Managing my Life

    On January 1st, with a new month here, never mind a new year, I worked through my December todos, seeing what was undone and bringing those items forward to January.

    This is not my Bullet Journal, rather it is a hybrid system that I have been cobbling together from a number of different systems. It has taken me a while to get here, but I am feeling more comfortable than I have done for a long while in managing my life and for that I am grateful.

    The process of getting here has been a reminder to me of sticking with it. If the intention is there, I believe that a way forward will be found. The key for me has been perseverance.

    Now also feels like a good time to review where I have got to.

    A sketch of my system

    I have borrowed from the following places and systems,

    • Bullet Journalling
    • Patrick Rhone’s Dash/Plus system
    • James Clear’s work on building habits
    • The community at

    Probably the biggest move, and this started over a year ago, has been the move away from digital task management to good ol’ pen and paper, in the form of notebooks. I think as digital devices became more portable, I thought to manage my life with their help. But I had to be honest with myself, it wasn’t working. It was also pushing me into a corner of feeling as though I had to get things done, either because of how the apps were constructed or how I understood to use them.

    With benefit of hindsight, this move to notebooks made total sense. I have been keeping journals, both written and digital, for a number of decades. The written journals have always been my most enjoyable in keeping - making the time to write and then having that visceral experience of putting my thoughts to paper through a pen, a favourite of course, traveling across the pages of the notebook.

    Let me take a look at how the systems listed above have come together to create what I now use.

    Returning to the list above, I’ll start at the end. I have found the community very helpful as members share where they are at in managing tasks in their own lives. While I can’t point to one specific person or piece of advice, I have appreciated the thinking out loud which has nudged my own thinking along and given me new ideas where I was getting stuck. So “Thank you, all.”

    Bullet Journal

    The Bullet Journal method by Ryder Carroll was my first attempt at transitioning from digital to paper. At first I stayed away because the learning curve looked too steep to me. I forced myself back to have another look and ended up using Carroll’s system for many months. I enjoyed the ritual of sitting down and writing, being away from the screen, both big and small. With time though the Bullet Journal felt too involved for me, bringing an added layer of complexity to my todo management that I did not want. Whether that was how I was using the system, sticking to rigidly to how I thought it should be used, or it simply not being for me, I don’t know, but I moved away from Bullet Journaling.


    The Dash/Plus System is a metadata markup system created by Patrick Rhone, whom I met on Like the Bullet Journal, I started using it and then stopped. It is not as involved as Bullet Journaling, something that appealed to me, but it still did not work for me. With the benefit of hindsight, I think that I was probably trying to stick too rigidly to the system as Rhone presented it as opposed to making it my own (ironically, something that he encourages). I put it down and did not return until I picked up James Clear’s Clear Habit Journal.

    James Clear on building habits

    I started reading James Clear’s book Atomic Habits, and using his methods of using small habits to build larger habits. I was making progress there and so decided to buy his Clear Habit Journal to help track my progress. I never finished Atomic Habits, but in the Journal I adopted some of Clear’s ideas alongside creating a Dash/Plus / Bullet Journal hybrid method unintentionally (see below). This I feel is still under construction, but has been working for me since August 2020.

    David’s Tracking Method (for want of a better name!)

    Clear’s Clear habit Journal can be used in anyway that one likes, but has some features that made me think in a particular way.

    • The bulk of the book is dotted pages which put me into a Bullet Journal / Dash/Plus mindset. Clear offers some suggestions for how to use the dotted pages, but they did not work for me.
    • The front of the Journal contains an Index. With that and the dotted pages, I dropped into a daily list of todos, short journal entries and reflections, and occasionally some data points around what I needed to remember. I use some of the markup from Dash/Plus and created a couple of my own. Days just run on below each other, separated by a short, drawn line.
    • At the end of each month, I start a new page bringing forward undone items from the previous month.
    • The initial pages in the Journal offer space for a single line journal reflection each day. I currently use it to reflect on what I am grateful for.
    • The back pages offer a way to track habits per day, each month. I use that to keep up with some habits that I wish to build.
    • I also use the back dotted pages to keep notes on meetings I attend, projects I am working on, or fact sheets I need at hand.
    • All of these have quick access from the Index at the front of the Journal.

    In conclusion

    This still feels like a work in progress, but truth be told I have pretty much dropped into a rhythm which I think will stick with. I use my iPhone and laptop’s Calendar and Reminders apps for some appointment checking - sometimes these will start in my journal and then be moved to the appropriate app - otherwise it is in my journal.

    As I start to see the end of the current Clear Habit Journal in site - I’m not using a notebook year on year, just as I use it up - the next decision is what notebook will be next? Clear’s Journal has a lot already in place, lessening the need for setup, but there is also a lot that is superfluous to my needs. So I am looking elsewhere, and again the pen and paper crowd on have been helpful as they share their tools. I’m am looking forward to that hunt!

    Distracting myself - taking small bites

    Those days when I can’t seem to find focus. My mind is looking for ways out. I can feel the resistance to what needs to be done. Time is wasted doing that which does not need to be done, following links on websites, reading that which is interesting but not necessary right now.

    I write this as much to remind myself of what I need to do when resistance creeps into my life.


    As the resistance to getting things done kicks in, the body tenses. For me that sits especially in the shoulders but I can also feel in my mind. Like a caged animal, my mind wants to run from where it is being held, from the tasks at hand. Unless I can grab hold of the mind, it is around this time that I start getting distracted. It is my mind’s equivalent of escaping from the cage…though in reality it is still trapped.


    What I need in that moment is an anchor. Something firm to hold onto that prevents me running off into unproductive activities. By anchor I am not necessarily talking about a physical thing, though it could be. Examples of anchors might be:

    • Drop everything, get out and take a walk. Just remove yourself from the focus of your activities and change the scenery.
    • If outside is not an option, change the scenery through a walk to the bathroom (whether you need to go or not), a walk to the coffee machine, or to a window with an expansive view.
    • Meditate - feel your feet on the ground, the contact of your body with the chair. Become aware of the sounds around you. Bring your attention to your breath, just breathing itself naturally. Watching the rise and fall of the belly can further help to ground you.
    • If you have some spiritual practice, in that moment drop into that. For example the recitation of a mantra, itself a meditation.
    • Journal - just write, let the mind run free. Perhaps write about what needs to be done. If you are keeping a Bullet Journal, get more detailed in there. Break up the tasks.

    Take small bites

    And then when you return to work don’t try and get everything done at once. If you didn’t do this during your break, look at the tasks that you have set yourself and break them down into smaller bite size chunks. And then slowly work through those chucks.

    Take a break

    Periodically take a break, perhaps every 20, 30 or 40 minutes stop, walk around, breathe deeply, stretch for 5 minutes, and then back to work. After a longer period of time, take a loner break. The Pomodoro Technique can be helpful with this, and there are many computer and phone apps that implement variations of the technique.

    Go steadily but gently

    Finally, go gently on yourself. Do not set expectations that you cannot keep. Incrementally stretch yourself, trying a little more each time, each time building on the progress made the day before. With practice the distractions become less, the mind tamed, quieter, and progress is made in work.

    Further reading

    Steven Pressfield wrote a whole book on the subject of resistance called The War of Art. Take a look a it if you would like to look at the creative blocks in your life.

    Bullet Journal - A Place for Mind to Relax

    Meditation is giving a huge, luscious meadow to a restless cow. The cow might be restless for a while in its huge meadow but at some stage, because there is so much space, the restlessness becomes irrelevant. So the cow eats and eats and eats and relaxes and falls asleep.
    ~ Chögyam Trungpa, The Myth of Freedom, pp. 48-9

    Giving space to our thoughts

    At times my mind can feel very small and constricted. I probably wouldn’t acknowledge that at the time, as when I’m in such a space it is too caught up in grumbling about something, being frustrated, impatient, judging (myself or others), to actually notice what it is doing to itself. But when I finally muster some self-awareness, that is what I recognize going on - a small, constricted mind caught up in a thick dust storm of not thinking clearly.

    Meditation clears my mind, letting the dust settle and allowing me to see more clearly. As opposed to engaging with dust cloud of grumbles and judgements, I just allow them to be. I give them the space to act out as they choose to, watching their antics. With time and me not engaging with them, they run out of steam and the mind settles.

    My Todo Lists

    My todo lists have also at times felt like a dust cloud, not allowing me to see what is really going on and needs to be done. For many years I have been caught up in an apparently never ending search of where shall I put them such that I actually act on what I put into them?

    Will this app work, maybe that app? Yes, my search for an answer was always in the electronic realm. However, nothing ever really worked for me within that domain. No method appeared to stick. I used an app for a while, find myself getting behind in due dates that I have set - for reasons within and out of my control - and then start feeling the pressure mounting in me to get things done. All I could see in front of me was due dates and nothing else. The dust cloud starts to get stirred up again. I became paralyzed into inaction. What was meant to help has now become a burden.


    While this carousel of a search went on I continued to keep a journal. I have kept a journal for almost 30 years now. Not everyday. Sometimes everyday. Just regularly in an irregular way. Often enough that I regard it as a part of my life, and an important part at that.

    My journal writing came out of my traveling in my mid-twenties. I just started keeping a diary of my travels, where I had been, what I had seen and then slowly I found myself delving introspectively into my thoughts and feelings as I experienced life on the road.

    In the decades since those travels I continue to write, filling notebooks with thoughts, struggles, celebrations, really whatever comes to mind in the moment that I pick up a pen.

    I keep an electronic journal as well. I use it if I am on the move and just want to get something out of my head and pen and paper are not available. For the most part though my journal is a notebook and pen.

    So the search for a todo list manager continued. Through it all I felt a continued resistance to managing my todos away from the electronic world. I work a lot on my computer, my devices are all synced together, and so managing lists electronically felt clean and minimalistic. Nothing else to carry around. I just had to find that elusive app that would bring my problems to an end and make my life productive.

    Back to paper

    My wife has managed her todo lists in the most simplest of ways for as long as I can remember - a pad of paper sits in the kitchen and she writes on it as things come up, and then refers to it through her day. The seed of my way out of todo list struggles was right in front of me, but I couldn’t see it.

    I think that in the end exhaustion just set in. I had to find a way forward, and then two methods presented themselves to me.

    At some point I came across two pen and paper ways of managing your life.

    My first take was that the Bullet Journal was just too complicated, would take an age to learn and ironically because of that would just be another addition to my todo list. It was relegated to the runner’s up position and I started experimenting with Dash/Plus. However, no matter how much I tried, I couldn’t make it work for me. Something was missing. So I bit the bullet, excuse the pun, and dived into exploring the Bullet Journal.

    The Bullet Journal

    Fears of over complication couldn’t have been further from the truth. Yes there was a learning curve, but within a short time I was getting into the rhythm of writing down things to do, checking them off as they got done, moving items from here to there à la the Bullet Journal methodology. Journal feels a very apt name for this system. My Bullet Journal felt like a very natural adjunct to my regular journal. My Bullet Journal was keeping track of a part of my life. It was not only helping me move through and manage what I had to do, it also held space for me to go back and see what I had been doing with my life. At times I was even exploring some insights where some activities or decisions had proven challenging.

    Creating and holding space

    Perhaps most importantly for me is the space that I feel the Bullet Journal holds for me when I enter my todos. Some are urgent, some have dates when they need to be completed, others are just sitting there waiting to be done. It offers a space to download from my head stuff that needs to be done. With my head cleared of the noise of what has to be done, my Bullet Journal then gives me the space to look at…let’s say, my life. If it is not done today, it gets moved on. Perhaps in time it is erased from my todos. I can check back over a day or week to see if there is something that has slipped my mind…or observation.

    The space that Bullet Journal creates for my todos allows my mind to relax, not constricting (which it was before) around deadlines and wanting to get items of the list.

    The field of my Bullet Journal

    Returning to the quote at the top of this piece, my Bullet Journal has become the field into which I can let loose the restless cow which are my todos. The Bullet Journal system gives them a space to rest, and to be moved elsewhere if necessary. But not moved in anxiety. The system allows it and works with the move.

    As my todos rest, so do I.