My Bullet Journal Routine

Never one to avoid jumping on a passing bandwagon (especially one that requires new stationery), I started using a bullet journal a few months ago, and have found it a useful, flexible method for keeping track of things. I've used a personal organiser for a number of years as a calendar brain dump, but my to-do lists, time trackers, and mind maps have traditionally been housed on disparate pieces of paper and left in drawers.

Here's the original video that lays out the main ideas:

The basics

There are a few key parts to a traditional bullet journal: the index, daily log, weekly/monthly/yearly logs, and collections.  Some people put in a calendar - I already have a good system, so I haven't added this to mine.


The index is pretty simple: you number the pages as you go along and then write down the topics on a page at the back so you can look things up.

Usually in a bullet journal, you start everything on the next blank page, so the collections and logs are jumbled up together. I've modified this part of the bullet journal methodology, because I found flipping back and forth too hard, so I've separated out the daily logs and monthly logs from the collections in my current journal. The first 80 pages or so are reserved for daily logs, then 20 pages for blog post ideas and 20 pages for crafts, then some more pages for miscellaneous collections. Starting from the back, there's the index page, followed by my monthly spreads.

I don't bother numbering the pages in the daily log, and just start the page numbering in the collections section.

Daily log

The daily log can be a combination of to-do list and diary, but I only use mine as a to-do list, and it is the BEST TO-DO LIST EVER. Previously, at the end of the day, I'd have ticked some things off my list and some things wouldn't have gotten done, so I'd just work off the same to-do list until either all the things are finished or I throw it away and write a new, different list.

In my bullet journal, I write out the to-do list every morning, and tasks that didn't get done yesterday get migrated, scheduled, cancelled or, if they take less than 5 minutes, done right then. It gives a real sense of finality to be able to look back at old to-do lists without being reminded of an undone task!

Re-writing undone tasks is also a good opportunity to ask myself why something hasn't been done - is it the wrong time? Schedule it for the right time. Is there another task that needs to happen first? Put that in the next to-do list. Is the task too big and daunting? Split it up into smaller steps.

Examples of bullet journal bullets.

The reason it's called a "bullet journal" is that you use bullets to indicate the status or type of a task. I have bullet variations for completed, cancelled, migrated and scheduled tasks, as well as for things to buy, things to download, things to research, and notes.

Daily time planner

I don't tend to plan my daily schedule in advance in great detail, but sometimes I feel as though, much like Billy Pilgrim, I have come unstuck in time, and so I jot down my plans for the rest of the day to make sure I know where I am.


Weekly time tracker

I keep my weekly logs in the same place as my daily logs - they're just a big time tracker to see how much time I've got for science, and to make sure I'm scheduling enough self care activities. I don't make a weekly log every week, but sometimes they come in handy.

Monthly logs

For monthly logs, I have a habit tracker, a health log, and an exercise log. The habit tracker is a grid with the days of the month as columns and the habits I'm interested as rows - when I've done the thing, I colour in the square. The other logs are just blank pages that I write a line in every day. The health log has been very useful in combination with the habit tracker - hey, it turns out that when I don't eat properly, I get stomach ache! Who knew?


Apart from that, your bullet journal can be whatever you want it to be. Some of my pages are just doodles - on one page I have the rules of Galaxy Trucker written down, and on another, a list of all the things my cat is good at. If it's in your brain, put it on some paper, then you can either do something about it or turn the page and let it float past you.




Get some vim and vigour

Little helper.

A photo posted by Beth McMillan (@teraspawn) on

I have a peculiar fondness for programs that you can use at the terminal without having to pop out into something graphical, because I spend a lot of time logged into machines that I'm not physically sitting at, and which don't always have a great deal of memory. I used to use Nano for making small changes to files, Gedit for web design and Python, and Eclipse for C++. Since learning to use Vim, I now use it for everything.

There is a steep learning curve at the beginning. It took me a long time to get used to having two different modes for editing and reviewing, and I still have trouble navigating around the text - if you use the arrow key to get to the end of a line, you don't automatically end up on the next line, which I find very jarring. However, the useful features of Vim far outweigh the minor inconveniences.

The basics

To go into "insert" mode, which lets you edit the document, press i. To get back into "normal" mode, where you can enter commands, press Esc.

To save, go into normal mode and type :w, then press enter. To quit, use :q, or to quit without saving, type :q!. You can also string the two commands together and type :wq to save and quit.

All of the following commands are to be typed in normal mode. If a command begins with a colon, you have to press enter before the command will execute.

Undo and redo

Press u to undo, and Ctrl-R to redo.

Copy and paste

To copy a line, press Y, and then to paste either press p to paste below the current line, or P to paste above. To cut a line, type dd.

To highlight a block of text, either type v to highlight by the character, or type V to highlight by the line. You can then copy the text by pressing y, or cut the text by pressing d. This text can then be pasted as above.

Find and replace

You can use regular expressions in Vim to find and replace text. The simplest one, which I use the most often, is :%s/foo/bar/g to replace each instance of "foo" with "bar".

Smart indent

To indent your whole file at once, type gg=G, or type == to indent the current line.

Finding words

Type /word to find each instance of "word" in your file. Press n to move to the next instance, or N to move to the previous instance. Once you're finished, you can turn off the highlight by typing :noh.


Autocomplete words, commands or variable names using Ctrl-N.

Opening multiple files in tabs

If you're editing a few files at a time, you can open them all up at the same time and switch between them using tabs. Use :tabe filename to open a file in a new tab, then to switch between tabs use :tabn for the next tab and :tabp for the previous tab. You can see the tabs at the top of the screen. If you want to close a tab, use :q as normal.

Vim is really the Dwarf Fortress of text editors: there are layers and layers to it that I haven't yet discovered. I have the Vim graphical cheat sheet printed out and pinned up next to my desk, and I find if I google something like "Vim record macro" there will usually be several helpful tutorials available.

Happy coding!


Grammar tips for scientific writing

I have a side job for a few hours a week editing scientific papers. I thought I'd share a few of the problems that I come across most often.

What's the point in this?

Language is an ever-evolving thing and grammar and spelling can, and do, change over time. However, it's important to have a grasp of the language rules that are in common usage. When people are communicating with each other they need to have a common language so that ideas can be conveyed unambiguously. Mistakes in grammar and spelling can lead to a lack of clarity. Additionally, small mistakes can cause readers to stumble while they're reading your text, which distracts them from your main point.

Style guides

The first port of call when formatting your paper for publication is the style guide of the journal you're sending it to. They'll often have specific things to say about referencing, units, and structure.


Fewer is used for countable, discrete quantities, and less is used for continuous quantities. Example: fewer apples, less sand.


For the most common usage (i.e. a change in something), affect is a verb, and effect is a noun. An example from Grammar Girl:

The arrow affected the aardvark. The effect was eye-popping.

Rarely, you might see affect being used as a noun and effect as a verb, but these words have different meanings - an affect is an emotional state, and to effect is to bring into being. Example: the secretary had a positive affect when he effected a new filing system.

In general, just remember the aardvark.

The Oxford comma

The serial, or Oxford comma comes before the last item in a list. For example: lions, and tigers, and bears! (Oh my!)

It's seen as somewhat old-fashioned, but can often add clarity. It's acceptable to miss it out in most lists, and only add it where it's necessary to disambiguate something.

With the Oxford comma: we invited the strippers, JFK, and Stalin. Without the Oxford comma: we invited the strippers, JFK and Stalin.

Species names

When talking about a species by its Latin name, the genus name is capitalised, the species name is given in lowercase, and the name is italicised. If you're shortening the genus to its first initial, the initial has a full stop and a space after it, not a hyphen. So you would say E. coli or Escherichia coli, not e-coli, E.coli or E. Coli. The first time you talk about the organism, you should use the full name.

et al.

You may want to shorten references with multiple authors by using et al. There is a full stop after al and not after et. Sometimes et al. is italicised, but not always - this will depend on the style guide of the journal you are submitting to.

Synonyms for 'use'

I realise it can get boring to use the same words over and over again, but sometimes repetition is the best thing for clarity. The word use  crops up a great deal in methods sections, and so do other words in its place. Employ is a word I see very often in this context. Unless you're giving your reagents a job, don't use employ to mean use. The word utilise gets a bad rap, but it's useful in some contexts: it doesn't mean use, it means make use of. Example: Vitamin C helps the body to utilise iron.


Expectations on whether to use the past or present tense vary wildly between disciplines. In biology, you often use the past tense for methods and results, and the present tense for conclusions and stating general facts. Take your cue from other papers in your subject area.

Passive vs. active voice

Active voice: I ate the cake. Passive voice: the cake was eaten.

I don't know about you, but I learned at school that in scientific writing, the passive voice must always be used. This is old-fashioned advice: the active voice is just as acceptable. The important thing is to pick an option and be consistent: for example, you could use the active voice for things that you do, and the passive voice for other peoples' studies.

Beginning sentences with 'and', 'but', or 'because'


Further resources

I recommend Lynne Truss' book, Eats, Shoots & Leaves as a general primer on these things. You can also check out the Guardian Style Guide (they also have a Twitter feed!)

If you find yourself grasping for words when you're writing, the Academic Phrasebank can be a useful tool for finding sciencey words to use. However, remember that clarity is far more important than style: if the boring way to write it is the most unambiguous, it's the right way to write it.