Since launching five years ago in August 2013 as a simple website with a tutorial video and step by step instructions for one man’s personal to-do list system, the Bullet Journal gained a cult following and has grown into something resembling a full-on lifestyle brand. Blogs and tutorials about the Bullet Journal proliferate and a Bullet Journal book entitled The Bullet Journal Method, “about much more than organizing your notes and to-do lists. It’s about… “intentional living”’, is currently available for pre-order.
The Bullet Journal technique, in its original form, essentially amps up the power of the old-fashioned to-do list while doing away with the pre-made structure and unnecessary features of regular day planners. Starter instructions are widely available, but essentially the Bullet Journal uses different logs to track events, deadlines and tasks over periods of time and different symbols to indicate the type of note (task, event, note) and its status (completed, scheduled, migrated to another log.)
The intention of the Bullet Journal technique is that it is flexible and customizable. Users can develop their own modules and logs for different projects and aspects of their lives, or even eschew the simple list format in favour of increasingly elaborate, stylized and even decorated layouts. Despite its minimalist origins, the Bullet Journal has spawned countless blogs and social media accounts dedicated to showing off elaborate, colour-coded, washi-taped spread and #bujoinspiration.
Five years after its launch, the “BuJo” remains popular, but how does it hold up as a basic organizational tool for busy people with multiple projects and tasks on the go? I used a Bullet Journal for eight months, filling two notebooks, before receiving a traditional 2018 day planner as a gift that I couldn’t bear to let go to waste. Having now used that standard day planner for about six months, I can see pros and cons to the Bullet Journal method.
Minimalism and flexibility – The system’s basis in simple to-do lists organized by symbol minimizes clutter on the page and does away with unnecessary features. That same minimalism lets you build in layouts, modules and logs as and where you need them. If, like me, you have a very specific Moleskin planner that you buy every year because other planners’ layouts are just wrong, then the ability to design and customize your own daily, weekly and monthly layouts is the big appeal of the Bullet Journal.
Efficiency – The Bullet Journal grows and shrinks with your current projects. If you have a very busy day or week, there’s room for that. If you have a quiet month, you won’t be left with blank pages. If you need an entire module dedicated to a specific project, you can build one in and then stop adding it when the project finishes.
Everything in One Place – My favourite thing about the Bullet Journal, aside from the flexible layouts, was that I could design recurring modules for different aspects of my life. Every month I would make a monthly log for events and tasks and a workout log for tracking health and fitness, followed by my weekly logs and interspersed with daily logs and even old-fashioned freeform journaling as a needed. This let me keep track of different aspects of my life in a compartmentalized way, but alongside each other, rather than jumping from notebook to day planner to an app.
Time Consuming – Bullet Journaling is supposed to be quick, easy and simple, but the appeal of customization and the impulse to track and log everything can take over at the expense of productivity and the time management you were intending to achieve by starting a Bullet Journal to start with! Of course, if you consider Bullet Journaling to be a hobby, craft or ritual, then this time-consuming quality is just part of its pleasure.
Lifestyle Brand – The cult-following, lifestyle guru feel that the original Bullet Journal website (now brand) and the media surrounding it have taken on might be off putting for people who just want some organization tips, not an entire “practice”.
A Planner for Organized People – My experience with the Bullet Journal system is that it is good people who enjoy the process of organization and time management and are probably good at it to start with. Using the Bullet Journal as a planner to track deadlines and future events takes a degree of organization and commitment that a regular, pre-structured planner simply doesn’t. That said, the creator of the Bullet Journal, Ryder Caroll, says that the Bullet Journal grew out of techniques that he developed to cope with a learning disability that made focusing difficult. He needed a way to capture ideas and information very quickly during short bursts of focus. I am a big planner and organizer, so I built a lot of structure into my Bullet Journal. A less structured approach, based more on Ryder’s “Rapid Logging” technique, for example, might serve other ways of thinking much better.
I very much enjoyed using a Bullet Journal. Setting up my weekly lay out on Sunday night became a ritual that helped me feel grounded and in control. As my life gets busier I can see that my traditional planner is more efficient is seems to work quite well, but I continue to keep a dotted-grid notebook with me alongside that planner to notes, project planning and long-term to-do lists. In 2019 I will probably return to the Bullet Journal, but perhaps in a simplified form.
Elisabeth Hill is an Edmonton-based writer and researcher who currently works as a Curatorial Assistant at the Art Gallery of Alberta.