Finding Order and Meaning in Your Life Through Bullet Journaling

Five years ago I left my full-time job to enter the freelance writing world. I spent a lot of time trying to figure out how to best organize and manage my days so they were productive and meaningful. At some point during that first year, I discovered the Bullet Journal methodology, and while I’ve picked it up and put it down a couple times since then, I recommitted to the analog process earlier this year, around the same time I chose to intentionally disconnect more from my phone.

If you’re looking for a new way to approach 2019, the pen-and-paper-notebook-based system is best visualized through this five-minute tutorial video found on the Bullet Journal website. But if you’re curious to know even more about how to make it work for you, founder Ryder Carroll published his first book, The Bullet Journal Method — now a New York Times bestseller — this fall.

I spoke with Carroll earlier this month and asked him, with all the available apps and technology out there, why develop an analog system?

“For me, it’s not about digital versus analog,” he said. “It’s about figuring out what the best tools are for the job. I found that over the years putting everything into apps was not in fact making me more productive and I realized that it was a lot easier for me to clarify my thoughts and to get organized on paper first.”

Once his thoughts are organized on paper, he may find a digital home for that information — for instance, scheduling a needed phone call into a calendar app.

“It was the process of disengaging from technology that allowed me to re-engage with technology a lot more effectively. For me, I think one thing technology is really wonderful at is helping us connect with the world around us. Technology provides us with unlimited ways for us to be more productive, but also it’s a double-edged sword because it’s also an unlimited amount of distractions.”

Our time and energy are incredibly limited, Carroll said. If we’re not careful, we can waste so much more time than we should being distracted – but journaling can help disengage your auto-pilot.

“It activates us differently and we interact with it in a way that requires us to slow down,” he said. “I think that a lot of times we mistake convenience for efficiency. Yeah, it’s much faster to type, but maybe it would behoove us to slow down, especially when it comes to figuring out what it is that we will be investing our time and energy into.”

Part of that slowing down is choosing a writing utensil and notebook that works for you. BuJo, as it’s often called, doesn’t require fancy or expensive products. Once you’ve selected your tools, then you’ll learn to apply a system of daily, monthly, and future logging to a practice of reflection, goal-setting, and meaning-making.

And no matter how many creative and artistic Bullet Journal page examples you find online, Carroll said that the only thing that matters is the content, not the presentation. When Bullet Journal started becoming popular, he explained, a lot of the people who first adopted it were creatively gifted and their form of expression was sharing it online. He was clear to state that there’s nothing inherently wrong with that. They’re proud of their work, and many times they’re coming up with creative visual solutions to organization.

Over time, though, he said, it started to feel like it was becoming a competition. “The problem with that to me is that it takes the emphasis off of what it should be, which is about self-learning and figuring out what you need to become more productive.”

Start with the basics, which you can find on the website, or in his book, and if you want to become more creative from there, go for it. “If you see my own,” he said, “it’s filled with illegible chicken scratch and it’s black and white. It’s always about how effective of a tool it becomes, right? You can have a beautiful pretty hammer, but at the end of the day, if it doesn’t help you sink the nails, it doesn’t matter.”

And it can be a really effective tool, beyond basic logging of to-do list items. Custom lists, which Carroll calls “Collections,” can be used to track everything from what books you’ve read in a year, to what kind of vacation you want to take next (and exactly how you’re going to budget for it), to various types of financial management, such as:

  • Creating a list of things you want to purchase and/or a list of things you already own. “Anytime you feel like you need to buy something that is non-essential, which is 99 percent of the things that we buy, write it down in the list and don’t buy it until the end of the month. You can very quickly stem your impulse-purchasing thing, right? … A big part of Bullet Journaling is to stop reacting to your thoughts and start responding. You basically just get into a habit of spending less money.”
  • Tracking your savings toward a specific goal. “Maybe you want to take a vacation … you can create a tracker that allows you to continuously save and then you can enjoy the act of actually updating that tracker. It’s like, ‘OK, I put another 25 bucks away for my trip to Montana.’ You have a visual kinesthetic way of engaging with your goals as opposed to seeing some read-out on an app, which is not necessarily a bad thing, but being able to color in that bar or check that box can be very motivating and help solidify your motivation.”
  • Tracking your expenditures. “There’s just unlimited ways to track your finances. Maybe you’re just tracking your expenditures every month. By writing them down, you are very aware of how you’re spending your money — and another thing is, chances are, you don’t want to be spending as much money because then you have to write it down.”

“Every to-do item,” Carroll said, “is an experience waiting to be born. So if you see it in that context, the to-do list all of sudden becomes like a time machine. It allows you to peek at the future that you’re looking to build. If that’s a future that you don’t want, then chances are you should probably address that in the now. If that is a future you do want, then you can be a lot more intentional about the steps that you’re taking toward those futures.”

When we start looking at what we really want and what we really need on an ongoing basis, he added, “it becomes a lot more focused and relevant so you can actually pipe your resources into something that is much more meaningful.”

More by Kirsten Akens

Kirsten Akens
Contributor for The Simple Dollar

Kirsten Akens is an award-winning journalist and editor based in Colorado Springs, Colo. In addition to her work for the The Simple Dollar, her bylines can be found in a variety of online and print publications, including O - the Oprah Magazine, People, and Lifehacker.

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