In May 2016, I found myself staring at a crisis of productivity and confidence. For the past 10 months, I had worked at an early stage start-up, building a product I truly believed in. Our small, enterprising team was stretched for both funds and time. My days passed with very little control over my schedule and far too many demands to meet. Eventually, our financial situation forced us to shut shop. There I was – disappointed, burnt out, and disillusioned.
Now that I had no deadlines, I had all day to stay in, binge-watch Netflix and lose all sense of purpose and urgency. But under the surface of this new non-routine, I was burning with worry. As time passed, I was getting less and less done. I was losing control over my time, motivation, and worst of all, losing hope for the future. Desperate, I took on a few freelance projects which kept me engaged, but didn’t answer the tough questions I had been avoiding – What was next? What kind of career and life did I want? How was I supposed to get there?
This was when I first heard about bullet journal. At first, I was sceptical. I had tried productivity systems before and they had all ended the same way – I abandoned them after the initial excitement fizzled out. But the bullet journal looked very different from other systems – it seemed simpler and could be tweaked to work for you, as opposed to systems that made you work for them.
How it works
I began my journal one July morning, when I finally decided I wanted to live the life I had always imagined for myself – busy, full and satisfying. To describe it simply, a bullet journal is a simple analog system: you use a pen and a notebook (not an app, so less time spent staring at a screen) to put down tasks every day, namely things that need to be done, things you have accomplished and what needs more work (and time). There are four essential parts of the bullet journal: an index to keep track of where to find each log, the Future Log for your goals, a Monthly Log and Daily Log. You keep entries small (like bullet points) and regular.
With every day of bullet journaling, I chipped away at my fears and worries. I gave myself a real break and took a solo trip outside the country, using the journal to manage my resistance to paperwork and planning trips. I committed to a year-long art project, building the courage to show my work no matter how imperfect it felt. I was finally doing the things I wanted to. Seeing these journeys (from idea to reality) on paper was motivation enough to keep on bullet journaling and soon, I was hooked. I missed plenty of days, but I kept going back because I craved the structure it brought.
Each of these sections does one crucial thing – break large goals down into smaller, achievable parts. Planning to write a book in December 2017? Put that in your Future Log. Hope to write at least one chapter for it this month? That goes in your Monthly Log. Need to write three pages per day to have that chapter ready? Make note in your Daily Log. Have a bunch of feelings and ideas for your chapters? Create a collection of them and note it in the Index.
I started with planning my days the night before, but with time, I noticed that this didn’t work for me. I was tired when I planned my day, or more likely to overestimate what I could do. This would set off another cycle of disappointment where I would get things done, but record them poorly, forget things, end up postponing tasks I could easily have finished. Soon, I settled into the sweet routine of planning my daily tasks in the morning and making daily notes before I went to bed.
My bullet journal became the receptacle of all my thoughts – angry, sad, celebratory – went to the bank. It also helped me put down the big questions I had been avoiding and find solutions for them, bit by bit. Soon, I began doing more with my day. Learning a new language (Korean), reading more frequently, taking online courses (and completing them) and most importantly, researching my future plans. I wasn’t ruminating over unfinished plans all day anymore, I was transferring these thoughts out on paper. This helped declutter my headspace, leaving it free to be present where I needed to be. (As an aside, it turns out that if you record yourself overthinking things, or whining, you will also, at some point, chide yourself for being too dramatic and course-correct.)
Why it works
The bullet journal is more than simply noting tasks down: the practice of migration, or reviewing your entries, moving tasks to the future or dismissing them if they no longer interest you, helps you assess your goals and focus, without that vague feeling of dread that accompanies pending tasks. I experimented with setting themes for each month and under my Monthly Log. The theme for January, for instance, was to be mindful of my health and rest after a particularly gruelling December. Being aware of this theme helped me weave associated tasks into my day.
It is immensely energising to see, in your own handwriting, what you have achieved, learnt, adapted to, imagined, and lived through in the past month. Planning each month is an informed, motivated step forward. It is what entrepreneurs dream of – growing with data. It also helps me achieve the yogic gold standard of mindfulness, focusing on what I could do today, for my future self. This is an important lesson the bullet journal teaches: don’t mock your goals, encourage them.
Your bullet journal can be as functional or as detailed as you want to make it – creating elaborate spreads relaxes some, others like minimal fuss. Unlike the rigid structure of an app, it lets you choose what works best. I added an “Ideas Spread” to build a pipeline of future projects – completing, re-scheduling or striking out as I moved along. This spread helped me stay on track and not get distracted by every other exciting idea.
Many friends have used the journal to find coping mechanisms for anxiety and self-doubt and track their emotional and mental health. Everyone has reported feeling calmer once they unplug and put pen to paper. The bullet journal goes beyond conventional journaling, by infusing just the right amount of structure to your day.
The bullet journal revealed to me the power of purpose and putting in the work. Knowing that you are actively crafting your narrative not only lends meaning to the work you do every day, but builds self-confidence. I learnt to stay calm when plans went awry. It helped me recognise self-sabotaging patterns and modify them gently, make grand plans and bold decisions and stick to them. It has helped me create time for fun and side projects, and by building a flexible routine, has given me what I craved most: the good kind of busy.