I’ve not always been a lover of to-do lists. Lists, yes. To-do lists, no.
My earliest memories of useful lists come from my middle school and high school dance team years. Before every performance, we’d receive a checklist of what we needed to bring, what we needed to wear, and where we needed to be at what time. They were simple, straightforward, and kept me and my giant black dance bag organized.
Shout out to my friend and teammate Laney, who shared this list a couple of years ago on Facebook. Mine were never this clean.
Even though those lists were incredibly helpful, I didn’t always make lists of my own.
Though I did, notoriously, give my friends a similar sheet before prom my junior year. I’ve always been a little anal about prompt arrivals and overestimating travel time.
I used checklists to keep my grad apps organized when I applied for my master’s program in 2011.
But it wasn’t until I had received my master’s degree and was in my first full-time job that the to-do list bug hit me. I was teaching five classes a semester, with 2-3 different course preps. That’s a lot of assignments and due dates and lesson plans to remember. My to-do list started small, with just a schedule of grading. I found breaking down my grading to 5-10 essays a day was so much more manageable than waiting until the couple of days before my students’ next assignment was due to cram them all in.
The To-Do List grew from that grading schedule to helping me plan lessons a week in advance.
Then important reminders, like trips to my stylist and department dinners, got added in.
Now, I’m finding it miserably hard to believe that I never shared a single picture of these to-do lists on any social media. However, I may have to face reality: I have no documentation of these lists.
They’re nothing flashy: a weekly set up with bullet lists, typed every Monday morning on my office computer. Smartly, I always factored failure in. Tuesday’s list always began with “Complete any remaining Monday tasks,” Wednesday’s with “Complete any remaining Monday and Tuesday tasks” and so on and so forth.
There are many things I liked about this. I spent a good 20 minutes at the start of my week making a plan for how that week would go. It made everything much smoother, especially when I was facing an unusually busy week (like conferences) or a week with some odd scheduling (like conferences with online students). It was also so honest: The more I completed these to-do lists, the less ambitious I became. I realized how much work I could actually get done in a given day, and was able to plan accordingly. I no longer had Monday tasks hanging around on Friday because I was a lot smarter at planning my week.
When I started my PhD program last August, it no longer became practical to have a printed-out to-do list. The real downside of my teaching approach was that it didn’t leave me with a ton of flexibility. I left a few bullets for tasks or meetings that were added unexpectedly, but my list often ended up with a lot of scribbles between late additions and other notes and reminders I had not accounted for. Also, sometimes grocery lists or notes to myself or phrases I wanted to include in my PhD application materials.
Yes: the start of my personal statement was written on the back of a to-do list during a student work day in one of my first-year research writing courses.
Anyway, it was this summer when I thought about changing up my to-do list approach. I no longer had a consistent schedule. I knew I’d no longer be doing the exact same routine on Wednesday as I did on Monday or Friday. That’s when I found the Bullet Journal.
I don’t remember where, or how, I found the bullet journal. But it ended with my mindlessly watching Plan With Me videos from YouTube on my boyfriend’s couch and favoriting all kinds of planner stickers on Etsy. I lusted over a Plum Paper planner. I considered an Erin Condren, but even with discount codes from various bloggers these still seems like major investments for someone about to be an a graduate student stipend.
So, I moved to a Happy Planner with a coupon from Michael’s that let me get it for about 15 bucks. What a deal!
This lasted maybe a month. This planner still sits in my living room, underneath my coffee table. But it just did not work for me. I did not feel I had enough space to write.
After a month or so of cramming my life into the Happy Planner, I ordered a set of grid-paper Moleskine notebooks from Amazon and eagerly awaited their arrival.
It’s taken a long time for me come to layout that’s quick to put in place but also useful. I’ve had essentially three variations, and I’ve found that I really need two separate approaches: section for day-specific tasks and a section for tasks that need completely in a given week but are more flexible.
I had that balance of flexibility in my first layout, but it took up a lot of room, some of my space ended up unused when I didn’t have much to include, and drawing it out every week was a bit time consuming.
In my second layout, I tried to better plan my week by telling myself what day of the week I’d accomplish certain tasks, but this did not always work in my favor. I ended up with a lot of incompletes and migrated tasks.
In my final layout, the one I use when I’m not in vacation mode, I found a good balance of time to create and functionality. It’s simple and nothing fancy, but it works really well for my needs, and I sometimes have space left over to add notes or reminders that come up when I don’t have anything but my planner on me.
There are so many amazing bullet journals out there for inspiration! I can’t commit myself to practicing fancy lettering or too much doodling because that just becomes procrastination for work I actually *need* to get done. Maybe in the future. For now, I’ll stick with my simple designs and color coding.
What’s your favorite bullet journal layout? Have any good bullet journal tips for newbies? Leave them in the comments!