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Bullet Journal, GTD and forward planning

Whilst I love the structure and simplicity of Bullet Journal, there’s no denying that the basic system is weak on planning. Unfortunately that’s something I have to do a lot of, both in my day job and at home. For example if I’m attending a convention I need to make sure to book my train or plane tickets well in advance, when they’re cheapest – but that may not be today or even next month or the month after that.

What would we do without Filofaxes?
What would we do without Filofaxes?

The other issue is that if I put absolutely everything into one journal, each notebook is going to fill up pretty quickly, which means a lot of copying of long-term items from one to the next. Whilst I understand that the purpose of copying items is to help you decide what’s important to you and what can be discarded, this doesn’t really apply to things that are on hold because they simply can’t be done right now.

One solution would be to use a binder that allows you to switch sections in and out, such as a Filofax or a refillable notebook such as an X17 or Midori. Either way, you’re looking at hauling around a substantial-sized journal – imagine pulling out that monster in the supermarket, just to tick off an item on your shopping list! And if you lost it, all your plans would be lost too…

The alternative that I’ve come up with is to have not one but three journals. Yes, this does break the Bullet Journal model of having one place for everything, but it solves a lot of other problems. Also, as you’ll see, most of the time you’re only using one journal anyway.

Household Planner

The first “journal” is the least-often used, but the most long-term. I use it for all my domestic projects (e.g. room makeovers) and also to log reminders for the things I do year after year at a particular time (like making preserves in autumn). It rarely if ever leaves the house, because its sole purpose is planning.

For this I use a Filofax (a personal-sized Malden), because it’s easy to add pages here and there as I need them. Funnily enough I originally bought it to be my take-anywhere “story bible” for my novels but found the pages too small for the job, which is why I switched to A5 paper for that project.

I have a pre-printed foldout year planner marked with birthdays and major household events (using some cute Filofax stickers I bought years ago and never used!), then dividers for months and “zones” (major areas of the house) where I add loose pages as needed. It’s very much a work-in-progress, but I aim for it to become an invaluable reference as the years go by.

Personal Journal

The second journal is for medium-term and more personal stuff. For this I use a Midori Traveller’s Notebook, which I’d been lusting after for ages. I’d looked into them when I was choosing a story bible notebook last year, but as with the Filofax I was put off by the narrow, non-standard paper size. However for a personal journal there’s no real need to be constrained by format, so I went a bit crazy and bought the MTN and inserts, plus a bunch of pretty stickers and post-its, from The Journal Shop :)

All The Pretties!
All The Pretties!

I have two inserts in there at the moment: my daily journal/diary, and my personal project lists. I’ll talk more about the former in another post, as it’s the latter that’s most pertinent to bullet journalling. The only ‘BuJo’ content in my personal journal is the monthly two-page spread, with an overview of events and a to-do list for important time-sensitive tasks.

The Project List insert starts with the obligatory index/contents page, then has a page per Collection, i.e. a bullet list for a particular topic. This includes books I want to read, upcoming TV shows (and DVD releases) I don’t want to miss, and of course a list of conventions I’m thinking of attending with accompanying to-do lists for each one. Anything that, in GTD terms, would be categorised as “Someday/Maybe” gets an asterisk instead of a checkbox, but otherwise I don’t distinguish between these and Next Actions – I prefer to group items by topic rather than time-frame.

Because I only put longer-term projects in here, not day-to-day trivia, I expect this insert to last quite a long time. Hence at the back are several 6-months-to-two-pages spreads, covering at least the next two years. Here I fill in the big events I need to plan well ahead, like the aforementioned conventions. The first page of this planner section is marked with washi tape down the edge, so I can find it more easily.

Pocket Journal

This is the journal I carry with me everywhere. I started out using my little X17, but the paper turned out to not be fountain-pen-friendly so I’ve invested in a Midori Passport Traveller’s Notebook, which is about the same size. It contains three inserts (plus storage pockets): a sketchbook and lined notebook for creative work, and a grid-paper insert for my hybrid planner/bullet journal. In GTD terms it holds Next Actions and also serves as a Bucket, i.e. a place to jot down everything that occurs to me during the day. This can include one-bullet notes about major projects, which I will process later.

I did start this one out as a conventional bullet journal, but again found the lack of forward planning somewhat frustrating. I’m therefore using a format I saw in the YouTube video below*, but since the MTN Passport is smaller, mine has only two days per page. To keep it flexible I’m setting up each week by hand on the gridded paper rather than using pre-printed inserts – it only takes a few minutes and makes me feel more engaged in the planning process.

* To-do layout starts around 9:30 mins into the video

This format has the advantage that I don’t have to move tasks from day to day, only week to week – though of course I try to complete each week’s tasks by Sunday evening!

Putting it all together

The key to making all of this work is the daily review. Every morning I take out my Personal and Pocket journals and plan my day:

  1. Add anything new that I need to get done before the end of the week to the Pocket Journal.
  2. Go through “notes” bullets from the previous day and for each one, decide whether it belongs in my Personal Journal or Household Planner.

At the end of each month I also review my Personal Journal and Household Planner, setting up the next month’s pages in the former and looking for long-term projects that have tasks I can finally start.

That’s all there is to it! It’s a long way from the bullet journal ideal of one-notebook-for-everything, but it suits the way I like to compartmentalise my activities. To use GTD terminology, each journal is a context: when I’m at work, all I see is work tasks; when I’m writing, I’m not being sidetracked by household responsibilities, and so on. It also has the benefit of greatly reducing the chance of losing all your information at once, which is always the fear with an analogue system.

Next time: singing with frogs as I plan my creative year!


Jo Lamb

You sound like a girl after my own heart! Love journals, planning and fountain pens. Have just invested in an A4 filofax to keep everything in – I don’t go out much but may look at a small pocket journal – was trying to use my phone to keep notes on, more useful for my shopping list and menu planning!


I confess that ever since I managed, lo these many many moons ago, to drop my Palm III in Tescos and smash the screen (necessitating sending it overseas for repairs!), I’ve stuck to paper for my shopping lists – but now I use Post-Its inside my Midori Passport :)