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On Simple Productivity Systems and Complex Plans

February 2nd, 2018 · 43 comments

BuJoPro No More

Last month, I wrote a post about the popular bullet journal (BuJo) personal productivity system. In this article, I pontificated on a potential variation I called BuJoPro that I thought might better accomodate the demands of high intensity jobs.

BuJoPro appealed to me because it promised to unite my disparate and admittedly ad hoc systems into one elegant notebook. I liked the idea of having a single analog artifact I could carry with me and whip out, at any point, to efficiently tweak the levers that control the many moving parts of my life.

Enamored by my own hype, I then spent a couple weeks trying out this new breakthrough concept.

It was not a success.

I’ve since abandoned BuJoPro and returned to my old creaky productivity system that consists of Black n’ Red notebooks for daily plans, printouts of plain text files for weekly plans, and a collection of emails sent to myself describing temporary plans and experimental heuristics.

I learned an important lesson from this experience: there’s a difference between simplifying the complexity of your productivity systems and simplifying the complexity of your plans.

Simple Systems and Complex Plans

As I first argued way back in Straight-A, overly-complex systems create too much friction — leading you to eventually give up the system altogether. It was this legitimate bias toward simplification that attracted me to the one-notebook minimalism of bullet journal-based productivity.

The problem, however, was that my handwritten scratches on the 5 x 8 pages of my sleek dot-formatted journal couldn’t keep up with the raw amount of information needed to capture my current productivity vista, or the frequent revisions needed to keep this perspective useful.

As it turns out, my Black n’ Red notebooks work well for daily planning because they give me two full 8.5 x 11 lie-flat spiral-bounds pages to work on each day. I tend to use most of these 187 square inches to elaborate the details of my time blocks, leave room for changes, and capture tasks and notes for future consideration.

Similarly, the weekly plans I type up in plain text files require, on average, 3 – 5 single-spaced and chaotically formatted pages. It’s not unusual for me to edit and print out significantly revised versions of this plan two or three times in a given week.

And don’t even get me started on the temporary plans and heuristics lurking in my inbox. At the moment, there are six different self-authored email threads that I review each week to help keep me aimed in the right direction.

Considered altogether, the total amount of information I record, read, and regularly change to keep my energy focused productively is simply way too voluminous for me to tame with a single medium-size notebook and some fine-tipped markers.

I’m okay with this. And you should be too.

Put another way, the lesson I hope you extract from my BuJoPro experience is that it’s fine if your life is complicated, and accordingly your attempts to tame it are complicated as well.

Try to keep your systems simple, but make peace with the reality that what these systems contain might be too wild to capture on a few elegantly-formatted pages.

(Image from the official bullet journal web site.)

43 thoughts on “On Simple Productivity Systems and Complex Plans

  1. Your weekly plans are 3 – 5 pages long? A whole page to plan one day sounds extreme.

    1. Study Hacks says:

      My weekly plan documents have grown to contain more than just the daily schedule sketches. They include quite a bit of narrative around projects I’m working on, summaries of habits I’m developing, reminders about values I’ve been neglecting. I’ll also sometimes move over lists of key tasks I’m working on during the task blocks that week, or summarize my most relevant temporary plans. All in all, they become pretty wild documents…

      1. Nams says:

        Cal.. can you please elaborate on the new habits you are developing and new the values you are talking about here.

        1. Vincent says:

          I agree, please elaborate on these habits.

          In fact, I’d go far to purchase a small pamphlet of the habits you have developed over the years that seems to yield the most benefits with specific concise steps leaving the reader to expand and improve.

      2. person says:

        Sounds like you’re wasting a lot of time cluttering your mind with frivolous nonsense.

  2. Chris says:

    I am a big fan of GTD. My GTD system is mostly in two analog artifacts that I carry around. A single 23-ring binder and an agenda. GTD can also be adapted to your needs. I read the GTD book many years ago and never looked back.

    1. Chris says:

      I now read Cals post about GTD. Let me add to my comment that I did add something to GTD that in my experience ammeliorates the problem that Cal notices. I also have a ‘structure of the day’ for various possible predefined kinds of days days. E.g., for a weekday or for a day where I work only half of the day. In that ‘structure of the day’ some time will be blocked out for working deeply on a paticular project. The small tasks that GTD is so good at administrating go in some predefined parts of the day so they get done eventually, though not necessarily very quickly.

      1. Oliver says:

        Yeah same here. Cal Newport’s criticism of GTD is based on the ideas from the old book only. David Allen has done a lot of interviews and written articles on how creatives and deep working people should use it. It all comes down to the calendar / deep work time blocks. Newport and Allen pretty much agree on deep work and the importance of it. GTD is good for keeping the shallow tasks tamed so we can have a clear mind for more important stuff.

  3. Vincent says:

    This is great and an important lesson.

    I’m currently attending college and with the background knowledge of “Deep Work”, “How to Win At College” and “How to Become a Straight A Student”, my mind is fulfilled with lots of different knowledges, but all simplifies to an important specific technique that cannot be simplified anymore than it currently Is (I’m still trying….)

    1. I implement an autopilot schedule for regular readings for my classes and shadow courses. The goal I’m trying to introduce is an homework autopilot, but seems that some questions easily go off radar than planned and could be quite a nuisance to finish…

  4. Nenad says:

    I use Bullet journal, too and since I am IT professional I can feel your pain.

    In my workflow BJ has the same place as index has in the database. For example, when I am working on a bug ticket, tons of information has to be recorded and updated all the time (and possibly by different people). I use OneNote to capture this information for myself (more detail), JIRA to capture for the team (less detail), and I put just a ticket number in BJ along with time tracking information. BJ serves as a planner and as a tracker of my work on tickets. If ticket is complicated I also plan in BJ for one or two next steps.

    Maybe this can help you find a way to record stuff and not be overwhelmed in the process.

    1. Elizabeth says:

      Thanks for explaining this — I really like the index idea.

  5. George says:

    Whenever I’ve required a planning/scheduling system I’ve used 3×5 cards. Cheap, easily arranged, disposable, un-messy. I carried them in a shirt pocket; but surely there’s a better way. Maybe a leather-bound $100 personalized, embossed 3×5 card carrying case. (I’m joking.)

    1. clearing says:

      Please tell me where you find shirts with pockets.
      By two wearings, a notbook demolishes chineseum shirts.

  6. Jocelyn says:

    I would love to see some concrete examples of the complexity of your current documenting system!

  7. EA says:

    I use Wehrner Von Braun’s methodology, which has 2 main elements.
    1) The Weekly Notes. A one/two-paged document with simple formatting in which I write the main tasks and a brief narrative. He used it for communication between the various depts. but it’s great to keep track of tasks and to see their actual history. Example is here: tinyurl.com/yc3ejbhb
    2) The red-lined daily journal. Just trace a line when the task/appointment is done so that you have a flow of red ink. Example at tinyurl.com/ycmg8gp4

    1. Philip says:

      So you write a paper (1 or 2 pages) each week, where you lay out your different projects and state what is done and what needs to be done?

      And then you have a daily notebook, where your todo’s are in, and you do the “red” thingie in the middle when the task is done?

  8. dan says:

    Along the lines of what Cal is saying – I abandoned Outlook tasks over a year ago because it all became too complex. Now I use Microsoft OneNote to record all of my to do list items. Like a paper notebook it is very flexible. Better than a paper notebook, it is searchable.

  9. Al says:

    Some may argue thhat your black ‘n red notebook is your BuJo 😉

  10. Heather says:

    I’m a semi-BUJO-er. I use some of the concepts but a completely different book. Right now I’m liking the Circa disc bound pages because a) it lays flat or flips to not take up so much space and b) I can insert/remove pages at will. Often I’ll print something, punch it and add it to my book and take it out or replace with updates.

    I don’t keep my specific calendar in the journal because meetings change so much. But task list, weekly and daily objectives, etc are all captured.

    1. Colin says:

      Hi Heather,

      Do you keep your old to do lists etc in another Circa book or do you toss them out?

  11. My system:

    Framework: David Allen’s GTD system
    Tools: 2Do iOS app, fountain pen, Leuchtturm journal

    I brainstorm/capture everything in the journal…transfer the main points of the journal to 2Do as projects/next actions…then execute on next actions.

    IMHO…2Do is far better than OmniFocus or Things, as far as the world of iOS project management systems.

  12. KEVIN says:

    I recommend Evernote. I have tried pretty much everything out there.

  13. David says:

    Cal – do you keep any of the GTD concept anymore? If so, what concepts do you keep? It seems that you’ve evolved your system almost completely from the concepts of contexts as an example. I have followed your commenst on GTD not being good for deep work or focusing on the most important projects. I’m mostly curious if you still maintain any part of the system in your weekly and daily plans.

  14. Sharath kogila says:

    The best way I found which works for me is, Capture your plan of action on a large white board. The larger the board, the better I found my mind’s ability to grasp, debate, discusss on a particular plan or todo tasks. Then break it down by day or week plan on the WB itself. Keep the blan sticky, any changes you want to make can always be on the WB. Your tools like notebooks, mobility tools can detail out your action for just 1 or 2 days, not more. Any changes after that goes on WB

  15. Anatoli says:

    I appreciate your honest feedback, Cal.

    Maybe next time it would be better to trial smth out first, before posting it, and then share your experience…

    1. Maria Giannuzzi says:

      I gently disagree. I’m rather fond of trial and error. Don’t mine seeing it played out online. It’s part of the learning process, even for readers.

  16. Maria Giannuzzi says:

    I was fascinated by your post. Nature and the universe are complex systems, noted for their diversity. Human beings, too, are complex–we don’t always get what we see and hear. But, if we look close enough, there is a simplicity (some might call it sacred simplicity) in all creation; I’m thinking of form, pattern, fractals here. I think most artists are tuned into this simplicity.

    Perhaps thinking in terms of complexity is not very useful in managing our day-to-day lives. Does a long to-do list with sub to-do lists help us in the long run? I don’t believe so. Establishing priorities, committing to them and working out a flexible schedule to carry them out may be the ticket.

  17. James Warden says:

    I created a good planning system. It’s actually a social network: http://www.root2020.com
    Let me know what you think.

  18. Jean Breny says:

    Thank you!! I needed to be “released” from my maddening commitment to finding the right planner. If I had only spent those hours I spent searching for that holy grail on my writing, I’d have had another article done.

  19. David Press says:

    Right on. It’s all about finding the system that works best for you. I tend to think the BuJoPro framework that I’ve been using the past year works really well for me and it keeps everything in one space, a kind of master daybook of my days filled with notes on new things that I need to explore. Thanks for your help and feedback on this.

  20. Jen says:

    Cal,
    I have come and gone from the Bullet Journal concept over the last 5 years. I’m currently using it again, and it’s working well. I’m a huge fan of technology and I want to find an online solution that works for me — it keeps coming back to needing to write it down. There is something about physically writing down my tasks, etc. that make it all a bit “stickier.” Right now, my system is an integrated calendar (work, personal, gmail, etc.) so that every meeting or place i need to be contained in one place, a personal journal (oscillating between handwritten and Day One), and a moleskin with my version of a bullet journal. The quest for an ideal system continues! Thanks for sharing your journey.

  21. Frank says:

    Cal, do you use the “Extra Large Poly Cover” or the “Large Poly Cover” notebook? The article mentions 8.5 by 11—which is the large size—but the link is to the extra large size. Also, you mention “two … spiral-bound pages” but the examples on the blog show one page used for each day. Is there somewhere where the system is explained in more detail? I am using a Planner Pad at the moment, but would like to try this system since it gives much more space for planning each day.

    Also, do you plan one day at a time, or the whole week in one go? Is there somewhere (separate?) where you keep lists of everything you need to do—it doesn’t seem to be in this part of the system.

    Thanks!

  22. Aegir says:

    I’ve had difficulties combining analog and digital in my note taking and planing.
    I use a version of Bullet Journal to track daily/weekly habbits and the small stuff that needs to get done now.

    The things i don’t finish or are bigger in scope go into Workflowy, which is about the only digital tool i have found that has the scope to encompass the small stuff and the very big stuff.

    Yet still i struggle 😀

  23. John says:

    Hey Cal.
    Just want to suggest to you the ‘5 Minute Journal’ by Intelligent Change.
    It’s not 100% equivalent to your recommended methods (which I’ve seen evolve over your written career), but it helps instill some of the mental / positivity aspect of goal-setting in the morning, “winding down”, and not letting shortcomings prevent you from getting out there the next day. And like most things that you like/don’t like – it has a low barrier of entry: the pages are like worksheets which you simply fill in. I don’t think you address mental health / happiness so much as ‘efficiency’ and satisfaction but the ‘5 Minute Journal’ might be worth taking a look at.

  24. Madi says:

    Could you post a picture of what your Black n Red journal looks like? I’ve been a bullet journaler for the past year, but this semester I have a large amount of responsibilities to keep track of. I’ve found that my BuJo is “too pretty” to contain ALL of the thoughts and reminders I think of throughout the day.
    So I was wondering what kind of layout you use and how you keep everything organized.
    Is it basically expanding the “weekly spread” of a BuJo to several different pages?

  25. brett wheat says:

    hi Cal,
    I’m now sold on the timeblocking strategy. I have been using the black n red and it works perfect!

    I think I understand the use of the weekly plans and your depth deck.

    What I’m wondering now is how do you track open projects and tasks associated with them? Do you use a separate notebook, do it digitally, or some other method?

    Thanks,

    Brett

  26. Dave Dayanan says:

    Your advises opened up a window of learning for me. Thanks for the post.

  27. Tanner Heath says:

    I really enjoyed reading about simpler systems to use for more productivity. I do think using a whole, big page for a days planning is a little too much. But if it works for you then I say go for it as you have. I think the main thing I got out of your post is that you should find whatever works best for you and that is why you talked about how you tried multiple different things. Everyone has their own ways and I myself definitely do, but there were a few of your’s that I liked and disliked but I enjoyed reading about them.

  28. Annie Kate says:

    I enjoyed reading that I’m not the only one with emails to myself. I also have a few someday/maybe lists as Getting Things Done suggests, as well as simple, flexible, constantly evolving to do pages that form a background to everything I do.

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