Digital Bullet Journal
I am pretty impressed by the idea and the perfect execution of Bullet Journal method by Ryder Carroll. So I started to use it for several weeks, and I found it really useful. It works in such a way that you don’t need to think about where and how you are taking note! However the big contradiction about the Bullet Journal method, to me, is that I wanted to be paperless. Clearly, Ryder developed the method for those who are not interested in the idea of going “paperless”. This might be because many people, like me, already had a lot of unsuccessful trials for going paperless with Evernote, Remember the Milk and all other productivity apps and services out there.
After several weeks of adapting to Bullet Journal, I look around to see if there is an app or service available which digitalizes the Bullet Journal method or not? I couldn’t find anything. Then, I tried to implement it on one of the services that I had tested before. So, I decided to give the Workflowy a try since I found it pretty close to the Bullet Journal ideology which is Less think, do more or as Workflowy team says: Make lists, not war.
So, I started to implement the Bullet Journal method on the Workflowy and then adding more features to it to fulfill my needs. In the rest of this text, I’ll try to explain my implementation.
A short introduction to Bullet Journal
I would like to borrow the first paragraph of the Bullet Journal website since it beautifully describes what the Bullet Journal is. Then, one by one, I will try to map all the points mention in the paragraph to my digital version of the method.
For the list-makers, the note-takers, the Post-It note pilots, the track-keepers, and the dabbling doodlers. Bullet journal is for those who feel there are few platforms as powerful as the blank paper page. It’s an analog system for the digital age that will help you organize the present, record the past, and plan for the future. — Bullet Journal
The heart of the Bullet Journal is Rapid Logging. It says that taking notes and logging your event should be easy. It tries to simplify the way you organize your thoughts. Very long time ago, you had to write your notes in separate files and organize them in several folders; then people found it annoying to jump from one folder to another to find a piece of information. Evernote introduces a folder-less note management method which relies on Notebooks and Tags, but you could just create notes and trust Evernote Search to find your note, so no folder. But things will get messy and make you frustrated after some time, at least it happened to me. Usually, this will bring a lot of disappointment and procrastination, so people started to come back to the pen and paper to avoid this kind of side effects.
The Bullet Journal and Rapid Logging are trying to simplify the workflow in a friendlier way. You are allowed to write your notes, tasks, events, etc almost everywhere. I encourage you to check the full description on Bullet Journal; however, I think I can save you some time by telling you a short intro:
You’re starting with a page in your notebook by writing the date on top of the page. Then, you continue to fill the page with items like tasks, notes, events, etc. The only difference between these items is their identifiers which are a small icon at the start of the line. A Task starts with an empty box and when it is completed, you just put a tick in the box. A Note starts with a bullet and an Event start with an empty circle. You can use more icons too, e.g., prioritizing items by putting exclamation marks before them or adding a star to indicate their importance. To remove an item, you strike through it although you do it when you find it completely irrelevant otherwise just leave it there. At the start of each month, you create two pages: Monthly Events and Monthly Tasks in order to plan the month in advance.
In the rest of this text, I will describe my workflow in order to make Workflowy as close as possible to Bullet Journal.
If you are looking for native apps instead of the Workflowy to implement the method, check Outliner Apps for iOS and macOS
My Workflowy workflow consists of two main lists: Planner and Projects, each containing several sublists which I will describe later on.
I have tried to implement the Planner as similar as possible to Bullet Journal, so it should be organized by date. However, I will implement the Planner in such a way that; first, it takes advantages of Workflowy powerful environment; second, it makes it a better tool for taking long notes, tracking tasks, and managing the events.
A Project, as its name suggests, is a list of projects that you are doing/involving at the moment or you’ve planned to do in the future. You could see the project list as a new separate part of your notebook or even a new notebook alongside your Bullet Journal to collect all related notes and materials about your projects. With no war, we could make as many lists as possible and store every related notes or piece of information in them. However, I carefully designed several top-lists for each project; first, to avoid cluttering my Workflowy notebook; second, to make it more human mind friendly!
About using tags
In general, using tags helps you to organize your notes, images, or ideas based on their contents. Before learning about the GTD, I was tagging every note with a lot of related tags in order to categorize and find them later on. When I found out about the GTD, and I implemented the method on the Remember the Milk and Evernote, the number of tags that I was using had reduced to few tags which were describing either contexts or projects. Of course, I was not satisfied and like before I tried to find something in the middle. First, I started by creating few tags by using hash ‘#’ e.g. #Programming. This helped me to distinguish between GTD control tags and my tags or content tags more easily. Although this method is working well, I eventually define a lot of tags which only assigned to one or more notes or tags which are not really helpful!
When I started to use Workflowy, I knew that I couldn’t use the same method of tagging in Workflowy for two reasons: first of all, I didn’t want to end up with a lot of useless tags; second, I wanted to be as close as possible to the Bullet Journal principle, so I should use tags in such a way that my mind accept them easily; finally, tagging a note or item should be done instantly without any further thinking!
Therefore, I decided to only define few Control Tags which were starting with ‘@’ and Context tags which were starting with ‘#’. Control Tags will be used to construct the structure of the Planner andProject, and Context Tags are using to specify the general contexts of the notes or items.
Tags starting with ‘@’
I use the tags starting with ‘@’ to build the skeleton of the Planner and Project. So, what they suppose to do is to mark specific items in the entire Workflowy notebook to help you find them easily. For instance, you could see them as the title of pages in your Bullet Journal, like when you are creating theMonthly Tasks and Monthly Events. I demonstrate how I will use several tags like @YearlyGoals, @MonthlyGoals, @WeeklyGoals, @Projects, @Ideas, @Meeting, etc. to build the structure of your Workflowy notebook.
Tags starting with ‘#’
Tags starting with ‘#’ are used to specify topics, methods, researches, etc. However, I remembered not to use a lot of tags. For example, if I am working on a @pPyWorkflowy I wouldn’t define tags for every useful function or method instead I will define tags for different part of my developments such as #OAuth, #CLI, #Documentation, etc.
Tags should be general enough to cover large group of notes and be specific enough to let you distinguish your notes from each other.
Building the Planner
The Planner is a list containing all the information you want to capture or remember. It’s a timeline containing all the Goals, Reviews, Readings, Meetings, Tasks, Ideas, Notes, Logs, etc. It’s going to be your digital Bullet Journal.
Since we would like to organize it by date and make it similar to the Bullet Journal, we start it with an item describing the year: “2014". Following that, we add each month as sub-items to it. So, it describes a year with its months just like your Daily Planner Notebook.
Each year starts with a tag: @YearlyGoals or @Resolutions. Your yearly goals or resolutions should be listed under the @YearlyGoals item. Of course, it should create at the start of the each year and new items could be added to it later. Then, at the start of each month, a @MonthlyGoals item is created as the first item of a month and similarly, it will list your monthly goals. You could also create months in advance in order to organize your long-term goals just like Monthly Tasks and Monthly Events in Bullet Journal.
At the same level as @MonthlyGoal the first weeks of the month should be created. I choose to define the weeks with the dates that it starts and ends like: Feb 1 — Feb 8. In this way, I could track the overlapping months accurately. Just like years and months, each week starts with a @WeeklyGoals item right below the week. Since, the @YearlyGoals, @MonthlyGoals and@WeeklyGoals are defined at the top of the lists, they will help you to focus on your goals in every day, week, month, and year.
Like the month item which is filling with weeks after the @MonthlyGoals, you start adding days in a week in the same level of @WeeklyGoals. I choose to just write the name of the days: Monday, Tuesday, …, Friday, and Weekend. You could either create them in the morning or at night before. It’s up to you if you want to have another goal list like @DailyGoals or not. I personally just write my daily tasks under each day list without creating another goal list.
In summary, you’ve created a list for each year which contains all the months and each month includes its weeks and weeks are filling with their days; finally days are listing your daily tasks. You mark every task/item as complete by “control + enter” in each day when it’s done and when a day is over you mark it as completed as well; so, if you choose to hide the completed item by pressing “control + o”; then, days will disappear from your planner! Hiding the completed items will help you to only focus on the upcoming days and its tasks. It’s like turning a page in your Bullet Journal. Respectively, when a week or month is over you just mark it as completed and it will disappear from your Planner* but thanks to Workflowy it will be there whenever you need it, just like your archived notebooks. For instance, if you mark a year as completed and hide the completed item, Workflowy will archive it for you and you could start a new notebook by just adding a new year: 2014.
Until now we defined only three tags: @YearlyGoals, @MonthlyGoals, and @WeeklyGoals. There is no doubt that defining your goals and keep them on sight always helps your mind to focus and try to accomplish them. So, it worth to waste three tags for them because you could always track your progress through the years, months or weeks. After achieving each goal, you mark them as complete and it’s gone! When you achieve all your weekly goals, you could either work on one of the monthly goals which you could find it in the list just right above the week. Or you could define a new goal or just lean back and enjoy a beer since you have done your job!
Managing Meeting, Notes, Ideas, Logs, etc
Since the purpose of this text was not only to build a hierarchy of years, months, weeks and days or a Planner Notebook with Workflowy, but also to design a workflow in order to manage all the information that we need in a way that your mind used to. I will introduce few more tags which will be used in the Planner to manage a different kind of information with respect to their contents.
We’ll stick to the Bullet Journal principle to organize meetings in Workflowy. So what we do is to define a @Meeting item like: “Swarm Organ Anneal @Meeting”. You can see we used the inline tagging feature provided by Workflowy. Now that we have an item devoted to the meeting we could just write the meeting note in the note area or even create several sub items to collect different materials or aspects of the meeting like @Question(s) or @Idea(s).
By searching for the @Meeting tag, we could filter the items containing @Meeting and track back through the date hierarchy to exactly specify the date that it happened. Is it cool?
The @idea tag could be used everywhere you wanted to capture your ideas. Thanks to Workflowy tagging feature, it’s also possible to use the tags in the notes, inline tagging. So consider a case that you are writing a @Meeting note, in the same note section you could just casually write about the meeting and mention someone’s idea like this: “John’s @idea was to use an adaptive method for computing the integral numerically.”
Just like the @idea tag, you could use @Task wherever you wanted to create a task list. You could even define tasks in advance in the planner. You have to consider the fact that almost everything in a planner could be seen as a task so in most cases there is no need to use @Task. My suggestion is to define @task as less as possible on the planner and use it more in the projects. For instance, it’s the best to define a @Task(s) list under your project (@pPyWorflowy) and list all the tasks that you think it is necessary for finishing the task like:
This makes it easier to track the progress of a project and also plan your days. Every day you first decide which project you wanted to work on, then you pick one of the tasks for putting it in today list and maybe expanding it in more detail. At the end of the day, you could check your progress on that specific task and overall progress of your project is always listed/updated under your project title.
I only have one instance of this tag in the whole Workflowy notebook. Every task that it’s postponed will be moved to this list, and the list should always stay in the current week right after the Weekend item.
In this way, every morning, you could start by checking the @PostponedTask(s) list to see if you can put some of them in your schedule for today or not; if yes, then you should move the selected item to the current day list. In the case that you decided not to complete a task anymore, removing the task from the list works the best.
I rarely use this tag, but I see the possibility of using it when you wanted to write a @review of a paper or a blog post on the Internet. Another possibility is to define 3 variants of the @Review tag such as @WeeklyReview, @MonthlyReview, and @YearlyReview. They could be placed at the end of each week, month or year and contain important incidents or tasks you have done during the period.
Another option is to use the note area of each day, week, month or year to write a short review about it. For instance, I can just write what I did and how was my weekend as a note in Weekend item, and the same for weeks, months and years. Then we could save some tags!
Notes are important! But I essentially don’t use the @note tag, however, I will add notes to each item that I wanted to add some explanation or information to it by pressing Shift+Enter.
There are some rules that I have defined to take notes more wisely.
- Since we like the idea of Rapid Logging, you could take notes everywhere in you Planner. Just define a new item with the proper title and start writing your note. Preferably use inline tags to create connections between your notes and projects or topics, but not many!
- I write a note in Markdown format in order to be able to export them to a different format like LaTeX or HTML.
- I write the project descriptions right below the project title.
- I use inline tags whenever it is possible in order to make it easier to find or make a relation to a project or topic; for instance, if I have an idea which I wanted to describe in the note area, I will write: “That would be a great @idea to apply this method on @pPyWorkflowy project”. The other option is to use Context Tags like: “It would be a great @idea to use #OAUTH to implement the authentication procedure in @pPyWorkflowy”. You could decide how many tags that you want to use but I prefer not to use a lot and define them as broad as possible.
A question tag is designed to help you not forget your questions. I found it really useful to tag questions with different tags since I could always refer to them and if I found their answer, then I could mark them as complete and write the answer as a note.
I found it helpful to moves notes, ideas, questions or any items to its proper location instead of linking them with tags. So what I do is to move an idea that I came to mind after reading a paper to the related topic or subject. I also write a small comment in where I collected the note, like: “the @idea is moved to @pPyWorkflowy”. This helps me know the source of the idea when I’m reviewing a topic or project. In the case of questions, I will try to explain the question and the answer in the summary under the related projects topic.
Building the Projects
As it mentioned, each project should have a specific tag in order to be identified and searched very fast. I decided to start the project tag with p like @pPyWorkflowy, but of course, you could do start it with anything that you prefer or even doesn’t start it with an indicator. However, having an indicator helps you search for them more easily by start typing @p and then rest of the name.
A project item starts with its name following with its tag:
The project note should contain general information about the project like the people who are involving in the project, their contact details, the website of the project, and etc.
Following that several sub-lists with several familiar tags like: @Subject(s), @Term(s), @Idea(s), @Goal(s), etc… will define. I assume that you already know the purpose of many of the tags maybe except @Subject which I will explain it later.
As I pointed earlier, we must avoid having same texts in several places. In fact, I found it really helpful to collect all the related information in one place instead of having them around, as I explained it before. To show another use case: Consider a case that you found an really interesting @idea by reading a paper, what you do is to write about your idea in the @PaperSummary or @Idea tag under the paper title. Your idea is suitable for one of your project, right? So, what you should do next, is to move the idea to the @Idea(s) list of your project, of course, with a proper citation to the paper! After some time, your @pPyWorkflowy project starts to be the central place of all the related information About your project.
This is very different from managing a project with Evernote since although you could collect all the information in an Evernote notebook but to see them all, you have to switch between notes which are not very pleasant. However, by using the Workflowy endless list, you could just go deeper and deeper and just focus on specific part of the project with having a glimpse of the other parts.
Please collect your data from different places of the Planner into the Projects.
Every project consists of several subjects or topics. Again, I found it really helpful to collect the project information in a more organized way. What I did is to define a Context Tag for each subject or topic and create a sub-list under the @Subject tag for each project.
If you followed the instruction from the beginning you should notice that this is the first time that we tend to define Context Tags. A tag should be defined if it could be used to express an aspect of a project or research.
How to manage a scientific research
When you are working on a scientific project, there are a lot of publications that should have been read and understood; however, it is not always easy to remember everything on in the publication, so you want to have to write notes. Summarizing a scientific paper is not an easy task, and if you managed to do that, then it is not an easy task to manage all the notes that you’ve written in a good way.
As a researcher, I always have this problem. Before using the Workflowy, I used to save every publication (PDF) in an Evernote note and collected all the useful information from the paper in the same note. Then, I wouldn’t be able to manage them all.
However, now I’m using the same principle of the Project list to manage my research materials and ideas as well.
To track my reading with Workflowy, I define a @Reading(s) tag at the end of each month. I create an item for every paper that I read in the current month by writing its citation. In the paper item, I define several tags in order to categorise different pieces of information from the paper like:
I create an item underneath the paper title to write a very short summary of the paper. Only very important notes that I found really interesting or important will be copied from the paper to Workflowy. You could either use @Summary or @PaperSummary item in order to make it more specific.
I found it useful to collect good phrases, sentences, or paragraphs from publications in order to use them for enriching your writing. So, I define a tag @WritingMaterial(s) to collect such information; of course, with a citation to the source. Then, when I wanted to write my paper, I will go through all the item tagged with @WritingMaterial(s), and I will try to use them in a good way!
I use @Term(s) tag to collect specific terms defined in papers, and then I will try to describe its meaning or definition based on my intuition or understanding. For instance, if you are reading about a new biological process you could make and item and describe it for further use.
Tips and Template
I hope I managed to explain my Workflowy workflow. I knew that I wrote a very long instruction and it might be hard to read and follow. Therefore, I made a Workflowy template notebook in which you could find the complete structure that I built through this instruction. Please find the template here: Template.
In the end, I listed some misc tips in order to help you build even more organized workflow:
- Like Bullet Journal method you could mark items with icons. For instance: Use * for prioritizing your tasks or notes. ***, ** and * for High/Medium/Low priority. Use exclamation mark for Critical items: !, !! or !!!.Use star to mark important items: ★
- Using the Evernote alongside. Although I told you my migration story from Evernote to Workflowy, I still use Evernote for many other things. One of them is to collect all the materials that I couldn’t collect in Workflowy like Images, PDFs, etc. I do this by using the same tag rules as I used here. For instance, if I wanted to store an image related to one project (Project1) then I will tag the note with the @pProject1 or put it into a notebook with @pProject1 name. I recommend to tag your notes with relevant Content tags as well like #Method1.It’s useful to make a link to your note in the Workflowy as well. Like writing a quick note indicating that you stored such information in Evernote or even make a hyperlink using a note shared link.
- Using Reminders: One of the biggest features missing in Workflowy is the lack of having a reminder system. I can recommend Remember the Milk or iCloud Reminder for this.
- Favorite your lists in order to switch between them quickly. What I do at the first day of each week and month is to favorite the week using “control + shift + ∗”. Then you could switch between them by using “control + ;”. And at the end of the week and month, I remove them from the favorite list.
- You could use context tags like GTD method as well, but I don’t recommend them all, maybe only a few ones that are fits into your workflow implementation. For instance, if you are doing scientific research having a tag like @toRead would be useful but definitely not @work or @home since we decided to use Workflowy only for work.
- If you are using Google Chrome, you should use Workflowy Chrome Application; otherwise, if you don’t like Google Chrome, you can use Fluid on macOS to create a desktop app from the Workflowy website.
- Check Stylebot and Userscript to find some custom theme, font, etc for Workflowy.
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