I’ve been curious for a while about the Bullet Journal system. As an obsessive practitioner of Getting Things Done, I can’t see myself starting a Bullet Journal but its framing as ‘the analogue system for a digital age’ has intrigued me since I first encountered it. The video below provides an overview of how to keep a bullet journal:

The basic ontology of a bullet journal incorporates tasks, events and notes. These are incorporated into an organisational structure built around four core modules: index, future log, monthly log and the daily log. The bullet journal enables you to “track the past, organise the present and plan for the future” by providing a framework through which future plans become present commitments and past actions. If I understand correctly, it’s basically a funnel through which your plans over a six-month window get cashed out as monthly and daily priorities. The importance accorded to reflection ensures that commitments can be dropped along the way. It is a “customizable and forgiving” system for self-organisation, built around a hybrid journal which is a combination of “to-do list, sketchbook, notebook, and diary”.

I find it hard not to wonder if some of the appeal rests on paper-fetishism. This certainly plays a role in how Bullet Journal markets itself. For instance this video frames notebooks as a “creative playground” through which we “breath life into ideas”:

I can see the appeal of having an artefact like this. Externalising your commitments into an application like Omnifocus can be a hugely effective way to organise your time, once it has become a habitual process. It can be enormously practical as well, if you’re liable to lose your bullet journal, write indecipherably or otherwise fail to exercise the physical care in relation to an artefact which a system like Bullet Journal requires. But you can’t hold your Omnifocus. You can’t flick through it. Much of this lack is aesthetic. Reliance on a digital system precludes certain experiences which an analogue system facilitates.

I wonder if there are also practical losses as well. Could some modes of reflection be foreclosed by the insubstantiality of the system? Getting Things Done as a system relies on the series: “a number of events, objects, or people of a similar or related kind coming one after another”It reduces all our projects to the same basic ontology: an interlinked series of actionable steps through which we cumulatively bring about a substantial outcome. This reduction is what makes it so powerful. The value of Omnifocus lies in it giving us powerful tools through which to calibrate this reduction. But it also carries the risk of eviscerating the lived meaning of these projects, particularly when enacted through a digital system. This problem is inherent to the moral psychology of the to-do list:

This is the mentality that cognitive triage generates: things are conceived as obstacles to be eliminated rather than activities to be enjoyed. As the list gets bigger, it becomes harder to see the individual ‘to do’ items as activities in their own right. They are reduced to uniform list items and nothing more. Things you enjoy and things you despise are given equal weight. The logic of the to-do list is one of commensurability and this is the problem with it. The process of triaging combined with the logic of the to-do list can lead to an evisceration of value: the potential goods internal to activities, those experiences of value that can only be found through doing, get obliterated by the need to cross items off a list.

https://markcarrigan.net/2015/01/29/productivity-culture-cognitive-triage-and-the-pseudo-commensurability-of-the-to-do-list/

Might Bullet Journals help preserve the relational richness of our projects, opening out powerful modes of engaging with them while closing down the conveniences which digital systems afford? I’d be curious to hear what others think. Particularly anyone who has used Omnifocus and/or GTD before moving to a Bullet JournalMy hunch is there’s a basic trade-off here between convenience and reflection. It’s easy to slip into using Omnifocus/GTD in an unreflective way but the brute physicality of the Bullet Journal renders that largely impossible. Many might stop using their notebook as a Bullet Journal but if you stick to the practice itself, it more or less ensures you use it in a reflective way.

I’ve been a devoted user of Omnifocus for going on five years. At this point, I struggle to imagine how I could work without it, as I’m so utterly reliant on it to transform the hyperactive clutter within my mind into an ordered archive outside of it. But it’s hard to use. It took me well over a year to get to grips with it. It’s also hard to explain. If you’re nonetheless instinctively curious about it, you should read this great introduction offered by the Thesis Whisperer:

My background in architecture offices has given me a range of time and project management skills that are helpful in my second career as an academic. I think I’m pretty good at working multiple projects with complex dependencies, but moving into a management role at ANU has pushed me to my limit.

For years I’ve been using a simple to-do list system based on Cal Newport’s “How to be a straight A student”. I’ve been coping using this simple pen and paper method (just), but in January I hit crisis point. Two valued staff members left within a couple of months and I temporarily added their work to my already over burdened to-do list. My friend and extreme productivity guru Dr Jason Downs listened to my whingeing and suggested Omnifocus2. I’ll admit that I was initially skeptical. I’ve tried many project management tools, such as Producteev, Freedcamp andTrello , but, after an initial period of enthusiasm, I abandoned each one. Like being on a strict diet, complying with the digital tool made me feel … constricted.

Jason told me Omnifocus2 was different because it is built around the famous ‘Getting Things Done’ (GTD) by David Allen. This interested me. I read Getting Things Done years ago and implemented a few of the suggestions to great effect. For example, the folders on my hard drive relate to what I do: administration, writing, researching, teaching, supervising, blogging. My email has a similarly lean file structure, as you can see in the image below. While I have folders for automated feeds, the vast majority of emails end up in one folder called “archive”. If I need to find an email from a person, I just use the search function.

 

Coffee
Meditate for focus
What do I want to achieve today?

Do,
Delete,
Discard
Inbox zero!
(fleetingly)

Remind self of priorities

Meeting
Get ahead on e-mail
(how did people cope without iPhones?)

Meeting

Insufficient steps walked
Resolve to do better tomorrow

Reflect on day: what did I learn?
Scan horizon

Meditate for sleep
Adjust sleep goals

Rest
(fleetingly)

I worry a lot about deep work (giving sustained attention to hard things that create value). As a professor, deep work is required to produce new results. Therefore, the more I do, the better.

I often envy the schedules of professional writers — like Woody AllenNeal Stephenson, or Stephen King — who can wake-up, work deeply until they reach their cognitive limit, then rest and recharge until the next day.

The simplicity of this rhythm is satisfying. I could never emulate it, however, because, like most knowledge workers, I’m also saddled with quite a bit of  shallow work (task-oriented efforts that do not create much new value). You’d be surprised, for example, how much time you spend after you write an academic paper, formatting it properly for publication (a scene they seemed to skip in A Beautiful Mind).

http://calnewport.com/blog/2013/09/08/will-you-get-tenure-replicate-the-academic-promotion-process-to-get-more-value-out-of-your-work/

I really enjoyed Raul Pacheco-Vega’s post yesterday on how he schedules his work life ‘to the very minute’ so I thought I’d offer my own reflections. I’m intellectually fascinated by how people organise their everyday lives for both personal and academic reasons. I used to have massive difficulties with procrastination and focus. I still do really but in a different way. It’s hard to convey how much I identified with Raul’s description of his experience: “I learned early in my life that I had a really broad range of interests, and that if I didn’t rein in my own impulses, I would be scattered and disorientated before long”. He seems to have learned this a lot earlier than I did though.

I rely on two pieces of software: Goal Streaks on my iPad and OmniFocus on my iPad, iPhone, desktop and laptop. The former keeps track of things that are important to me but not urgent (stuff like going to the gym, blogging, meditating etc) which otherwise get squeezed out by the exigencies and distractions of everyday life. It’s based on the so-called ‘Seinfeld Method’ of instilling habits by marking the daily completion of associated tasks on a calendar by crossing out that day. Thus you measure ‘streaks’ and compete with yourself to surpass your ‘best streak’. The psychological assumption underlying this is that you’re much less likely to avoid the task in question (“I don’t want to go the gym today, I’m tired and it’s raining outside” or “I don’t want to write 1000 words today, I’m travelling for four hours and the seats on London Midland trains are really uncomfortable to type in”) if you have a visual representation of your past completion of the task for X number of days. I have no idea if this is universally true but it certainly works for me. Habits you seek to form are what Charles Taylor would call second-order desires i.e. “I want to want to go to the gym”. Goal Streaks gives added weight to the second-order desire by visually embedding it in a representation of progress over time. In doing so it avoids the familiar (akratic) situation of the first-order and second-order desire being in direct conflict e.g. I don’t want to go to the gym but I want to to want to go to the gym.

OmniFocus has the steepest learning curve of any software I’ve ever used. It took me well over a year to learn to use it properly but I now couldn’t imagine living without it. It’s based around the principles of the Getting Things Done (GTD) system which in essence amount to: (1) write everything down (2) regularly process what you’re written down (3) either discard what you’ve written down, file it for future reference or turn it into an actionable task. The software allows any idea to be immediately captured wherever you are. I find this is often on my phone and, given my continued inability to type accurately on an iPhone, it’s usually in garbled short hand. The point is to distinguish having the idea from evaluating it and working out how to put it into practice. It’s easy to distinguish these as cognitive tasks but, in practice, they often run together – OmniFocus allows you to file fringe thoughts (as C Wright Mills might say) and stray ideas in a reliable inbox, accessible from anywhere, which can be revisited later to evaluate the ideas and draw out their practical implications. It can sound very sterile when written about in the abstract but my experience of the process is one which can facilitate an intensely creative orientation towards ideas. In an important sense GTD is what I’d call a ‘reflexive technology’ (i.e. an ideational construct which serves to augment our capacity for reflexive deliberation) and OmniFocus is the technical means through which this is accomplished on a practical day-to-day level. I used to do much the same thing with a notebook but it was pretty messy and ineffective compared to using OmniFocus.

My point is not to sing the praises of OmniFocus and GTD (though I do like doing that with both) but rather to try and illustrate how I seem to have an equal but opposite approach to Raul. I’ve tried scheduling everything down to the minute in the way he does and it just doesn’t work for me – I rapidly become preoccupied by whether or not I’m doing the thing I’m ‘supposed’ to be doing at a given moment (usually I’m not) and the constructed order soon starts tumbling down around me. What I love about OF + GTD is the flexibility it affords – it incorporates a similar degree of organisation but it decomposes the rigidity of a intricately planned schedule into concrete tasks. So for each day OF produces a to do list based on the tasks, projects and start/end dates I’ve entered into the software (building from the inbox where the ideas go). Some tasks are recurring (e.g. updating the various websites and twitter feeds I manage), some are one off but many are sequential aspects of an overarching project §. The software lets you plan a project in terms of detailed step-by-step tasks and then only shows you one task at a time. The database might contain thousands of discrete tasks but it only shows you a small number at any given time – I rarely have more than 6 or 7 items on my to do list for a given day. What makes the software so hard to get to grips with is the challenge of making sure the small number of tasks it shows you at a given moment in time are the right tasks. The software simply offers tools for registering, organising and representing what you want and might want to do. It doesn’t answer the attendant questions for you but it does force you to think them through in a way which you are otherwise unlikely do.