Getting things done, deep work and bullet journals

May 12, 2017 | 28 Comments

Those of you who have been following me for a number of years will know that about 18 months ago I started going to a local cafe for a morning planning session. This time to plan and review my projects had a significant impact on my ability to get a lot of work done, especially last year when I had to write a book in a very tight time frame.

Finding a system that worked

The two essentials ingredients in these sessions (apart from the coffee!) were implementing some strategies from David Allen’s Getting Things Done(GTD) methodology and using Elise Blaha-Cripe’s wonderful Get to Work Book (GTWB) pictured above.

The idea of combining a diary with a to-do list started to work so well for me, and I truly loved the format of the GTWB. I became very attached to it, and whenever I started to feel overwhelmed, I would pull out my GTWB and simply just allocate the next actions to a specific time, and then get back to work. So I just want to publicly thank Elise and the GTWB for really helping me develop a system that worked! I highly recommend you check it out.

The need for more flexibility and some new ideas

However, at the end of last year, things started changing a bit.

2017 was going to be full with a number of big projects that involved lots of coordination and logistical planning and there wasn’t enough blank pages in the GTWB for me to map these out. I had a separate A5 loose-leaf folder I would use for holding various planning pages, but I didn’t like having two separate volumes.

I also read Cal Newport’s amazing book “Deep Work”. I have so many takeaways from his book, and need to read it again so that I can work out a way of implementing more of his ideas. But the most immediate takeaway was that I needed to be more intentional about allocating specific periods of time for deep work, and I need to keep a closer track on how I actually spend my time during the day. I really loved his idea of mapping out your day hour by hour and then recording exactly what you did work on.

This all resulted in the need for more flexibility and I knew that it was time to migrate to a bullet journal (BuJo). I did some research on how the system works and then took the plunge in mid-January.

Bullet Journalling

In January the lovely people at Larrypost gave me a Ciak leatherbound journal full of plain paper to test.


I found the standard 5mm dotted paper is too small for my handwriting and so designed a grid sheet to use as a template.

I then just started bullet journally, working out how best to design my pages as I went. I wasn’t fussed about getting it perfect at first.

It has been the most fantastic experience – I don’t do anything too fancy in my BuJo, but do try to make it as neat and ordered as possible. I use a fine Pilot Prera as my normal pen, my Lamy Joy (EF nib) for medium heading and a Hero Fude pen for my headings.

I have been finding the bullet journal system of dots, crosses and arrows works great and I feel much more in control of all my action items. I love being able to use as much space as I need for each day, so some days I do map out my day hourly and other times it is a simple list.

I also love having my notes (from books or podcasts, or just project ideas) all in the same place. And basically I just love the Ciak book – it is gorgeous. I was very restrained by starting with black, but next one is going to be coloured!

I have been told that the paper can take some light watercolour washes, but right at the moment my BuJo is all just work focused! (here is a lesson plan and a photo of the table from the last Palladian Odyssey planning meeting)

I’ve very happy to share more about my bullet journalling, but I think this article is long enough already. I will write another one more specifically about how I use mine – so any questions are welcome!

But I hope you can get an idea from the spreads I have shared in this post: yearly calendar, yearly log, yearly planning, monthly summary, work block planning and blog editorial calendar.

Three great resources on Bullet Journals

In the meantime… does anyone use a bullet journal too? What are your top 3 tips for people wanting to start keeping one?



  • Julia Chang says:

    When I was working and running my own surgery, I used David Allen’s GTD and Evernote to organise my business and personal life. After I retired in 2915, I had the urge to start journaling. I stared to use my Evernote to journal electronically. But it did not last. Then somehow I found Kara from Boho Berry and I clicked with the Bullet Journal. So I started bullet journalling this year. It was great but I wanted to incorporate drawing somehow. I wanted to journal and drawing my life. So with wonderful world of YouTube , I found travel notebook and really like its concept. Meantime I continue learning Watercolor.. Then with my desire to sketch quick,I found urban sketching and you, Liz. Bullet journal is a fantastic tool with flexibility.

    • Liz Steel says:

      Hi Julia, thanks for sharing your journey…I have thought about combining bullet journal and sketchbook but at the moment they are separate. I’ll be interested to see if you can find a way to merge the two!

  • Morgan Golladay says:

    Although I’m retired, I am the full- time caregiver for my husband. I set my pages for the week, with journal notes on one side, and two columns on the other headed Appointments and Tasks. There is a 2-page spread for each week, and the back of the journal has pages for projects, notes, books to read, etc.
    This journal keeps it all in one place, and has been my go-to LIST for 11 months. I’m a list-maker, and the little pieces of paper were over-whelming. My -going shopping lists and formal schedules are in my iPad/iPhone, and additional notes migrate to the journal.
    The joy is — I can modify it to my own needs.

  • Beth Rowlett says:

    Liz, love your photos of how you organize your work/life. Do I understand correctly, you use a page with lines on it behind the page you are writing in order to stay so neat? Your pages are transparent enough the grid works for you? Thanks for all your tips, all the time. 🙂

  • Chris Fraser says:

    Liz, it is so interesting to see what your work flow is. I love bullet journalling! I too started in 2017. I found that I had too many notebooks on too many different topics. Like Julia above, I would like to incorporate sketches in mine as well. At the moment it is just the written journal. I’m also working on my photography practice and will be incorporating my sketches and notes on that in there too. Any courses I work on I put in there as well. I was always trying to collate and organize my journals, so much so that I often got exactly nowhere with it. Love the simplicity of the bullet journal idea! When the creative spark strikes, I am not searching for which journal to put it in anymore.

  • Susan Ford says:

    I use a bullet journal for work. I keep it simple like you do, with the day heading, a line, and tasks. I get many phone calls over the day, many email requests, and I have to keep track of it all.

    I also have a journal at home, but that is more journal writing and only a tiny bit of planning, so I do a week over 2 pages to jot down any tasks I set for myself, and reminder of appointments. Otherwise, I use it for writing.

  • Sonja Harrison says:

    Great post! I’d love it if you went into greater detail in another blog post or video! I am always trying to be better organized. 🙂

  • Lisa Ector says:

    So glad you shared this! I had heard of Bullet Journaling but didn’t know anything about it. After reading this blog post and watching the videos, my husband and I both went out and bought a journal to get started. We are so excited to be this organized.

  • Thank you for sharing this struggle fot organisation,
    Like many others I used weekly scraps of paper, a familycalender on the fridge. Seems like I have rarely time for painting and sketching.
    Now after reading your post and links mentioned.
    I bought a notebook to keep things together, but also make time and goals for sketching and panting.

  • Sue Pownall says:

    Thanks for this Lis. I currently have my diary – onphone and paper. The paper one has weekly spreads with to-do lists written on. Larger planning seems to be occuring in my project book, which I started for planning artwork. Then I have a file for classes: enrollment interest and…

    Recently I have come to the conclusion that this needs to be more organised into a single book or folder, so this is very timely. Thank you Lis and others who have shared their methods too.

  • Poornima Kumar says:

    I’ve been using it for nearly a year now! I think you’re off to a great start. I think my only too would be the KISS rule – Keep It Simple, Silly. It looks like you’re already doing this. When I started it, despite my best efforts not to, I got a little carried away with different layouts. But then again, I think that’s okay because it does take time to figure out what pattern works for you. Also, personally, I find some of the more decorated layouts a bit excessive and distracting. I like mine clean and functional, because I prefer spending as little time as possible planning my day (to avoid getting distracted). I also prefer sketching in a separate notebook. But then again, that’s just me! I’ve become to attached to this system that I start feeling a little lost if I stop using it for a bit… I use a weekly spread with hours listed from morning until night, which helps me log what I’ve done, when I’ve sent emails, etc. This is extremely helpful when I need to send followups, or simply check how far I’ve progressed on certain tasks. So, in a way I use this more as a way to effectively journal my life/activities. It’s also helpful as a way to organise thoughts and plan things out, as you said, and make notes! I also like to maintain exercise, gratitude, reading logs and lists, note down expenses, record ideas, etc. I find it much easier to do these things on paper than on any device, which is another reason I love this system to much. Good luck with yours!!

  • I still use the Get to Work Book for appointments and the daily list. But I now gather my thoughts, bullet journal-style, and keep everything there re thoughts, talks, ideas, books read etc. I do still like having the actual day printed out in the Get to Work Book, especially for the distand months which wouldn’t be written in my bujo yet. (Good for things like 6-month’s in the future drs appointments, etc.) But the gathering potential and open-ended planning possibilities of bullet journaling has blown me away.

    I really appreciate how you explain all these details, Liz, and that you change your methods as your needs change. I resisted bullet journaling for so long: I didn’t want to go all washi tape crazy and Pinterest perfect. But I was wrong: it can be just what you want it to be, and that has made all the difference. 🙂

  • Linda Green says:

    Hi. I loved this post–a bullet journal system I can see myself sticking to. Could you say what kind of dividers/stickers you are using at the tops of pages in these photos? Thank you!

  • slope says:

    Great post! I’d love it if you went into greater detail in another blog post or video! I am always trying to be better organized. 🙂

  • Bob Cochran says:

    Perhaps I should give bullet journalling a try. I care less and less about my professional work, partly because I’m getting closer to retirement and partly because I do not want career to become the whole focus of my life. Finding ways to stay in touch with distant family members, and the very strong itch to develop my story telling abilities, are perhaps more challenging. If I don’t commit to these goals I’ll always be wishing — and one day I’ll be sorry for not doing them. I’m learning that sketches are such a fascinating form of expression and illustrations add so much to a text story. A bullet journal could let me apportion greater amounts of time to these interests and less time to “work life”.

    I think it would be wonderful if you combined sketches and watercolors with your bullet journals. Sketching and water coloring could become planning tools for you as well. A quick sketch in the bullet journal could let you form an estimate of how much time you need for a task and then you can plan for that in the journal text. Watercoloring can have the same purpose and also perhaps let you form a ranking system of how important you view a task.

  • Marlene Lee says:

    Hi, Liz, excellent post on the bullet journal! Love your writing, it makes the journal look sooo neat. I can’t wait to see a detailed explanation of how you set up your journal. I do have one question for now…do you combine your personal/family events with your professional in the same journal? Or do you use separate ones?

  • Eric Manten says:

    Hi, I like your setup and how you use your BuJo. One thing I’m wondering: how/where do you actually capture any meeting notes? in one or more separate notebooks, on loose-leaf paper? Do you archive your meeting notes?

  • Thanks for this Lis. I currently have my diary – onphone and paper. The paper one has weekly spreads with to-do lists written on. Larger planning seems to be occuring in my project book, which I started for planning artwork. Then I have a file for classes: enrollment interest and… Recently I have come to the conclusion that this needs to be more organised into a single book or folder, so this is very timely. Thank you Lis and others who have shared their methods too.

  • The great post. Loving your photos. I am always trying to be better organized.;) thank you for publishing this post.

  • Elizabeth Sloan says:

    I bullet journal! I started in August 2021 and I’m halfway through. I am more consistent in mapping out my day & month, and I enjoy knowing where everything is because it’s all in one place. The table of contents is a lifesaver for me since I have so many random interests & hobbies and the notes that go along with those things.

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