How to Set Up a Backlog in Your Bullet Journal

Set up a backlog in your bullet journal to keep track of non-urgent tasks.

Bullet Journal | Backlog | Productivity | Future Planning | Time Management

If you’re familiar with software development methodologies, you’re probably already familiar with the concept of a backlog. Simply put, it’s a list of all tasks, large and small, that need to be completed but haven’t yet been scheduled.

Before I started my backlog, a lot of tasks that weren’t time-sensitive tended to slip through the cracks. Because I didn’t have anywhere to store tasks that needed to be completed ‘at some point’, I’d usually just jot them into my daily spread when they came to mind, but often never completed them.

There were two main reasons I so rarely got around to finishing these tasks. For one thing, they weren’t urgent, so they got shoved aside in favour of the more urgent tasks I’d already scheduled for that day.

For another, they were much less likely to be actionable tasks. What I mean by an actionable task is something where there’s a clear action I need to take to accomplish it. For instance, ‘create blog post’ isn’t an actionable task. It’s a unit of work that can be broken down into sub-tasks, each of which needs to be completed before the next one can be started.

If I’m struggling to come up with ideas for blog posts, then the very idea of creating a blog post is going to feel overwhelming. If, instead, the task is ‘brainstorm 5 potential topics for next week’s post’, then that is a specific action I can take that contributes to the larger task of writing a blog post, and it’s much less scary.

The trouble is, when a task that needs to be done pops into my mind when I’m at the grocery store and I scribble it into my bullet journal, it’s far more likely to be a vague, broad task that makes my stomach twinge with anxiety every time I look at it, because it’s just so overwhelming. And sometimes, that twinge turns to one of guilt, because I know I should have done it already but couldn’t think where to start.

Eventually, I get fed up of the twinge I get every time I see a task, and I just stop migrating it entirely. And it never gets done.

This is where the backlog comes in. It allows me to corral all those tasks in a single location, and during my regular planning sessions I pluck tasks from the backlog, refine them into actionable steps, and decide when I’ll tackle them.

What is a backlog?

I’ve based my backlog on the one used in Scrum software development, where the backlog is essentially the list of work that needs to be completed and hasn’t yet been scheduled. It’s usually prioritised, and may be classed as ‘near-term’ or ‘long-term’, but it hasn’t been scheduled for completion yet.

My backlog is basically a dumping ground for every time a task pops into my head and I can’t do it immediately. This means that my backlog runs the gamut from straightforward, specific tasks (eg. ‘book dentist appointment’) to broad strokes (eg. ‘redesign blog’). I list my tasks on post-it flags, which I can move about to keep related tasks together and discard when I’ve completed them.

Often, I’ll have both an umbrella task and a number of specific sub-tasks that relate to it. This is because I usually record the general task first, when it initially comes to mind, and then as I consider it more I’ll come up with sub-tasks that fit under it, and often break those sub-tasks down further.

For example, a very broad task might be ‘buy a house’. That would go in the backlog right away, and then as I thought about it more and considered what else it entailed, I might add ‘get mortgage approval’. That would be further broken down into tasks like ‘phone bank to book appointment’ and ‘research mortgage options’.

A large task like buying a house can be broken down into hundreds of sub-tasks. When I first created a backlog, I tried to record all the sub-tasks I could think of, even for large tasks like purchasing a home, but found it made the backlog unwieldy. Now I try to include only the broad strokes and immediately-actionable tasks.

So, in the house-buying example, there would be a ‘buy a house’ task, as well as ‘phone bank to book appointment’ and other actionable tasks like ‘browse real estate listings online’, but I wouldn’t have ‘book home inspection’ or ‘research moving companies’ until after completing the earlier steps.

Why use a backlog?

A backlog is a fantastic way to organise all those medium- and long-term tasks that can get brushed aside by more urgent concerns. This makes it invaluable for completing big projects and attaining your long-term goals, because it can give you a good overview of the tasks that need completed.

One of the most useful things about a backlog, in my opinion, is that it keeps all those unscheduled tasks together, which means things are less likely to slip through the cracks. This is why I prefer to use a single backlog page rather than divide things by project, as it means that when I go to check the tasks for, say, a blog-related project, I’m reminded to look at what needs to be done around the house.

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Setting up a backlog

I toyed with the idea of a backlog for months before I settled on a solution that was space-effective and well-organised. Initially I tried a simple list, but that meant it very quickly filled up multiple pages and I couldn’t move things around to keep related tasks together.

Then I tried separate lists for separate task categories, but that became unwieldy, and didn’t give me anywhere to list tasks that didn’t fall under a separate category. Similarly, when I tried multiple lists as well as a single catch-all list, the catch-all list would have some tasks that later spawned their own lists. It was messy.

I even tried going digital and doing my backlog on Trello, but, while that works great for projects with multiple participants, I prefer pen-and-paper in my bullet journal for personal projects.

It was when I was reading an unrelated bullet journal post over at Little Coffee Fox that I hit upon the perfect solution. If you’re familiar with Shelby’s bullet journaling style, you’ll know she loves to use post-it flags to organise collections. And as I was reading about one of those collections, a lightbulb went off in my head.

Post-it flags are perfect for a backlog, because they mean that tasks can be moved around to group like with like, and no matter how much you have that needs to be done, it can all be grouped on one spread. It also means that tasks can be arranged according to priority, so you can group the most urgent ones at the top of the page.

How to set up your backlog

I use a two-page spread for my backlog. On the left-hand side, I have the backlog itself. The post-it notes are loosely grouped according to category, so for instance in the picture below the top row are all blog-related tasks, while the third row are household-related ones (this photo is actually a little out-of-date, so that row is enormous as it has all my pre-move tasks).

Bullet Journal | Backlog | Productivity | Future Planning | Time Management

The right-hand page is divided in half, with the top half for tasks I want to complete in the current month, and the bottom half for those I want to complete in the current week. I’m actually finding I don’t use either of these boxes very much, as I tend to just copy tasks directly into my weekly spread.

I’m considering using the right-hand side for priority tasks instead, so that when I look at my backlog it’s immediately apparent which tasks need to be completed first.

How to use your backlog

Adding to your backlog

Any time you think of a task that needs to be completed but isn’t something you’ll get to immediately, put it in your backlog.

I use tickboxes in my daily spreads for tasks I want to complete on that day, so I use bullets for any other tasks. In the evening or the next morning, I either schedule those tasks for a specific day or copy them into my backlog on a post-it note. If it’s a vague task, as it often is, I try to refine it when I copy it into my backlog.

Bullet Journal | Backlog | Productivity | Future Planning | Time Management

The picture above, for instance, is my spread from yesterday. The tasks with boxes beside them are the ones I specifically wanted to do on that day, while the bottom one with the bullet point was one I wanted to do in future.

In this case, I spent a lot of time offline around the holidays and so I have a lot of posts to catch up on from my favourite blogs. But, honestly, ‘catch up on blogs’ isn’t really an actionable task (and can easily swallow an entire day!), so when I copy it into my backlog I’m more likely to clarify it further, for instance as ‘spend 1 hour catching up on posts from favourite blogs’.

Drawing from your backlog

The most important thing to remember about using your backlog is to check it regularly. It won’t do you any good if you abandon tasks there and leave them to fester in its depths.

During your weekly or monthly planning sessions (which I’ll talk about in greater depth next post), turn to your backlog and go through all your post-it flags. If you have a priority section, go through that one first, but otherwise just start at the top and work your way down.

For each flag, consider if it’s still relevant. Perhaps you’ve already completed it as part of another task, or it’s something that you’re beyond the deadline for. If it’s no longer something you need to do, then toss the flag.

If it is still relevant, then consider if it needs to be further refined, and create flags for the first few sub-tasks for that task. Alternatively, you can skip the flags and just add those tasks directly to your weekly/monthly spread. I prefer to do it this way if I can, as it means that I’m taking direct action towards completing the task.

Keep drawing tasks from your backlog until you’ve reached a reasonable quantity for the timeframe you’re planning for (I’ll discuss this in more detail next time in my post on planning routines). That might be half a dozen tasks if you’re doing a weekly planning session, or it might be 50 for a monthly session, depending on what your schedule is like, the size of the tasks, etc.

By keeping a backlog that you refer to regularly, you’ll ensure that you actually make progress on large projects and complete smaller non-urgent tasks, rather than repeatedly only finding time for the most urgent tasks on your to-do list.

Over to you

Do you keep a task backlog in your bullet journal? Do you have any tips for keeping it organised and using it?

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