give bullet journaling another try, this time with
the help of another book, Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity, by David Allen, which taught me to clarify and organise my tasks more effectively.

Most to-do lists tend to contain a mix of projects, notes and reminders, which muddles its contents and “simply remind you that you are overwhelmed”. According to Allen’s system, we should categorise information into three categories: “next actions” which by his standards must be “descriptive of a physical behaviour”; “projects”, broadly defined as anything with more than one action step; and “reference material”, such as those articles saved in your Bookmarks tab or the nail art ideas on your Pinterest board.

One major challenge was reckoning with all the projects on my list. Meal prep, for instance, which I often list but rarely do, is actually a project in disguise, because it requires more than one action to be marked as complete. My subpar cooking skills require that I look up a recipe and mentally prepare for the task. Creating a grocery list and shopping for food also precede the act of cooking. By simply writing “meal prep”, I was forcing my brain to keep working to fill the space between the outcome and how to get there.

According to Allen, “Once you know how to process your stuff and what to organise, you really just need to create and manage lists”. Yes, plural.

Allen recommends grouping items according to the conditions under which they must be completed. It may be useful, for instance, to group errands together, so that if you’re out, you can refer to the list for other places you need to go. Similarly, if you have a regular meeting with your boss, it’s helpful to have an agenda with topics to cover.

Both writers encourage engaging regularly with your tasks, projects and thoughts. “The goal is getting into the habit of checking in with yourself, asking small whys. Over time, you get better at answering these questions. You’re refining your beliefs, your values, your ability to spot your weaknesses and your strengths,” wrote Carroll.

I’m still new to this, so I can’t say that I’ve experienced “mind like water” or “flow” (Allen’s words) or any other euphemism for not feeling like your mind is spilling over with thoughts and ideas. But if, as Allen wrote, “The key is to feel as good about what you’re not doing as about what you are doing at that moment” — I guess I’ve achieved a certain kind of clarity. NYT

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