Taking Bullet Journal Digital with Evernote

Back at the end of 2013, I was indulging in a #productivity binge, trying to figure out how I could make myself more productive in 2014. I stumbled across an analogue organisation system called Bullet Journal and found it intriguing. I read up on it and decided to give it a go, starting 2nd January 2014.

After a couple of weeks I found that, although the system was sound in principle, there were a few major issues with it, particularly with the analogue nature of it:

  • The level of duplication can be significant, moving uncompleted tasks from day to day, week to week and sometimes even month to month
  • The level of effort required to maintain a useful index page is non-trivial
  • Adding tasks that need to be done at some specific time in the future can be difficult to schedule in and track properly
  • If you forget to take your journal, it’s game over for the day (I managed to do this twice in 3 weeks!)
  • Rapid Logging really isn’t all that rapid, e.g. if you’re on the tube, or your Notebook is at the other end of the office/house

However, I did like the simplicity of the system, and felt there was a certain elegance to it. But what I really wanted was to take it digital in a way that meant I could access my tasks and notes anywhere, any time, and on any device.

Evernote seemed to be an obvious solution… but how to make it work?

Here is how I’ve been using Evernote for the past 6 months as a digital Bullet Journal. I hope my tips and tricks can help make you more productive too!

Organising Your Notes

I try to keep the number of Notebooks in Evernote to a minimum (another #productivity drive, based on Evernote Essentials by Brett Kelly), so I created a new ‘Tasks’ Notebook dedicated to this function. All my task Notes, past and present, live in this Notebook.

I create a new Note for each week and for each month. I use the weekly Notes to track my day-to-day activities, and I use the monthly Notes as storage buckets for tasks that need to be dealt with in the future. Sometimes I may create a weekly Note for a future week if a future task has to be performed on a specific day, but normally I just use the monthly Notes. When it comes to that specific month, I transfer the task(s) into a weekly Note to ensure it gets done.

I don’t use Bullet Journal for calendaring (a.k.a. Events) – I have enough calendars to worry about without adding another one into the mix, and I’m fairly fastidious on putting stuff into my calendar anyway.

To allow me to quickly view active task Notes or switch between weekly and monthly Notes, I use a series of Evernote tags and Saved Searches. These are the Evernote tags I use:

  • weekly tasks – designates the Note as containing tasks for a specific week
  • monthly tasks – designates the Note as containing tasks for a specific month (normally in the future)
  • month-name – designates the month that the tasks in a monthly Note applies to (I don’t currently use this, but I figured it might be useful for searching in the future)
  • current tasks – designates that the Note contains tasks which are currently active, e.g. the current weekly Note
  • completed tasks – designates that the Note contains tasks which are complete, and all non-complete tasks have been moved to a “current tasks” Note, or removed on the basis that they are no longer relevant

To make the process of creating a new Note quick and easy, I have a generic task template Note. This Note is tagged with the “template” and “current tasks” tags, so it is easy to do a tag-based Evernote search to find (e.g. "Tasks" tag:"current tasks" -tag:"completed tasks" -tag:"templates"). My template is titled “2014mmdd – w/c ddd mmm Tasks” and has the following sections:

Work – dd/mm


Personal – dd/mm


Waiting For


Notes – dd/mm

In case it’s not obvious:

  • dd is the numerical date, e.g. 07 for the 7th day of the month
  • ddd is the human-readable date, e.g. 7th for the 7th day of the month
  • mm is the numerical month, e.g. 08 for August
  • mmm is the human-readable month, e.g. August

So an example Title for one of my Weekly Notes would be: “20140901 – w/c 1st September Tasks“.

You can see that I use horizontal rules to separate sections, e.g. Work and Personal, although you could put these in entirely different Notes if that suits you better (I tried this for a while and found the overhead too great). I create a new ‘Work’, ‘Personal’ or ‘Notes’ heading for each day, and move tasks between days as necessary. I don’t use Notes often (I tend to create separate Notes for meetings, conference calls, brainstorming, etc.), but have left it in my template.

You’ll notice that the ‘Waiting For’ section doesn’t have a date. This is because I found that Waiting For tasks are far more likely to move week-to-week or month-to-month, and it didn’t make sense to have items that were added to my list in July under a dated heading in one of my August weekly Notes. Instead, I collect all my Waiting For tasks in one place, and append the date I started waiting for it (in dd/mm format) at the end on each line. When I stop waiting for an item, I simply check the box and don’t move it to the next weekly Note.

My monthly Notes use the same template as my weekly Notes, but I remove the dates on the headings unless it’s really important something happens on that particular day (and not just by that particular day).

An example Title for one of my Monthly Tasks Notes would be: “201409 – September Tasks“.

Finding and Using Your Notes

Now that you’ve set up a number of tags for your Notes, and a couple of weekly and monthly Notes, you need to be able to quickly find the relevant Notes so you can add tasks to them at a moment’s notice. For this, I used Saved Searches, based on tags, and add the Saved Searches to my Evernote Shortcuts bar.

Here are the particular searches I use:

  1. Tasks – Recent
    • Purpose: Show any Notes that have been updated in the past week, including Notes tagged with “completed tasks” or “task templates”.
    • Search syntax: notebook:"Tasks" tag:"tasks" updated:week-1
  2. Tasks – Current
    • Purpose: Show any Notes with current tasks within. This view may show future Notes if you’ve created them, but will normally show this week’s a Weekly tasks Note and future Monthly tasks Notes.
    • Search syntax: notebook:"Tasks" tag:"current tasks" -tag:"completed tasks" -tag:"templates" updated:week-1
  3. Tasks – Monthly
    • Purpose: Show any Monthly task Notes with uncompleted tasks within. This view will normally show future Notes if you’ve created them.
    • Search syntax:notebook:"Tasks" tag:"monthly tasks" -tag:"templates" -tag:"weekly" -tag:"completed tasks" updated:month-6
  4. Tasks – Weekly
    • Purpose: Show any weekly tasks Notes with uncompleted tasks within. This view will normally show the current Weekly tasks Note plus any future Notes if you’ve created them.
    • Search syntax: notebook:"Tasks" tag:"weekly tasks" -tag:"completed tasks" -tag:"templates" updated:week-2

Saving a search varies between the different Evernote clients; in the Mac desktop client you:

  • Type in a search in the Search bar and hit Enter to perform the search
  • Go to Edit –> Find –> Save Search
  • Type a name for your Saved Search and click OK to save

Once you’ve saved a search, you can add it to your Shortcut bar. You can’t currently do this within the iOS app at the moment, but here’s the method for the Mac Desktop client:

  • Clear the search bar of any existing searches
  • Click in the search bar and you should see a drop-down of your Recent and Saved Searches
  • Select one of your Saved Searches and drag onto your Shortcuts bar on the left side of the desktop client

You should end up with a Shortcut bar that looks something like this:

A list of my Evernote Shortcuts

Taking Notes

I mentioned earlier that I don’t really use the ‘Notes’ section on my Tasks Notes. The main reason for this is that most of what I want to record is either a task (in which case it goes into the relevant section of a weekly or monthly Note), or I want to record extended notes on a particular topic.

When I want to record notes on a particular topic, I create a Note for that topic. I have various tags for companies I’ve worked for, clients I’ve work with, face-to-face meetings and conference calls, etc., so I apply these tags to my Notes. I normally record the date I created the Note (in yyyymmdd format), although Evernote does this automatically too. Putting the date at the beginning of each note title makes it easy to sort by created date even if you’ve updated older Notes most recently.

Sometimes I find it’s not acceptable to type notes directly into Evernote in front of clients – they feel like having a Laptop between you and them somehow means you’ll be distracted. In these situations I revert to taking notes by hand in my trusty Moleskine notebook – but then later use Evernote’s Document Camera feature to snapshot the pages and add them into a properly tagged Note. If you’re an Evernote Premium subscriber, Evernote will also OCR parse your handwritten notes, making them searchable (depending on your handwriting legibility!).

What about Topics, Events and Signifiers?

Events

I’ve already mentioned that I don’t need to use Bullet Journal (digital or otherwise) to track my calendar, as I already have a good system in place involving digital calendars linked to my email accounts synced across all my devices. Hence, my interpretation of Bullet Journal in Evernote doesn’t include this. But I doubt it would be difficult to integrate – either as another section in the weekly Notes, or as a separate Note.

Topics

I also mentioned that I don’t add many Notes to my weekly tasks Notes, and that’s because I’ve got a pretty good note-taking system already built into Evernote. For this reason I don’t really need Topics – my equivalent is Tags in Evernote, which I use extensively. Tags are more powerful and flexible than Topics, as you can assign multiple Tags to a single Note, and can search based on Tag combinations.

Signifiers

Signifiers are difficult to replicate in Evernote (or any other digital notebook, for that matter). I’ve removed the need to some extent by having ‘Work’ and ‘Personal’ sections in my weekly Notes – you could obviously extend this to include sections for large projects or other items you need to track. To make items on my list a Priority, I simply highlight them in Evernote, which I can also easily undo if priorities change!

I don’t think there’s a genuine need for the ‘Explore’ signifier – I would just phrase a task like “Look into {stuff}”, rather than have a “{stuff}” note bullet with the Explore signifier next to it. And personally I don’t feel like I need an ‘Inspiration’ signifier (and even if I did, it wouldn’t be an exclamation point, which I naturally think of meaning ‘urgent’!).

Strikethrough to show a task is no loner relevant is easy (I tend to also remove the checkbox and indent with spaces to align with the remaining tasks/notes).

The migration and delegation signifiers can easily be drawn as keyboard arrows (–> and <–, respectively.)

So there you have it – that’s my system! It’s probably not perfect, and I’m still tweaking it as I go, but for now it meets my needs.

3 thoughts on “Taking Bullet Journal Digital with Evernote

  1. How are you doing using EN for the Bullet journal? I am also having trouble lugging around the notebook, so an electronic version seems better. I’ve messed with onenote but the trouble is that your can’t search for tasks in the mac version.

    Anyhow I think I will try your method.

    Thanks

    1. Hi Rich,

      I used the Evernote system for well over a year, although I’ve since switched to Wunderlist and then to Trello to manage my to-dos. The main reasons for this weren’t because my Evernote system was broken, but because I didn’t need much beyond to-dos (i.e. I didn’t need notes, thoughts, etc.), and partly because of restrictions on usage of Evernote at work that made it difficult to maintain.

      Good luck with your own system!

      Paul

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