Task 11: Read While Lying Down on Your Back
The Productivity Subculture That Won’t Quit
How BuJo is inspiring endless creative strategies to stay organized
Part 1 of a two-part series on bullet journaling, exploring the rise of its culture, its many uses, and the benefits of this productivity practice.
Mydecades-long love affair with paper planners came to an end a few years ago, when I turned to digital productivity apps. But since then, I’ve missed the simple satisfaction that comes with putting pen to paper and mapping out your life on the page.
Turns out, I’m not alone.
In 2013, Brooklyn-based designer Ryder Carroll took the productivity world by storm when he introduced bullet journaling, a method that he developed to stay organized without being restricted to a preformatted planner template. As Carroll says in his bullet journal tutorial video, “I needed a system flexible enough to handle whatever I threw at it and fast enough that it wouldn’t get in the way.”
Carroll’s system, now more than 20 years in the making, has become all the rage. You don’t have to take my word for it. Just search the hashtag #BuJo on Instagram to see for yourself. Fair warning: Be prepared to lose a good chunk of time going down the rabbit hole of elaborate designs.
A Customizable, Flexible Approach to Tracking Your Life
Why has bullet journaling, also known as dot journaling, taken off so quickly?
It uniquely blends together deliberate planning, thoughtful reflection, and self-expression in analog form. This allows users to stay organized in a minimalist way while helping them cultivate a sense of mindfulness as part of their productivity ritual.
Bullet journalers laud it as a method to streamline and record everything from their daily schedules to their business analytics. Because bullet journaling is infinitely customizable, different users create endless strategies and formats, including grids for:
- Habit tracking
- Meal planning
- Financial goals
- Reading lists
In contrast to other planners, the system is ideal for documenting random thoughts that occur to you throughout the day, which is a proven way to keep anxiety (and distractions) to a minimum. Rather than having to categorize each thought or turn it into an action step, you simply add it to your daily log and mark it with a dash to signify that it’s a note. You can even index it if you need to reference it easily.
For some people, the act of creating and updating their journal is relaxing in itself. Studies show a strong positive correlation between writing and health outcomes, including lower blood pressure, improved memory, and better immune function. In therapy, journaling is an essential strategy for helping clients process emotions, examine their thoughts, and tap into their creativity to leverage it more effectively in all parts of their life and work.
Those who use paper-based bullet journals also extol the Stoic calm that comes from stepping away from the screen to plan your day and design your life. Which is in part why the bullet journal is so popular. Plus, as any list lover knows, crossing off to-do items as they’re completed produces deep satisfaction and a sense of control. As one writer put it, “Your bullet journal is a catch-all for everything that itches your brain.”
A Closer Look at the Productivity Subculture That Embraced BuJo
Bullet journalers are as devoted as they come. Carroll’s tutorial video, which provides a basic introduction for newcomers, has been viewed more than 7 million times since it was posted in 2015.
Those who adopt the system are wildly passionate about it, sharing new symbols, layouts, and styles with the bullet journal community or crowdfunding new journals that exemplify the #BuJo way. These loyal followers are proud to call themselves productivity-loving nerds, and while many of the YouTube videos feature women displaying their designs, the BuJo movement has also been embraced by men.
Instagram, in particular, is buzzing with energy from bullet journal gurus and followers. Imagine the most beautiful and functional journal layout possible, then add expert-style calligraphy, washi tape adornments, and unbelievable illustrations in the margins or on header pages.
For some, the act of beautifying and customizing the functionality of their journal is part of the appeal. But for others, it’s a turn-off. Looking at the picture-perfect journals created by others can be overwhelming, especially at the beginning. One writer, who ultimately did not take to the movement, said the learning curve was too high: “It was evident that bullet journaling was for people with a specific type of drive and a dedication to living efficient lives,” she wrote. “In my own life, I went to Muji and bought a pre-organized $7 planner.”
Others argue that the proliferation of pretty Instagrams feeds an “inaccessible aesthetic,” which feeds into a rising tide of perfectionism, guilt, and shameamong millennials and high achievers. I’ve seen this counterproductive dynamic in action firsthand with my clients, who are at first motivated by the possibilities of their new practice and then feel increasing pressure to create a bullet journal that prioritizes Instagram-worthiness over usefulness to their lives. Given all the research indicating how detrimental it is to compare ourselves on social media, it’s no surprise that some abandon bullet journaling and return to less trendy alternatives.
While bullet journaling doesn’t require any special equipment (any old journal and pen will do), there is an entire market of products catering to bullet journalers. From high-end pens to rich paper stock and whimsical paper clips, you could spend all your time (and a lot of money) purchasing enhancements for your journal rather than actually using it.
Despite those criticisms, legions of users have discovered ways to adapt and modify their bullet journaling practices in a way that does fit their lives. The radical flexibility of the bullet journal to “track the past, organize the present, and plan for the future” (the purpose as stated by Carroll) is why it was born in the first place.
Whether that process is a pleasurable one that takes a few hours of intensive crafting each week or involves five minutes of scribbling notes at the beginning of the day is an option that’s integral to the heart of BuJo’s purpose.
Bullet Journaling for Unartistic, Impatient People
Bullet journaling is much more than a glorified to-do list. It’s cracking the code on helping people be happier and more productive where other methods (and professionals like doctors and personal trainers) have failed. The unique combination of pure enjoyment, engaging multiple senses, and externalizing thoughts is what seems to make this method so effective — that is, if you can stick with it.
When bullet journal creator Ryder Carroll first developed the BuJo method, he had no idea it would inspire a productivity craze. In Part 1, we explored the rise of bullet journaling, including its massive base of followers. Many BuJo lovers swear by the system as a way to organize and archive their lives.
But getting started with bullet journaling can feel overwhelming. Scrolling through images of perfectly illustrated journals on Instagram might be discouraging. Especially if you’re like me and regard yourself as completely unartistic.
Whether you think you lack skills, time, or patience for BuJo, Carroll has a reminder:
“Forget about what you see online. It’s not about how it looks; it’s about how it feels, and, most importantly, how it works for you.”
In other words, don’t worry if your handwriting looks like chicken scratch. You don’t need to learn calligraphy or buy up every supply at the craft store.
It also doesn’t matter if strike marks fill your journal. In fact, that’s a sign you’re using bullet journaling as intended — as a single, ever-evolving life log to manage the present and plan for the future.
Below, the basic building blocks of BuJo are explained so you can take advantage of its powerful benefits today. We’ll also cover ways to set self-consciousness aside and sustain the habit.
Bullet Journaling for Beginners: 8 Steps to Get Started
Step 1: Adjust Your Mindset
Your first notebook will be your learning notebook. Like any productivity method, it will take time to find a bullet journaling flow and structure that works for you. Don’t prematurely optimize and go all out with a handmade leather journal. That’s too much pressure. Any creative endeavor involves letting go of perfection. Bullet journaling is no different. Make a mess.
Step 2: Get a Journal and Writing Utensils
Start with an inexpensive notebook — one you like but feel okay making mistakes in or throwing away if it doesn’t work out. Opt for a journal with blank pages (lined or unlined, your choice) instead of one with preexisting sections so you can customize it. As for writing tools, I start with a pencil so I can erase easily. But if you’re a die-hard ballpoint pen person or gel pen lover, you do you.
Step 3: Start an Index Page
The index is the backbone of your BuJo system. Think of it like the table of contents in a book. This will be your reference key to find certain sections or pages in your bullet journal.
Step 4: Create Logs
Logs are staples of the bullet journal system. Essentially, these are places where you can brain-dump tasks and projects you’re currently working on. It’s also your storehouse for future goals.
In general, there are three types of logs:
- A future log helps you keep track of items that aren’t yet on your immediate radar. In Getting Things Done (GTD) terms, this is similar to a someday/maybe list.
- Monthly logs include things like calendars and categorized goal lists for the next 30 days.
- Daily logs may includes entries of to-dos, meetings, and reminders.
Simplicity is a top tenet of BuJo, so keep your entries brief. For instance, “Write draft of Chapter 1” or “Call Amy re: birthday plans” is more than sufficient, as long as you can interpret the shorthand.
Step 5: Pick Signifiers
Many people use bullets for lists of tasks, circles for events, and dashes for notes. Stars commonly denote high-priority items. Of course, this is all is customizable, and over time you’ll arrive at a system of symbols that’s unique to you. You’ll track personal signifiers on a reference page.
Step 6: Document Items with Collections
Collections are running lists and anything you want to remember for later:
- Books you want to read
- Movies you want to watch
- Friends you want to reconnect with
- Things you’re grateful for
- Blog topics
- Self-care ideas
And lots more. These are typically kept toward the back of your notebook since they don’t change very often.
Step 7: Make Time for It
Schedule time to update your journal. After all, no productivity method works unless you put effort into it. Cross off items on your daily and monthly logs as you complete them. Write page numbers on the bottom of each page, and update your Index. Many BuJo enthusiasts do a monthly or quarterly review, taking time to reflect on what they accomplished and their future goals and to transfer items from one log to the next.
Step 8: Get Better, Gradually
Over time, you’ll home in on a bullet journaling process that fits your needs and preferences. Once you get your standard page formats down, you can move on to optimizing your process in other ways. Maybe you work on improving your handwriting. Or add washi tape to make finding frequently flipped-to pages easier. There are lots of helpful online resources created by the innovative BuJo community.
Why It Works: The Psychology of Bullet Journals
According to neuroscientists, a bullet journal helps you externalize thoughts. Put simply, this frees up mental space so you can think more clearly and concentrate better. You don’t have to waste valuable energy remembering everything. Instead, your life is captured on the pages of your journal. Now you can be more present and at ease in the moment without worrying that you’re forgetting something.
Analog productivity methods like bullet journaling have another advantage over digital tools: better retention. Writing by hand engages multiple senses — visual, kinesthetic, and tactical — which helps commit tasks to memory. It also signals to your brain that your goals are important, making you more likely to follow through.
Psychologically speaking, bullet journaling is more powerful than other paper-planning methods because it’s also a life record. It’s a place where you can reflect on your accomplishments and happy moments. Research shows that taking time to self-reflect, appreciate what’s going well, and create a vision for your future boosts well-being.
Blending Bullet Journaling with Digital Tools
Fortunately, there are ways to get the benefits of bullet journaling without abandoning the tech tools you’ve come to rely on.
- Use an online mind-mapping tool to brainstorm an idea before adding it to your notebook.
- Complement your daily and monthly logs by putting additional reminders and appointments in your digital calendar.
- Take meeting notes in your bullet journal, then snap a photo or use a dictation tool to share it with teammates.
One important purpose of the bullet journal is to create a refuge away from the glow of screens and the suck of social media. This peace of mind is a gift in the age of information overload, where it’s a chore to manage the flurry of tasks, requests, and data coming your way.
Remember, bullet journaling is never about being perfect or working mindlessly just to stay busy. Fundamentally, BuJo — and the entire community around it — is about finding calm amid overwhelm, focusing on doing work that matters, and designing life on your own terms.
What could be more productive than that?