The Bullet Journal Method // by Ryder Carroll

Track the Past
Order the Present
Design the Future

//published 2018//

So depending on how much you’re into discovering new ways to organize your life and time, you may or may not have heard of the bullet journal method.  It’s kind of intriguing to me, because it’s one of those things that has taken on a life of it’s own.  If you search “Bullet Journal” on Pinterest right now, you’ll find thousands of pictures, none of which look anything alike.  So what, exactly, is a bullet journal?

(I’m realizing as I’m rereading this before posting that this review may be just as much or even more about the action of bullet journaling/my personal journaling methods as it is about the book itself haha  Also, this post got absurdly long, but you’ll have that when you’re as passionate about journaling as I am!)

Well, the theoretical founder of the bullet journal movement, who for some reason is only just now publishing a book despite the fact that his website was launched years ago and the whole thing has become ridiculously popular, has released a book explaining the ins and outs of the method.  You can also check out his website if you’re interested, as it does have a lot of the basic concepts covered in the book.

The basic concept is that instead of having lots of notes and calendars and to-do lists and projects scattered hither and yon, you get one journal and put everything in it.  Carroll does this by using the building blocks of what he calls a Daily Log, a Monthly Log, a Future Log, and an Index, combined with Collections.  So basically you set up your notebook by creating an Index on the first few pages, where you will note where to find everything except for Daily Logs (since those are already going to be in order and will also be quite numerous).  Next, you create a two-page spread with blocks for all twelve months of the year – this is your Future Log, and any time you think of something that needs to be addressed later, you write it down there (so if you’re a gardener like me and you want to remember to have hyacinths blooming next spring, you’d put “Plant Hyacinth bulbs” in October’s block).  Every month you make some kind of master list of things that need to happen that month (there are various ways of doing this), and the first thing you’ll do is check your Future Log and see what you had written there (so when September rolls around and I’m making my Monthly Log, “Plant Hyacinth bulbs” gets moved to the Monthly Log).  Finally, every day you spend a few minutes in the morning creating a to-do list for the day, and at the end of the day you spend a few minutes reviewing the day.

In between all this, if you have other things you need to track, you create Collections.  These get noted in the Index so you can later find the notes you were making about your 2019 Vacation Plans or Possible Sources for Tomato Plants or whatever.  Carroll encourages you to create Collections for everything in analog form in your Bullet Journal.  One of the concepts is that by writing things down – and then re writing them down when moving them to a different list (things you didn’t complete in your Daily Log get moved to the next day; moving things from the Future Log to the Monthly Log, etc.), you start to assess how important things really are.  If you’ve transferred a to-do task for five days straight without actually completing it, copying it the sixth time will give you a moment to pause and think Does this really need to get done?  Theoretically, this will help you winnow out useless, low-priority tasks.

SO all of this sounds well and good, and I can see this method working for a lot of people, mainly because it’s very modular and flexible.  However, I think that Carroll gets a little carried away sometimes.  Around here, there’s a place called The Good Feet Store, and they have these absurd testimonial commercials on the radio where people talk about how they were literally in tears every day from agonizing pain but when they went to The Good Feet Store, they were fitted with shoes that have changed their lives and now all they do is dance and frolic all day (pain free) whilst handing out tracts for The Good Feet Store. The point is, at times I felt like Carroll was venturing into The Good Feet Store territory with his promises that having a Bullet Journal would completely clear your mind!  Organize your life!  Help you achieve your goals!  Lift you out of your depression!  Help you grow closer to your romantic partner!  Get you a promotion/raise in your job!  Relieve you of all your stress!  He includes testimonies from people who were on the verge of divorce but now aren’t, one whose son’s life was literally saved because he had a medication list in his bujo, a woman who was pulled from the brink of a nervous breakdown and now lives of a life of calm control.  I mean… it’s a good system, but at the end of the day, it’s still just a notebook.

//The Weekly Planning List that I use//

I also felt like Carroll was extremely dismissive of any and all other systems.  Personally, I do have a pseudo-bullet journal method.  I have a notebook where I keep daily logs, and I do find them very helpful.  I have a weekly task list I use, and I like having my to-do list and journal all in one place.  I’ve always been a strong journaler, and I think Carroll is correct in saying that writing things down really is therapeutic and can help you work through problems.  Writing it out by hand, as opposed to typing, also can be helpful in many ways.  I also love the way that I can tape other odds and ends into my journal so they are there forever.  For instance, this year I put our Christmas cards into my bujo.  I also stick other random notes from people, ticket stubs, artwork from my nieces, etc., in as well.  It’s a great way to take care of those special pieces of paper that otherwise just get stuffed into a drawer.

But Carroll acts like having a bujo means you can just stop all other methods of tracking things, or that all other methods are pretty inferior, and I just don’t think that’s true. There are a lot of things that I track via spreadsheet.  I LOVE SPREADSHEETS.  When it comes to gigantic lists of information that I can easily access, sort, and sift, nothing beats a spreadsheet. I think the bujo method is great for small and medium sized projects, but for some things, writing it out by hand is not the most efficient method.

For instance, this year I’ve decided to start personally tracking all the books I read.  I’ve been writing the date, title, author, year published, number of pages, format, source, rating, whether it’s part of a series, whether or not it was on my TBR, whether it’s a reread, and what genre(s) it belongs to.  Could I be keeping this list in my bujo, where I would have it forever and it would be cool because it would be in the midst of that section of my life’s to-do lists and journal entries?  Yes, I absolutely could, and that would be nifty BUT by having it on a spreadsheet, I can easily search by different key words, sum up my total pages, average my star ratings for the month, determine how many books I’ve read within a certain genre, etc. – all tasks that would be much more difficult and convoluted if I was pulling the information out of my bujo analog.  I also use spreadsheets for tracking multiple things in my Etsy shop (I have several different spreadsheets for different things), plus my TBR.  In short, I love spreadsheets!!!

//Here is a sample of my normal daily layout. If I have time on the weekend, I’ll put stickers/washi tape on 3-4 pages, and then write around them throughout the week. A lot of times I don’t really have time for that, and I just stick with using colored pens to add some interest. Ironically, even though I make notebooks, for my main personal bujo I use a grid-lined composition book.//

And I say all this as someone who actually loves tracking/writing analog as well.  It’s usually where I start when I’m trying to figure something out, because nothing beats drawing lines and arrows and circles to help sift through information.  I just don’t think that writing everything down by hand is the magical answer to all of life’s problems!

The other thing is that I don’t necessarily want or need everything in one place as Carroll insists should happen.  My husband and I have a little budget meeting every week, because he’s paid weekly, and every week a different amount of money is coming in.  I have a budget book and I write it all out by hand because that’s the easiest way to set everything up.  However, I don’t need to carry around our weekly budget meeting notes in my daily bujo.  It’s much simpler for the budget to have its own notebook, not least because we like to reference back through past weeks to see where the money is coming and going – something that would be much more awkward if budget pages were just scattered throughout my daily log.

//Traveler’s Notebook from The Leather Quill Shoppe – my sister and I both own TNs from their shop, and they are beautiful quality!!//

My sister has thoroughly embraced the Traveler’s Notebook version of the bujo.  A Traveler’s Notebook is basically a leather or cloth cover that has several elastic bands in the spine.  You purchase smaller notebooks and slip them into the elastic bands to hold them into the Traveler’s Notebook.  Each notebook can become its own thing, and when one notebook is full, or you aren’t really using it any more, you just take it out and replace it with something else.  I was completely enamored with this method when I first heard of it, and still use a variation of it to this day.  It also inspired me to start my own Etsy shop, where I make notebooks that people use in their Traveler’s Notebooks.  (Okay, so that’s partially true.  The MAIN reason is because it justifies my love for purchasing beautiful paper!!!)  Like I said, my sister loves this method.  She prefers to have separate notebooks for separate things.  She has one that she uses for her daily to-do lists, one that’s a calendar, one that has financial stuff, one that’s a sketchbook, one that has vacation ideas and plans, etc.  If she is going somewhere, she takes whichever notebooks she’ll actually need that day, and swaps them out whenever she feels like it.  She also enjoys having different notebooks with different covers.  She’s even updated her system to have two TNs – one that’s cloth that she keeps in purse with her most regularly used notebooks, and a leather one she keeps at home that has a lot of her journal-type notebooks.

All that to say, Carroll didn’t even touch on that as a possibility.  Part of that is because he is selling his personal Bullet Journals, so I suppose encouraging people in the Traveler’s Notebook method would cut back on that, but I think part of it is because he genuinely believes that his method is THE only way to really organize your life.

A final note on the book itself – it was just a little too self-helpy for me.  When I read a book about journaling and organizing, I don’t also need a lot of information on the importance of reflecting on my life and letting go of anger and spending time in quiet meditation.  I skimmed chunks of this book where Carroll was just going on and on and on about how journaling will make you feel more relaxed and contented etc etc etc.  He really acted like everyone out there is just struggling through a life of chaos that can only be cured by using a Bullet Journal!

In the end, this wasn’t a bad book.  There’s a lot of good information, and I think the Bullet Journal system does have a great deal to recommend itself.  It can be a very useful tool in organizing your day-to-day life.  However, I think that Carroll has embraced this method with an almost religious fervor.  While a bujo can help you feel more in control, ultimately it won’t actually solve any of your problems.  There are also other methods, and hybrid methods, that work just as well, or, in some situations, better, but I never felt like Carroll acknowledged that.

I love my bujo-ish methods, and think it can be a great place to start. I also obviously LOVE talking about journaling and notebooks and paper and writing utensils so if you want to chat about these things, feel free to talk away!!

A final note – I read another book about bullet journaling a couple of years ago (except she had to call it Dot Journaling because I think Carroll has technically copywritten Bullet Journal) that was just as useful as Carroll’s book, and a lot more colorful.  It’s just another example of how there are a LOT of ways to incorporate a listing method into your life, and I think the author of the Dot Journal book actually did a better job of explaining how there are many, many different ways this can look.  On the other hand, Carroll does somewhat acknowledge that what he’s presenting is a place to start.

If you’re intrigued by the concept of Bullet Journaling, check out Carroll’s website, and if it looks like something you might be able to use, by all means pick up this book.  Just keep in mind that journaling is a tool, not a miracle!