January 6, 2017

Bullet Points are Better Than Dashes

I’ve moved back to relying on a notebook for managing most things—daily to-do lists, writing notes, thinking through ideas, tracking books read and quotes I want to remember. As many digital tools as I’ve tried, pen, pencil, and paper are what seem to make the most sense to my brain.

As part of the switch back to proven tools, I’ve been messing around with following some type of journaling framework, most notably the popular Bullet Journal method. I’ve used it in the past and found it to be a valuable way to organize a notebook. But this year I started using a new metadata system proposed by Patrick Rhone, the Dash/Plus system. I had planned on using the overall structure of the Bullet Journal (index, future, monthly, and daily logs, etc.) but was replacing the metadata within that structure.

After only a few days, I’ve come to the conclusion that bullets are better than dashes.

For me (and I suspect many others), metadata in our notes is invaluable. Symbols next to notes allow us to easily scan information and identify what we need, when we need it. It provides hierarchy. I don’t think I could keep a notebook and my sanity without some sort of metadata system in place.

While the Dash/Plus system looks interesting and has a nice logical bent to it (since everything is based off of the simple dash), it fails in two key areas for me.

First, is that closed action items are denoted with a plus (+) symbol. To close out an open action item (–), you turn it into a plus (+). In my mind, however, a plus symbol always means more or an addition to. It doesn’t mean completed, it means I’m adding onto something already there. It seems trivial, but it just doesn’t jive with my mental model.

The second is that dashes simply create too much visual clutter in my notebook. The symbols created when extending those dashes are too big, to similar, and create confusion when I’m trying to quickly parse my notes.

On the flip side, the bullet method creates simpler, more easily scannable notes. Combined with simple arrows for moving around tasks and the circle notation for events, bullets make for an eminently clear journal page (as clear as one can be considering my handwriting). And completing a task means X-ing it out, which makes a hell of a lot more sense to me than putting a plus next to a completed task. It also feels damned satisfying.

That being said, I’m still holding on to two symbols from the Dash/Plus system: the triangle for notes and the lightbulb for ideas. These are both distinct enough to make pages clear and are very useful throughout the day.

In the end, my system is a bit of a mash up of the two others, but leans more towards the traditional Bullet Journal method. I fully expect this to evolve over time, but I think it will hold up for now.

At some point I’ll probably document the overall structure of my notebooks, if not for anyone else than for myself to look back on as I get older. Until then, feel free to pass along any tips you have on taking notes, keeping your life organized, and nerdy metadata topics.