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Reverse Engineering the Michael Collins Diaries: The REBELjournal Method

The recently digitised Michael Collins Diaries reveal the unique ways that Irish revolutionary leader Michael Collins organised his busy life.

I've now developed a personal organisation method inspired by the organisation and productivity techniques that Michael Collins himself used over the course of years of making decisions big and small. I call it the REBELjounal method.

The original diaries are explored in detail in a fascinating new book and when I visited the National Archives recently, I saw first-hand how compact and portable the style of diary he used was. The style of notebook he used varied from year to year, and the way he organised his days evolved over time as he fine-tuned things because his life was becoming busier and busier.

Photo of one of Michael Collins' diaries on display

My great grandfather General Seán Mac Mahon was close to Michael Collins, and I’ve taken inspiration from the original Michael Collins diaries to develop what I call the REBELjournal personal organisation method. 

My REBELjournal method is an alternative to more complex approaches like the Bullet Journal that and is inspired by this famous Irish rebel leader Michael Collins. It’s a simple and effective personal organisation method that also rebels against the over complication of our lives in order to boost productivity around the most important things.

So let's dive in...

Here’s how to organise your work and personal life using my REBELjournal method:


1.         Choose your notebook and writing tool

If you want to use a modern equivalent of the type of diary Michael Collins himself would’ve used when he was on the run a hundred years ago then go for an A6 9cm x 15cm pocket notebook, ruled, and ideally softcover. For example, a Leuchturm1917 A6 softcover notebook works well. But you can also use a bigger sized or hard back notebook if you don’t need to literally carry it around in your pocket. Personally I find a Leuchtturm1917 145 x 210 mm hard back notebook works well.

Write with whatever writing instrument you like best - a pencil or fountain pen would be what Michael Collins would’ve used, but personally I prefer a fine liner.

By the way, if you'd prefer to use an actual pre-printed diary with the dates already printed on it, then you've a couple of options. You could go for a weekly planner like Michael Collins would've used in 1918 or a daily planner diary like he used later in 1919 when he was even busier. Personally, I prefer to use a notebook with blank pages and write the dates in it myself as I describe below but if you run an appointments-based business or need to plan future events on paper then those options can also be adapted to the REBELjournal method.


2.         Set up your Table of Contents

Like the Bullet Journal method's index, the REBELjournal table of contents helps you organise your notebook almost like a toolkit. But the REBELjournal is simpler: 

⁃            Page-a-day diary notes will start on page 1

⁃            Notes in general will start ia third of the way in (say on page 60)

⁃            You can add additional sections, like Side Project Notes or even a Gratitude Diary (“3 things”) section into the last third

⁃            Leave about 5 blank lines between these headings to allow you to add more subheadings over time if needs be


3.         Daily list: Your first Page-a-Day diary page

This is where the list-making approach of Michael Collins comes into its own. It’s a simple to do list approach but with a few added features:

A photo of Michael Collins' diary page from Thursday, 1st Dec 1921

Mindfully mark each day

Start by writing today’s day of the week and the date out in long hand across the top of the page. There’s something about marking the passage of time in longhand that helps set us up on the right track mindfully each day.

Then use Roman numerals for each item, and list the things you need to do and want to do that day.

If you can, try to group things by the action type. So, for example, if you need to meet or call a few different people that day list the calls one after the other on different lines. (But don’t repeat words use —“— to show repeating words / phrases)

Sub lists 

For some things, like a shopping list or complex project then you’ll need to use sub lists.

Use the letters (a), (b), (c) etc… for those subitems in two columns.


Use a privacy-first and concise shorthand that you understand (just like Michael Collins did given the secretive nature of his work). For example, if you’re meeting someone in person or online simply use their initials and house numbers or acronyms for the technology you’ll be using such as “Call D on Zoom at 11.30am” instead of full addresses and phone numbers.

In this clip from the Late Late Show with Ryan Tubridy ,Orlaith McBride (Director, National Archives) summarises Michael Collins' privacy-first approach:

Stay focused

Don’t write too much beyond your list of things to do on the page-a-day pages because you can capture those in your more general Notes section. But do take the time to record the most important personal things like birthdays and anniversaries on the date-specific page-a-day pages.

Here's an example of what a day could look like:


    I     Meet M & D at office at 9.30am

    II     —“— client W on Zoom at 12pm

    III    Call supplier C on mobile

    IV    Plan new project

         (a) draft schedule                (b) finalise budget

         (c) brief team                       (d) update client

    V   Buy food for dinner

          (a) fish          (b) chips

    VI      —“— birthday card for MC



4.         Progress: During the day

As you get through your day and actually get things on your to do list done (ideally combined with the time-chunking Pomodoro technique), cross them off with a long line to "strikethrough" each item. Enjoy the act of the long, slow, stroke of the pen going across the page - it's much more satisfactory and mindful than a quick tick.

Detail from Michael Collins Diary Wednesday 5th July 1922

If you need to write more detailed notes about things like your work in progress projects or to take meeting notes, just jump ahead to the Notes section and use the space there to capture them.


Aim to write a lot less in the Page-a-Day section, but if there is space left at the bottom of that page, you can use that empty space for quick notes that are relevant that day. For example, if you learn something new like a fascinating fact, jot that down with some details to help you remember it. Or if you've had a particularly productive day write that down at the end of the day just like Michael Collins did on 15th October 2021 with his deeply satisfied note of: "Worked all day, cleared all arrears."


Photograph of a page from one of Michael Collins' diaries

5.         Morning Review

At the start of each new day, first of all write out today's day of the week and date out across the top of the page in longhand. Then before you start listing items to do today, have a quick review the things from the previous day that didn’t get crossed off.

Decide if they’re still important enough to try to get to again today or if they can be skipped. If they do make the cut, migrate them over to the new day and integrate them into the other things that are on your mind in a rough order of priority.

*The most important thing

Use an asterisk symbol to identify the single most important thing you need to get done that day. Just one thing. Also consciously choose what you’re going to postpone to another day instead of writing it down at the bottom of your list where you won't get to it and leaving it hanging over you.


6.        Social: Weekly Connections

Every Sunday, make sure you take time out to keep in touch with family and friends just like Michael Collins did every Sunday.

Make a list of who you’ve contacted to help you keep track of who you’ve already been in touch with - and in its own way writing each person's name out will strengthen your connections with them in your mind. 

Use simple verbs like “Wrote /Called/Emailed/Messaged” as headings (underlined) and list the people contacted below the heading.


Here's an RTÉ News report by David McCullagh about the Michael Collins diaries. It features interviews with Orlaith McBride (Director, National Archives) and both Dr Anne Dolan and Dr William Murphy (Co-authors, Days in the Life) that will give you more of the background about the diaries:


By using this REBELjournal method inspired by the diaries of Michael Collins, I’ve been able to declutter my own days and get more done with less stress - while also strenghtening my social connections.

I hope you find my REBELjournal method useful. Let me know your take on it in the comments or by email. And get in touch if you’ve spotted other techniques and life hacks in the Michael Collins Diaries that you find useful or questions about how to apply the REBELjournal method in practice.




  • Iontach suimiúl ar fad.

    Anne Marie McNaughton
  • Mise freisin!

  • @Peter: GRMMA!

    Diarmaid Mac Mathúna
  • An suimiúl, bhain mé an-chuid sult as seo a léamh.

    Peter Devlin

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