The 5-Bullet-Log: A Note-Taking System to Increase Self-Awareness and Learn More From Life

Reap the benefits of what you have learned during the day with this fast, appealing system for self-reflection

Sílvia Bastos
May 6 · 15 min read
All illustrations by the author.

Tracking and analyzing behavioral, mental, and physical data allows us to observe patterns, identify problems and strengths, and therefore make effective changes to our lives. That’s powerful!

But what about collecting data that is not measurable in numbers, symbols, or binary yes-or-no questions?

Imagine you could easily access all your past brilliant ideas, insights and lessons—that are now either forgotten or lost in a messy old notebook — and use them to improve the quality of your future decisions. Imagine an organized, curated compilation of your lifetime wisdom, showing you powerful data ready to be used and help you make future decisions.

You might not be able to collect data from your past, but you can start collecting data for the future—today.

The solution? Time travel.

Just kidding.

But it’s almost like that. What is the reason we remember, track, and learn things? It’s because we want to grow. To grow is to become a better version of ourselves every day — so in a way, to learn is to provide our future self with valuable data on which to make great decisions.

So I came up with a system to do exactly that. I call it a 5-Bullet-Log, and it consists of writing down, every evening, five concise answers to the following question:

“What could I write about today that my future self would benefit from reading?”

There are two important things to remember about this question.

This future self could be you in two days, one month, or thirty years from now. The reason to think in future terms is that it helps you judge the importance of the things you’re writing down. Will this really be important for me to read tomorrow/in one year/when I have grandchildren? If not, skip it.

The truth is, it doesn’t have to be five — it could work as well with a bit less or a few more. Personally, I find seven to be the number that works best for me, but I recommend starting with five to make it easier—then adapt it to your own preferences.

The point here to prioritize and choose only what’s important. Prioritizing is a benefit in itself: it forces you to bend your mind, to choose, and to learn about what really matters to you.

If you could write down everything you wanted, the important things would get lost, and your future self would get nothing out of reading it. If you feel that five is too restrictive, that’s great — it means you’re full of ideas. Just write them down somewhere else, and then select the most important ones to keep in your log.

5, 6, or 7—experiment, choose a number and then stick with it.

As you can in the illustration above, I use symbols to code each bullet item depending on the kind of information it is:

  • An inverted solid triangle for creative ideas
  • An upright triangle for big wins
  • An eye for cues and signs
  • A spiral for big lessons and questions to ponder
  • A square (that I can use as a checkbox later) for actions and experiments I want to do

I’ll talk more about each of these categories of data in the next section. Feel free to develop your own set of symbols or other categories if you like. But these work for me, and you can use them to jump into the practice right away—then customize over time.

  • Different types of information you can include in your log;
  • How to be more effective at remembering and processing information;
  • How to make this system fun, appealing, and super easy to use.

What Can You Include In Your Log?

“What could I write about today that my future self would benefit from reading?”

In what ways could the information that you write down benefit your future self?

In my experiments, I have found that there are five different categories of information that have the biggest impact on me when I read back through my log.

Benefit: Creation and Inspiration

Some of the things on the list above—such as points 2 and 4—might not make sense at a first glance, but they are clear to me as ideas for article topics.

As a creative person, you probably get a lot of ideas throughout the day for creative projects you might undertake, or inspiration to be integrated into your work somehow.

Richard Branson, founder of the Virgin Group and considered to be one of the most successful entrepreneurs in modern history, attributes a big part of his success to the fact that he constantly takes notes of his ideas.

I frequently take notes in my journal of my own ideas, as well as other people’s quotes, concepts, or inspiring words. However, only a select few make it into my 5-Bullet-Log, and I choose them by asking the following question:

“How likely is my future self to be inspired/create something meaningful out of this idea if she reads it from the log?”

Can I base a future article on it? A book? A project? Will it inspire me to make a life-changing decision? Can it change the course of my business? If the answer is yes, I include it.

Research shows that dedicating time to incubating ideas and processing them unconsciously improves creative thinking. So take a note of your idea, give it time, and let your future self decide when to use it.

Benefit: Confidence and Feeling Accomplished

My biggest struggle in life is the feeling that I never do enough. I have a permanent bias that hides my accomplishments from my awareness and constantly makes me doubt myself.

Therefore, one thing I include in my log is Dan Sullivan’s “Big Wins.” I look back through my day and identify the two or three accomplishments I am the proudest of.

The very act of writing these down feels great, but it’s my future self that benefits the most. Whenever I doubt my worth and start asking “what the hell have I been doing for the last few weeks?”, I just skim through my logs. It’s an easy, side-effect-free remedy for lack of self-esteem that’s always at the reach of my fingertips.

Benefit: Self-Awareness, Change, and Growth

In the course of your day, you might notice synchronicities, patterns, or signs of areas for potential growth or change (particularly obstacles).

In Paulo Coelho’s book The Alchemist, the main character undergoes a journey pursuing his life mission, or “Personal Legend”. In the end, he achieves it because he becomes good at interpreting omens — cues from the universe (people that appear in his life, changes in his environment, and even his own feelings) that help him make decisions.

Everything we feel, think, and experience is an opportunity for us to learn and grow — all we need to do is seize it.

Recently I was feeling very unproductive. I took a note of it. Then I noticed it was because I was getting distracted by all the objects and clutter around me. As I was sharing someone else’s working space for our collaborative project, I couldn’t change things around. So I changed my own situation — I moved out and re-negotiated our arrangement. I still work with the same team and project, but since I listened to the cues and removed the bottleneck, my productivity skyrocketed.

Although the obstacles we face are usually the most powerful cues for change, there are other signs that can be extremely informative:

  • Desires: Are you craving, missing, or dreaming about something very intensely?
  • Emotions: Are you feeling especially angry? Fulfilled? Anxious? What has triggered it? Have you recently experienced any relevant emotional highs or lows? Did anyone or anything make you feel something intense?
  • Changes: Have your circumstances changed in any way recently (place, relationships, opportunities, major events)? Have you changed yourself (behavior, thoughts, physique)?
  • Symptoms: Has your body changed in any way? Do you feel unusually tired or energized? Any unfamiliar pains, cravings, or sensations? Have you been eating more, moving less, or crying more than usual?
  • Dreams: How did your dreams make you feel when you woke up? What is your subconscious trying to tell you? Since I started a dream journaling practice, I’ve been able to access a lot of valid information about myself.

These are just a few examples, but you can add your own — as long as they answer the following question:

“What is currently happening in my life that might be prompting me to make a decision and take action?”

This will be useful to gather solid data to help future goal-setting and decision making.

For example, if you constantly mention your daydreams about living in a tropical island, you might want to get more sun, book a holiday, or even set the crazy goal to start working remotely and move to Thailand.

Sometimes it’s good to just let your intuition guide you, even if you don’t know the reason. For example, the other day I met a guy who lives out of a backpack and sleeps outdoors with nothing but a huge piece of tartan fabric to keep him warm. I didn’t know why, but I felt this had to go in my log. A few days later, I started re-thinking my concepts of comfort and minimalism, which lead to important conclusions about my lifestyle and possessions. It was a pleasant and unexpected surprise.

Logging cues and observations has radically increased my awareness levels, which is proven to be directly connected to overall well-being. Here’s an example of something I identified, and my conclusions:

Observation: I feel triggered when my partner and I are talking to someone and that person directs their attention primarily to him (or as I say when I’m upset, “seeing him as the leader of the couple”).

Conclusion: This is a mirror of my own insecurities. Ways forward: 1) accept my introverted nature and nurture my other qualities, or 2) work on my proactivity, presence, and listening skills, seeing his as a role model instead of a reason for competitiveness.

Benefits: Seeing the Bigger Picture

There are those moments when suddenly everything makes sense, or when we make an unexpected connection in our head. An epiphany. A big realization.

There are also those moments when we start asking big questions that can shift the course of our lives.

A while ago, during a walk as a break from work, a sudden realization came to me:

Currently, I subconsciously define success as being popular and having lots of online followers. But that’s not what I truly believe in, and it’s making me exhausted. My real goals are wholeness, love, and spiritual development.

I could have let the thought pass. But because I knew I had to log it, I kept it in my memory until the end of the day, and then I wrote it down. Since then, re-reading occasionally has completely changed my approach to life.

The purpose of this section is to help you step back from your daily activities and intellectual thoughts and consider topics such as your life mission, your place in the world, or your spiritual growth. Some of the realizations here might sound too obvious when put into words, but the log serves to remind you of that moment when you understood them on a deep, emotional level — and guide you back there.

Benefits: Experimentation and Fun

The best way to learn what works for us is to try it for ourselves.

In this section, I come up with actions based on cues (a solution to a current problem) or for testing other people’s ideas (I heard about the Uberman Sleep Schedule on Tim Ferriss’s podcast and I’ve been dying to try it ever since).

You can choose small actions that contribute towards your bigger goals, get inspired by stuff that seems fun, or set yourself challenges. As Matt Damon said in the movie We Bought a Zoo:

“Sometimes all you need is twenty seconds of insane courage. Just literally, 20 seconds of just embarrassing bravery. And I promise you, something great will come of it.”

This section helps me make sure I don’t get too stuck in my own thoughts or paralyzed by big scary goals, and keep trying out new things. It also makes the 5-Bullet-Log more fun and interactive. Pro tip: I love adding a tick box to each action, as it makes my future self more likely to want to complete it.

How to Remember More and Choose What Matters

The best way to remember your daily insights until the evening is to always carry a notebook, a piece of paper, or your phone with you.

However, if you’re like me, this might feel slightly inconvenient at times. Just like when I’m reading a book, it annoys me to have to stop to take notes, so I first highlight it, and at the end of my reading session I go back and write it down.

So I started applying the same principle to conversations, events, workshops, and other activities: I listen carefully for the important bits, make a mental highlight, and next time I’m alone I take a note of it. This also comes with the bonus of improving my memory skills and making me a better listener.

If you prefer not to take notes at all during the day, you can perform a mental recollection in the evening of the daily events which are the most likely to have triggered important insights. These might include:

  • Conversations and social events;
  • Consuming educational content such as books or documentaries;
  • Emotional highs and lows;
  • Peak experiences; and
  • Any relevant changes to your routine.

As you review those in your head, write down all the memories they trigger that might qualify as important insights.

Finally, choose the most important ones and transpose them to the 5-Bullet-Log.

Although it might sound counterintuitive to write a lot only to “discard” most of it afterward, it’s an extremely powerful practice.

I got inspired by Mortimer Adler’s concept of “superficial reading”: when reading a book that’s above your level of understanding, you should first read it from start to finish without worrying about the fact that you only understand 25% of it, and only then proceed to a deeper analysis.

Here’s what this looks like when applied to the 5-Bullet-Log:

  • First, you exercise your memory by performing a “superficial reading” of your day — this way, you make sure you don’t overlook anything important.
  • Second, you force your brain to see the bigger picture of things — what are you really learning and achieving every day? What’s really going on in your life?
  • Third, you start getting clarity on your own values and self-awareness by noticing which of those things you tend to prioritize — what does it say about you?

To access deeper thoughts and insight, I use Julia Cameron’s Morning Pages (“three pages of longhand, stream-of-consciousness writing done first thing in the morning”). Studies show that our brains are at their most creative immediately after waking up.

When filling in my Log in the evening, I skim through those pages and include the most important ones (if any) in my Log.

You might even get a boost with a sort of feedback loop between your 5-bullet evening journal and your morning pages: by noting difficulties to solve or creative ideas to develop at night, you “prime the pump”—your unconscious brain keeps working on the problem while you sleep. Capturing your first morning thoughts allows those solutions to surface into conscious thought.

Make It Your Own

I choose to keep my log in my journal because handwriting helps retain information, because I can create my own symbols and layouts, and because that’s where I keep almost everything else.

But if you prefer, you can also use digital apps such as Evernote, which allow you to move things around and organize thoughts by tags.

You can also keep it analog but use separate cards instead of a notebook, or use a calendar — or whatever feels best for you. You will notice that your log will keep changing with time, and this is a reflection of your own ever-changing nature as a human being.

You’re the one who’s going to be using the log, so adapt it to your own personality and preferences. No matter which format you choose, just make sure it’s easy and fun to use; otherwise, you won’t stick with the habit.

Before You Start…

Here’s a little secret I realized after using this system for a while: it’s not actually my future self who benefits the most from this practice — it’s me, right now.

Of course, it’s useful to have access to all this data. But it’s even more useful to have a mental framework that helps me think, consolidate, and summarize information.

Because I know that in the evening I will have to fill out the log, I live my days in a different way. I am constantly on the lookout for signs and opportunities to improve. I recognize good ideas when they surface, and I memorize them. I ask more questions. I am aware of things I had never seen before.

Sometimes the evening comes and I feel that I have nothing really important to write down on my log. Nevertheless, I include whatever comes to mind — even if the most relevant things I can come up with that day are about grocery shopping or house cleaning.

Don’t worry if at first, it seems like you have nothing to write about, or if you have so much in your head that it’s hard to choose what to keep in your log. It’s all a part of the process, and your practice will change with time, as will your approach to life, memory, and note-taking.

For me, the benefits of keeping a log are invaluable, and I keep observing new ones as time goes by. Here are some of them:

Every week I set weekly and monthly goals. Before, I used to base it solely on feelings, thoughts, or other people’s approaches to goal setting. Now, I base it on real evidence.

And that’s great. A while ago I noticed that every day I was writing in my log that I was not reading enough, not learning enough, not making time for studying. I became so frustrated with writing the same thing every day on my log that I eventually created a morning slot for studying, and the problem was solved. The same happened with emotional eating and improving my communication skills.

Looking back through my achievements and lessons makes me see how much I have actually accomplished. It shows me that everything is temporary, and it reminds me of the skills and lessons I need to overcome any problem.

At its very core, the 5-Bullet-Log is a daily practice that requires consistency. Once I created this routine and made it non-negotiable, I started becoming more consistent with other habits as well, such as taking notes after conversations and events, habit tracking, and journaling in general.

But most of all, it helps me separate the wheat from the chaff. I have plenty of ideas and observations, but having to choose the most important ones every day tells me a lot about what I value in life, what my current focus is, and what I need to let go of.

Better Humans

Better Humans is a collection of the world's most trustworthy writing on human potential and self improvement by coaches, academics, and aggressive self-experimenters. Articles are based on deep personal experience, science, and research. No fluff, book reports, or listicles.

Sílvia Bastos

Written by

Journaling my way to happiness. I’ll show you how here:

Better Humans

Better Humans is a collection of the world's most trustworthy writing on human potential and self improvement by coaches, academics, and aggressive self-experimenters. Articles are based on deep personal experience, science, and research. No fluff, book reports, or listicles.

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