Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Making a Bullet Journal Work in Residency

Residency is pretty chaotic. There's a basic schedule I tell my family of "6 to 6 six days a week," but the vast majority of the time that comes with a huge caveat. Maybe it's more like 6:00 to 7:30pm, maybe I work Saturday, off Sunday, work Monday, off Tuesday, then switch to nights. Maybe I'm on my clinic week (we're on a 3+1 schedule) so actually my schedule is more like 8:00 to 4:30. During the clinic week, my day is scheduled in half-day blocks and I move from place to place. Maybe I'm on call. Or backup. 

For a long time I used the Google calendar function on my phone, and it was fine. It's easy to set up and accessible from anywhere. Then I discovered bullet journals and decided to give my luddite side a shot at managing organization with paper and pen.  

In short, a Bullet Journal is a blank journal you set up to serve as a calendar, to-do list, journal, scrap book, note book, whatever. There are a lot of resources on the interwebs on how to set one up, but the important part is that it is ultimately customizable because YOU make it the way YOU want it to be.

This page served as my inspiration, from Rocket City Mom. If you're at all curious about Bullet Journals, I encourage you to visit her page and also watch the video she linked there. She's a fair bit more artistic than I am, and her schedule is significantly more flexible. At first I wasn't sure I could make the bullet journal work for me given that she sets it up monthly and I need to plan much farther ahead. I'm also not big into colors or stickers, and prefer to just use a simple black pen. (And black pen ONLY, there will be no other ink colors allowed. The horror!) 

I'm onto my second bullet journal now and it is fantastic. It takes me a couple of hours every six months to set up the journal, and then I'm good to go for half the year. I prefer to set up the entire six months right off the bat, with monthly and daily pages already started. That way it's easy for me to set my schedule a few months in advance.

I also prefer to use Moleskin Classic Notebooks (5 x 8.25 inches, 240 pages, less than $15, and super durable). For my first journal I used the ruled notebook, but I used the squared notebook for my second and I like it even more. The journal fits in my purse, and also in my white coat pocket but it is too heavy to carry around on a daily basis. The inner pocket is a really great feature where I'll stash important notes, receipts, photos, business cards, or whatever. Sometimes I'll place things into the pocket that I know I'll want to tape/paste into the journal later.

The reason I love this method is that I have my calendar and my to-do list in the same place. My meal planning and my grocery lists. My musings on work. Random doodles. Vacation planning. Notes from meetings. My reading plan for board study. I try to look at it every evening before going to bed to review and plan for the next day, and I usually glance at it a few times during the work day to make sure I'm not forgetting anything that needs to be done during daytime hours. Plus, it is kind of nice to flip back through the pages and remember what I was doing a few weeks or months ago. 

Below are some photos and notes on how I set up the Bullet Journal, Residency Style:

This is my first journal, with ruled pages. I labeled the spine and front with a Bronze Sharpie marker. I didn't draw the leaf design until after the six months were done because I was worried it would rub off from use (which it would have, because I needed to re-label the spine as well).

This is the key, from the inside cover. I use this as I set up my daily pages, with my meetings and to-do items (see below). Above this I placed my contact info and offered a reward if the journal were found.

This is the index from the first page and is actually one of the last pages I fill out, after I've set up the monthly and daily pages. The journal easily fits six months, with about 40 pages at the end for other things like a 12-month calendar, a future dates page, longer planning lists, project ideas, board study planning, etc. 

Next are the monthly pages. Like Rocket City Mom, I like to make both a calendar and a list for the monthly page. This allows me to see my schedule at a glance as well as list important notes about each day. I used Word's calendar function to print a simple monthly calendar that would fit on the notebook page and then use double-sided tape to attach it to the notebook. 

Here are two examples of typical daily pages. Unlike the examples, I set aside a full page for each day ahead of time.  On 10/25 I went to the IM Fall party as Hermione. Apparently I also washed some sheets, made the schedule for my next rotation, raked some leaves, studied endocrine, and planned my meals for the week. That's shockingly productive for a day off. The next day I worked until noonish, made my grocery list, went shopping, cleaned my office, and wondered whether I was a hoarder (probably because my office fills up every week with journals, papers, Amazon boxes...).

Here's a page from my current journal, for a Friday during a "Plus 1 week." It has my schedule that day, as well as several to-do items for things I need to complete and email. 

This is an example of my yearly schedule and future dates page from the back of my journal. This way I can see my whole residency schedule from July-June, and I can list important schedule items that I'll need to carry over into the next journal. 

The other benefit of a bullet journal is using it as an actual journal. I don't write an entry every night, but if I feel like I need to document some personal musings I have lots of space to do so. Or, if I'm feeling bored or silly or creative I'll draw a dumb sketch like below, when the Royals were dominating baseball and I opted to enjoy the game from the comfort of my sofa, wine in hand (and also apparently that was the day my 2 year old sheprador finally learned how to shake). Rarely I'll paste in something I want to save, like a ticket stub to the KC Royal BBQ or a ludicrous $2 sports bet I placed in Las Vegas. If you look at some of the other photos you can see where I made longer journal entries on the flip side, which were apparently days when I had more to say (that I didn't necessarily want to share here but I'm sure if you wanted to be super creepy you could figure it out).

So there you have it, how to make an amazing Bullet Journal for residency. Other plusses are that the battery doesn't die, and people won't wonder whether you're taking notes or playing your Carcassonne app during conference. 

Has anyone else started using a Bullet Journal? Any residents have thoughts on this method, or other ways you keep organized?

My next entry will be more entertaining, promise!


  1. This was posted quite some time ago but I'm glad I found it now. I'm starting clinical rotations next week and was wondering whether the bullet journal would be an effective way to take notes and list tasks. This article was exactly what I was looking for, thank you for sharing this!

    I probably won't write down anything unrelated to the job but it seems like a good way to stay on top of things. Are you still using this system? What are your thoughts on the long run?

    It looks like you haven't been active recently, but I hope you'll see this comment and know that you helped someone out.

    1. Hello! Yes, I am still using this system. My blog is pretty dormant now, but I keep it active mostly because of this post. Bullet journaling still works well for me post-residency too.

  2. EM resident here. Yes! Bullet journal is helping me organize my ADD/residency/all-of-the-things. It has helped me to stop and unplug and reflect and improve my life incrementally.