How 35 Business Owners Do Flat Rate [2018 Survey]

Home service pros love to ask questions about flat rate pricing, but they rarely give out detailed answers. What are home service companies actually using, and how is it working for them?

I set up a 10-question survey using Google Forms and shared it with the Housecall Pro Facebook group. In total, 35 business owners took the survey. I followed up with a few of them to clarify their answers.

This post covers what I learned from the survey, including:

  • The most popular flat rate solution.
  • How flat rate affected revenue.
  • The best and worst parts of flat rate pricing.

Let’s dive right in.

The Questions and Answers

Do you use flat rate pricing?

Flat Rate Users: 31 Yes, 4 No

This question was supposed to be sort of a gimme; I expected everyone taking the poll to be using flat rate pricing. As it turns out, 4 people answered no. Good thing I asked.

What industry are you in?

HVAC, Electrical and Plumbing dominated the flat rate pricing survey

The big three are well-represented: HVAC, Electrical and Plumbing.

What flat rate system do you currently use?

Flat rate pricing systems

This one threw me for a loop. My intention with this study was to understand what third-party pricing software or tools were most popular.

Turns out 68% of respondents were using their own system.

I heard people asking questions about flat rate software, so I assumed quite a few people must be using flat rate software.

My mistake!

Which flat rate systems have you used in the past?

Similar to the other question about systems, 76.5% of the respondents had built their own flat rate system in the past.

What do you use flat rate for?

How home service businesses use flat rate pricing

Most people surveyed said they use flat rate for repairs and/or service.

Half said they use it for new installs, either along with or without the repairs or service.

There were a number of other responses from cleaners, who fall in a separate category which I forgot to provide as an option.

How much did your average ticket go up when you switched to flat rate?

Revenue increases after switching to flat rate

12 answered that they don’t know how pricing was affected by the switch to flat rate. One third of respondents said that flat rate had added 10-25% revenue.

How happy are you with your current flat rate system?

Rate Your Flat Rate System

While nobody said they hate their flat rate system, there’s definitely room for improvement. Five rated their system a 2 out of 5, and only 8 reported they were completely satisfied with their current system.

What are your favorite parts of your current flat rate system?

Favorite parts of flat rate pricing

The biggest benefit reported was knowing we’re making money on every job. Over half of those surveyed are confident in their flat rate pricing system and its’ ability to maintain profitability.

Other favorites were customization, being able to offer multiple options, and ease of updates.

Not as many were confident in their team’s support of flat rate. Not all employees understand the costs of running a business, and flat rate pricing can widen the gap between their hourly rate and the price they see charged to the customer. This is a common challenge for business owners.

Not surprisingly, very few reported it being easy to sync with Housecall Pro. This was a particular point of discussion at the time I started the survey, and I suspected it was a point of frustration for many.

What are the worst parts of your current flat rate system?

Worst parts of flat rate pricing

The top complaint was keeping the system updated.

This can be a huge task, especially for complex service companies in HVAC, electrical or plumbing.

And if you’re using the Good-Better-Best pricing model, you’ve just tripled the amount of work.

Just as frustrating was the challenge of syncing flat rate pricing with Housecall Pro.

Once you’ve worked through all of the possible options and made your updates in your pricing software or your printed books (or both!), there’s still your HCP price sheet to bring up to date.

Coming in a close second was that some didn’t know if they’re making money on every job.

It’s one of the biggest hurdles to companies making the switch.

Charging hourly is easy; you know you’ll cover your costs, no matter how sideways the job can go.

But when it comes time to use flat rate pricing, the dynamic is different. How do you figure out what to charge in order to turn a profit? And what happens when a job takes longer than usual?

We’ll talk about that after we cover the results of the last question.

Any other thoughts about flat rate pricing?

I asked this open-ended question to leave room for things I hadn’t considered in my own questioning. There wasn’t a huge revelation here, but a few thoughts from business owners:

  • “I need a more developed concept of competitive flat rate pricing”
  • “Flat rate is the fastest way to increase your average ticket size”
  • “Customers appreciate the up-front pricing. T&M creates skepticism in my opinion”
  • “It’s the only way to go”
  • “Do it”
  • “Just do it!”


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Real Estate Folder Ads

While I try to highlight the local marketing strategies that work, sometimes it’s necessary to point out the ones that don’t.

The Real Estate Folder Ad is one of them.

While my experience was with real estate folders, I’ve also heard of this being done with golf scorecards and school schedules.

It’s not *technically* a scam… but it’s definitely a waste of your money.

We bought into one of these things last year, and have received several sales calls for similar programs since.

If you’ve ever received a call from someone “representing” a local business or institution who wants to offer you an ad space on their printed materials, you might know what I’m talking about.

Here’s how it works:

The “Marketing Company” (there are several) calls real estate offices all over the country and offers to send them free marketing material. Flyers, folders, whatever.

Having gotten some sort of approval from the real estate office, they then call local companies like us and sell us on having our ad in their marketing material.

We pay between $300-$1200 to get featured in their material, which we’re told is going to be used exclusively by this prestigious local real estate office that we recognize. Also, if we don’t sign up, they’ll sell the slot to our competitors (gasp).

They do the graphic design, and bill us. We pay money.

The project is delayed for months because of other advertisers asking for revisions in the design process. At least, that’s the excuse I’ve seen.

Eventually, the marketing materials are ostensibly printed and shipped to the golf course(…) Since they didn’t pay for the material, and they’re now filled with ads, the real estate office deposits them in a back room and forgets about them. Or just dumps them in the trash.

Is this even legal?

Technically, the Marketing Company has fulfilled their contracts – they did graphic design work for you, and they shipped the material to the real estate agent. They take your money in payment for their hard work, and keep going. Since most local businesses don’t track their leads, they can re-sell the services the next year.

If you want to advertise with a local company, talk to them directly and get a written contract that states how much you will pay and what you’re paying for.

The Real Estate Folder Ad is a definite “no” in my book. Put your money into Facebook Ads, get a billboard, or buy a round for everybody at the bar this weekend and put it on your company card*. All much better uses of your advertising dollars.


*I am not a CPA and I’m pretty sure this doesn’t qualify as a deductible expense.

How I built an email idea machine

As I’m setting up emails to send to customers, I often wonder what emails my competitors are sending.

By competitors I mean other plumbers in general, not necessarily the ones in my geographic market.

I know I could sign up for a dozen email newsletters and I’d start seeing what the competition is doing.

I’ve done this in the past with big-name marketers to learn how they write a compelling email, and I learned a lot.

The downside is that your inbox fills up with marketing emails.

This tends to throw off my daily inbox routine, and it means I usually end up archiving or deleting those emails, so the whole thing ends up being a waste of time.

I knew that I wanted to collect marketing emails from other plumbers, I didn’t want to see them in my inbox, but I wanted to be able to review them at the right time.

Oh, and I wanted to be able to organize and share my email collection with others. So I couldn’t just create a tag/archive filter in Gmail, because I needed to move them out of Gmail.

Here’s what I ended up doing.

I signed up for newsletters

First, I started searching for plumbing companies with newsletter sign-up forms. Once I started looking, I found a bunch of sites that use an agency called Footbridge Media, and their newsletter signup forms ask for a lot of information.

A newsletter sign-up form that asks for your street address
I just wanted to sign up for a newsletter!

Since I didn’t want to give out an address, I skipped all of these websites (there were many) and went for those who let me sign up with just an email address, or a name and email.

So now I had emails coming in… now to get them out of my inbox.

I set up a basic Gmail filter

First I needed a simple way to tell these emails apart from my other emails. I opted to use the old plus sign trick: every time I signed up for a newsletter, I added a special identifier to my email address.

Gmail doesn't count anything between the '+' and '@' signs

There are other ways to set up a filter, but this is my favorite.

I moved them out of the inbox

Now that I identified the emails, I just needed to get them out of my mailbox.

I eventually found this blog post that pointed me to a Google Sheets Add-on called Save Emails & Attachments.

Save Emails & Attachments by Digital Inspiration

Save Emails & Attachments
by Digital Inspiration

The plugin has a walkthrough to help you get set up. The add-on lets you select which filter you’d like to use to collect your emails: I used the filter that I set up in the previous step.

The end result: an automated email swipe file

As I come across additional plumber newsletter forms, I’ll drop my special email address into them. When I’m ready to do something with the emails, I’ll have a folder filled with PDFs that I can review and sort. Tada! Email idea machine.

Plumber newsletters in their special Google Drive folder

In the future I’ll organize the emails by topic, type and quality. I’d like to start assembling statistics around the individual campaigns and see how often the average plumbing company sends email newsletters.

I’m also curious to see what type of emails are sent the most. Of course, just because they’re popular doesn’t mean their effective, but it will be interesting nonetheless.

If you’ve solved this problem before, I want to hear how you did it and what you learned.

What Happened When We Fired Our SEO Company

This year we decided it was time to bring SEO in-house. Last year we hired an internet marketing company to optimize our website, and we were unhappy with their performance. After several meetings and a frustrating lack of improvement, we decided it was time to fire our SEO company.

What went wrong

On Friday we called to break the news.

By Monday the SEO company used their access to our Google My Business account to delete all photos associated with the account – even the logo. Several were stock photos uploaded by the company, but some were photos I had personally uploaded.

They pulled down a testimonial video they made for us. Fortunately, it was a stock video that won’t be missed.

Worst of all, they took down disabled the Yoast SEO plugin, which took down our sitemap. When Google crawlers visited the website and looked for the sitemap, all they got was a 404 “page not found” error. From all I can tell, this could have had major effects on our organic search rankings after a full month.

When I called to get an explanation, they said this was a normal part of the “exit process”. The changes were required to protect their “proprietary information” (like the Yoast SEO plugin, apparently). The manager I spoke with wouldn’t say what changes were made, but reiterated that this is standard operating procedure.

What you can do

In the grand scheme of things, these were little problems, and we were fortunate enough to catch them early. You may not be so lucky.

If you’re thinking it’s time to fire your SEO company, here are a few things to keep in mind.

  • Read your entire contract. Ours required us to provide notice of termination 2 months before the renewal date. This could have become a problem if they attempted to enforce these terms.
  • Send a Termination of Contract letter. You can find sample formats online. Send it through Certified Mail. This provides you with evidence that you’ve canceled the contract, so that it’s harder for them to play dumb later.
  • Ask for specifics (even if they refuse to provide them). Don’t assume that they’ll alert you to changes they’ve made.
  • Change your passwords. This will prevent them from accessing your accounts and causing damage.
  • Have your new SEO plan ready. Even if you keep them out of your accounts, their internal processes may negatively affect your rankings. Don’t count on termination periods to keep them honest: be ready to hand off to your new SEO company or take over yourself.
  • Prepare to lose ranking. Try to make the switch when you can ride out the changes in your organic rankings. It may take several months for them to recover. You may need to invest in some other lead sources or just ride out the storm.

Thankfully, not every experience with an SEO company will end up like mine. There are some great companies who take good care of their customers. However, stories like this are not uncommon. Whether you’re switching SEO companies or you’ve decided to do your own search engine optimization, be alert for shenanigans that could affect your website rankings.

The Dip: book review

I’m reading through 70 books in 2018. This is one of them.

I’ve read a lot of Seth Godin over the years, and this review reflects that. I’ve also read The Dip before. It was one of the books on my list which I thought would be worth a re-read. It did not disappoint.

The Dip which the title refers to is the area of frustrating struggle which separates beginners from winners, or the hopeful from the best in the world. This is the clear subject of the entire book, and Seth uses many examples to illustrate in detail why pushing through the dip (the concept, not the book) is worth it.

Intertwined with the main subject is the subject of quitting. In this sense, I feel like the book almost misses an opportunity with the title, as the dip is entirely about knowing when to quit and when to push through. The impact of the advice and questions in this book is difficult to overstate. If you are one who struggles to know when to quit, or when to push through to the end, this book is a must-read.

At the end of The Dip, Seth notes that “Short books are hard to write”. This book is quite short, for its kind: 80 pages in my hardcover version. Following his own advice, Seth has quit many of the rabbit trails and side points that would have diluted this book, making it more valuable and more accessible at the same time.

This is the 10th book I’ve read this year. You can see the others on my reading list. Have a comment or question? Send me a message or an email

How We Get Customers to Write Reviews

If you’re in a home service business you know that getting reviews is one of the hardest customer interactions, ranking up there with getting a budget number.

With our most recent test, we asked 32 customers and got 11 reviews in 1 month. That’s a 34% review rate!

Here’s how we did it.

We do all of our scheduling through Housecall Pro. Housecall Pro has a lot of cool and useful features, including their automatic email reminders which we used to get a 20% review rate from customers.

That’s fantastic, and I had other Housecall Pro users contact me and ask for the copy I used in that email (you can get it here).

But we knew we could do better. And we did. Last month we tried something that beat the review email… and I can’t take any credit for it.

Housecall recently added the ability to edit and customize the text message notifications that get sent to our customers, both before and after a job.

When I mentioned this new feature to Eric, the operations manager, he got that look in his eye. He had an idea.

Eric edited the text message that gets sent when a job is completed. Now, when our tech leaves a job, the customer gets this message:

The review text that got us 11 new reviews in 1 month

This text update alone boosted us from 74 reviews to 85 in a month!

Here’s why this method is so effective:

  • It’s personal. It looks like it comes from their service tech, asking for a personal favor.
  • It’s automatic. We don’t need to remember to ask every time – this message went out to 32 customers without a second thought from anyone on our team.
  • It’s easy. The short link in the message sends customers straight to the Google review page. Just a few clicks and it’s done. Most of the reviews happen within an hour of job completion.

We shared this tip with Nate Brott, who also uses Housecall Pro, and he tried it out. I got a message from him a few days later:
Review request text message

Trying out the text message review link? Let me know how it works for you!

A Burglar’s Guide to the City: book review

A Burglar's Guide to the City by Geoff Manaugh

A Burglar's Guide to the City by Geoff Manaugh

I just finished book number nine for the year: A Burglar’s Guide to the City by Geoff Manaugh. This book was gifted to me by my friend Jesse. He knows me well; I’m always up for reading about crime, psychology, or architecture, and this book covers all three.

The book is a mixture of historical events, personal experiences, and discussions of theory and psychology. It’s not an action-oriented book by any means, but it contains a respectable share of thrilling crime stories. It also covers quite a bit of ground, from lockpicking to government surveillance to municipal planning and more.

The broad range of topics never strays too far from the author’s primary message: that burglary forces us to view the world differently. Burglars are the original hackers, exploring vulnerabilities in architecture and exploiting them to their advantage. Whether he’s walking you through an infamous heist or an abstract discussion of transportation design, the author stays focused and delivers food for thought.

I enjoyed ‘A Burglar’s Guide’ and the way the author discusses architecture as a spatial worldview. Burglars see a door where others see a wall. They reject the expected use of a space and create their own. In a sense, it’s quite poetic.

I’m reading 70 books in 2018. Check out my reading list for more book reviews.

Books I Want to Read in 2018

Reading List 2018This post is about all of the books I want to read in 2018.

(If you’re just here for the list, it’s at the bottom of the post.)

Why I want to read in 2018

I used to be a reader. Some would call me a voracious reader. It was my gift. My mother claims when I was a toddler she could leave me with a stack of books all day and never needed to check up on me. It’s probably not far from the truth.

By the time I was 10 I had read every book in the house. I was so desperate to read, I started reading our 27-volume encyclopedia set. I lost interest somewhere around ‘spumoni’.

In 9th grade I took a reading test to check my speed and comprehension. According to my dad’s memory, I read 750 words per minute with 95% comprehension.

Unfortunately, after high school my reading dropped off considerably. Once I had my own transportation, there were just too many other things to do. There was money to make, people to meet, places to visit. Books had lost their interest as I discovered the wide world outside my imagination.

Of course, I still read some books. I read some business books, how-to and psychology books. Once or twice a year I would pick up a fiction book, and sometimes I’d even finish one. Mostly, I read articles, blog posts, Facebook statuses, tweets. Some great, some good, mostly worthless.

Towards the end of last year I realized how little I actually read, and how much I miss reading. When it came time to set goals for 2018, I knew what I needed to do.

How I came up with this list

This reading list came from four major sources.

First, I was inspired to start reading again by Jon Acuff’s incessant Instagram posts about the books he was reading (learn how Jon read 100 books in 2017). Many of these books were drawn from his reviews.

Second, last year I read The Obstacle Is The Way by Ryan Holiday. The book was fantastic, definitely the best book I’ve read in several years. After reading that book I found Ryan’s reading list and added a bunch more books to my must-read stack.

Third, Jason Zook from JasonDoesStuff has a running list of books he’s read, an idea which I ripped off for my reading list. Many of his recommendations made it onto this list.

And fourth, I asked my Facebook friends for recommendations and they came through in a big way! If I put all 100+ names here, the post would be longer than the reading list!

A few caveats

Okay, we’re almost to the list. Before we jump into it, there are a few things I want to point out.

This list is not comprehensive. I may read books that are not listed, and I might not read books that are on the list. I don’t have a reading order or a strict regimen around this.

This list is not a recommendation. There are some great books on here which I’ll rave about after I’ve read them. There are some others which are the antithesis of everything I believe about humanity (I’m looking at you, Mein Kampf). Let the reader beware.

This list is not for children. Along the same lines as the last point, some of these books may be inappropriate for young impressionable minds. Don’t print this off and hand it to your kids as a summer reading assignment.

This list is not complete. It’s only January, which leaves 11 more months for recommendations and discoveries. I’m super excited to find more great books to read, and I’ll try to add them here as I find them.

The reading list

Sorted alphabetically.

  1. 10X Rule by Grant Cardone
  2. 11/22/63 by Stephen King
  3. 7 Habits Of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey
  4. A Burglar’s Guide to the City by Geoff Manaugh
  5. A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again by David Foster Wallace
  6. A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens
  7. Actionable Gamification by Yu-Kai Chou
  8. Amusing Ourselves To Death by Neil Postman
  9. And He Dwelt Among Us by A. W. Tozer
  10. Anything You Want by Derek Sivers
  11. Badass: Making Users Awesome by Kathy Sierra
  12. Bill Peet: An Autobiography by Bill Peet
  13. Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott
  14. Bold by Peter Diamandis
  15. Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
  16. Conditional Design by Anthony di Mari
  17. Confessions by St. Augustine
  18. Confessions of a Master Jewel Thief by Bill Mason
  19. Creativity, Inc by Ed Catmull
  20. Deep Work by Cal Newport[NEW]
  21. Design of Everyday Things by Don Norman
  22. Dieter Rams: As Little Design As Possible by Sophie Lovell, Klaus Kemp
  23. Discipline Equals Freedom Field Manual by Jocko Willink
  24. Draw to Win by Dan Roam
  25. Ego Is The Enemy by Ryan Holiday
  26. Every Day I Fight by Stuart Scott
  27. Everything I Know by Paul Jarvis
  28. Extreme Ownership by Jocko Willink, Leif Babin
  29. Finish by Jon Acuff
  30. Food Rules by Michael Pollen
  31. Footprints on the Moon by Seth Godin
  32. Ghost In The Wires by Kevin Mitnick
  33. Hillbilly Elegy by J. D. Vance
  34. Hit Makers by Derek Thompson [NEW]
  35. Hooked by Nir Eyal, Ryan Hoover
  36. How to by Michael Bierut
  37. How To Change Your Mind by Michael Pollan
  38. Hyrule Historia by Akira Himekawa
  39. Ish by Peter H. Reynolds
  40. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
  41. Luther by Eric Metaxas
  42. Meditations by Marcus Aurelius
  43. Mein Kampf by Adolf Hitler
  44. My Life and Work by Henry Ford [NEW]
  45. Never Split the Difference by Chris Voss
  46. Pre-suasion by Robert Cialdini
  47. Priceless by William Poundstone [NEW]
  48. Poke The Box by Seth Godin
  49. Quantum Christianity by Aaron Davis
  50. Ready Player One by Ernest Cline
  51. Redwall by Brian Jacques
  52. Richest Man In Babylon by George Samuel Clason
  53. Rules for Radicals by Saul Alinsky
  54. Salt: A World History by Mark Kurlansky
  55. Shadow Divers by Robert Kurson
  56. Show Your Work by Austin Kleon
  57. Spurious Correlations by Tyler Vigen
  58. Steal Like An Artist by Austin Kleon
  59. The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz by Mordecai Richler
  60. The Big Red Fez by Seth Godin
  61. The Book With No Pictures by B. J. Novak
  62. The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas
  63. The Courage To Be Disliked by Ichiro Kishimi and Fumitake Koga
  64. The Dot by Peter H. Reynolds
  65. The Elegant Universe by Brian Greene
  66. The Flinch by Julien Smith
  67. The Great Divorce by C. S. Lewis
  68. The Happiness Hypothesis by Jordan Haidt
  69. The Hobbit by J. R. R. Tolkien
  70. The Influentials by Edward Keller, Jonathan Berry
  71. The Information by James Gleick
  72. The Jesus I Never Knew by Philip Yancey
  73. The Land: Founding by Aleron Kong
  74. The Laws Of Simplicity by John Maeda
  75. The Life And Times of a Remarkable Misfit by A. J. Leon
  76. The Man Who Was Thursday by G. K. Chesterton
  77. The Measure Of My Days by Florida Scott Maxwell
  78. The Name Of The Wind by Patrick Rothfuss
  79. The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway
  80. The Pillars Of the Earth by Ken Follet
  81. The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver
  82. The Power of Positive Deviance by Richard Pascale, Jerry Sternin
  83. The Purple Cow by Seth Godin
  84. The Rational Optimist by Matt Ridley
  85. The Science Of Getting Rich by Wallace Wattles
  86. The Score by Richard Stark[NEW]
  87. The Score Takes Care Of Itself by Bill Walsh
  88. The Time It Never Rained by Elmer Kelton
  89. The Toaster Project by Thomas Thwaites
  90. The Trumpet Of The Swan by E. B. White
  91. The War of Art by Stephen Pressfield
  92. The Way Of Kings by Brandon Sanderson
  93. The Year Of Less by Cait Flanders
  94. Think and Grow Rich by Napoleon Hill
  95. This Is Water by David Foster Wallace
  96. Tribe Of Mentors by Tim Ferriss
  97. Trust Me, I’m Lying by Ryan Holiday
  98. Unbroken by Lauren Hillenbrand
  99. What if? by Randall Munroe
  100. What Matters Now by Seth Godin
  101. What To Do When It’s Your Turn by Seth Godin
  102. You Are Not A Gadget: A Manifesto by Jaron Lanier

Whew! That’s a long list!

If you’d like to know how far I’ve gotten and get my opinions on the books I’ve read in 2018, check out my reading list.

How To Write The Best Review Emails That Get Results

If you’re like most small business owners I know, asking for reviews isn’t fun. What are the best review emails you can send?

Here’s the best review email I’ve ever sent out. You can copy this word-for-word if you like – I won’t tell.

Subject: Small favor

Hello [customer name],

Would you do me a small favor? It will take less than a minute, but it would mean a lot.

Would you write a review of your experience with us? (Here’s the quick link: [put your link here] )

Google Reviews help people like you make decisions every day. They help to explain our service in a way that we can’t do ourselves.

(If you’ve already left a review, thank you so much!)

Here’s how to write a review:

1. Click the link below.
2. Sign into your Google account if asked (you might already be signed in!)
3. Write your review, give us a star rating, and press “post”.

That’s it! It’s quick and easy, and it really does help others to make an informed decision.

Here’s the link to write a review: [put your link here]

Thank you!

Best Review Emails
The best review emails get your customers to click through and write reviews.

This email is automatically sent out to our customers through our scheduling software. I send it one week after we’ve completed the job. I’ll probably run a test to find out if this copy would perform better on a shorter timetable, but right now it’s been bringing plenty of reviews at that 7-day mark.

Keep in mind, the best review emails frame your request as something that benefits your customer. In this case, you’re telling them that they’ll be helping other people like themselves. They get a good feeling from helping their fellow man, and you get a good review.

30 days with a bullet journal

In September I started keeping a bullet journal. If you’re not familiar with the concept, it’s basically just like it sounds: a cross between a bulleted list and a journal. It’s a way to keep track of what you do each day, as succinctly as possible.

A search through Pinterest or Instagram will reveal some ridiculously complex and artistic bullet journals. It seems to have become a popular way to show off your doodling skills in the name of productivity.

These are not my journals.

I had no such aspirations. Instead, I was looking for a simple way to track what I was accomplishing throughout the days and weeks.

I used my bullet journal daily through the month of September, which was 30 days as of yesterday. Here are my impressions so far.

Wait, not digital?

Starting off I had doubts about the idea of a physical notebook. Ever since I was about 12 I’ve been obsessing over technology and the ways it makes our lives easier and better. At that time I saved up something like $150 and bought a PDA. If you’re younger than me, a PDA (personal digital assistant) was the grandaddy of the smart phone. It had a calendar, address book, to-do list, notepad, and email if you were lucky. The later versions had a basic web browser built in, right before they were killed off by the release of the iPhone. At the time I was convinced that my productivity and memory recall would increase exponentially if only I had one of these magical devices.

The PDA didn’t change my life significantly, but I continued to live under the assumption that technology was making my life much easier. As a result, physically writing something down seemed backwards and counter-productive.

I bit the bullet (no pun intended) and bought a Moleskine journal (actually I bought 3 of them, because you can never have enough fancy hipster journals). Creating the index and future log was fun, but I seriously doubted whether I would keep this up for long.

As it turns out, the physical aspect played out in my favor. I carried the journal around in my backpack right in front of my laptop, which meant that I had no choice but to see it every day when I sat down to work. I got into the habit of pulling it out right at the start of the day and setting it down beside my laptop. In that spot it served as a visual reminder that I had goals for the day.

The day-to-day experience

The act of filling out the day’s milestones and marking them as complete was almost therapeutic. When I didn’t make the progress I had hoped, it served as a reminder that I had missed something (this happened often).

Unlike the examples I referenced above, my day-to-day journaling looks mind-numbingly similar. Each day has it’s own bulleted list, which I filled out as the day progressed. I used the most barebones notation: • bullets are tasks, – dashes are notes or reference items, and º circles are meetings or events.

There were a few instances where I got brave and changed the format; these were all for meetings, where I just dropped any sort of notation and wrote my scattered thoughts line-by-line until the meeting was over. Otherwise, I stuck entirely to the daily format.


Now that a month has past, it’s time to create a new month calendar in the journal. One of the key points of bullet journaling is migration: reviewing all unfinished tasks or goals in the past month and migrating them forward as necessary.

Having just completed migrating all of last month’s tasks, I think it’s the most valuable part of a bullet journal. With my other productivity/organization setups, unfinished tasks ended up in a Someday list which was subsequently ignored. Tasks would disappear for months or years, if not forever. With migration, I’m forced to go back and reassess any unfinished business to see if I still need to pay attention to it.

So far my experience with the bullet journal has been positive. I’ll continue to use it to track my progress through the month. I don’t foresee a whole lot of changes to the format.

Ultimately, the bullet journal is just a way to document what’s happened; it’s my choices during the day-to-day grind that make the difference. Having tried so many to-do lists and productivity hacks over the years, I’m painfully aware that the real gains come from hard work and persistence.

If you’re curious about bullet journals, visit the website – or if you’re looking for doodling inspiration, look at the #bulletjournal hashtag on Instagram.