On Simple Productivity Systems and Complex Plans

BuJoPro No More

Last month, I wrote a post about the popular bullet journal (BuJo) personal productivity system. In this article, I pontificated on a potential variation I called BuJoPro that I thought might better accomodate the demands of high intensity jobs.

BuJoPro appealed to me because it promised to unite my disparate and admittedly ad hoc systems into one elegant notebook. I liked the idea of having a single analog artifact I could carry with me and whip out, at any point, to efficiently tweak the levers that control the many moving parts of my life.

Enamored by my own hype, I then spent a couple weeks trying out this new breakthrough concept.

It was not a success.

I’ve since abandoned BuJoPro and returned to my old creaky productivity system that consists of Black n’ Red notebooks for daily plans, printouts of plain text files for weekly plans, and a collection of emails sent to myself describing temporary plans and experimental heuristics.

I learned an important lesson from this experience: there’s a difference between simplifying the complexity of your productivity systems and simplifying the complexity of your plans.

Simple Systems and Complex Plans

As I first argued way back in Straight-A, overly-complex systems create too much friction — leading you to eventually give up the system altogether. It was this legitimate bias toward simplification that attracted me to the one-notebook minimalism of bullet journal-based productivity.

The problem, however, was that my handwritten scratches on the 5 x 8 pages of my sleek dot-formatted journal couldn’t keep up with the raw amount of information needed to capture my current productivity vista, or the frequent revisions needed to keep this perspective useful.

As it turns out, my Black n’ Red notebooks work well for daily planning because they give me two full 8.5 x 11 lie-flat spiral-bounds pages to work on each day. I tend to use most of these 187 square inches to elaborate the details of my time blocks, leave room for changes, and capture tasks and notes for future consideration.

Similarly, the weekly plans I type up in plain text files require, on average, 3 – 5 single-spaced and chaotically formatted pages. It’s not unusual for me to edit and print out significantly revised versions of this plan two or three times in a given week.

And don’t even get me started on the temporary plans and heuristics lurking in my inbox. At the moment, there are six different self-authored email threads that I review each week to help keep me aimed in the right direction.

Considered altogether, the total amount of information I record, read, and regularly change to keep my energy focused productively is simply way too voluminous for me to tame with a single medium-size notebook and some fine-tipped markers.

I’m okay with this. And you should be too.

Put another way, the lesson I hope you extract from my BuJoPro experience is that it’s fine if your life is complicated, and accordingly your attempts to tame it are complicated as well.

Try to keep your systems simple, but make peace with the reality that what these systems contain might be too wild to capture on a few elegantly-formatted pages.

(Image from the official bullet journal web site.)

Blog – Cal Newport

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