Bullet journals: an analog organizer for today’s digital world

I originally wrote this story for the News & Observer. It was published January 6, 2017.

In an age when there’s an app for everything, pen, and paper organizers are where it’s at.

We’re not talking fancy expensive planners (although those are pretty popular these days too). One of the most popular ways to organize your life starts with a simple blank notebook and an equally simple system for keeping track of what you want to keep track of. It’s called the bullet journal.

The bullet journal is a calendar, a to-do list, a habit tracker, a place to write down your goals, plan a trip, budget your expenses, create meal plans, manage medical conditions, you name it. It can be as utilitarian or as creative as you want.

The analog design was created by Ryder Carroll, who, ironically, is a digital designer in Brooklyn, NY. Carroll’s concept relies on a simple process that is explained in detail on his website, bulletjournal.com.

Short lists allow you to keep track of tasks, events, appointments, and notes. Symbols signify what type of item you are tracking. A dot “.” marks tasks, dashes “-” are for notes, stars “*” for priorities, an open “o” for events, and arrows “>” if your task wasn’t completed and should be moved to another day.

To-do lists and notes can be tracked daily and monthly, and future logs let you plan for the months ahead. Thematic collections, such as planning an event, books you want to read, or a wishlist of clothes to buy, get their own pages. Each page is titled, numbered and tracked in the front-of-the-book index so you can easily find the information you once scribbled on a post-it note that you subsequently lost.

Carroll, 36, says the bullet journal structure came to him gradually, after spending years struggling to stay focused due to attention deficit disorder. He saw other people sharing ideas for free online, and thought he’d share his ideas for keeping notes with a few friends. “They found it really valuable,” he said. “It never occurred to me that the way I organized my mind would be helpful to others.”

His idea wasn’t just helpful; it spawned a huge online community that turned his practical system into an artful outlet of expression. Today, bullet journaling is the subject of countless blogs, YouTube videos, Pinterest and Instagram posts, which help newcomers get started and offer inspiration to the devoted. A Google search, or use of hashtags like #bulletjournal, #bulletjournalcommunity, #bujo, and #bujojunkies results in dozens of free templates, notebook and pen suggestions, downloadable trackers, motivational quotes, and artful representations of Carroll’s initial design. Bullet journal pages are embellished with colored pens, decorative crafting tape, stencils for creating page headers, fancy stickers, and intricate doodles.

Cameron Ingles, 22, a financial planner in Cary, started bullet journaling after discovering it on Instagram a few months ago. A recent college graduate, Ingles missed having an agenda to keep her organized. She says her bullet journal is “for all the things that squirrel around in your head when you’re trying to go to sleep at night.”

Ingles’ bullet journal includes her goals for 2017 and a gratitude page where she writes daily reflections on what she is grateful for. “It’s nice to look back on when you’re having a day when things are going the right way.”

Ingles’ also uses her journal to keep track of her running schedule. “I track how I was feeling on my run or what I ate and how I was feeling after.” She enjoys taking the time to make her pages pretty with doodles and designs. “It’s fun and relaxing,” she says. “It feels like a better use of my time than just watching TV. It feels a little more productive.”

Perri Kersh, a time management consultant and owner of Neat Freak Professional Organizing in Chapel Hill, says the physical process of putting pen to paper provides a different perspective on goals and to-do lists.  She believes one of the reasons bullet journaling has resonated with people “is because we’re spending so much time on our devices. It’s nice to take a break and have a different tool for managing our life and goals. It’s also a creative outlet. It gives people the opportunity to blend creativity with what would otherwise feel like drudgery. Most people wouldn’t say it’s exciting to write a to-do list, but when you do it in a creative way and make it more of an experience, it taps into people’s creativity.”

Kristl Yuen, a 34-year-old operations management specialist in Chapel Hill, says she likes that her bullet journaling gives her a “visual representation of my day.” She still uses a Google calendar, but “the bullet journal helps me get stuff done. Either the night before or the morning of, I look at my calendar and put everything in my bullet journal. At the end of each month, I do a memory page. I draw or write down the things I want to remember from that month so I have a quick snap shot.”

Capturing those moments in time is really what bullet journaling is all about, says Carroll. “The whole point of bullet journaling is to be mindful of your time. Some people make it beautiful for beauty’s sake. Some do it for a practical reason. They get joy out of the practice and that’s important. At the end of the day, the book should feel like your ally, not a chore. Start simply, understand the fundamentals, then allow your book to evolve into a reflection of yourself.”

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