Tag Archives: study

Bullet Journals and Me

“That’s unprofessional,” one of my LPOs on the ship told me as I scribbled a reminder on the back of my hand. It was his passive-aggressive way of telling me to stop doing it. I didn’t listen because 1. it wasn’t an order and 2. I have a bad attitude.

Fed up with my bullshit, my chief told me explicitly to stop, which I did, for the most part. I started writing on my wrist instead, right below the strap of my watch. I patted myself on the back, thinking this was very clever: it was more or less out of sight but still maintained the spirit of my stupid system. But of course they caught on to this, too, and the jig was up.

I was certain that, if a reminder about a task wasn’t immediately in front of my face, I would forget about it for good. I’m like an infant with object impermanence, but for things to do: once it’s out of sight, it’s completely out of mind. I had to find some other way.

If you’re in the military, you’ve seen those little memorandum books: green, pocket-sized, reporter style. The memo notebook’s larger, hard-covered cousin, the logbook, was a precious and scarce commodity on the ship; having one of those was a status symbol. The highest tier of Navy notebooks was the leather-bound, magnetic-clasped varieties carried around by Chiefs and Chief-aspirants.

In other words, this was me, your typical shitty E-4:

This was your workcenter supervisor:

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This was your LPO:

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This was… yeah:

So I started small, with one of those little memo notebooks. For the most part, it worked out pretty well. It fit easily in all my pockets and it was so cheap and common that I could scribble all over it without feeling any sort of organizational impulse.

I mentioned that it was cheap. What I mean is that it wasn’t durable, and ship life takes a toll on things. This little book was rained on, sweated on, HAZMAT’d on, put through the laundry once or twice by accident. But for all I put it through, it’s still more or less intact and (arguably) legible.

And then bullet journaling hit the internet like a ton of bricks.

It is an incredibly, almost insultingly, simple method of organization. It takes a list of tasks and breaks down big, long-range plans to the smaller, daily tasks. A bullet journal, at its essence, is an agenda that you design for yourself from a blank notebook. The original method suggests organizing pages by year, then month, then week, but the appeal of the bullet journal – and why it became so popular so quickly – is that it gives you a broad framework under which you can develop a system that works best for you. And I was definitely in need of a new, better system.

In 2016, I started with one of those light green logbooks mentioned above. I had become a first class, after all. It was time to move up! The logbook withstood damage better than the memo book, but it was harder to carry around. Bulky and with sharp corners, it was not very pocket friendly.

But it was my very first bullet journal, the first journal in which I used an organizational method, not just scribbling and crossing-out on any available empty space. It took some getting used to, but it ended up being a really useful system. I felt more “on top” of things: less forgetting, less falling through the cracks, more reliable in showing up where and when I was needed.

Next, I tried a small, grid-lined Moleskine notebook. In the stationery corner of the internet, Moleskine is your basic bitch, but for me, anything that wasn’t military-issue was a huge upgrade. I used this style of notebook for two years – 2017 and 2018 – and it helped me learn what qualities of a bullet journal were absolutely essential for me. I had developed a system!

(Moleskine’s classic notebook. Pocket-sized. $15. An entire year in the size of my palm.)

Here are the elements that have been consistently included in each new iteration of my journal:

  • Index
  • Future log (year at a glance)
  • Addresses
  • Passwords and log-ins
  • Books read, movies and TV shows seen
  • A few pages for misc notes and scribbles
  • Blue brains (flying notes)
  • Monthly log (month at a glance)
  • Weekly log (where the action happens!)

Everything from the index to the blue brains comprises the first quarter or so of the notebook. I like to keep the odds and ends separate from the logs. This is what this year’s index looked like:


You can see how I would be devastated if I were to misplace my bullet journal. It contains an entire year’s worth of data. That’s why it’s so important to me to keep it close and handy at all times: it has become an extension of myself. One of my mentors calls his notebook an “external brain.”

Here is an example of what it looks like on the inside. A typical monthly and weekly log:

The monthly “to do” stuff carries over through the weeks ahead. Once you write down a task, the bullet journal system forces you to address it in some capacity: complete it, move it forward or backward, or delete it if it becomes irrelevant. This is ideal for tasking triage, or managing the most important, urgent stuff first. Used correctly, nothing gets lost, even amidst the chaos.

You can see how there is some bleed-through on the pages and how the binding on the notebook is coming a little loose. For 2018, I am trying a new brand of notebook: the Dingbats pocket-sized notebook. It is almost identical to the Moleskine, but has better paper quality and appears more durable. But that’s the only big change. With small tweaks here and there, I’ve found a way of staying organized that works really well for me – without being unprofessional.

If you’re looking for a way of staying on top of your to-do list in a way that makes sense to you, why not start from scratch? Bullet journals give you a loose but usable structure, flexible enough for you to manipulate it as it works best for your own life. It has helped me quite a bit; I can’t imagine not using it anymore. If you are interested, here are some resources on how to get started.

The official bullet journal website
Why I started a bullet journal, and so should you (Financial Times)
Why do millennials love bullet journals? Control. (Vox)
The Bullet Journal, Minus the Hype, is Actually a Really Good Planner (Lifehacker)
Bullet Journaling for Beginners (and Impatient, Unartistic People Like Me) (Medium)

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Memory Palace

I’ve often wondered if my poor memory is just a narrative I’ve told myself about something I’ve never committed much effort to improving. For the past eight weeks, I’ve been in a class that is notorious for its demand on exhaustive memorization, and it presented me with a opportunity: why not try something different than the standard flash cards and repetition?

I think I first heard about memory palaces in BBC’s Sherlock. The name makes it sound silly and, at the time, I didn’t take it very seriously, chalking it up to a quirk of the fictional character. But the idea returned to me while preparing for this class, and after watching a few instructional youtube videos, I decided to give it a try. Would using a memory palace be easier and more successful than simple rote memorization at retaining random sets of information?

The class was divided into four units. We were tested daily on all of the numbers we had received so far, culminating in the overall unit test. When we started a new unit, some previous numbers carried over, but some did not. New sets were added as well.

I “set” each unit in a place I was very familiar with. Each group of numbers represented something I was “looking” at, in my mind’s eye, in that space. Recalling the numbers meant moving through the space in my imagination and systematically focusing on each object which represented a set of numbers. Here is an example:

Three hawks circle overhead. The oldest one is the bully hawk. He comes to steal food from the critters on the deck during certain hours of the afternoon. His brothers have to scout the place out in the morning before animal control tries to capture them all.

Weird, right? But it stuck out in my memory. Even when I couldn’t remember the particular numbers attached to these ideas, I always remembered the images themselves: hawks, bully, critters, deck, animal control. The rest was just details.

This method did demand effort. Thinking up with ways to apply numbers to an imaginary physical object took a surprising amount of creativity. In fact, after we got each new set of numbers, my classmates would usually go to lunch while I stayed behind for a while. I needed quiet to concentrate, scribbling down a nonsense story to tie the numbers together. This was probably the hardest part of the whole process, but it paid off: once I had some context in my head which united seemingly random data, it stuck. After returning from lunch, I found that I remembered a lot of it even without a committed effort to studying. I filled in the blanks for a few hours and left each day with a clear picture in my head.

For the first two weeks, that was all well and good. One unit, one location. When we started the second unit, though, I had a decision to make: do I put everything all in the same place, or do I separate each unit by location? Each choice, I think, had its own benefits and limitations. I ended up going with the latter and put the new unit in a new place.

I think the memory palace method would be extremely useful for someone who is trying to memorize something that will always be in the same order: the digits in pi or a chapter of a book, like in the video above. The route through the memory location will always be the same. When I was able to systematically move through the space I had imagined, my recall was very good. It became much more challenging when I had to jump from object to object out of order as we dropped and gained numbers for each new unit. This would be like asking someone for the eighteenth digit of pi, or the fourth word in the ninth sentence of a particular chapter of a book. It’s in their brain somewhere, but it might take them a minute to maneuver around mentally to where they can retrieve that information.

Ultimately, with this method, I wanted to know three things:

  1. Would it result in a good grade?
  2. Would it require less effort to memorize and recall than rote memorization?
  3. How much of the information would I retain after two months?

On the first point, I never scored below a 98% on any test, and almost all of those errors were the result of my complacency! I was getting so confident that I was making stupid mistakes!

Second, it took some effort in creating the context, but once I had it, I had it. The hardest part was reorganizing everything in my head for each new unit, as only some known numbers were carried over to the next. More importantly, though everyone performed very well on all of the tests, I experienced substantially less stress than my classmates. As much as I would like to chalk that up to my personality, that would be really, really dishonest; everything stresses me out. I went to optional night study only once, and all it did was remind me that I did, in fact, remember everything.

Third, I can easily recite the stories for each set of numbers, even from the very beginning. I can describe each object in each location without much effort. The images really stand out. Retaining all of the details, though, requires some regular refreshing. Many of the particulars fade with time. If I had reviewed everything everyday, even for a few minutes, I think I could remember an enormous amount of information indefinitely. I feel confident about that. (The same could probably be said for other memorization techniques, though.)

In fact, this whole experiment made me feel much more positively about my memory as a whole. I could have struggled with this class but I didn’t. Finding a better method made a huge difference.

(An unexpected, possibly coincidental, side effect of cramming so much into my memory at once – or maybe because of inventing so much imagery – for the first few weeks, I had nightmares almost every night. It made me feel more curiosity than fear, but it was definitely strange.)

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