I stumbled across the bullet journal concept by Ryder Carroll early in 2018 and was intrigued by its aim to combine task management with mindfulness. I have used the system virtually every day for over a year now and found it extremely rewarding. In this post I would like to share some of my experiences. In a follow-up entry, I’ll write more technically on some specific techniques I use in my journaling.
The bullet journal method is a specific way of keeping a notebook (yes, with paper pages) to plan, record, and reflect your day, month, year, and life. It deliberately pulls activities of planning, organization, and time management from the digital tools most of us use (calendars and apps for note-taking, lists, and reminders) back into one analogue medium which gives us – above all – room to write down reflections on what we do and what we want to do. Writing by hand is a feature of the system, not an inconvenience.
A bullet journal is extremely adaptive to your needs, the system consists not in rules or tasks but in guiding principles to organize information about your life and the interaction with this information so that you can use it. Whether, in your day-to-day practice, it functions more like a planner or more like a journal is up to you: it becomes what you need it to be.
The basic techniques involved in bullet journaling are logging, indexing, and reflection:
You log activities, events, tasks, or notes which are relevant to your life, much like in a time planner but in a specific system, and often you log them after the fact. A log entry can be as short or long as you like, the important thing is that it is contextualized by a date and/or title so that it can be referenced if necessary:
You index important log entries on the first pages of the notebook to be able to find them easily. The index makes the journal usable in the future.
You regularly take a moment to reflect on your entries in writing to see what you actually spent time on and whether this corresponds to what you need or want to spend time on.1 Every reflection is indexed with its title.
The aim is to gain more control over your day-to-day life short-term and then deciding where you want to go with it long-term. All you need for that is a notebook and a pen. 2
For a quick visual introduction, watch Ryder’s short video tutorial.
It’s not easy to put in words why bullet journaling has been such a revelation. I tried to write about aspects of time management first and then about aspects of mindfulness, but the two cannot be separated: The bullet journal method keeps them connected.
In a bullet journal, all the activities that we think of as ‘chores’ or ‘work’ (finish the article, teach the class, shop groceries, attend the meeting) become practices – they become more personal, items in the aggregate inventory of our lives. And, vice versa, the activities that we think of as ‘fun’ or ‘life’ (dinner with friends, bingeing a series, band rehearsal, traveling) become more abstract, items in the aggregate inventory of our lives.
This alignment of all the aspects that make up our lives, shallow and deep, simple and complex, fun and depressing, short-term and long-term, in a context of practice, of doing them, enables us to look at them with a bit of distance.
From this distance, we can then evaluate our practices and ask ourselves which practices are actually worth doing, which of them are truly ours and which of them are not, what we might need to do more of and what less. And then we can start changing our practices, if we feel they need changing. It focuses us on our choices and our agency, instead of overwhelming us with ‘necessity’.
The inventor of the bullet journal method says that it is “a mindfulness practice disguised as a productivity system”, and that’s really important, I think: Bullet journaling is not about making you a more effective worker drone, it’s about harnessing your agency to do more of the things that you find meaningful and less of the things that you don’t. The purpose of the task management and planning aspects of the system is to create a tangible record as the basis for reflection and a daily point of contact with what you do.
Work and planning
In the beginning, just getting on top of my work was a priority for me personally. As a university researcher, I constantly have several writing projects underway, with deadlines between three months and three years; I teach classes and supervise the work of dozens of students; I give workshops and speak at conferences.
All these activities are highly complex and involve many sub-tasks of different duration, frequency, urgency, and energy expenditure. Also, I am solely responsible for planning and execution. There is no ‘manager’ who tells me exactly what to do and when and how fast. This freedom is great, but it requires an enormous amount of organization and discipline.
Previously I had kept track of all my projects in various places: in my head, in my electronic calendar, in emails labelled with colours and ‘important!’ tags, on post-its above my office desk, on slips of paper on my desk at home, in project wikis, or in collaborative online files, etc. … But the bullet journal contains formats for long-term planning (the future log), as well as for medium- and short-term scheduling (monthly/weekly logs and daily logs). These formats gave me a space to just record all of my tasks in a systemic way and in one place. All the other media didn’t become obsolete, but the notebook aggregated, connected, and prioritized them.
My Book helped me to perceive my tasks on a timeline that I could zoom in and out of, so that I always knew where I was at the moment and what would come ‘next’ (next week or month, in six months or next year): The way a bullet journal is set up encourages you to check, to leaf back and forth through it. This alone provided me with a great sense of control: I had a rough timeline in my head because I was looking at my tasks often – but I didn’t need to remember it all because it was securely written down.
Having gained this kind of overview, I noticed that I could also make better decisions on when to do which task and how much time to allocate for it: to proceduralize them. This is because the bullet journal records what you have done and facilitates the reflection on this record: At the end of every month, I sit down and evaluate my aggregate practices, what I have accomplished and what I haven’t, what worked well and what didn’t, what I want to change about the way I organize my work and life.
After a couple of months, I could look backwards through My Book and identify patterns, ‘arcs of practice’. It is very valuable, for example, to know which activities are involved in writing an academic paper, how much time research takes, how much crunch time I need, how long revision takes. But also: how much multitasking can I take and still be efficient (or happy), how long it takes me to get back into a topic that I had to put aside for a while, and how to avoid these distractions or work around them best.
Bullet journaling gives me the frame of mind and the physical resource to observe myself at work in great detail over a long stretch of time. Of course, it’s not always possible to change practices but it is surprising how many factors we do have agency over – once we have identified that they are indeed factors. To do that, we need a record and a habit to look at that record with the intention to learn from it.
Mindfulness and meditation
When you manage tasks and events with a traditional planner, ‘yesterday’ becomes irrelevant as soon as ‘today’ has arrived. But because bullet journaling is all about reflection, ‘yesterday’ and ‘last month’ are extremely important: bullet journaling encourages the recording not only of necessary practices (like the tasks and events you usually log in a planner) but of important practices which are relevant to your life and well-being.
It’s not always obvious which of our practices are important in that way. The bullet journal encourages reflection on what it is we want to record. The essential long-term question is: What do I want more of in my life and how do I go about achieving that? This requires us to think more intently about what is going on in our lives, right now. Doing that is already an act of mindfulness.
Still, having a record is just the start of it: The monthly reviews are not just reflections on what I did but also how I felt about it. In My Book, I reflect on my current state of mind and my emotional well-being. I make a point of taking notes about beautiful moments that increase my happiness, to appreciate them and memorize the emotion.3 But I also use the journal to work through difficult or problematic aspects of my life, stress and frustration, depression and anxiety. The mere activity of writing linearizes my thinking and orders it so that I can make sense of it.
My joy in bullet journaling also lies on even more basic levels: Simply engaging with the material object of the notebook on a daily basis gives me a sense of being more connected to my life – past, present, and future. My memory of previous years and months used to be notoriously bad, but now I can actually remember lots of specific things that happened, say, April 2018.
Lastly, taking time with pen and paper as opposed to keyboard and screen is meditative in itself. Because I am a creative person, I am happy to have frequent contact to a medium that encourages me to doodle and draw, do calligraphy or use it as a scrapbook during vacations to collect experiences and memories. My Books are not just useful, they are also precious objects. I made them. There is a simple kind of joy in that.
I’ve been journaling on-and-off for over 20 years, but I never did it in a systematic way: My journals are full of personal and professional notes, ideas, lists, doodles, calligraphy, cartoons and drawings; I’ve also used TiddlyWiki for years of note-taking and project management. Somehow, I’d always been dissatisfied with this eclecticism and I was never quite sure about the purpose of my notebooks.
With the bullet journal system, I’ve learned to embrace the eclecticism because it gives my journaling a frame and a purpose, even at times when the journaling itself is purposeless. It makes both art and task management, both journaling and planning meaningful as a daily practice in the ‘now’ and as an object of reflection in the ‘later’, to simply enjoy or to learn from. Now, when I think of my bullet journal, I think of it as My Book and it is a precious part of my life.
In the follow-up entry, I will be more technical or utilitarian and share specific techniques that I use in My Books which make them more useful to me.
Reflection: The usual format of reflection is a monthly review, but I often write reflections on special topics outside the monthly rhythm – those can be similar to diary entries, there is no clear distinction. ↩
Note on prettification and stationery fanaticism: When you google ‘bullet journal’ today, most of the results will show extremely beautiful notebooks and tips on how to make them more beautiful with the help of special pens, washi tape, stickers and accomplished handwriting. I think it’s great that the community is so creative (and aesthetics is important to me personally), but this tendency toward ‘instagramability’ can easily mask the simple utility of the concept and create hurdles for people who are not artistically inclined. Bullet journaling is not about making pretty books – it’s about slowing down, sitting and thinking, reconnecting to yourself. If doing artsy stuff accomplishes that for you, great, but for the method to work, artsy stuff is not required. ↩
Note on ‘gratitude logs’: Tutorials on bullet journaling often include advice on ‘gratitude logs’, where people record things that made them happy. I’m personally sceptical about the term ‘gratitude’ with its normatively moral expectation of reciprocity and its religious implication of a higher power we should feel grateful to. Things can make me happy that were not caused by the action of someone else; and other people can instil happiness within me without me feeling ‘gratitude’. Happiness is selfish and that’s okay. I believe that happy people will make other people happy pretty much automatically, without the necessity of intentional acts motivated by gratitude. And I have seen often enough how the social expectation to ‘show gratitude’ delegitimizes a happiness which is not immediately ‘paid in kind’. This expectation ultimately detracts from happiness more than it adds to it: people feel guilty if they don’t reciprocate. Since the very term ‘gratitude’ has all this baggage, I avoid it. ↩