How to Keep Your Plans and Thoughts Organized

I’ve spent most of my student and adult life trying different methods to stay organized. I have purchased more rarely-used planners than I care to talk about and always have had high expectations of going completely digital. But those methods didn’t work for me. It’s really important like so many other habits to know yourself, your strengths, and what you actually like to do (versus what looks cool). I have been using the below mixture of note taking and organization for over a year and a half. Am I more productive? Most definitely, I probably get an extra 50% done each day than before. But more importantly, I’m so much more organized that I very rarely get that gut-wrenching feeling of forgetting something or looking for a note that takes forever to find.

I tend to sign up for more things than I can handle and easily overwhelm myself. I like to plan for the future and come up with big ideas. I can easily get lost in the details and quit something before I know if it’s even worth trying. Now, the way I stay organized helps mediate those weaknesses. I use different apps for long-term goals (mainly because they aren’t easy to lose like pieces of paper) and use my bullet journal plus super-short-term note-taking to help breakdown projects into digestible tasks. If this sounds like something you might need, keep reading!

Template of my bullet journal on the left page; blank bullet journal page on the right. Easy to make whatever template works for your tasks.

Bullet Journal and What it is: My bullet journal is the number one reason I am more organized now than I was in undergrad, grad school, or when I first started working. I am currently on my third bullet journal (I started in February 2019) and I have missed two weeks since I started. That’s how well it works for me. A bullet journal is simply an empty dotted notebook, like here and here, that you customize to fit your planning style. There is a certain method that goes along with it and I think you should at least learn about it and give it a go, but the main point of this journal is to give you the flexibility that normal planners don’t. Bullet journals can be beautiful and really artistic, and use lots of fun journaling supplies. I gave that a shot in the beginning, had tasks color-coated, and drew nice designs. It was a nice way to unwind, but I didn’t keep it up. Mine is quite simple now. A typical bullet journal is broken up into the following:

  • An intro page that helps you remember how to create the template (measurements, dot counts, etc.), a key of symbols if needed, and even a table of contents if you want to number pages. I did this the first time, but not after.
  • A few pages dedicated to goals or lists that could go on for months. I’ve moved these lists to my Google Sheets (see below), but originally I had pages for:
    • Goals for the year
    • Books I’ve read
    • Bucket list
    • Places I’ve been, dates, and highlights
    • Financial goals: savings
    • Future ‘big spends’, what I’m saving for short-term
  • Monthly pages: Whatever you want to track for the month and see on one page. There are tons of fun options online (just google ‘bullet journal tracker ideas’). I went all out on my first bullet journal, but now I just keep track of what I want to get done for the month, plus occasionally a expense tracker, food log, or habit tracker. Here are some ideas I used when I first got started:
    • Mood tracker: color-coated or numbered. Keep track of how you feel each day.
    • Habit trackers: I colored in squares when I completed a habit I wanted to do daily. At one point I was tracking: reading, eating fruit, stretching, no alcohol, and keeping my emails organized. Now looking back, habit tracking really worked for me because I still do most of these tasks daily 1.5 years later.
    • Food log: what I ate each day and color coated if it was homemade, from a restaurant, fast food, or processed.
    • Gratitude: A couple sentences each days of what I was grateful for.
  • Weekly page: Just a list of what you want to accomplish for the week. I’ll go into how I do this in the next section.
  • Daily pages: Your to-do list for the day, what to remember, a quote to keep you positive, an area to take notes. It’s up to you on what to add. You can make it ultra organized by the hour, break it down by time of day (my preference), or just simply write what you need to get done.
Example of my schedule. Two days per page (using an 8.5×11″ journal). Filled in squares mean completed; line through square means started; an arrow through a square (not pictured) means moved to next day.

How I use my bullet journal:

I combine the bullet journal method with the Best Self method (also a nice planner with no dates. The template is laid out for you and it’s meant for somebody project-focused). I purchased both the Best Self planner and the Weekly planner and had good luck with both, but wanted something I could customize and consolidate to one notebook. Here’s how I do it now:

  • Monthly: I honestly don’t keep much on my monthly page, as I tend to use Google drive, my phone calendar, notes for longer term projects or for events, but I will occasionally do a habit tracker or spending tracker for the month in my bullet journal.
  • Weekly: Here’s where I get into the details that makes my bullet journal a little different. First, I have one page that has a list of everything I want to get done for the week. I will write this list throughout the previous week. It’s unorganized, unthoughtout, just simply things that come up the week before that I push to the following week. Next to all those items, I will put how long I think it will take me to complete the task (in minutes to make it easy to add up) and if the task is E: energizing, N: neutral, or D: draining**. This will help me separate my tasks so I’m not doing a bunch of draining tasks in a single day. If it’s a task that will take less than 15 minutes, I put a zero by it and add to my ‘remember’ list, not my to-do list. The page immediately after that is where I take all those ideas and weed out what won’t work for the week, what I won’t do at all, and what I will do. I will make a list at the bottom of the items that didn’t make the cut but are still things I want to do eventually (I’ll add those to a longer term list on Google Drive or move to the following week planning page). Ideally, I do this Friday before I’m done with work, but lately I am waiting until Sunday. I usually have ideas over the weekend and I make my grocery list on Sunday, so I sit down for about 30 minutes and get everything organized.
  • Daily: I draw my templates for the whole week when I do my weekly organization, then I start allocating tasks to certain days. I like to break down my day to: before 9 am, 9 am – noon, noon to 4 pm, after 4 pm. Before 9 is my relaxing or creating time. 9 am – noon is my get-stuff-done time, noon to 4 pm is my get-the-annoying-stuff done time, and after 4 is for organizing my free time, hobbies, etc. You can break down your day however you want, but I think it’s good to know what time of day your brain works the best and save that time for harder tasks. On top of the daily tasks, I also have a spot for “Remember.” These aren’t really tasks that need designated time, but more of the fillers of when I have some time, what I can do. Text your friend happy birthday, pick up dry cleaning, buy a can of beans on your way home, confirm doctor’s appointment, stuff like that.
  • Micro-note taking: Because you’ll notice how much you like a nice, clean bullet journal, you might be like me and not like taking random notes on your daily pages. You can either allocate a page or two a week for note taking in your journal, keep notes in a separate notebook (really depends on your job, schoolwork, hobbies), or do what I do: stick sticky notes to the back pages of my journal and fold in some scrap paper. Easy throw away paper to make notes for phone numbers, small things for work, or an area to remind myself to do something that I will eventually document elsewhere.
My sticky notes and scrap paper for throw-away note taking. I like to use mini clips to keep pages organized (instead of ribbon or string). I also add a few sticky notes to the back pages of books I’m reading.

**I believe the main reason this method works for me is because I could finally see how much I was signing myself up for in a week or day. If I know I’m working eight hours and expect that I will have two hours of unplanned tasks (like answering emails or someone asks something from me), then I know I should at most allocate six hours of tasks to that day. Everyone’s life is different, so you will have a better idea of how much variation you can expect in a day. But most importantly, knowing how much I can realistically achieve in a day changed my life. Seeing those undone tasks each day would crush me, until I realized I was allocating ten hours of tasks to an eight hour work day. Biggest advice I can give: estimate task completion time.

A couple tips before getting started bullet journaling:

  • Research how others use their bullet journals. There’s a big community out there and it’s fun to discover what others keep track of. If you look on Instagram, search for #bulletjournal and #bujo.
  • Buy a couple of nice pens. Yes, you can go all out with markers and gel pens and washi tape if you want. I did at first, but I really recommend finding a pen you like that writes really well and makes you feel professional. It may sound weird, but I’m a snob about using the pens you can buy 50 of in my bullet journal. My favorite pens are the: Pilot Precise V7 (fine), Tul Fine Liner (ultra fine; I like to get these in the color pack), and the assortment of Sakura Pigman Micron pens (usually used for pen sketching; they’re super nice). I’m also obsessed with all Muji products. I bought all my pens from Staples, but there are better selections at hobby stores, like Michael’s.
  • Buying the bullet journal: Some office supplies stores have a nice selection, others don’t. If I remember right, Staples has a pretty good selection of journals and good pens, while Office Depot had like one option. Amazon has a ton and most cities now have boutique journaling stores. Some bookstores and college bookstores have them now too. The most popular style is the Leuctturm 1917 dotted notebook 146 x 210 mm (or about 5×8 inches). There are lots of color option and they look really sleek. I opted for a spiral bullet journal because I like folding it and keeping it open on my desk all day. I started with the same size as the Leuctturm, but went to the larger 8.5×11 inch to see if I liked a larger page. I’m only about a week into the larger journal, and I kind of miss the smaller layout. I’ll have to play around more.
Pens I use the most often. I like to have one non-black pen to make notes that need to stand out.

Sharing is Caring: Whether it be a roommate, partner, parent, coworker, or something similar, if you need to share your schedule, events, money matters, or any kind of planning, I suggest using Google Sheets and a shared calendar:

  • Google Sheets: My husband and I go wild on our shared sheets. We use it almost daily (we met when we were getting our MBAs and spreadsheets were a big part of our lives then too). Using shared spreadsheet allows both of us access to add, edit, and delete as needed. We planned our wedding on Google Sheets, from the guest list to gifts to vendor info and budgets. We plan most of our trips on there, record our monthly budgets, credit card totals, and bills on one sheet, keep track of our fitness goals, and even picked out our baby’s name by creating lists of names we liked and narrowing down from there. Alexys, Bethany, and I (the three writers of this blog) use Google Sheets to plan our posts, brainstorm for the future, and keep our projects organized.
  • Shared Calendar: My husband and I both have iPhones. You can easily create a shared calendar and tag whatever events needed so whoever you closely plan a schedule with always has access to that information. We have separate calendars for work, and a joint calendar for anything from family birthday reminders, doctor’s appointments, bill due dates, vacation planning, and any shared events. We also use it for events that only one of us is going, as it serves a reminder so the other one doesn’t make plans for the both of us at that same time. It really helps for the one-off events that one of us might mention but it’s not a big enough deal for the other to remember the date and time. Sam loves to use it to plan date nights or make small things more exciting (like putting that we are going to our favorite bagel place on a Saturday morning).

Trello: Trello is a free app (I use it on my computer) for easy project management. It’s perfect for projects that have several steps and continuous projects, like running a blog. You create your projects or ‘boards’ and can share with others, keep stuff hyper organized, and track progress. If you have no background in project management, or even if you do but don’t want to put in the effort or money of larger project management software, then you should definitely check it out. If your work is highly collaborative, then I also suggest trying out Monday.com. But with my combination of independent work and collaborative (with both my day job and this blog), I really like using Trello. I use Trello for:

  • Planning blog posts months in advanced. Including what I need to track, recipes to test, and what ingredients to buy.
  • Long-term work projects: I handle supply chain and food safety at my job. Both of those require months-long projects that I keep track of on Trello, then document what needs to be done week-to-week on my bullet journal.

Notes App in My Phone

Lastly, I use the Notes app in my phone quite a bit. I almost always have my phone on me and I use the Notes app for two purposes. One, when I don’t have access to my bullet journal or Google drive (like when I’m flying) but want to brainstorm and take notes. And when I have some quick ideas that I want to record before I forget. Most of my notes, besides my future purchases list, are temporary (I won’t keep them longer than a week) before I transfer them elsewhere. Here are some of the notes I have in my Notes App right now:

  • Recipes to Look Up: Dishes I see on a menu, recipes I see on social media or other blogs, etc. I’ll look these up and add them to a Google Sheet called ‘Recipes to Try’ if I like them. Right now I have: African peanut stew, guava and cream cheese rugelach (a sweet, rolled Jewish pastry), and tare (the liquid seasoning added to ramen).
  • Ingredients to Look Up: Anything that I’m not familiar with in a recipe that I want to look up later. This could be any of your hobbies that you just want to keep your knowledge constantly growing. Right now I have sui mi ya cai (a preserved veggie mix), hemp milk, poha (flatten rice for Indian breakfasts) and asafoetida (a popular Indian spice) on my list.
  • Things to Remember: Usually something I’m reading about, but don’t want to stop reading and do the research just then. Or something I know I want to store elsewhere, but I don’t want to open my other apps or don’t have my journal with me.
  • Future Purchases: From clothes to Amazon purchases to any other random things I need, that aren’t normal groceries. Many times these are things I forget about until I need them. That way when my husband says “Hey, I’m buying some stuff off of Amazon, you need anything?” I already have a simple list. It also helps with my budget and deciding what I actually need that month and what I can hold off on. My current list is below. I check them off as a purchase them and do research about prices and brands before making the purchase usually.

The better you can keep your thoughts organized, the less stressed you will be. I choose the combination of methods I do because of two reasons. One, because we all have those minutes each day that we are in between tasks, where we would like to knock out something, but can’t remember or decide what. The way I keep my notes allows me to always know of something I can easily take care of that may weigh on me later one. And two, I am better able to plan my day, including being flexible. I know what I have to achieve, how long it should take, and the brain power it’ll take to get the tasks done.

And that’s what works for me. Know your personality and go with what is both easiest for you but also keeps your habits in check. Do you want a creative outlet or something that takes very little time? Do you like to have everything in one spot or spread out depending on what it is? Do you struggle with consistency where a printed planner might deflate you if you skip some days? Do you want your note-taking to give you a break from a screen or do you like to look and feel of digital?

4 thoughts

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s