The Tech-Savvy To-Do List: A Bullet Journal

Fed up with apps, people embrace writing lists in a plain old notebook

The Bullet Journal uses dashes, dots and signs to organize events and tasks.
The Bullet Journal uses dashes, dots and signs to organize events and tasks. PHOTO: RYDER CARROLL/BULLET JOURNAL

People who have tried and given up countless online calendars and list-making apps are making the Bullet Journal—a way of organizing and writing lists in a plain old notebook—a hit. The journal helps organize everything from big work projects to the children’s activities in a notebook and appeals to people who use their cellphones for everything else in their lives.

Its devotees call it something between a diary, a wish list and a to-do list. It isn’t fancy; it isn’t technological, but that is the point. The act of writing something down, as opposed to interacting with a screen, helps people stay and feel organized.

“I was bouncing between apps,” says Kim Alvarez, a bullet journalist from San Diego. “Moving the things I had to do around. There was no accountability.”

Jady Carmichael likes to leave her journal open on her desk at night.
Jady Carmichael likes to leave her journal open on her desk at night. PHOTO: JADY CARMICHAEL/GREENISHPLANNING

Bullet journalists, as they call themselves, say the journal helps them improve productivity, reduce stress and sleep better. It frees up mental space and simplifies life, they say. It was created by Brooklyn, N.Y.-based digital designer Ryder Carroll, 36. Four million people have watched his how-to videos on YouTube and on the Bullet Journal site. The Leuchtturm1917, the hardcover official notebook, is sold out until November.

“The Bullet journal requires effort. But the effort is critical because it is investment in itself,” says Mr. Carroll “It is a practice.”

Mr. Carroll says he spent 20 years working on the concept, which he launched three years ago. As a child with Attention Deficit Disorder, he was told to take notes to improve focus, but was never instructed on how to organize them. Today he is working to turn the Bullet Journal into a full fledged company. He is the lead designer at Idean in New York City, designing interfaces for digital apps.

He loves Instagram and Spotify and uses Google’s calendar to coordinate with other people. “I’m not against technology in any way,” he says. “That would be hypocritical.”

Ryder Carroll, the 36-year-old creator of the Bullet Journal, says he spent 20 years working on the concept. As a child with Attention Deficit Disorder, he was told to take notes to improve focus, but was never instructed on how to organize them. Today he is working to turn the Bullet Journal into a company. He is the lead designer at Idean in New York City, designing interfaces for digital apps.

Ryder Carroll, the 36-year-old creator of the Bullet Journal, says he spent 20 years working on the concept. As a child with Attention Deficit Disorder, he was told to take notes to improve focus, but was never instructed on how to organize them. Today he is working to turn the Bullet Journal into a company. He is the lead designer at Idean in New York City, designing interfaces for digital apps. PHOTO: RYDER CARROLL/BULLET JOURNAL

 

The journal works on the principle that nothing, not an idea, a hope, an appointment or an accomplishment, need be lost if you write it down. First you go out and buy a good notebook that will last. You create an index on the first pages. Then you title and number a page a little farther on. You start writing tasks and events. Events are represented by an “O” bullet. Tasks are a dot. When tasks are completed the dot is turned to an x. If they are not completed they become a > which means they are moved to a new to-do list. If the task is scheduled—for example, “call Mike about dinner” becomes, “dinner next week with Mike”—it becomes a <.

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 a dash in front of it. Is it a particularly brilliant thought? Add an exclamation point before the dash.

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

Jady Carmichael, a water resources graduate student in Madison, Wis., began bullet journaling in April of this year when her class and work schedules overwhelmed her. She had been using Google calendar and a weekly print calendar to organize her life but it wasn’t working.

Ernest Gonzalez keeps both a work and personal Bullet Journal.

Ernest Gonzalez keeps both a work and personal Bullet Journal. PHOTO: ERNEST GONZALEZ

“I put too many things on my to-do list and I felt discouraged at end of the day and the week. All these things that didn’t end up happening,” she says.

Writing in the bullet journal required more effort so she was careful about what she put on the list. Priorities came into focus. She now works on the journal half an hour before she goes to bed using it to track not just work and school, but eating habits and exercise. In the morning she flips through its pages as she drinks coffee. She carries it with her everywhere.

Gonzalez says he likes to plan and doodle in his Bullet Journal.
Gonzalez says he likes to plan and doodle in his Bullet Journal. PHOTO: ERNEST GONZALEZ

“Planning your life shouldn’t feel like work,” she says. “It should be fun.”

Tim Pychyl an associate professor of psychology at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada, says studies have shown that students who 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 process the information.

He also says the emotional component to list-making is important. When you get on an app and plan too far ahead it can create anxiety.

“Lists help calm us down. At least a short list does that,” he says.

Moleskine, a Milan-based company that revived the traditional leather bound notebook in 1997, has seen a doubling in revenues over the last five years. Many of its users are millennials who are enthusiastic consumers of digital products. Co-founder Maria Sebregondi says even the most plugged-in people find it comforting to create their own designs.

“Handwriting is totally personal. Every time you write it’s different from any other moment,” she says.

It has become popular among users to post photos on social media of their logs and color-coded list designs. There are over 250,000 Bullet Journal posts on Instagram.

Mr. Carroll says the practice should take the least amount of time possible. Five minutes in the morning and five minutes in the evening should do it.

An entry from Jady Carmichael’s journal. She uses Staedtler Triplus Fineliners and Sakura Pigma Microns pens to design her pages. ENLARGE
An entry from Jady Carmichael’s journal. She uses Staedtler Triplus Fineliners and Sakura Pigma Microns pens to design her pages. PHOTO: JADY CARMICHAEL/GREENISHPLANNING

Ernest Gonzalez is a sales manager at an AutoZone in Houston. He says he spent most of 2015 trying to “get away from his cellphone” by reducing pings and alerts. He found the Bullet Journal online and watched the video several times before making an attempt. Later he discovered his college-aged daughters also were using it.

“This was bigger than finding something to write on paper. I needed a life check,” he says. “What did I do three months ago? What are my goals?”

Now he keeps two journals, one for work and one for home. His home journal is devoted to daily tasks like feeding the cat and planning vacations. His work journal is filled with sales goals and client information. He will note things like “she prefers morning calls,” and “he like hats, ” about the people he does business with.

He says he spends 5-10 minutes on the Bullet Journal during a regular workday and rarely leaves it behind, even on vacation.

“If I have a day off, I’ll take it with me on a bike ride. I’m on it all day. Doodle. Perfect my manuscript. Practice handwriting. You go to a coffee shop and everyone is on laptops. I’m on my Bullet Journal.”