A New User’s Review of the Bullet Journaling Organizational Method
Hi, my name is Carolyn. I’m new to Binary Noggin, and I am a self-improvement nerd. Recently I was complaining to a friend (a fellow self-improvement enthusiast) that “I have all these things I am working on and I feel like my thoughts are really scattered. Information I am trying to keep track of is in too many places, I have all these great ideas that never become actionable, and sometimes really important things (like filing my taxes!) don’t get done on time." I was feeling stressed out and overwhelmed and really frustrated and told him I needed a “thought management system”. My friend looked at me and said those fateful words “Have you heard of bullet journaling?”
Bullet Journaling (or Buju as its lovingly referred to by its community of practitioners) is an organizational method created by a guy named Ryder Carroll. Carroll developed it through trial and error as a way to help himself increase focus and productivity while adapting around learning disabilities. His method went mainstream, and has been featured in the Wall Street Journal, Vogue, Bloomberg and the New York times. As I am writing this blog, 228K subscribers are following bullet journaling on Youtube. So, what is all the hype about? Could the practice of bullet journaling add value to your life? And if so, how?
I began informally bullet journaling about 3 months ago, and while I am still refining my practice, I now recommend it to everybody I know and have become a “buju fangirl”. Keeping a bullet journal has absolutely helped address all of the things I was complaining to my friend about. Since January, I have become less anxious, and I am more aware of how I am spending my time. I am no longer losing important logistical information because I don’t remember what illegible scrap of paper I recorded it on, and I feel like I have more peace of mind and control over my life. I believe bullet journaling is a practice that can benefit anyone, and all you need is a notebook, a writing utensil, and five minutes to get started.
My friend’s recommendation was enough to convince me to give bullet journaling a try, but if you are skeptical of the idea, I get it. Some people hear the word “journaling” and it conjures up a sense of dread. Maybe you visualize hours of staring at a blank page, forcing yourself to try and write even though you feel uninspired. Maybe being told to journal gives you flashbacks to English class, which was always your least favorite subject. Or maybe you think of journaling as “wasting time recording sentimental musings and boring descriptions of your day that will never be ready by you or anyone ever again (unless you become famous)”. Let me assure you, bullet journaling is none of those things! It certainly can be a creative outlet, a place to process emotions, a problem solving tool, and a way to keep track of the day’s events. But you are completely in the driver’s seat about how you use it. Spelling and grammar don’t count, nobody is going to read what you write but you, and you control when you use it and how much time you spend on it. One of the things the inventor stresses is that bullet journaling is an experience meant to be customized to the user. The essentials of the method can be learned in about five minutes (seriously!) and after mastering Ryder’s basic, intuitive framework, you can then make the journal into literally whatever you need to be. Think of the notebook itself like a Swiss Army knife or a multi tool- I’m using mine as a planner, budgeting tool, habits tracker, and social calendar. I have entries helping me manage projects at work, monitor my mood, capture daydreams, record notes from my RPG sessions, set goals, work through bad days, plan a vacation, and celebrate successes. Your bullet journal should be an alley and writing in it should organically improve your life. If you are dreading using it, you are probably doing it wrong. (This may be one of the very few “rules” of bullet journaling).
The basics of bullet journaling are incredibly easy to master. Ryder himself explains it better than I can on his website so rather than repeat content, I will just let him show you: https://bulletjournal.com/pages/learn. (The video is only 5 minutes and worth it, I promise). That’s it, five minutes to get started. Seriously, go watch the video.
As you will see in the intro video, the language of bullet journaling consists of tasks, events, and notes. Even if you don’t think you want to commit to the full practice of bullet journaling, merely sorting the thoughts in my head out into these 3 categories and having a place to put them all helped alleviate a lot of the mental stress I was carrying. This visual system of rapid logging, combined with the index, makes information super easy to go back and locate later. The practice of migration ensures that information you record remains dynamic, so that irrelevant data gets filtered out and important things don’t get written down and then forgotten about.
Now, if you want more details about the system (like I did), I also highly recommend Ryder’s book The Bullet Journal Method. Reading the book is not necessary to begin using the method, but reading it helped enhance my journaling practice. Ryder put a lot of thought and research into developing the “why” behind this practice, and having that background knowledge convinced me of the real value of bullet journaling. The practice was developed with a solid understanding of wisdom literature and human nature, and as a result, it has lasting value. Bullet journaling is much more than a fad. It's not another trendy productivity tool people pick up thinking it will save them time and then abandon because it's not actually all that useful. At this point, I use mine intuitively to plan, problem solve, monitor, and generally manage my life. Yes, it takes a time commitment up front to physically write in a journal (by hand!) but the payoff is worth it.
The beauty of the bullet journal method is that, to quote Ryder, it's “a mindfulness practice disguised as a productivity tool”. A consistent buju practice forces you to be introspective, and ultimately you begin to think differently as a result. And unlike traditional narrative journaling, it gives you relevant data in a visually appealing, user friendly form. Keeping a bullet journal gives you a space to “think out loud on paper” with the added benefit that the entries are part of the larger context of what is going on in your life. Not only is the immediate stress of carrying things alleviated by writing them down and getting them out of your head, but impactful events are recorded for you to process later. Patterns of behavior become clearer and creative solutions present themselves when you are looking at things from a bird’s eye view rather than individual isolated events.
A bullet journal is a time management tool as well, but it significantly differs from other organizational tools I have tried in that feedback loops and reflection are built in essential pieces of the tool itself. Migration changes everything. No more to do lists that are created and promptly lost or forgotten! No more missed appointments because I put something on the wrong calendar! My bullet journal has simplified my life because everything I am keeping track of is now in one place. And because it's not digital, I am on my phone and computer less. As an added bonus, not only can I clearly and visually monitor what I am trying to accomplish, I am constantly forced to think about my personal Why’s for doing these things in the first place.
One objection that technology driven people may have to bullet journaling is that it is “old school”. Yes, the practice does require a physical notebook and writing by hand. It doesn’t have to be a fancy notebook (I found I couldn’t be “messy” enough in pretty journals with designs and picked up a 500 page spiral bound notebook from Target), but it does need to be paper and ink. This is intentional and actually one of the key reasons the Bullet Journal method is so effective. There are plenty of benefits to writing by hand and a good summary of them can be found here: https://www.forbes.com/sites/nancyolson/2016/05/15/three-ways-that-writing-with-a-pen-positively-affects-your-brain/#6af813905705. The act of writing by hand is itself an essential ingredient in the bullet journal method. Bullet journaling is partially about mindfulness, and the very act of slowing down and putting pen to paper forces you to pause and re engage with the present. Yes, it seems slow and perhaps tedious at first, but there are hidden benefits to logging things old school exactly because it is “more work”. Take migration for example: if something isn’t worth the effort or recopying into next month’s task log, is it really worth doing at all? If not, you have just eliminated a task that was a waste of time and lessened your workload! Yay efficiency!
If you don’t want to write things out in a journal because your handwriting is awful, I get that, and it was actually my biggest objection to starting. You don’t want your notebook entries to be illegible when you go back to migrate, and I struggled with this at first, but there are workarounds. The bullet/circle/dash system helps create space on the page and so do larger notebooks. I have started skipping lines between entries, using different writing utensils, printing in all capital letters, and leaving myself more space than I think I will need for daily logs. And I found that my messy handwriting actually gave me valuable data- when I am stressed, my handwriting gets worse. Forcing myself to slow down and write in my journal so it will be readable later actually forces me to pause and acknowledge when I am feeling anxious and take a moment to reset. Don’t let bad handwriting discourage you from taking up bullet journaling- sometimes just the act of getting things out of your head (even if you can’t read it later) can be a valuable exercise.
Because bullet journaling is such a powerful tool, it has developed an amazing community of practitioners. Endless customization options are available and if there is a specific thing you are trying to use your journal for, chances are somebody else has tips and tricks on how they designed their journal to do that thing. For example, I invert my monthly log and have the task list on the left page and the calendar page on the right because that’s just easier for my brain to process. What’s cool is that I can do that by creating my own notebook, whereas with traditional calendars and planners I was stuck with whatever layout the publishers decided was optimal.
A word of caution about trying to customize your journal: you don’t have to be an artist or an English major to buju effectively. If making your journal look pretty brings you joy and doodling, sketch pages, and color add value to your life-great! My journal is an industrial strength tomb of chicken scratches. It literally has dirt on the cover at the moment, but it works for me. That’s the beauty of the system! There is no “wrong way” to bullet journal, and one size will not fit all. What is important is finding a way to make the practice work for you. Sometimes people will abandon the practice because they get caught up in perfectionism and making things look good, and lose sight of the larger purpose. Your bullet journal doesn’t have to impress anybody else, and while sharing techniques can be useful, ultimately your journal is for you and you alone.
Hopefully by now I have convinced you to give bullet journaling a try, so I’ll close with a few tips for getting started.
- You can begin at any time, although it's common to start on the first of the month for convenience.
- Find an aesthetic that works for you. Smaller notebooks are generally more portable, but I found I needed the full sized pages of a regular old spiral notebook. If you like, you can even order an official bullet journal with prefilled pages and directions (https://bulletjournal.com/pages/shop) but it's certainly not necessary. Literally any notebook, including one with dot matrices, will work. Use whatever writing utensils you love or have on hand, but I do recommend ink over pencil. It's less likely to smear and you want your buju to be a permanent record you can refer back to. If you mess up, just draw a line through it and keep going
- Give yourself time to develop a new habit. Ryder recommends trying the practice for 3 months before you make a decision about whether it's really for you or not.
- Don’t be afraid to make mistakes and experiment. Remember that the practice is designed to evolve with you through different seasons of your life. My April notebook looks very different than my February notebook, and my May notebook will be updated to include new collections based on insights I had in April.
- Don’t try to customize too much too quickly. The beauty of the bullet journaling system is its simplicity. If you find additional symbols, abbreviations, color coding, and specialized collections enhance your life, great, but use them sparingly especially until you have mastered the basic “task, event, note, migrate, complete” format of the daily log.