How a bullet journal could change your life

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Bullet Journal, a planning system developed by Ryder Carroll, is an unlikely trend has surpassed the productivity circles and taken over social media and the internet by storm. Illustration by CARINA SANTOS

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — When digital product designer Ryder Carroll shared his organizational system, the Bullet Journal, with the world, I imagine he didn’t foresee it essentially taking over every planning system imaginable. The Bullet Journal system has overtaken older systems like the ever ubiquitous FiloFax and even David Allen’s Get Things Done (GTD) method, which was what dominated the internet a few years ago.

I imagine he perhaps didn’t foresee it to have, at least, the sort of cultish devotion that’s readily apparent when you step into planning forums, Pinterest boards, Bullet Journal Facebook groups, or YouTube channels dedicated to showing you, the viewer, just how bullet journalers set up their “spreads,” with videos that range between five minutes and something as long as an episode of “The Americans.”

Productivity nuts and Bullet Journal (or “BuJo,” as what seems to be the agreed upon shortened name) evangelists talk about the system as though it was the second coming of Christ. And then they just keep talking.

Even non-planner types’ curiosity have been piqued. Those desperate to try a new system that promises productivity will ask a seemingly innocuous question — “What is a Bullet Journal?” … And they will likely be met with a deep breath followed by a long and convoluted explanation that sounds suspiciously like someone describing just a collection of lists.

 

The original iteration of the Bullet Journal is a list dump — just better organized. Aside from to-do lists that are dated as one goes along, one takes down notes, “forward plans” by way of a future log (also in the form of a list), and creates “collections” or non-daily task lists that range from a rundown of movies to watch, recipes to remember, people to give gifts to, and so on.

Carroll’s system often feels like a catch-all, a place to dump everything, but he incorporates an “index,” which is basically a table of contents, to organize all of these nebulous thoughts so they can exist together. Many disciples of the Bullet Journal forgo the index, claiming that they don’t really use it, but I depend on it a lot.

My bullet journal — in all its iterations and set-up changes — houses pretty much everything I need to take note of. Instead of scrambling for very specific notebooks that I keep at home (e.g. book notes, project notebooks, journals), I can bring my bullet journal and rest easy, migrating important thoughts and notes accordingly later on.

bulletjournal-1.jpg Your bullet journal can be whatever mishmash notebook of obscure toad species, “Harry Potter” character traits for fanfic reference, and things to get done by Monday that you want it to be. Photo by CARINA SANTOS  

The most important thing for this system is to list things down before you’re too distracted by other things that you forget about them entirely. I love paper, and making lists, and the feeling of ticking off an item on my to-do list (i.e. not like a failure), and I’ve been using this method for years, coming off of both paper and digital planners, and I haven’t looked back since.

Much of the grief that has plagued productivity nerds such as myself, for example, is not being able to find the 100% perfect system, or as my ilk likes to call it, “planner peace.” Watch the same person make endless declarations of finding it, only to be back in a month or so with another “revolutionary” way of planning.

The appeal of the Bullet Journal seems to be its undoing of the rigidity of conventional planners, which can at once limit the flow of ideas and productivity and limit the ways in which you can use them. If you don’t pick the “right” journal for you, you end up wasting so much precious paper and space.

With the Bullet Journal, you choose what categories to keep and what to leave out. Don’t feel like adding a monthly page? No problem. Don’t care for keeping track of movies you’ve seen this year? You don’t have to. Your bullet journal can be whatever mishmash notebook of obscure toad species, “Harry Potter” character traits for fanfic reference, and things to get done by Monday that you want it to be.

The “tabula rasa” quality of the system makes it the nexus of productivity and the trends that constantly make their rounds in craftier circles: calligraphy and lettering, doodling and illustration, color codes and icon keys, sometimes even journaling and scrapbooking.

 

You choose what kind of journal works best for you, too. I’ve used everything from loose index cards (reshuffled and held together by a bulldog clip), pocket notebooks, sketchbooks, and journals of all sizes. Carroll’s method is so flexible, it’s transposable to different types of paper systems.

The Bullet Journal’s bare-bones structure also allows for devotees to flex their creative muscles and journal while getting things done. It can be a little scary just how devoted Bullet Journal converts seem to be to the casual observer, but looking at it closely, maybe it’s not all that surprising.

The “tabula rasa” quality of the system makes it the nexus of productivity and the trends that constantly make their rounds in craftier circles: calligraphy and lettering, doodling and illustration, color codes and icon keys, sometimes even journaling and scrapbooking.

Strict supporters of the original Bullet Journal method adhere to Carroll’s instructions and often get into heated arguments with people who’ve taken severe creative liberties with theirs, claiming that the extra time spent prettifying a BuJo spread is “pointless” and “counterintuitive,” as it presumably takes time away from actual productivity. It’s worth noting, though, that while Carroll prohibits the use of the Bullet Journal name for profit, he himself supports user hacks and even features a few members of the Bullet Journal community on the site’s blog, The Bulletjournalist, likely in an effort to exhibit the inherent flexibility and versatility of the system he created.

 

There are varied findings of the way writing things down affects memory. Some studies have shown that taking notes in general impedes recall, as the act of note-taking is a way of filing away of information, while some claim that writing things down, instead of typing, allows one to better remember things later on.

Personally, the act of writing things in longhand has helped me remember better. My early college years was the time during which I religiously documented my life and experiences, and it remains the time of my life that’s most clear in my head, even though much more exciting things have happened to me since. Some individuals with executive dysfunction disorder have also claimed that the system has helped them function in their everyday life, with the journal acting as an easy reference to what they’d likely forget otherwise.

10919203_433232540160163_2085048094_n.jpg Carroll’s method is so flexible, it’s transposable to different types of paper systems. Photo by CARINA SANTOS

Spending time figuring out how the system best works for me has allowed me to learn more about the way I work. Intimately knowing your strengths and weaknesses in how you approach work and life is helpful in the long run, because you are able to prepare better and avoid overpromising.

In a way, the Bullet Journal system is perfect for everyone, because it lets you make it be whatever you need it to be.

In the world of productivity apps and convenient syncing between them, one would think it would render planning on paper obsolete. And yet, analog and paper systems like the Bullet Journal, the Traveler’s Notebook, and Get Things Done endure. As the hordes of devotees can show, it’s so much more than just an excuse to buy more cute stationery and office supplies, though that’s always a bonus. The system has worked wonders for me and for millions of other devotees — and when something saves your life, you can’t help but keep talking about it.