September 10, 2016

KaPow! Bullet Journals

I tried and gave up looking for a way to organize my life using countless calendars and later, list making apps.

Bullet journals are a way of organizing and writing lists in a plain old notebook. I discovered it in law school and recently, judging by the number of articles, it is a hit.

They help organize everything from big work projects to minor activities in one notebook. It appeals to me since I use my smartphone for just about everything else in my life.

It isn’t fancy; it isn’t technological, but that is the point. The act of writing something down, as I have oft told my very creative sister, as opposed to interacting with a screen, helps one stay focus and feel organized. It even frees up mental space and simplifies my life. The biggest proponent of bullet journals is the noted author, Ryder Carroll. Four million people have watched his YouTube How-to videos.

The journal works on the principle that nothing, not an idea, a hope, an appointment, need be lost if you write it down. First you go out and buy a good notebook that will last. I prefer the Day-Timer series of notebooks and reference journals. First you start writing tasks and events. Events are represented by an “O” bullet. I use a highlighter with different colors for work, fire department, school, personal and action items. When tasks are completed, a check mark goes on.

From there, more layers of complexity are added, monthly logs and future logs. Subject logs around projects. Have a thought? Write it down as a note with an exclamation point in front of it. Is it particularly pithy or brilliant? Enclose the topic word in an open star.

The system requires you to go back and look at and rewrite tasks over and over again. There is a crucial difference with digital to-do lists because it requires reflection. If you have written down “Call Penny” three times, and the idea of writing down “Call Penny” again makes you ill, it might be time to consider not calling Penny.

My original efforts at keeping track of work schedules overwhelmed me in law school. I had been using an academic calendar to organize my life but it wasn’t working.  I put too many things on my to-do list and I felt discouraged at the end of the day and the week. All these things that didn’t end up happening.

Wring in my bullet journal required more effort so I was careful about what I put on the list. Priorities came into focus. I now work on my journal for a half hour before going to bed using it to track not just work and school but eating habits and exercise. In the morning I flip through the pages as I drink my coffee. I carry it with me everywhere. Planning your life should not feel like work, it should be fun.

I read an article from Carleton University that said studies have shown that students that take notes remember more of the lecture than students who type notes. The same principle applies to analog versus digital to-do lists. Writing things down requires the listener to process the information. I believe that there is an emotional component to list-making. When you get on an app and plan too far ahead, it can create anxiety. Handwriting is totally personal. Every time you write it’s different from any other moment.


Go to a Starbucks and everyone is on laptops or smartphones. I’m in my Bullet Journal.

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