Naturally, since people use all of these planning devices to organize tasks and information, there is bound to be some overlap in functionality. But what are the differences and which will serve you best?
I’ll break down the similarities and differences between daily planners, bullet journals, and digital journals, and leave it to you to decide which you like best.
How did daily planners begin? A to-do list? A calendar?
Examples of simple planners and diaries can be found throughout history. Perhaps the first planner similar to what we use today was created by Morris Perkin in the mid–1960s.
As lives became more complex, so did the ideas for pages one could add to planners to organize everything from daily tasks to long-term projects.
Day planners usually consist of a combination of:
- A monthly calendar for recording upcoming and recurring events
- A weekly calendar for weekly planning closer to the actual date. Used to organize and coordinate specific days and times for meetings, appointments, tasks, etc.
- A daily calendar for planning a step-by-step list of things to be done that day, using the monthly and weekly calendar to fill in day and time slots.
- A page for creating lists, recording ideas, or even journaling
- A contacts list for addresses, email addresses, and phone numbers
How it works:
A planner typically contains templated pages and calendars that are simply filled in with information relevant to the user. By following the intended use for the pages in a planner, the information is organized for easier viewing and planning.
The monthly calendar is used to record upcoming and recurring events that need a place to be recorded until weekly or daily planning is necessary.
Some people prefer to plan detailed tasks in their weekly calendars, while others prefer a daily view for more in-depth planning of time and resource allocation. There are sections for journaling, idea generation, project tracking, and even finance tracking.
An aspect of the planner that a person has to master is the back-and-forth nature of the data entry. If you have a project sheet with dates on it, those also need to be integrated into the monthly, weekly, and daily calendar and then adjusted in all those places if anything changes. The same would apply to appointments and standing tasks. This means a lot of repetitive work with many chances for error.
- Helps keep you organized
- Can be used as a daily “guide book” for completing tasks
- The nature and setup of a planner helps organize tasks by level of importance
- Enables an accurate view of where time is spent versus where it was allocated
- Bulky, can easily get too full of information to be easily used
- Leaving it behind could mean missing appointments and inability to update info
- Not easy to coordinate with other people or sources of information
- Not easily edited
A bullet journal is a journal made up of pages that are covered in dots, that gives you a unique way to organize your thoughts, plans, and ideas. Entries in the bullet journal are tagged with dashes, stars, bullet points, or other icons to call out different categories you can identify at a glance.
One of the main ideas behind the bullet journal is great flexibility in how the final journal is laid out and used. Basically, you customize it to fit your needs.
The sections in a bullet journal include:
- An index or table of contents with info and page numbers for the contents of the journal
- A future log which serves as a yearly calendar for recording future events
- A monthly log which is a monthly calendar, and any custom pages you might want to use for planning, such as an ideas list, finances, meal planning, etc.
- A daily log which is essentially a daily todo list
How it works:
To use a bullet journal effectively takes desire and dedication since there are different ways an individual can set it up and the amount of complexity that can be built into the system.
The basic setup is similar to a day planner in which you have a master list with important dates that you use to fill in smaller lists for more detailed planning as the day of the actual event gets closer, e.g. from the monthly list to the weekly list to the daily list.
Each item on the list is preceded by an icon with a pre-determined meaning, you can easily see at-a-glance what needs to be done with each task. This also makes transferring items from one list to another a lot easier.
It is especially useful as a visual way to track habits and trends in your life because you can look back at past entries and get a visual cue, due to the layout and icons, instead of having to read entries to get an overview.
- Once mastered, it gives a quick way to process the info in the journal
- Can be completely customized
- When viewed as a hobby, it can be a creative outlet and have a zen-like feel to it
- To use the interface, you have to create the interface; which isn’t practical for a very busy person
- Basic supplies include the journal and a pen, but can easily grow to include rulers, colored pens, stickers, and more
- Restricted to the function of bullet journaling: no sharing, automatic updates, difficult editing, and you have to carry it with you
This leads us to the digital journal. When it comes to ease of use, integration with other apps and the ability to sync across devices, a digital version of a planner has more features and is less vulnerable to loss.
There are all styles and types of digital journals that take the features you’ll find in calendars, journals, daily planners, bullet journals, and more, and combine them in a digital interface.
For example, a digital journal can include:
- A notebook function with pages used for recording ideas or keeping a diary
- Dotted pages like the ones used in a bullet journal
- Calendars and project pages similar to a daily planner
- Pages to keep track of contacts
How it works:
A digital journal can be a standalone journaling app or a basic digital planner that you download into a note-taking app. The features can be as simple as a blank page you customize to your preference, all the way up to a full workflow/life flow planner that will integrate with other apps.
Because there can be endless combinations of features in a digital journal, they are all different and the choices can be confusing. First, you need to identify what you want in a digital planning tool. This can be done by looking for a digital version of what you’re already used to using, or you can research digital journals to learn about functionalities you may not have considered, but might find useful. (If you browse my website and YouTube channel you can find articles and videos that will help you learn more about this topic.)
A digital journal will be used much in the same way you use a daily planner. There is a main calendar for recording future events, and sub-calendars to narrow down your planning. These different calendar views can be accessed by jumping between the pages with a simple click.
- Clean, simple to use, multifunctional so it has more features than a typical planner
- Can quickly jump back and forth between pages in the journal with a click
- Can easily edit and update the calendar
- Since you can access it from any device, such as a phone or iPad, you don’t need to carry it with you at all times
- Can integrate with other apps and calendars to reduce the need to transfer or update the info in multiple places
- Can insert clip art and links to files
- (I could go on and on)
- As with anything new, there is a learning curve
- The digital journal you find may not contain the features you need
- You might need to choose a note-taking app to use with a digital journal
- Less of the tactile experience that some people enjoy
As I was testing different versions of digital journals and planners, I discovered that many had great features, but none had all of the features I wanted. I used this as motivation to create Tom Solid’s Digital Journal.
I gathered every feature I knew was vital to a productive planning system and I asked the Paperless Movement community what they wanted to see in a digital journal. Then I combined the features with simple functionality to make the journal as clean looking and simple to use as possible.
Besides a calendar feature and pages for notes, I included a project tracker, a place to add or draw a symbol for a quick view of the theme of the page, a dark mode version, clip art, app integration, and more.
You can find so many different kinds of digital journals out there. Digital journals are eco-friendly, reliable, and are just simply very good at helping you stay organized.
I prefer and recommend digital journals over the paper versions for environmental reasons, but also because you can get features, functionality, and integrations with digital journals that you could never get from a paper planner or journal. It would, in fact, be physically impossible.
Having said that, some people resonate with a paper planner. If there is not a lot of complication in your planning, such as a busy schedule or frequent coordinating with others, then maybe the paper version of a planner is right for you.
In the end, only you can determine which capabilities for planning you will want for your level of use and need, but in my opinion, if you’re choosing between paperless and paper, it’s paperless all the way.