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Bullet Journaling (it doesn’t have to be pretty)

Last December, I went home for the holidays in a rough place. Despite having the job of my dreams (or, perhaps, because I had the job of my dreams), I was exhausted, burnt out, disillusioned, and burdened with a self-imposed ToDo list that felt never-ending. I was ready to quit, move home, pursue a stress-free life working at Whole Foods. Burn out is a thing, and it’s a pretty common thing to be afflicted with as a millennial, as many have written, but I couldn’t see a way out. But then I found Ryder Carroll’s the Bullet Journal Method.

More accurately, my dad recommended the Bullet Journal method to me. He was subtle about it at first. Over the Thanksgiving break, he mentioned the book, almost casually, and described how it had positively impacted his productivity and, more important, his stress levels. However, despite feeling desperately overwhelmed, I wrote his comments off and nodded dutifully, like a daughter should, as he described how it has positively impacted his life. I was glad he’d found something that worked for him, but I was pretty sure my system worked for me.

What was my system? Well, it was a completely electronic solution, where I used lists, through the wonderful app Wunderlist, to organize my projects and to break projects up into milestones. I also organized meetings and appointments using my Outlook calendar. Since starting a faculty position, I’d realized that my system of I’ll remember this, it’s important wasn’t working, so I used lists and my calendar to make sure nothing was dropping through the cracks. Yet, by Christmas 2018 things were dropping through the cracks, and my system of having all of my lists in one place, without organization according to timeliness and importance, was not working. For the first time in my life, I’d found that I was forgetting things. Sometimes, I hadn’t put them on a list because I’d forgotten or because I thought they weren’t important enough to warrant a ToDo (#FAIL). And when I opened my list of lists, there was so much there, it was often overwhelming. Building in deadlines using the app was helpful in theory, but it didn’t mean that the lists weren’t still all there in one place, constantly reminding me of the bigger picture without allowing me to focus in on the immediate–what I needed to do that day and that week.

I came back to Alabama, where I live, after Thanksgiving, but my overwhelming sense of pressure just increased. I got sick, then sicker, and when I returned home for the holiday break, I couldn’t face anything that had to do with work. I was in a dark place, and I didn’t think I could return to Alabama (although I knew I must). This time, my dad was a bit more aggressive when he talked about the Bullet Journal Method. But I didn’t get that what I was feeling might be related to the fact that my system wasn’t working for me. I was too wedded to my app that synced between all of my devices, and learning a new system felt too overwhelming. In retrospect, it’s good that I didn’t know about the more popularly known side of Bullet Journaling that focuses on making beautiful and artistic layouts. The pressure to make my Bullet Journal pretty would have been way too much for me to overcome and would have been an obstacle that kept me from giving the BJ method a try.

But, my dad persisted. And, finally, he said, “humor your old man—give bullet journaling a chance—if it doesn’t work after a few month, no hard feelings. But if you’ll try it, I’ll buy you the method book and your first journal.” My plan was to take the entire break off of work, anyway, and more importantly, I couldn’t say no to my father, so I said I’d give it a try. Three months, I told myself and others. Three months, and then I’d go back to my original system. I started reading the book, and got to work.

At first, the system was overwhelming. I had to learn a new system of organization and adapt to carrying a journal with me everywhere. The burden of writing by hand every day seemed really hard, but like everything in life I wanted to change, I knew I needed to take it one day at a time. While I’d resolved to start it in 2019, I couldn’t wait a week to crack open the journal because I wanted to write down what I was learning as I was reading, so I started with my first monthly, December 2018. I started with a yearly plan for 2019, writing down everything I knew that I needed to do over the next year at the front of my bullet journal. Next, I started my first monthly, for January, where I wrote down everything I needed to get done in January 2019. Then, I built my first weekly and started my first dailies. Much of this early work involved transferring things from my Wunderlist lists to my journal, and while that could have been frustrating, it actually felt productive. I was moving the book deadline to its deserved place in December and breaking the project milestones into their respective months. This meant that these projects and deadlines were safely in a place where I’d come to it when it was time. As a result, I wasn’t worrying about forgetting those projects and what I needed to do to finish them, but I also wasn’t facing them every day. That felt really good.

I also found that, through the dailies and weeklies, I was writing down some of the monotonous tasks that I thought were too I significant to warrant their own list. I added things like “put gas in my car” and “make bran muffins” on my dailies (or, in cases where meal prepping or driving weren’t needed), I added them later in the week. This way, I knew I wouldn’t forget, but I also didn’t have the pressure to do them now since I didn’t need them for a few days. The method book provides details on how to all of these things are more.

I returned to Alabama and, within a few weeks, found that I liked this system. In my voracious reading of the internets, I’d stumbled upon the brand of bullet journaling that focused on making pretty and beautiful spreads, but I’d rejected them without question. That wasn’t what I needed my BJ for. My students commented on the journal that now accompanied me to class, and I explained that I was just trying this for a few months to humor my father. But, by the end of February, I was sold. Within two months, my stress levels were down, my productivity was up, and I had a place to put my little tasks and my anxieties instead of letting them roll around my head. While I started using the Bullet Journal method to manage my tasks, I found it was also a helpful way to organize my life and meetings notes in one place (no multiple journals for different classes and trainings). Since I used the index to organize which notes could be found where, I didn’t need to find new places to put things. Everything, work and non-work, was organized in one place. I also found it immensely helpful, when I was overwhelmed, to write down using dashes what I was feeling. Relieved of the pressure to write in complete sentences, I used dashes to write what I was feeling and explore, when possible, why I was feeling that way. That quick and easily accessible method of journaling my feelings felt good, and I found myself working through things I’d let fester for years. Within two months, I was sold. Within three months, I felt like a different person.

Now, I should clarify that I did the work, too. Since I’d committed to my father that I’d go all in, I did all of the things recommended in the Method book. It was hard, and I still have the same challenges that faced me last year. I am just responding to them and proactively planning for them differently. I work in a very stressful field, and my ToDo list is never ending. I’m still prone to be overwhelmed and burdened with the pressure put on women to appear like I have it all in control. But it all feels manageable now. It’s been over a year, and I’ve just started my third journal (my first and second are full). I have figured out a system that works for me – the BJ method is customizable, so everyone’s application of the method will work a little differently according to their needs. I do still organize my calendar using Outlook- I need a place to put all of my meetings and travel where others can see it before they add meetings to my calendar. Some things I stopped doing. For example, in an attempt to manage my debt, I had started logging every penny I spent, but that became too overwhelming, and I’d started to get anxiety about creating those lists every month. I am still working out how to manage that stress, and I’ll let you know what I learn.

A year later, I’m 100% in. Bullet Journaling saved my life. It’s not a substitute for mental health care, of course, but for me, this approach has helped me to find my life and my commitments to be exciting again, instead of overwhelming burdens. I’ve also shared this forward, first to my students who were struggling with being overwhelmed, and, most recently, with my sister. I said something to her that was very similar to what my dad said to me—”will you just give this a chance?” She has, and I’m hopeful it’ll be as helpful to her as it was for me.

In terms of materials, I use a basic pen (I write in red ink), and I love the beautify and substantive nature of the Dingbats Earth journals. They are set up for Bullet Journaling, and if you use this link, you’ll get 10% off (and I’ll get a discount on my next journal). If you’re feeling overwhelmed, give it a chance. It might actually change your life. It did for me.

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