In January of 2020, before the whole world stopped—before even the idea that the whole world could stop—I was going to get my shit together. I was working out of a local library because my whole family was at home for winter break and I needed some space to get my head in order after a few hard years. 2020 was going to be my year, I was sure of it.
On my way to leaving I passed a book called "The Bullet Journal Method." It was nicely designed, but I probably would have walked right by it had the subtitle not hit me at exactly the angle I needed right then: "Track the Past, Order the Present, Design the Future." Yes please. I checked it out, brought it home, and read it that night.
Full disclosure: I didn't finish it. The first half of the book is practical explanations of how to build a flexible journal and advice on how to make the most of it. The second is sort of tent-revivalesque preaching about how adhering to the methodology will change your life and sent the cynical side of my brain into overdrive, so I put it down. But the practical stuff sounded useful, so I decided to give it a try, giving myself a three month window to test run it. Yes, the first three months of 2020. You know what happened next.
The world shut down, my family retreated into our too-small, and I was still committed to journaling. I've stuck with it ever since.
Seeing as how it's the start of a new year, and since maybe you are hoping to start getting your own shit together (spoiler alert: my shit still isn't), I thought I'd share how I use very lightweight daily journaling to create reflections of each day, month, and year. And how those have helped me to maybe at least start getting my shit in order if not together.
First let me say that while all of this grew from that Bullet Journal book, at this point I don't think I adhere to the official method much at all. That's fine. Things should work for you instead of you working for them. Anyway, here's my setup:
- I use a blank notebook (I like the Leuchtturm1917 dotted rule A5, but anything works), and at the beginning of a month I set up 4 pages (in spreads) for the month. The first page of the first spread is the numbers of the days of that month, listed vertically. I put top-line things happening that month on their respective days (I'm talking birthdays, dentist appointments, trips, that kind of thing)
- Opposite that page I make a list of goals for the month. Work shit, personal shit, whatever. I typically try to dump as much into this at the start of a month as possible, though I certainly add to it as the month progresses.
- The next two pages I leave blank, but with the name of the month at the top. I'll get to them in a little bit.
- Finally, I start a new page, date it with tomorrow's date at the top, and before I go to sleep I offload my brain into it, writing down as much as I know I have going on the next day. My hope is that it'll stop me from waking up in the middle of the night, remembering things I have going on. Maybe it does, maybe it doesn't, but it's become a nightly ritual for me now.
- The next day, I'll continue to add to the list as things come up. I find my day's list ends up taking up about half of a page. I have big, messy handwriting, YMMV. I cross things off as I do them, bump them to the following day if they don't get done, do all the normal list management stuff a person does to get things done.
- But this isn't about getting things done, this is about the second half of that page, which will be for…
- Remember how I said I start the next day's list before bed? Well, before I start that list, I look back over the current day's list, and I take a moment to think about the day. And that's what the bottom half of the page is for.
- In that empty space, I make a list of short notes reflecting on the day. What I did, how I felt about it, anything funny or sad or nice that I want to remember. How my family was doing. Anything remarkable, really. Not just the good stuff either. If I'm frustrated with work or with myself or with someone else, I make a note of it. Things I'd like to be doing if I wasn't doing the things I did today, I write it down. I make note of things I'd want to remember about today if I looked back on this day later… Which is exactly what I'll be doing when the month is out.
- On the last day of the month, I take 30 minutes or so and I read over all of those daily reflections. By keeping them short and list-y, reading them over is pretty quick.
- Over the course of the month I may have put other things in the notebook too beyond the day-to-day (I do a lot of drafting of essays and articles by hand as well as sketches for stickers and other art, all interspersed among the daily pages), I look at that stuff too if it's relevant.
- And then I go back to those two blank pages I left at the start of the month and I write a short list of reflections on the month. I'm always surprised at how much I'd forgotten about and being able to read it all at once is super useful. I always see patterns that emerge—some good, some bad—and it gives me very welcome, actionable perspective as I enter a new month. I bet you can guess what happens next…
- Yep, on New Years Eve, I sit down with a year's worth of notebooks (yes, plural, more on that in a second) and I cull through them to create a yearly reflection. I dedicate as many pages I need at the end of my last notebook for the year for this. Usually I'd say I write three or four. Again, keep it listy.
- Now, reading over hundreds of pages of daily notes is bananas. And that's why every month you've done yourself a huge favor by writing monthly reflections. All you have to do is read those over! Just 12 things. It's easy.
- And just like how reading over your daily reflections helps you see patterns to your month, reading over your monthly reflections helps you see patterns to your year. It's really remarkable. For instance, last year my entire attitude shifted in June. We went on a big road trip, and when I came back my whole outlook had changed, and it stuck for the rest of the year! I had no idea until I sat down and read through my monthly reflections. It was awesome.
Some final notes
OK, remember how I said I end up with a year's worth of plural-notebooks? I end up running through one notebook every three or four months. You may not. That's OK! First, my handwriting is big and I'm not trying to conserve space so every day is one page. Maybe you write small or have less daily things on your to-do and you find that you can fit more than one day, plus reflections, on each page. That's great! Second, I use these notebooks for basically everything. I can fill a couple dozen pages of handwritten rough drafts of an essay, that kind of thing. If you just need one notebook, you are awesome. If you need a bunch? You are also awesome.
But more than anything, there's a level of discipline and commitment involved in this whole thing that takes some time to get used to. Trying to do it at the same time every day is useful. Set a calendar reminder maybe, I did at the start. And maybe the whole "do it before bed" thing doesn't work for you. Maybe this is a "do it after coffee" kind of thing or at your lunch break or whatever. I dunno. Just give it a try.
Mostly this is something that has worked for me. While my shit isn't entirely together yet, it has helped me get on a path to shit-togetherness in big ways and small. If nothing else, I would have lost it completely during that first year of the pandemic without being able to write and reflect every day. In the years since, it's helped me get perspective on so much in so many different aspects of my life. Maybe it'll help you in this new year too.
Published January 03, 2023.