In his celebrated book on organization, The Bullet Journal Method, Ryder Carroll describes his personal organization and productivity system: the bullet journal.
Throughout his life, Carroll struggled with keeping track of tasks, often forgetting important information, and feeling overwhelmed by tasks. However, through trial and error (and after trying countless other organization systems), he finally hit upon a way to, as he puts it,
“track the past, order the present, and design the future.”
Enter: the bullet journal, a pen and notebook system that takes things back to basics. Part to-do list and part journal, the bullet journal revolutionized the way Carroll approached his life, his work, and how he got things done. And it’s helped many others do the same.
In his book, Carroll breaks down exactly how to use the bullet journal system, but he also offers some insights on how to plan your days more effectively. Many of these tips can actually apply to whatever productivity system you use in your own life.
Whether you use the bullet journal method yourself or stick with a simple to-do list, or use an online system like Notion, Google Calendar, or something else entirely, you can implement some of these principles to make your life simpler and more productive.
Here are five of Carroll’s tips for planning your week effectively:
Take a mental inventory
Before you dive into color-coding all the hours of your day or assigning time to each task you hope to accomplish, take a moment to create a mental inventory. It’s a great idea to do this the Friday before your week starts, so when Monday comes you’re ready to hit the ground running.
To take a mental inventory, write down anything and everything that you know you want to accomplish. Don’t hold back, just let it all out, either on a piece of paper or in a digital list. You’ll probably discover you have a lot more tasks you hope to complete than you thought you did.
This is because we often suffer from decision fatigue — a phenomenon that occurs when we have too many choices for how to spend our time, leading to burnout. Carroll writes that
“The first step to recovering from decision fatigue, to get out from under the pile of choices weighing on you, is to get some distance from them.”
And the best way to get distance? Write it all down! Once your brain isn’t taking up energy thinking about all the tasks you need to accomplish, it will have the space to step back and evaluate what’s really important.
Now that all your tasks for the next week are written down, consider each task individually. How important is this task? Is it vital? Is it necessary?
Taking a mental inventory gives you the chance to cross tasks off your list that actually aren’t that important, and would have kept you from working on the things that really matter.
If you find yourself particularly overwhelmed by a task, or are not sure when you’ll get a chance to work on it, a good way to make sure you get around to it is by using time blocking.
Time blocking is a method where you set aside a certain amount of time to work on a task. So for example, instead of your to-do list saying:
- Write Essay
- Work on Project
- Clean Room
You would set up your to-do list like this:
- 10 am – 11 am: Draft essay
- 11:30 am – 12 pm: Make final edits to project
- 1 pm – 2 pm: Clean room
This way, you only have a certain amount of time to work on the task, allowing you to give it your full attention and adding pressure to get the task done in that time frame.
As Carroll explains,
“time boxing adds two key motivational ingredients to a task you’ve been putting off: structure and urgency.”
While setting up your week the Friday before helps get your thoughts organized, it’s also a good practice to include a morning reflection period.
This reflection doesn’t have to be very long: only about five to fifteen minutes. But it can set your day up for massive success.
Take a few moments to sit down for a reflection with your to-do list, Notion board, bullet journal, or whatever you use. You can do this while you drink your morning coffee, or just as you’re sitting down at your desk.
The morning reflection is a time to go over the tasks you have prepared for the day and think about why you’re doing each of them. Another good tip is to imagine yourself completing each task to give yourself an extra burst of motivation.
Where the morning reflection helps you kickstart your day with the right attitude, the evening reflection helps you unwind and unburden your mind.
During your evening reflection, consider each task you completed during the day and ask yourself questions like:
- why is this important?
- why am I doing this?
- why is this a priority?
An evening reflection practice helps focus and clarify your priorities so you can plan accordingly. Not only does it put a nice bookend on your day, but you get the chance to mark any completed tasks as done and move uncompleted tasks to another day. This is an important aspect of the evening reflection because it helps you feel like the day is “complete,” instead of a never-ending to-do list. You should also take this moment to appreciate your progress and put a close on the day.
As Carroll writes:
“Reflection helps identify what nourishes you so you can make better decisions as you seed the next season of your life.”
Our brains love dopamine. When we scroll for hours on TikTok, our brains get tiny bursts of dopamine every time we laugh at a video or think something is interesting. That’s why we scroll for so long — our brains are getting tons of what they love: dopamine. That’s why it’s also so important to celebrate every task that you accomplish.
So each time you cross something off your list, give yourself a high-five, a thumbs up, a big smile! Get up from your desk and do a dance! Do a fist pump! Say “you got this!”
If it’s a big achievement, give yourself an even bigger celebration! Call a friend or take the day off early. Do whatever you need to do to make sure you properly celebrate.
Carroll puts it this way:
“Celebrating your victories isn’t just about patting yourself on the back; it trains you to identify positive moments, which allows you to discover — and enjoy — more of them.”
Of course, the most important thing about whatever tips or system you implement is that it works. Any system that becomes too complicated for you to keep track of, or that bogs you down, or that keeps you from being able to work on your tasks is not a good system. So take what tips interest you, test them out, see how they fit into your system and leave behind anything that causes more friction and frustration in your life. Your productivity system should always help you more than it hurts!
No matter what productivity or organization system you use in your life, whether it’s the bullet journal or something else, hopefully, you can implement some of these tips to make your system even more effective and make your life that much easier.