Lab Book Meets Bullet Journal

I enjoy a productivity hack as much as the next person, and I’m often asked about my setup. My background is in engineering (I hold an MEng in Electronic Engineering from York) and recognise the legacy of the lab book in much of what I do. If you’re new to the lab book concept, check out this excellent article on how to maintain one properly. My practice breaks a LOT of the lab book rules and is also heavily influenced by the Bullet Journal trend (if you have time to spare, the instagram #bulletjournal hashtag gives a prettier introduction), which is a way to combine the benefits of productivity and processing information by writing it. Today’s post gives a quick tour of my process.

Lab Book and Daily Log

The lab book is supposed to be a running record of what you did, whether that’s a phone appointment, experiment setup, results, things you were thinking about, or anything else. I can’t lay my hands on my last “official” lab books but even as a university student I know there were many colours of pen and the occasional glittery sticker!

In bullet journal language, this is a “Daily Log” although I chuck everything in there including meeting notes, plans, whatever. Bullet Journalling has its own rules about the bullets to use but I was already using an adapted (err, probably misremembered!) version of DashPlus so I kind of do my own thing. As long as you have a system and it isn’t confusing to you, then it’s fine.

My symbols can be summarised as “todo”, “done”, “info” and “todo but captured somewhere more useful than here”, and that seems to cover most things. The main advantage is that I just stick everything on the page in front of me, with the pen I’m holding, and then work the rest out later.

Bullet Journal Additions

First of all, I’m using an A5 filofax, which is all sorts of no-no for a lab book! I love it though, it’s everything I liked about an A5 notebook, but with added printables and none of the pain of changing to a new notebook. And yes, I own the special hole punch. I punch scrappy bits of paper, handouts, printed things, leaflets … it’s so good.

I keep a few long-running pages, that sit in sections away from the noise of the daily log. One is a list of content ideas for this blog (suggestions always welcome). Another is a list labelled “people” where I capture the things to say to a particular individual when I next meet with them. It saves interrupting people that you have a sync with anyway, and also saves forgetting things.

At the back of the planner I have recently added a “Projects” section, keeping track of the bigger things that have several ingredients, and will run over several weeks. This is something I’ve had in mind for a while but it’s too soon to say if it’s helpful. I’m also experimenting with evergreen notes and I might not need both.

I do use a weekly spread but since each day is basically a list of meetings and/or tasks, and maybe a meal plan, I use a vertical spread. You don’t see many of these but it makes sense to my brain! I sometimes make my own layout and then it has some custom weekly checkboxes with “phone parents” and cleaning tasks and things, which I find useful. I use the space to add all my appointments first (from work and personal calendars), then I work out my work priorities for the week and where they can fit in. No plan survives contact with the enemy but I like to try!

Filofax with dotted paper and homemade dividers, and week plan with columns for Mon/Tue/Wed

The shot above shows both the planner and the week layout so you have some sense of what I’m working with. I’m a dotted paper kind of girl although squares are good too! Sometimes I print other templates (the printer takes A5 paper which is handy) for lists but not consistently.

Weekly Reset

Each week (usually Sunday evening) I create a list for the week. It contains anything from last week’s list that is still worth doing (if something gets copied over multiple weeks running, it’s a great time to reflect on why, or if it should be here at all), plus all the things I captured in the last week. I leave a bit of space around it, new stuff often shows up here during the week as well and that’s OK. I use a highlighter on the items I want to do first/next so I can quickly get started on Monday morning.

The other thing that I do (either Friday afternoon or in the Sunday evening slot) is write down the “shipped” things from the week just finished. Some of the work I do is very tangible and you can count the blog posts or pull requests – but quite a lot of it is planning, talking, connecting, listening, and it’s important to remember that this is all important too! I make a quick list of what was done in the week, and for any big achievements, I transfer them to my “scrapbook”. The scrapbook is a text file in cloud storage where I keep a month-by-month list of things I’m really proud of. It really helps at annual review time and also when I need to remember when things have gone well (usually in a moment where that isn’t the case).

With last week’s “shipped” items, a fresh list for the new week, and a weekly spread – I’m ready for Monday!

What about Digital?

I use a digital calendar with reminders for everything that is time-sensitive, such as which night the bin goes out, and my work calendar is also digital. I share a set of Evernote lists with my husband which are mostly for grocery shopping and hardware store shopping, so we can just check the list when we’re in either of those places.

In theory I also use todotxt for personal stuff but at the moment a) I’m having problems with android apps and todotxt and Nextcloud and b) we’re in lockdown anyway which really seems to have reduced the workload! So a post-it note in my planner works fine for now but it does have “fix todo system” on it :)

I haven’t moved to digital note-taking although I’m not morally opposed to it, I just haven’t found a system that made me want to jump yet. Pen and paper is so flexible/portable/reliable/accessible and I know I process and retain information better this way. One day, both the input mechanism and the abliity to search what I wrote will win me over I am sure.

What’s your setup? I’m always on the lookout for more ideas and improvements, so if you would like you share your story, then I would like to hear it!

Also published on Medium.

One thought on “Lab Book Meets Bullet Journal

  1. My favorite notetaking tool is sadly PC dependent; I love it SO MUCH and can’t seem to find a replacement workflow using alarms, evernote, keep, what have you in Ubuntu or Mac…

    It’s Zhorn’s stickies ( Basically it’s lightweight and easy to 1. braindump (including screenshots) 2. organize the braindumps and 3. set notes-as-alarms that then pop up and persistent on top of any window until I dismiss them. In more detail:

    – quick, lightweight notetaking (ctl-shift-N and I have a new note)
    – impossible-to-ignore notes-as-alarms (ctl-shift-A on a note, and I can set it quickly and easily for a quantity of mins/hrs/days, or for specific date/time…the note’s hidden in a sleeping tab until then. I can set recurring alarms easily for custom time intervals, and the note is rich text)
    – hide notes in folders if I don’t want to be looking at them in my desktop
    – save notes to rich text files quickly and easily
    – toggle notes to be always on top (ctl-t, and I have a text area that’s always in view; I can use it like a mini window for something I don’t want to window-switch for)

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