Information, ideas, and tasks fly at us continuously. They flow out of meetings and out of our own heads. Capturing the flow with the help of paper-based or electronic tools helps us externalize information, which unburdens the memory of clutter and frees the mind for focused thinking.
Notebooks, paper files, electronic files, email – I’ve used them all, and they all share the same drawback: Retrieval. Record as much as you like, the exercise is pointless if you can’t put your hands on information when you need it.
Since last year I’ve been using the Bullet Journal method. I had been aware of bullet journaling for years, but it always seemed faddish, too fussy, too neat-freaky. A colleague’s example convinced me to read a book about it and adopt it wholesale; now I find it a natural extension of the notetaking methods I’ve always used, and a mindful way to manage the flow.
The essentials of the method can be described in ten minutes. I won’t go into them here; there are plenty of videos, a website, and the book. (1) I only want to talk about the power of easy retrieval. I have improvised on the basic idea to suit the reality of a manager or leader facing a different conversation, a different issue, every few minutes.
A bullet journal requires an index and page numbers. The index is no more than a list of topics and the page numbers you’ll find them on, but it’s the key to retrieval. The topics are the tasks, ideas, and other notes recorded in bullet form – an accumulation of the flow that washes over us every day.
The original bullet journal method relies heavily on the idea of Collections. A Collection is a page, or a pair of facing pages, dedicated to a single topic – think of a large project that generates a lot of tasks and notes that are more convenient to keep together.
I have mostly dispensed with Collections, because they were page hogs. New projects would turn out to generate fewer notes than I anticipated, and I would use up notebooks too quickly, forcing more frequent and time-consuming migrations. (Again, I leave it to you to know what is meant by “migration,” another powerful central concept. In a nutshell, migration refers to transferring relevant or unfinished business from a full notebook to a blank new one, a useful process of review and winnowing.)
In place of Collections, I note down everything as it comes, without trying to gather related notes together. Instead I rely on two specialized indexes, one called People and one called Subjects.
Without a doubt the biggest generator of information, ideas, and next actions is meetings. Whatever your capture method, at the head of your notes from any meeting are three critical pieces of information: When you met, who you met with, and what you talked about. Date, people, subject.
In a bullet journal, the date is taken care of because the flow is (more or less) captured in sequence. In my modified method, People and Subject each get their own index. I set aside two facing pages for each index. An entry in the People Index might look like this:
Paul: 10, 12, 28-9, (3:36), 58, 42
A page number in parentheses indicates a reference to a previous notebook (each notebook is numbered), should I need to go back that far. There’s no need for the page references to be in order.
A sample entry in the Subject Index looks the same:
Online giving: 22, 16, 80
The People Index is most useful when you’ve met with one person to talk about multiple things – check-ins with direct reports or other regular one-on-ones. The Subjects Index is most useful when you’ve met with multiple people at once about a single thing. The same meeting can be noted in both indexes, for example when you’ve met about online giving as a group, and later discuss online giving during a one-on-one.
I try not to write too much. I take rough notes during meetings and then transfer to the bullet journal only concise highlights, key things to remember, and next actions. If I wrote directly into the journal I’d end up with a mess and use up too many pages. I can fit a month or two into a single notebook of about 100 pages.
For this to work, you have to keep the indexes up to date. I will either index as I go, or I’ll let a few days go by and then catch up. When I’m done indexing a page for people and subjects, I write “P/S” at the inner top of the page, near the gutter, so I know where to continue from. I mark the outer ear of the index pages themselves with a colour Sharpie, red for People and blue for Subjects, so I can quickly flip to either one.
If this seems too fussy or too much work, then compare with keeping it all in files or, worse, in your head. In my current notebook I’ve got entries for about 20 people and more than 50 subjects. Either index is expandable and flexible. The Subjects list fits on two facing pages, and although it’s not in alphabetical order, it’s not hard to quickly find what I’m looking for on a quick scan. True, relevant bits of a project will end up scattered here and there throughout my notebooks, but the index keeps them more readily accessible than having them stuck unseen in a paper file in a drawer, or an elusive Word document hidden somewhere in the folder tree on the shared network drive.
A notebook won’t completely eliminate the need for files containing more detail (although it comes remarkably close). Nor will a notebook direct how you spend your most precious resources: energy and attention. You need other tools for that. But it does feel liberating to carry around your entire current work world in a notebook or two. Give it a try.
1. “The Bullet Journal Method,” by Ryder Carroll. See https://bulletjournal.com/