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Quick on the draw: adventures in bullet journaling

a hand drawn graphic of the world of bullet journaling

A few weeks ago I started a bullet journal. Does it lead me toward my goals or away from them?

Bullet list to bucket list

A lot of life’s big questions are hidden in daily life. They can be in street signs (Danger Ahead), heard in innocent observations by toddlers (“But why?”) or even in a breakfast cereal tagline (They’re always after me Lucky Charms). Even software wants you to grapple with your existence. The Format menu in Apple’s Pages is actually a list of existential choices:

  • Spacing: Are you Single or are Double(d)?
  • Bullets: Yes or no?
  • Alignment: Are you Centered? All-Right, All-Left? Justified?
  • Font: From whence do you draw your ________ (knowledge, strength, love, stress)?

The new year resolution promises a New You. This is the time of year we attempt to change out fates. We make plans. We write lists. 

Answering the call, many are ready to try yet another technique. Enter the bullet journal, folks! 

Coloring In

A bullet journal in essence is a hand-drawn, highly-customizable life planner.I started my bullet journal unceremoniously at the end of November.  A symbolic system exists to use in a bullet journal, but I chose to wing it rather than take 2 minutes to watch a video tutorial. 

I grabbed blank books from my stash. I wandered over to the Land of Misfit School Supplies (the china cabinet drawer) and took pencils, a 6-inch Scooby Doo ruler and a handful of worn out markers. I dusted off my unused stamps and scrapbooking stuff and dove in to the practice of jounaling bullets.

I stamped a graphic of a Christmassy mailbox on the first page and colored it in. I made a calendar for the week on the next two pages. I wrote down all the upcoming driving (of children to lessons and jobs and things), all appointments, and all fun plans. Each morning when I sat down to actually journal (write thoughts in a diary), I saw my week laid out in my (admittedly grade-school level) designs. Level me up one in organization skill. 

Come to Bujos

It was nice to see the week ahead, but I didn’t yet feel the force of the #bujo. True believers log their entire lives. They track episodes in a free-HBOGO-trial-til-February Westworld binge. They record chapters they read and showers they took and chia seeds they ate.

Those things are not #data. They log them anyway. 

PokémonGO logs my miles (nay, kilometers) as I walked. The Calm app green-circles meditation sessions and noted my “streak” (38 days in a row, currently). Is this not enough logging? I’m no Captain of the Starship Enterprise; my day needn’t be quantified so dearly. I am but a small speck in the universe who leaves a slight smell of shampoo in her wake. I do not leave a trail of data. Anyway, data doesn’t exist until you capture it.

I needn’t capture that much.

The few tasks I wanted to do daily (meditation, yoga, journal writing, a walk for exercise, a craft, and some fiction writing) are in a graphing-paper chart I made with squares to fill in. I added an extra column for “Saw friends” – to be checked off at the very least once a week (One must make efforts to see friends when one is adulting).

Every single day of December, with the simple goal to only observe myself, I filled in (or didn’t) the squares under each task. I nailed meditation (not wanting to interrupt the green circle streak) and missing only 1 day of picking up my knitting needles. The rest of the tasks had varying degrees of participation. The most empty column: fiction writing. And as for friends? I didn’t average even one face-to-face a week. In December, I saw exactly 2 friends. Sadly, this is typical. And simply unacceptable.

I came, I saw, I’m conquered

At the end of December, I had a chart filled with blank after blank. The sight helped me commit to real change in 2017.

I sped over to Pinterest for other #bujo ideas. The eye candy was endless. What else could I track? Pages read? Time spent brushing my teeth? How many shoes I tied? I could track everything! I could color in squares forever!

I could be coloring in squares forever.


Ready, Aim, Track

One can get caught up in tallying marks. Soon it become all about the tallies and not about doing the tasks.

Whats the point of tracking my knitting? Projects get done or they don’t. My reading? I’m not struggling to meet grad school requirements. My fiction writing? I finish projects or I don’t. The proof is in the hard-to-stomach publish or perish pudding, Kids, not the checkmarks.

I understand the pull of task tracking. Look up Jerry Seinfeld’s “Don’t break the chain” trick. It’s an old but good method of motivation, especially when fear, anxiety, or other obligations derail even the best of intentions.

But other data like TV shows watched, movies seen in theaters, eyebrow tweezing frequency? We must be careful not to get caught in the intoxicating lure of the easy fix. If we’re tracking trees, we’re losing sight of the forest. 

Daily bullet journals should track *real* life-changing goals, like how many times I: 

  • “Shut down the negative voice in my head.”
  • “Complemented instead of criticized my kid/spouse/employee/boss.”
  • “Took a deep breath before I spoke.”
  • “Revealed my true feelings by saying ‘I feel’ ____________.”
  • “Used ‘I’ statements instead of ‘You’ statements in an argument.”
  • “Said directly what I wanted instead of expecting others to know by now.”
  • “Talked through my anxiety and intrusive thoughts.”

These are the big life skills that matter. Yet I don’t see the bullet journalers diving deep into the mess that lays at the core of a disorganized life. Logging the little bits allows us to ignore the important in favor of the frivolous.

I’ll use a bullet journal to work on drawing skills and organize my week, but if I pick up a pen to write a story each time I’m tempted to chart vapor, I’ll be GOLDEN.


To see the original idea and be sold products: Bulletjournal.com/about

Dontbreakthechain.com – inspired by Jerry Seinfeld’s method

First banner photo by Sacha Chua on Flickr. All the other photos are mine, of my current bullet journal. I told you I draw like a gradeschooler. I’ll get better. Maybe. 

Nir Eyal has a happiness hack to keep friends close


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