Bullet journal blues

This last week or so I’ve spent a lot of my free time looking at journaling and planners and organizational systems again. I seem to go through this form of soul searching on a semi-regular basis as a result of some external factor that shakes up my existing system. This time it was discovering the Hobonichi Techo Planner when I was looking for pen refills for my wife’s favorite pen the Otho Horizon. These amazing planners with grid paper come with fun covers in a myriad of colors (even in Marshmallow – want, so badly.) The pull of actual paper and seeing a new option threw my brain into a tizzy, resulting in hours of digging, questioning, and soul-searching around whether I really needed to change my system again. I’d once again fallen into the Bullet journal blues.

How I got here

I never used to have this problem as for so much of my life I didn’t even imagine I needed a planner, organizer, journal, or any such thing. I’d tried a few things in college, and then again when I started to work professionally. I really didn’t have a need. I tried mostly because I saw other people using day planners, portfolios, pocket calendars, or notebooks on a regular basis. They looked so cool and put together pulling them out in class or in a meeting – taking notes, jotting down dates, referring back to things. I wanted to be like that too, so I tired to use the tools too.

Pretty quickly, I discovered I really didn’t need those things as I had a good memory. I would forget to use my planner, but still remembered to do stuff. So I never wrote anything down, and I just remembered it. Sure, I might take a few notes in a class and I had a wall calendar to put important dates on. I might jot down a grocery list or some important dates from a meeting on a scrap of paper. For the most part though, my memory was good enough. My life just wasn’t that complex. My fancy day planner went unused. My pocket calendar was ignored till long after it expired and my nicely bound journals kept a shelf from getting dusty. I was good.

Then several years ago my life outgrew the basic organizational system I’d fallen into for most of my early adult life. It started when I got some more responsibility at work and I had to track my calendar closely, so I started using Outlook for more than just email for the first time. Then I had a lot of information to take away from meetings, so I used letter sized note pads for notes despite my awful handwriting. I tried a Palm Pilot for a while, though it was actually a Sony Clie which I adored, but mostly used as a precursor to a Kindle. More important dates and plans went onto a whiteboard in my office. As I became responsible for even more things, those tools weren’t enough and so my search began in earnest.

My first stop was back to a page-a-day planner. I dug my old one out of a box of stuff in my basement. While it helped a bit, I found it too constraining and small. So I went back to pads of paper which now felt too unorganized. Then I tried using OneNote for a while, and I did have some reasonable success with it for a couple of years. Though in the end I found the interface got in the way of my capturing ideas. Anything besides text didn’t flow freely on a computer and I also missed the feel of pen on paper. With the idea of paper back in mind, I did some research and discovered bullet journaling. It seemed promising, offering some organization with space for free form content using a regular paper notebook! In my further research I stumbled across the compendium of Pinterest bullet journal pages which connected to a rekindling of my artistic impulses and I was hooked on the idea.

Quickly I pulled a freebie journal that was a give-away from a trade show off my shelf and decided to practice for a month to decide if this would really work. Despite my (still) awful handwriting, the format *did* seem to work for me. I bought a real notebook and never looked back. For the first time I had a system that actually worked for me instead of hindering me. I went through a series of bound notebooks over the years, some lost to the inevitable moves and purges of the previous 5 years. Somewhere along the way though, two important things happened.

Four Old Bullet Journals
A collection of the the old bullet journals I still have. Did you notice I like Teal?!

First, at the behest of my therapist, I started to keep a personal reflection journal. A place to spill out all of the things inside my head. It absolutely did not feel safe to put things that were in my head on paper where people could just read them. Some of them were too scary to share. I was totally sure something awful would happen if I did that. It wasn’t until later I came to realize that as a childhood trauma survivor a paper journal felt incredibly dangerous for a reason, but that’s another post… or perhaps several. In any case it seemed safer to keep an electronic journal I could protect with a password, and so I splurged for DayOne at a whole $4.99 (it’s since gotten more expensive!) It worked on my iPhone and iPad seamlessly, and I became a daily writer as a result.

Second, I kept wishing for an electronic version of my planner. I missed the ability to search which I’d had with OneNote. I found I could only fit a year at most into a bound notebook which I could reasonably carry in my purse or backpack. I used my iPad & phone for my journal, calendar, email and reminders. It just seemed like there must be a way to make the leap to using a tablet for my planner/bullet journal as well. Yet try as I might, there just didn’t seem to be a way that worked for me. UNTIL… Apple came out with the iPad Pro and compatible “pencil”. I saw the promise and finally made the leap to an iPad with a stylus and using GoodNotes for my Bullet Journal. I can import documents and photos, then mark them up or take notes on them right in the stream of my bullet journal.

Built my way out of the blues

This is the combination I’ve come to rely on – a sort of hybrid bullet journal system I’ve evolved to meet my needs. It’s written, and fills pages in a virtual notebook, but since it’s electronic there’s as many pages as I could ever need. It’s all backed up in the cloud so I never have to worry about losing all of my notes and ideas if a notebook (iPad) gets lost, stolen, or accidentally used as kindling to start a fire. Thanks to the OCR technology built into GoodNotes, my bullet journal is searchable. I have an infinite number of marker/pen colors available too. My reflection journal is on the same device, and so is my kindle. The list of pluses goes on and on. I can do pretty much everything I need to from a device that fits in my purse. It even has a wireless data plan so I can use it anywhere. It’s become my one thing to carry around, my one device to rule them all.

Yet there are a few major drawbacks. First, at least until very recently, GoodNotes was a battery hog and I had a difficult time making it through a day without boosting a charge. My purse and backpack now both contain a robust charger and cable for just that eventuality. Second, I’m now looking at screens all-the-live-long-day. My eyes and head often are unhappy with me after a long day. Third, and most annoyingly, I miss paper. The feel of my writing implement on paper – a pen or pencil scraping across the not-unnaturally-smooth surface. I can’t hold 3 different pages open. My brain can think about and body can interact with a notebook in three dimensional space, but not with an iPad. It’s only mimicking paper. I’m an analog object using a digital one to impersonate an analog experience.

That longing for the feel of paper fills me at times. I find myself yearning for the imperfections of a pencil’s uneven shading, or bits of carbon scraping off from the freshly sharpened end. The smell of that freshly sharpened pencil is comforting. There is joy in the bleed of marker ink into the fiber of a page, of the smoothness left behind from a crayon filling in the imperfections of the page underneath it and yet somehow raising them up to make imperfection something pleasing to the eye. Sometimes I miss these so much it makes my heart ache and want to ditch the tablet for paper again. I’ve been in that space for a while lately.

Back to the blues…

So I was already primed and ready to fall headlong into the ultimately unconsummated love affair I had with the Hobonichi Techno Cousin Planner this last week. There was a hole in my heart which cold, digital technology couldn’t fill. It was a whirlwind week of romance and research followed by final letdown as I realized the Hobonichi wouldn’t replace my iPad, but simply supplement it. I would have yet another thing to carry around, to try to fit on my desk as I worked, another constraining planner system I’d just get frustrated with. I’m glad I didn’t buy into the siren song of a new planner half way through the year. I’ve kept my sanity for now.

And yet.

I do miss paper and ink. The rasp of the pen, the scratchy flow of a felt marker, the smooth scrape of graphite on paper. So maybe there is room on my desk and in my bag for a small notepad or sketchbook. Just enough to meet my needs. Maybe even a small discbound notebook so I can mix and match pages, customize, make it my own. Hmmm… maybe I should research that…

Guess I’m back to the Bullet Journal Blues. See you in another week!