This next guest post is the lovely Belle Beth Cooper of Hello Code. Belle got in touch with me to contribute her organising and planning to The Planner Experimentalist series, and my goodness, does she have some fantastic ideas to share on her blog (definitely worth the read, you won’t regret it!). To be honest, I’m flattered that she wanted to write content for my blog, and with such great detail about her current system. Thank you, Belle, for such a fascinating read, and for sharing how you incorporate the Bullet Journal system with the Strikethru system. Enjoy, everyone!
Hi, I’m Belle. I’m a co-founder of Hello Code, a Melbourne-based software company, and I do freelance content marketing on the side.
I’ve been obsessed with stationery for a long time, but in the past few years I’ve struggled to find a balance between analogue and digital tools. I like that I always have my phone with me, so digital tools that sync are a reliable way to capture notes, ideas, or tasks anytime. I also like that I don’t have to worry about losing an app, and I can search my tasks if they’re digital.
But I can’t stop myself using pen and paper. It’s something I’ve always enjoyed, and lately I’ve found it can help me stay organised if I have the right system set up.
Since then I’ve continued making tweaks to my set-up, and I’ve moved into a new notebook. I previously used a Leuchtturm1917 hardcover, which are my favourite notebooks, but when that one was all used up I splurged on a regular size Midori Traveler’s Notebook, or MTN.
In case you haven’t seen it, the MTN is essentially a rectangle of leather with some elastic bands attached. Two bands run down the centre of the inside, letting you attach notebook inserts. To put the inserts in, you open the insert to its centre (think a very slim, cardboard covered notebook like the Moleskine cahiers), then slip it under the elastic band so half the pages are either side of the band.
I won’t go into too much detail on the process, but here’s a great video that explains how the inserts go in, and how to put in more than the original elastic allows. Definitely keep this one in mind if you’re thinking of purchasing an MTN.
How I’ve set up my MTN
I’ve tried a few different types of notebook inserts, and moved them around a lot to find the best way to set up my MTN.
Here’s how I have it set up now:
I have three inserts. The first, left-most one, is this weekly and monthly calendar insert that I ordered from Etsy. It has three sections: monthly calendars, weekly spreads, and some blank grid paper at the end.
I use the different sections of this for different things. On the monthly calendars I make a note of what freelance articles I have to write each week, and nothing else. No events, no birthdays, just a client work calendar. This helps me plan when to work on different articles, and helps me see at a glance if any week or month is too full (or not full enough) of work.
On the right-hand side of the monthly calendar pages is a narrow column for notes. I use this to write down the income I earn each month, so I can make sure there’s enough coming in, and get a quick idea of where it’s coming from.
On the weekly pages I write down events I have on the left. I don’t use these pages very often to actually note what’s coming up, but I find the act of writing down my calendar events helps me remember them more easily. I used to forget events often, because I’d type them into my digital calendar and forget them, but now I write them down from my digital calendar into my weekly and daily pages, so I’m always more on top of what’s coming up.
On the right side of the weekly pages, on the blank grid paper, I write a weekly to do list. This is usually quite short—just a few tasks I want to remember to do before the week is out. This is a useful place for anything I think of during the day that I don’t want to put on today’s to do list but should be done soon.
Lately I’ve been experimenting with adding a weekly goal to this list, to help me stay focused and productive when I’m not working on anything time-sensitive.
And finally, the plain grid paper in the back of this insert. I use these pages to keep track of my client work. I’ve gone through a few versions of this layout since I started using a notebook more, and this one seems to be the most simple and sticky. I write an abbreviation of the client (or the website, if it’s something I wrote for one of my own blogs), and what the title of the article is. Then I have columns for various things that have to happen with each article: sending it to the client, invoicing, getting paid, having the article published, putting it in my newsletter, etc. I put a cross in any box that’s not relevant, and a tick for the ones that are done.
This page is especially useful when I need to send my newsletter or send out invoices, because I can just scan the appropriate column to check which articles haven’t been ticked off for that task yet.
My second, middle notebook is a Tomoe River dot paper insert. This is where I keep daily to do lists. A while after I first started using a Bullet Journal, I stopped writing daily lists. I didn’t feel I had enough to do every day, so I worked only from weekly lists instead. After a while I realised I was a lot less productive and more aimless without daily lists. My daily to do list is where I choose what to work on from my weekly list, and without it I would spend most days wondering what to do!
Now I try to write a to do list every night before bed. I include any events I have on, so I don’t forget them, anything due that day, and then I choose a few tasks I’d like to get done. I keep the list to a minimum, with about 5–6 tasks at most. I mix in errands and housework, work tasks, and personal tasks, because there are so few on the list anyway. Plus, I work from home, so I can switch between these contexts throughout the day.
Finally, on the right side of my MTN, is a Midori grid paper insert that I use as my vault. The vault is a concept from the Strikethru method, where you use numbered pages to write lists of tasks—anything from a grocery list to a specific project list to a weekly or monthly list. It’s a bit like the Bullet Journal idea of collections, except each page and task is numbered, so you can use the task and page number to migrate, without re-writing the entire task name. For instance, 15.4 would mean task number 4 on page 15.
I use my vault insert to write task lists for projects I’m working on, lists of blog post ideas to work through, and also to dump ideas that I need to get out of my head. Having the vault separated from my daily lists and my calendar means I can fill up those other inserts and swap them out without having to rewrite my vault lists too often.
I use Post-It tabs to easily jump between my most-used pages. I currently have tabs on the current day, week, and month, my client work tracker page, and a page in the vault insert where I keep a running to do list of tasks that don’t fit on any other vault page.
I also have a clear zip pocket in my MTN, and a kraft folder. I use the zip pocket to hold new Post-It tabs, and occasionally a small backup pen. The kraft folder is really useful for sheets of loose paper that I need to keep handy—for instance, bills, or letters I haven’t replied to yet.
The most recent change I’ve made to my set-up has been to stop journaling in my MTN. Before I made my vault insert specifically a vault, it housed lists of tasks, ideas, and also sketches, quotes, and other journal/commonplace book entries. I still wanted to do this kind of journaling, but it makes more sense to keep it away from my day to day task lists. This is one of the reasons the Bullet Journal method never fully clicked with me; I don’t like the idea of mixing in mundane task lists with my journal.
So right now I’m using a hardcover Leuchtturm1917 I had lying around as my journal/commonplace book. All of my quotes, sketchnotes from books, long-term goal planning, and regular journaling goes into this book. I’m housing my Leuchtturm journal in my Roterfaden, and once it’s full I’ll archive it. All of my MTN inserts, however, will be recycled, as I don’t have any need to keep those forever.
My MTN has been worth every cent so far. I’m not exactly sure why, but something about the shape and size, the softness of the leather cover, and the style of the notebook’s elastic closure makes it feel more portable. It is a traveler’s notebook, after all. This means I’m more likely to carry it around the house with me, so I always have it when I’m working (I tend to work at my desk, the kitchen table downstairs, and even in my bed—this tendency to move around has stopped me from using a notebook more often in the past, because I don’t always have it with me).
I love that I can keep moving the inserts around and trying new ones, while remaining consistent in the overall system I’m using. And writing on paper more often has been a breath of fresh air. After years of relying more heavily on apps to keep me organised, paper is definitely something I missed, and I’m happy to make time for it now.
If I had to offer my best suggestions for getting started with a planner (or starting over), these would be my top three:
- Start with blank paper and a pen, and brainstorm what you need from a planner. I’ve wasted so much time looking at apps, planners, and productivity systems, trying to find one that clicks for me. It’s much more productive to start by figuring out what I actually need, and only then start exploring the tools that can do the job for me. I usually write down the types of tasks or areas of my life or job that I want to keep on top of, and use paper to explore different ways of grouping and organising tasks.
- Don’t feel bad about tweaking the system to suit your needs. As soon as you put any system to work, it becomes your system. Your bullet journal is a tool to help you get work done, and stay organised without feeling overwhelmed. Let it do that in whatever way works for you.
- Start simple. The reason I suggest this is because I have a tendency to spend more time thinking and reading about bullet journaling than actually getting work done. By keeping my journal super simple and sticking with what works (once I’ve figured that out) I’m able to cut back on the temptation to spend more time planning than working. This may not be a problem for you, but if it is, try simplifying your process.