Six months into my son’s life I decided it had been long enough since I took a systematic approach to organising my time, but quickly found that my old ways were no longer suited to my life. Working in an office I was a to-do list addict, devoted to my time management app and my Outlook calendar. On maternity leave I had no need for anything – initially life was a haze of staring at my baby, feeding him, and squeezing in a shower or a little sleep. My husband wrote the days of the week and the names of visitors on some scrap paper that we stuck to the fridge. I was to concentrate on cuddling baby, eating brownies, and drinking lots of water. Time was paused.
When I did need to pay attention to the passage of time, only baby-time mattered. I used an app, Baby Tracker, which let me plug in fall-asleep times, wake-up times, feed times, and, yes, poo times. It spat out graphs of what my baby was doing over a day, week and month. I could sense patterns in my son’s daily routine, see slow improvements in the sleep situation, and confirm hungry days were growth spurts, not just my imagination. Life was under control – or at least under close observation.
Anyone on their second or third child would probably laugh at me if they had time to read this, but it took me a few months to acknowledge that the world was still turning, and that I had to think ahead a little – and beyond the bubble of my newly formed family – if I wanted to do anything productive. Also, once my son started solids, the mountain of housework and food prep seemed barely to fit into the slivers of time between eating and napping. I reasoned that if I could be on top of multiple projects at one time as a company employee, surely I could sort the food shop and do some reading, check out a few nurseries and remember to feed my child.
It proved tricky. I tried getting back on to a self-organisation app like todoist or Wunderlist but something was seriously lacking…an app is fabulous if the bulk of your work is done on a computer or device, your hands aren’t covered in sweet potato, and you aren’t in too much of a rush to battle with autocorrect. Baby Tracker’s well-designed big buttons for simple info were one thing, but I resented having to fiddle with a keyboard on my phone and my computer keyboard was a no-go. Somehow I also felt like the clean interface of every app was laughing at me, mocking my life. Typing ‘BUY SWEET POTATOES’ and marking it urgent, where I had once left myself reminders about marketing campaign plans for high-profile authors looked silly, but the sweet potatoes were urgent.
The other problem was the total reliance on my mobile was unappealing. I was more addicted to my phone than I’d been before my baby. It provided my reading material (Kindle app vs paperback while breastfeeding – no contest), camera, supermarket, cinema and TV remote, and primary point of contact with loved ones. One day I lost my charger cable and wept. This felt wrong, motherhood was meant to be an essential and non-digital experience. I was reminded of how, a few years, ago when I wasn’t backing things up in the cloud, I had broken an iPhone and lost two years’ worth of diary events I’d wanted to look back on – films I’d seen, holidays, big events at work. I’d started keeping a hard-copy diary then so that I could have a mini archive of my life on paper, but that had been forgotten at the bottom of a handbag post-baby.
I’d seen bullet journals all over the internet before, but when I really learned what one was and how to use it, taking Insta-perfection out of the equation, I realised I was looking at a wonderful tool for self-organisation that could meet most of my day-to-day needs as well as my desire to look back and remember.
A bullet journal is an analog notebook that uses a simple, adaptable system to contain all of your life’s craziness in one place. It’s a to-do list, a yearly planner, a scrap notebook, a long-form diary and the back of an envelope, in one. You don’t have to use it as all or any of these things. It’s tricky to describe, but this quick video, and this enlightening article explain it well.
This was what I was looking for. I decided to try it for two weeks and see whether my life was changed forever.
I liked it immediately for combining memory-jog notes about my day with to-do-listing, diary keeping, and allowing space for creative flourishes. (Although I’m not looking for a craft project, it can be turned into a thing of great beauty).
The pros were immediately clear. I first used it in the week leading up to a holiday. The structure of a bullet journal means you can start a list anywhere – within a daily log (a list of today’s tasks + notes about the day) and make that list a ‘collection’ in your so-called index (which should really be called a contents in my opinion). So, when it suddenly occurs to you to remember something for the food shop and a few items for your holiday bag, you can put those into the bullet journal, note where they are in the ‘index’ (contents!) and return to them when you remember something else. This was a welcome alternative to a thousand scraps of paper swimming in the pile of unsorted post on the dining table.
Another major pro: upon the return from our holiday I started a page tracking daily and weekly habits aimed at looking after myself, something that it’s easy to forget to do (or put to one side) as a mother. Typically people track daily habits like mindfulness meditation and a gratitude diary, or exercise. I included taking a multivitamin and Omega 3 supplement, and doing some reading. To my surprise this was all the reminder and motivation I needed to get at least 3 of the list of 6 done each day, a major improvement.
There are limitations to the bullet journal. It hasn’t completely replaced my phone, because it’s not a phone, or a camera, and I can’t make it do what Baby Tracker can (though I’m sure someone smarted than me could think of a way to get close). It’s not going to replace my online calendar, either, but even once I am back in meeting-mode at work I still think it’s better for notes than an unstructured notebook, or an app on an iPad.
Secondly, you can’t bullet journal with one hand, which means that during the newborn weeks, it’s not useful in the same way. But for moments when someone else is holding the baby, the structure (short-form notes, space to reflect in longhand) actually make it a very lovely place to note things to remember from that weird and wonderful time. Presents you were sent, who brought food, the delights of eating 3000+ calories a day because the midwives insist you need it, and so on.
I’m a convert – I’ve upgraded to the orthodox #bujo devotee’s Leuchtturm 1917 dotted notebook and Pilot pen combo, and I even sit and draw up a fancy layout on a Sunday night for fun, now. (It’s not that fancy).
But perhaps the best illustration of the bullet journal having effectively cemented itself in my life came when, three weeks into using it, I was involved in a serious car crash on a country road, with my baby in the back. My car was sideswiped by an oncoming lorry, crushing the driver’s side of the car, sealing the doors and showering me and my son in shattered glass. We had to be pulled out through the windows but thankfully neither of us was seriously hurt. My phone was somewhere in the footwell, but anyway had zero reception. The bullet journal was on the passenger seat, and contained the postcode and directions to where I had been travelling – the closest place with a working phone. Usually I’d have looked these up online in the car before leaving, and plugged them into the sat nav – both useless after the crash. When help came to take us somewhere safe, I just handed the bullet journal over.
The next day, still very shaken, I shook the shards of glass from between the pages of my bullet journal and drew a doodle of the crash on the previous day’s entry and a couple of notes about what had happened, before writing up my to-do list: speak to insurance, get a new baby car seat, research the safest make and model of car, and so on.
In short, a bullet journal is really just a notebook, but it’s the least wasteful, most useful way of using a notebook I’ve ever come across, clever enough to ensure that all of my information actually gets into it in a retrievable way, and there’s something very comforting and well-suited to parenting about putting pen to paper, being able to change your approach week by week, and easily adding a personal touch (sweet potato smears in my case, obviously).