Anyone who procrastinates by googling ways to stop procrastinating has probably already heard of bullet journaling: the magical productivity method invented and registered as a trademark by Ryder Carroll. In his system, one uses a dot-grid notebook to track anything and everything in life, listed under various bullets. However, the world of aesthetically-minded organizational strategists has reproduced Carroll’s ideas in abundant variation; colorful, calligraphic spreads are only the beginning.
For me, bullet journaling encourages mindfulness. I first got into the practice through a recommendation from my therapist to manage my existential anxiety. As a secondary benefit, it helps me actually use the many art supplies I own—I have an entire drawer full of different pens (ballpoint, felt tip, fountain, etc.). Stationery fetish aside, laying out all of my obligations and thoughts in one place calms me down in a way that Google Calendar never could. Often, my best creative ideas germinate in my weekly note section, including the idea to write this article. From a mechanical viewpoint, my bullet journal is somewhat atypical because I only do weekly spreads with a planner-esque section and a large open space for notes, rather than the traditional mode of habit-tracking and list-making.
To get more of a grasp on how others use their bullet journals, I first met with Elianna Scheide ’20, who embraces the traditional bullet journal form with some twists. She runs an Instagram based around her bullet journal ([at] earlgreynotes, for anyone interested). “The artistic side of it as well as the planner-y, organizational side—both parts felt very organic to me,” she informed me. Like most bujo-ers of Instagram, Scheide balances an artful aesthetic with utility in her journal. “I use it to draw, to sketch… for just about everything. I keep pictures, scrapbook things, maybe ticket stubs or images I print out,” she described.
By combining these with traditional planner layouts, Scheide cultivates a personal memory book that also holds her accountable for habits such as taking medication and accomplishing projects. In this way, Scheide shares my focus on mindfulness.
Others take an even looser interpretation of the form than Scheide or I. For example, Candace Osterhout ’19 uses Moleskines with blank pages, rather than a dot-gridded or lined journal. They informed me in an emailed statement, “[It’s] basically a sketchbook with class notes hanging around. I wouldn’t say my bullet journal is very organized or pretty like a lot of bullet journals on Instagram … Since my thoughts and daily schedule [are] kind of messy, so is my journal.” Because it strays so far from the traditional form, they said, “I would be more willing to call it a bullet diary.” For them, the chief goal of bullet journaling is not only creation, but also recording their developing art skills.
Another traditional bullet-journaler, Isabelle Hart ’20, also uses her bullet journal to track habits, including caffeine intake and sleep, as well as her schoolwork. She settled upon the method after being inspired by Instagram posts from accounts like Scheide’s. Hart recounted, “Every week, I have a habit tracker, I have a thought and mood tracker and I have my homework. And then I have a monthly spread with everything I have coming up.”
This is a pretty standard usage for a bullet journal: combining productivity and self-awareness in one handy location. Hart does break from tradition, however, with her choice of materials: “I use a Moleskine [lined] notebook because I got them on sale at Target.” Hart does not seem to be embroiled in debate over the best bullet-journal supplies.
In addition to being useful for habit tracking, bullet journaling can also inspire organization. For instance, Samantha Steeves ’21 likes to lay out individual days in her bullet journal and does so methodically—we sometimes make our spreads together, so I’ve watched the magic happen.
In contrast, I purposefully avoid using straight edge tools or overly uniform patterns in my bullet journal, because obsessing over perfection stresses me out. Steeves, unlike me, thrives on making clean lines and easy-to-read schedules. “I personally do a spread a day where I write down my schedule for the whole day using sticky notes. On the side, I list the tasks that I have to do and the events I have to go to, just to organize my thoughts.” She uses sticky notes because they allow her to rearrange time blocks to accommodate her shifting daily obligations. She added, “I take a lot of comfort in knowing, in the morning, exactly what my day is going to look like.”
Emma Koolpe ’21 also highlighted the organization that bullet journaling lends to her daily life, in addition to cultivating good habits. She described, “I use [my bullet journal] mostly to do scheduling and planning out my days. I recently started trying to work out more, so I’ve been using it for a workout plan. It’s nice to have my day solidified.” Planning her exercise in advance encourages her to follow through.
While all of us approach journaling differently, everyone with whom I talked gave the same advice for any burgeoning bujo-ers: Get started, and don’t worry about trying to look like an Instagram post at first.
Steeves phrased this sentiment particularly well: “Bullet journaling can sound really intimidating, especially if you look at pictures and see all of the elaborate spreads with watercolors and such. It’s really just what you want to make of it.” Osterhout contributed, “The whole point of a bullet journal is to do something that makes you happy.” Everyone agreed that the idea is to find the method that best fits one’s particular madness. The prettiest bullet journal is the one that most effectively helps its owner to get their life in order.