If you search for “bullet journal” images online, you’ll be rewarded with a collection of color-coded artistry and the most perfect penmanship you’ve seen. Beautiful spreads include sketches, bar graphs, and calligraphy.
That’s somewhat unfortunate, says bullet journal creator Ryder Carroll. “A lot of people come to bullet journaling for the first time through Pinterest or Instagram, where they are presented with countless incredibly beautiful, gorgeous artistic options,” Carroll says. “They feel like that is what the bullet journal is—essentially an artistic to-do list.”
Carroll developed this particular methodology to manage his childhood attention deficit disorder. In his TEDx talk entitled “How to declutter your mind—keep a journal,” Carroll discusses how he developed the bullet journal method to help him track things he needed to do, should do, and wanted to do. But, at its core, there is another reason to keep a bullet journal.
“The best way I like to describe bullet journaling is that it’s a mindfulness practice that’s disguised as a productivity system. It’s more about why we’re doing what we’re doing,” he says. Carroll built a website and tutorial to teach the method, which can be adapted to almost any notebook.
So, how can you get the most out of a bullet journal practice? Keep a few things in mind:
Embrace the analog aspect
Business consultant Lauralee Hite, founder of Stratavize Consulting, had tried the traditional tech-powered ways of managing her tasks. But getting “pinged” regularly by apps such as Trello, Asana, and Outlook’s tasks left her feeling overwhelmed and exhausted. “As a business owner, you’re doing multiple things anyway, but I just felt compelled to find a way to just track the most important things to me,” she says.
Her business coach introduced her to the bullet journal, and its handwritten approach immediately appealed to her. As she started using it, she drew light bulbs when she had an idea. “The more I drew, the more ideas came to me,” she says. “It’s something about that pen to paper in my hand. My brain has to figure out how I’m going to draw this light bulb. Because of that it begins to just manufacture other thoughts and feelings, and that’s where I think the creative side comes in.” Research has also indicated that we remember more when we take notes by hand.
For those who love apps, Carroll has released a companion app to the bullet journal. But it’s not a replacement for the system; it’s an accessory. “The app is there to fill in the gaps. Obviously, a notebook can’t remind you to check in with it. A notebook can’t take a picture of another notebook. So we’re using technology to help address specific issues that the community has,” he says.
Think bigger than a to-do list
While over-the-top artistry gets in the way of some people getting the most out of the bullet journal, simply thinking of it as a to-do list isn’t the best way to use it either, Carroll says. “How to organize what we’re doing is part of it, but the underlying emphasis is to be mindful of the purpose behind your actions. And that’s something that’s not often understood or related to the bullet journal.” Part of the reason he wrote his book, The Bullet Journal Method, was to explain how to do so.
Carroll likens the bullet journal to a “paper mirror,” which reflects thoughts, feelings, and ideas, as well as tasks. Bullet journal use is significantly more rich and helpful when people are trying to focus on a particular area of their lives, he says. The journal allows you to declutter your mind by writing down your thoughts; you usually end up with a list of things you want to do or accomplish. But, when you see them on paper, you can organize them and be truly thoughtful about where you want to focus your efforts in order to get your day-to-day tasks done, but also make progress toward long-term goals.
Act with intention
Part of the bullet journal’s value is that it helps you be mindful about the choices you’re making in where you spend your time and focus. When you use it as a mindfulness practice, asking yourself what you want to increase in your life and what you want to reduce or eliminate, you can start to change. “Bullet journaling is about self-learning and self-exploration. It’s not about what other people are doing. It’s about learning what works in your life and what doesn’t. And that’s work that only the individual can really do,” he says. The system—creating the lists and entries—is one part. But being more mindful about the content and how you structure your days is the oft-overlooked component.
Adapt it for yourself
Freelance writer Dan Goubert, who writes the Cerealously blog and produces the Empty Bowl podcast about cereal culture, began bullet journaling earlier this year. He saw it as an opportunity to not only channel his focus, but also to have a record of how he spent his time. He uses markers, highlighters, found paper, and notes in his journal to capture feelings and emotions. “It really helps your mind work in multiple ways and multiple media formats, especially if you’re pasting in something that you found on your desk or even a piece of paper you found interesting on the streets,” he says. He likes the flexibility of the bullet journal to capture more than just tasks, and the way it enables him to return to previous days or weeks and have a better sense of what he was doing and feeling.
He also recommends creating an appendix within the journal to write down categories for personal discovery and interest. He has a page for notable quotes or good words he’s read, astrological themes in a day, books he’d like to read, stories he’d like to write, and other intellectual collectibles.
Stop striving for perfection
You don’t need perfect handwriting or artistic ability to use the bullet journal. The benefit is in simply using it, Hite says. Her intention for her bullet journal is to keep herself organized and spark creativity. “I don’t feel compelled to be an artist. I just go back to what makes it work for me,” she says. “You don’t have to buy an expensive book or pen. Begin where you are.”