Bullet Journaling – One year on…

Bullet Journaling – One year on…

Looking for new ways to keep on top of academic life? Or perhaps a revision of an old favourite? In this guest post, Nicola McGuire revisits the benefits of using a Bullet Journal during her PhD, and reflects on how her habits have evolved. Nicola McGuire (@nicolamcguire_ ) is a PhD student in the Institute of Health and Wellbeing looking at improving psychosocial recovery from negative symptoms in individuals with experiences of psychosis and enjoys thinking critically about the contextual determinants that impact on our perceptions of mental health.

Last year, I had the pleasure of writing for the PGR Blog about how bullet journaling had become an exceptionally helpful motivational tool which helps to keep my research (and life) organised and clear. Now, well into the second year of my PhD I am pleased to report that not much has changed on that front – I am even still using the same journal! However, saying that brings to mind a quote which, interestingly, is attributed to a philosopher whose writing is neither organised nor particularly clear:

The only thing that is constant is change” – Heraclitus

A blue bullet journal on a desk with several books in the background

My slightly more scruffy, almost completely filled (but not quite!) bullet journal.

So, what has changed for me in a year of bullet journaling?

While it isn’t clear whether Heraclitus would have been a fan of bullet journaling, it’s undeniable that it is an excellent tool for dealing with the change which is constant in academic life.

Here are some of the changes I have adopted:

My structure:

Coming into a new stage of my PhD – one where my days feel much more like ticking off boxes on a never-ending to do list – has really changed what I want to write each day, and also the space I need for it. Last year, when a typical day was spent conceptualising new ideas and exploring my thesis, the infinite space offered by my journal was a massive benefit, allowing me room not only for my tasks but also for the more creative or complex thoughts. Now that my time is more structured, I have now moved on to a much more focused use of space for my day-to-day tasks, with separate space each week for my “aha” moments which happen a little less often these days.

I try not to think of this change as an “advancement” in my bullet journaling – it’s not just that I’ve suddenly become more concise! For me, this just highlights that, right now, it is more helpful to be able to see my entire week on one page. As I am about to begin data collection, a very different stage of my thesis, the time scale of my week is different with tasks spanning days rather than hours. This new structure allows me to block aside large blocks of time where I will be out of the office. The point is that my journal has been able to evolve with me and my research, allowing me to work in the way that I need to on any given day - an invaluable tool for a researcher!

A page showing from a bullet journal showing the tasks from two days in November

I leave about half the space I used to for each day, because the things I write down tend to be a bit less wordy. I now feel a like I know what I’m supposed to be doing each day!

How I keep track of the larger things:

Each month I leave two pages: one for my calendar, to see what I have to do each month and another for the objectives that I want to achieve. This has been particularly helpful for the times when I have been doing fine-grained work as, I’m sure we can all agree, it is so easy to lose sight of what this more focused work is supposed to contribute towards or even why you are doing it. This also helps to hold me accountable to focusing on the bigger objectives I need to meet to stay on track, rather than get bogged down in tasks that might not be strictly essential but are far more diverting (i.e. formatting).

It’s ok to have dips in motivation:

The most important change I’ve made with my bullet journal is coming to the realisation that I might not want to complete lots of tasks every single day! Like many students, I’ve experienced wanes in my motivation throughout my second year. The real benefit of bullet journaling, for me, is that I do not have to see weeks upon weeks of unfilled diary space. In my original and traditional diary, this bothered me because this empty space just felt very wasteful - it could so easily have been used for something else. But more deeply, I have found that there is a relationship between my levels of motivation and the fullnesss of my diary. It’s taken me a long time to realise why this is. When I am having a wane of motivation, it seems that either the tasks I have managed to complete felt so miniscule that they weren’t “worthy” of being recorded; or, worse, because writing nothing at all felt better than recording what I had done that week and potentially revealing that it actually wasn’t “enough”.

The support I’ve had from other students, friends and my supervisors has led me to identify that much of this worry has been based on judgments I make about myself and how much work I “should” be completing. My bullet journal helps me lessen that self-judgement. Quite simply, taking a break from my bullet journal during these less productive times has felt similar to having a non-judgemental friend, who says “Hey, it’s okay that you can’t commit to this right now, I’m here when you want to come back and talk”. No space wasted, and time for me to think through where I’m at and where I want to be. More so each time I have came back to my journal, I have been able to address what might have made me feel less motivated in the first place, and use my bullet journal effectively to move myself forward.

Final thoughts: What has bullet journaling done for me?

So right now, it’s really helping me to look at my bullet journal and write just one small thing each and every day. I’m now better equipped to see this as progress where I might not have before. It also means that my memory is jogged much quicker at 6.40am when my alarm goes off and I ask myself “what do I really need to do today?”. In short, while the use of my bullet journal has been through several changes this year, including periods where i did not use it at all, I still feel that this is a handy way of recording what I need to be doing, and keeping me on track. Not only has it helped me through difficult times in my PhD, it’s also helped me realise the rewards I’ve gained as part of this process. So while this bullet journal might almost be complete my use of bullet journals seems to be only just beginning.

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