Just a Notebook and a Pen

We’re all looking for the perfect solution to our time management woes.

For any time management system to be truly effective, it needs to do two things:

  1. Provide value to your personal & working life, taking into account your unique circumstances and style.
  2. Be enjoyable and easy to use.

If it doesn’t check off those two boxes, it will eventually be a drag to manage — and you’ll end up abandoning it. There isn’t some magical system that will work for everyone. What works for me might not work for you, or anyone else. Heck, it’s downright likely it won’t.

When the topic of time management comes up, most people think of apps like Things and Omnifocus. It’s understandable; apps touch almost aspect of our lives.

It’s boring, but I’ve often eschewed those tools in favor of a simple notebook and pen. Over the last few months, I’ve adopted a variation of the popular Bullet Journal system. I discovered it back in April and it’s been fantastic for not only managing my time but also taking notes and journaling.

At its core, the Bullet Journal is a set of guidelines for turning a notebook into an ideal planner, diary, and calendar. It’s a great starting point if you’re someone who:

  • Has a bunch of to-do lists and sticky notes hanging around.
  • Loves the tactile feel of using paper and a pen, or is obsessed with stationary.
  • Enjoys the idea of using a planner, but hasn’t found one that fits their style.
  • Likes the idea of keeping a diary, but doesn’t know where to start.

The best part of the Bullet Journal system is just how boring it is. There’s a lot of hype online. A quick look through Google or Instagram reveals countless photos of beautiful notebooks filled with flowery calligraphy and illustrations.

Ignore all that.

For some, Bullet Journaling is an excuse to create the most beautiful notebook social media has ever seen. But it’s missing the point. Keeping a paper notebook has drastically improved my productivity.

It might do the same for you.

If you’re like a visual introduction to Bullet Journaling, check out this video. But here’s the basics:

  • Your first two-page spread is your index. You’ll use it to write down topics & page numbers, for easy reference later.
  • The next two-page spread is an overview of your entire year, split into months. Here, you record important dates and events.
  • At the beginning of each month, you transfer the month’s events & tasks onto a single page.
  • Each day, you record your appointments, tasks, and notes in bulleted lists. Each item gets a different type of bullet, depending on its type.

As you attend meetings and complete tasks, you put an X through their respective bullets. Can’t get to something that day? Put a > through the bullet, to remind you to migrate it to the next daily entry. Not going to do it at all? Cross that sucker out entirely.

As I progress through my day, I also jot down quick notes using a dash bullet (“-“).

That’s it! Okay, that’s mostly it. There are other nuances you don’t need to know about to get started.

It’s such a simple system, it’s almost strange to give it a name. But that’s the beauty of it. Having a strict system to follow can actually help you get started — not hinder you.

Since I started following the Bullet Journal system, I’ve expanded my notebook to include pages dedicated to tracking my weight, happiness, money sent, and more. Bringing those seemingly disparate pieces of information into one place — my notebook — has given me a better view on my life & productivity than I’ve ever had before.

Oh, and don’t feel like you have to go completely analog for this to work. My events and appointments still live in my digital calendar. So, why do I continue to write them down each day?

Mostly, because I enjoy it! It helps me feel a sense of ownership and control over my time. Not to mention, studies suggest we might remember things better when we physically write them down — a change I’ve definitelynoticed in my own life.

And it’s harder to get distracted, using a notebook and pen. If I need to make a note of something, I can flip open my journal without getting distracted by Facebook, Twitter, or whatever else.

A Bullet Journal won’t replace your smartphone. Or your laptop. Or your calendar reminders. But, like me, you just might find it complements them in a useful way.

Breaking my iPhone Addiction

For a long time, I felt addicted to my iPhone. I often ignored the people around me in favor of email, tweets, games, and YouTube videos.

I don’t use the word addiction lightly. If I ever found myself without my phone I’d feel more than uneasy; I’d panic, frantically searching everywhere until it was found. On more than one occasion I’d arrive at the office, only to discover I’d forgotten my laptop. I’ve never forgotten my iPhone.

How could I? It gave me a false sense of importance. I mean, what if someone needed to get in touch with me immediately? What if an email came in and I missed it? Heaven forbid.

More than that, I’d forgotten how to be bored. If I was waiting in line, I’d stare at Twitter. Sitting on the toilet? Checking email. Riding on a busy streetcar? You can bet I was probably playing whatever IAP-laden game I’d downloaded that week.

I was trained to reach for my phone constantly, no matter the situation.

A while back, tired of constantly feeling tethered to my iPhone, I decided to try a 30-day experiment. I was going to try and break my addiction to my smartphone.

Here’s what I did:

Step 1: Deleted Useless Apps

If it had a news feed, it was gone. Twitter, Instagram, Reddit, Facebook, you name it. Ditto for games. If an app wasn’t bringing a ton of value into my life — on a near daily basis — I got rid of it.

Digital clutter is a lot of physical clutter. You don’t realize how much mental space it’s taking up until it’s gone.

Step 2: Turned Off Notifications

For a long time, I felt bombarded by notifications. Sorry, I should really just call them what they are; distractions. How many apps truly needed to get my attention immediately? Damn few.

I kept notifications turned on for Messages, Phone, and Calendar. I turned everything else off.

The silence was glorious.

Step 3: Removed Mail

I figured, most “emergencies” aren’t emergencies at all. And most emergencies weren’t going to show up in my inbox. Compulsively checking email wasn’t a productive use of my time, so I removed all of my accounts.

I started batching my inbox processing, usually checking twice a day on my laptop. And never first thing in the morning.

Step 4: Removed Safari

Controversial, perhaps. But my mobile browsing was less, “exploring the infinite world of knowledge made possible by the internet,” and more, “checking IMDB to see if that actor was on E.R. once.”

If I really needed to look something up, I’d ask Siri or — briefly — re-enable Safari. But it didn’t come up much. Often, browsing could wait until I was at my desk.

Step 5: Disable iTunes Store, App Store, and In-App Purchases

The killing blow.

I wanted to be more intentional about how I spent my time, attention, and money. These three apps were actively working against that goal, so they had to go.

In-app purchases were particularly troublesome for me. We’re all smart people here, but I’m sure I’m not the only one who has gotten sucked into a game and blown money on a sack of coins, pile of gems, or whatever.

So, how’d it go?

I won’t lie — some of these steps were really hard to take.

It took a long time before I shook the habit of reaching into my left pocket for my phone, when I had a spare moment. But, eventually, I found I was farmore present with the people around me. I spent less time consuming mindless crap and my stress levels decreased significantly.

Look, I didn’t stick with all of these changes once the 30 days were up. A few social media apps have made their way back onto my phone. And not having an email client was fairly untenable. But I no longer allow my phone to run my life.

Now, I use my iPhone intentionally — and only in ways that support how I want to spend my day. It’s made a huge difference.

Your Turn

If any of this sounds familiar, I’d encourage you to give my experiment a try — if only for a week. I mean, you can do anything for just a week right?

After seven days, you can go back to your old habits. But I suspect most of you won’t.

Over the Hump

Tomorrow, I’ll hit a milestone I’m pretty proud of: 30 days without a cigarette.

I’ve smoked for a long time now. Sure, I’m managed to quit here and there. But addiction is a powerful thing, and I’ve always been lured back in. 

Any smoker who tells you they don’t want to quit is lying to you. I don’t know a single person who smokes and doesn’t want to stop. And it certainly isn’t the kind of addiction they’d wish on someone they love.

I’ve tried every traditional method of quitting smoking imaginable. Patches, gum, lozenges, inhalers, cold turkey, and prescription medication. You name it, I’ve tried it.

Each had varying levels of success, but nothing ever really stuck. Until I tried one last thing.


(Insert obligatory VAPE NAYSH Y'ALL joke here.)

Yeah, yeah, I know. It tends to look a bit ridiculous. And long-term studies on its effects are nonexistent. But the research I’ve done — not to mention the difference in my lung capacity — has convinced me it’s better than smoking cigarettes, at least.

When I first wandered into a local shop, more than a year ago, the guy behind the counter was amazing. He walked me through everything I needed to know to get started. 

I walked out with a basic battery unit (a “mod”, in vaping parlance), tank, and some liquid. Nothing fancy.

Now, anyone who has tried vaping will tell you; it doesn’t give you the same sensation as smoking a cigarette. But it was just close enough to make me think that maybe — just maybe — it would be enough to help me quit smoking for good.

As time went on, and my interest in vaping grew, I decided I wanted a bit of an upgrade. More flavor, bigger tank capacity, that sort of thing.

That’s when things got a bit confusing.

There’s almost near-universal agreement on what sort of mods and tanks are best for beginners. But, beyond that, I encountered a mess of competing opinions, products, and philosophies. 

I had to learn a lot of new terms. Did I want a sub-ohm tank? Was I looking for mouth-to-lung or direct-to-lung? RDA? RDTA? RBA? External batteries, or charging via USB? What kind of batteries? 18650? What’s that?

I was a bit out of my depth, needless to say.

After talking to the staff at the shop, researching online, and watching reviews on YouTube, I settled on a new mod and tank. I was ecstatic, at first. I was blown away by the improvement in flavor — clearly, I’d been missing out.

Two weeks in, I learned the phrase “vapor lock.” Essentially, it would stop working properly. Oh, and it would leak every once in a while. 

I went back to the shop, but the best answer they had was, “Oh, weird. That never happens to us.” Not exactly helpful. 

I spent a few more weeks feeling frustrated before buying a different tank. Maybe the first was a lemon, I thought.

Nope. The next one was just as problematic, in its own way.

I’ll spare you all the details of my long, annoying, and costly journey. Eventually, I found a setup that works flawlessly. But it was needlessly difficult to get there. 

All of the help and guidance I’d had starting out? A distant memory.

It reminds me of the process a lot of developers go through when they’re first starting out. When you’re a beginner, it’s easy to find help. If you’re trying to get into iOS development, I can point you to 100+ tutorials and classes. Moving beyond the basics? That gets a lot harder.

Once you learn fundamentals, the really hard questions kick in. When should I write unit tests? Integration tests? What are UI tests? I’ve heard I should use the MVC pattern, but somebody else recommended VIPER. What about coordinators? What do I do when my app seems to just randomly crash? How do I store data on the device? Should I use Core Data or Realm?

You get the idea.

When you’re learning to program, there’s a definite learning curve. And it’s hard to get over. A lot of people hit this point, get frustrated, and quit.

I often hear from developers who want to start a blog, but don’t know what to write about. My suggestion? Be the person who helps other people get over that hump. Give them the tools, resources, and guidance to help them move from a junior to an intermediate developer.

Not only will you be filling a giant gap in programming education — and saving them a lot of time, frustration, and money — they’ll love you for it. 

Finding the Time

“I’d love to work on my own projects, but I never seem to find the time.”

If I had a nickel for every time I’ve heard some variation of that line, I’d have a whole lot of nickels. Several vaults worth, at least. You’ve probably heard it too — coming out of your own mouth, even.

The idea that you’ll magically “find” the time to work on your side projects is silly. Once you’re done working at your day job, spending time with friends & family, and dealt with personal commitments, it’s hard to imagine finding even a spare second for anything else. Oh, and let’s not forget about those times life decides to throw you a curveball or two — as it does, from time to time.

But there’s something we all know deep down, even if don’t want to admit it to ourselves.

Thinking you don’t have any time is just an excuse.

(There are exceptions, to be sure. We all have moments where side projects are far from a priority. Having gone through it recently, I know that quite well. If you’re going through just such a time right now, feel free to disregard this advice until your life is back in order.)

We all feel like we’re working too much — that we have enough on our plates already. But if you’re going pursue the projects you’re most passionate about, you’re going to have to start prioritizing them. You’re going to have to optimize the time you have available.

Life will eat up every spare moment if you let it. If you’re serious about pushing your projects forward, you’re going to have to fight for the time to do it. 

How? By eliminating time spent on bullshit.

What’s bullshit? It’s time spent on consuming other people’s work, rather than producing your own. Or time spent on mindless busywork. Or doing things just to “stay busy.”

How much time are you spending:

  • Watching hours of television, or playing video games?
  • Reading every last post in your social media feeds?
  • Reorganizing your desk, or hard drive, for the 1000th time?
  • Hanging out with people you hate, doing things you don’t enjoy?

It’s time to take control of your schedule.

If I walked up to you and asked for $100, you’d rightfully have some questions for me. Like, “Why the hell should I give you $100, random stranger from the internet?” 

But when was the last time you applied even that low standard to your time? Time is one of the few finite resources in life but, far too often, we give it away freely.

Stop blindly accepting every meeting request you receive. Learn to say no to things you don’t want to do — or can’t contribute to in a meaningful way. Figure out when you’re most productive and schedule your days around that time.

Ask yourself some hard questions. Why are you spending time watching TV, or reading blogs, when you could be coding your next web app? Why are you blowing time reading Twitter, when you could be brainstorming your next great idea? Instead of listening to someone else’s podcast, why aren’t you creating your own?

Why are you reading this post, rather than doing something else?

You need to consciously decide to change those habits. It won’t be easy. But you’ll be amazed how much time you can “find” once you stop consuming and start creating. And start being intentional about your time.

When Shit Hits the Fan

I have something to confess: I haven’t written a new article for the Monday Mailer in more than a month. A new article has landed in your inbox each week, as usual. But each was written weeks ago.

Life has been a bit of a rollercoaster, over the last few weeks. Our family has been dealing with health issues, unexpected expenses, flooding (thanks, spring in Toronto!), and various other problems. I haven’t had much energy for writing.

Thankfully, I haven’t had to worry about the newsletter — I’ve simply published articles I’d already written.

There are two tips I give to aspiring writers and bloggers:

  1. Never make promises.
  2. Write more than you need to.

Both are good advice, for the same reason: you never know when shit will hit the fan.

Take advantage of productive periods in your life, when you have them. A while back, I was really on top of my game; cranking out a handful of new articles a week. When life went a bit sideways, as it does, I was glad to have those pieces banked up.

So far, so good.

Unfortunately, I broke one of my other rules. I made a promise I couldn’t keep.

When I announced my book, Finish Your Damn Side Project, my work was going great. Planning had gone well and I was writing at a prolific rate. I felt confident I could keep that pace going indefinitely.

I should have known better.

It's a project I know I'll complete, but I'm done talking about it until it's ready. I love sharing my writing process and the progress I'm making. The problem is, there isn't any progress to share. The irony of failing to work on a book about completing projects is fairly obvious, I think.

When the work flows easily, use it to your advantage. And while it’s happening, stay quiet about it.