THE DRAW OF THE BLANK PAGE
Compiling lists, organizing tasks and rewarding your accomplishments by crossing things out in notebooks is the latest fad on social media
Kat Akerfeldt offered to host a workshop on how to write in a blank notebook. It sold out so fast she had to plan a second one. Akerfeldt is the assistant curator of Toronto’s First Post Office, a functioning bureau and museum operated by the Town of York Historical Society. The office still receives and sorts paper mail, so it’s not surprising Akerfeldt likes to deal with hard copies. But even she found it “amazing” she filled a room with people who wanted to learn about something called the Bullet Journal.
“The snowball has become enormous. There’s obviously a lot of interest,” Akerfeldt said.
She used to have lists and notebooks scattered all over: one for chores, 10K race times, weight goals, quilting progress, budgeting and day-to-day tasks. She tried different reminder apps. Lately, she’s combined everything into a single bullet journal.
“It’s easy to jot down all these little things and they add up to a big thing,” she said.
She described the bullet journal as a “rolling to-do list,” but it is, or can be, much more complex. Hence the workshop. The planner, journal and diary in one is a system of organization involving meticulous lists and bullet points for tasks, goals and events.
And it’s now a movement: a journal with a cult following, Pinterest pages, Facebook groups and even online celebrities within the #bujo community. (Yes, there’s a hashtag. There are many. Scroll #bulletjournaljunkies for organizational porn.)
Created by New York-based digital product designer Ryder Carroll in 2013, the method recently reached a critical mass of followers, inspiring a series of “what the hell is a Bullet Journal?”-type headlines.
The thing itself looks suspiciously familiar. You can use any notebook, though you can, of course, buy an official, branded one. Blank pages are filled with bullet points, dates and tasks, which are crossed out as they are accomplished — all of which sounds as intriguing as a Post-it note stuck to a fridge door.
But the essence of the bullet journal system is a system of brief entries — “rapid logging” — of daily events and tasks. At the end of the day or month, you scan for a bullet point that hasn’t been crossed out. This must either get “migrated” to the next month, your long-term “future log” or struck out if deemed unworthy of your time.
If it wasn’t worthy of your time, Carroll wants you to consider why.
“There really is a practice,” Carroll, 36, said in an interview. “The idea is that you create a habit of being mindful of your time and what you’re tasking yourself with.”
Carroll credits the system’s popularity with that factor.
“Because of the way it’s set up, it encourages you to get in touch with yourself,” he said. “The Internet is not a good place to go think.”
The last several years have brought an analog revival as millennials and their parents push back against an overwhelming technological culture: vinyl record sales have surged, adults are using colouring books and the now-ubiquitous Moleskine journal outlived the PalmPilot, which was released the same year.
Part of the massive value of that particular notebook, author David Sax wrote in his new book, The Revenge of Analog: Real Things and Why They Matter, is linked to its tangible identity: physical things engage the senses, fostering emotional connections that digital ephemera can’t provide. And research has shown that handwriting is better than typing for learning and memory, and that writing can itself be therapeutic.
Carroll’s YouTube instructional videos have been viewed more than four million times. Originally intended as an efficient, minimalist system, the bullet journal has swept across social media and encouraged fans to create and share customized, elaborate pages or “spreads,” many of which involve collages, line art, calligraphy, even watercolours, to organize all kinds of lifestyles.
At first Carroll rejected this idea, in case newbies found it overwhelming, but it’s how users found each other online. The Facebook group Bullet Journal Junkies has more than 68,000 members.
There’s now a group for every personality and pastime: bullet journaling for mental health; for sewing and crocheting; professionals, vegans, LGBT people, Christians, parents who home-school their kids; even those who are actually addicted to their bullet journal and seeking help.
For many, the journal has evolved into a habit tracker — did I drink enough water? Take 10,000 steps? What is my mood? — with the results shared online, as well as elaborate works of penmanship, season-appropriate doodles and endless spreads of food diaries, schedules, inspirational quotes and personal disclosures.
That’s how Cassie Owoc fills her pages. The 28-year-old college student, freelance writer and restaurant server discovered the bullet journal on Pinterest last year and swears it’s helped organize the many facets of her life.
“When I cross off a task, I feel much more productive and it makes me want to continue doing more tasks and crossing them off the list,” Owoc said. “It’s like a reward system, almost.”
Bullet journalists may get hooked when they see progress, which might explain its unlikely following.
“The popularity of the bullet system is somewhat surprising because it is quite complex,” said Daniel Levitin, psychology professor at McGill University and author of The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload.
A major draw might be “externalizing” a to-do list to allow the mind to work or to wander, he said.
“The flexibility of a blank notebook can help get your juices flowing more than would tapping everything out on a screen.”
Or it may be that bullet journalists have inadvertently adopted some key principles of cognitive and behavioural psychology and combined those with goal setting theory, said Dominique Morisano, clinical psychologist and assistant professor of public health at the University of Toronto.
Morisano often asks her own clients to start a journal to log their thoughts, behaviour and activity, noting intense emotional events and gratitude.
And though the bullet journal has been likened to Marie Kondo’s celebrated method of decluttering — the one that involves throwing out everything that fails to “spark joy” — but for the mind, Morisano said the fact goals can be “migrated” and not just discarded reduces the feeling of failure and encourages carrying on despite setbacks.
But as for whether dressing up a notebook just to share it online becomes an end itself, rather than a means, technology analyst Carmi Levy said balance is important whether using a bullet journal or something with a screen.
“If we spend so much time building the perfect bullet journal, tweaking it with excruciating attention and detail and flogging it relentlessly on social media, we risk diverting our attention from the very important life activities we had originally hoped to improve,” he said.
Kat Akerfeldt, assistant curator of Toronto’s First Post Office, has held workshops on Bullet Journals.
Kat Akerfeldt described the bullet journal as a “rolling to-do list,” but it is, or can be, much more complex.
Many people share their Bullet Journals on social media platforms such as Instagram. The journals can be filled with elaborate pages or “spreads.”