Leadership

3 pieces of advice the bullet journal creator gave me to boost my productivity

Ryder Carroll's original, more minimalist Bullet Journal.
Bullet Journal
Ryder Carroll's original, more minimalist Bullet Journal.

Less than a week into starting a bullet journal, I failed at it.

There are nearly 1 million Instagram #bulletjournal posts, 642,000 YouTube videos and a seemingly endless scroll of Pinterest photos that visualize the concept of a bullet journal.

In its most basic form, a bullet journal is a customizable notebook you use to "track the past, organize the present and plan for the future," as its creator Ryder Carroll explains in his how-to video. Unlike a planner already printed with this year's calendar and lines to write daily notes in, you start a bullet journal from scratch (with nothing but blank pages).

I decided to create my own, hoping it would improve my time management skills, create balance between work, family and friends and better define the goals I aim to reach. After watching several video tutorials for a few hours, I spent another hour or so recreating the sections I thought were most useful.

Bullet Journal creator Ryder Carroll
Bullet Journal creator Ryder Carroll

So what went wrong? I met with Carroll to figure it out.

I've spoken with many people who feel discouraged about starting a bullet journal, for fear they lack the time or the artistic skill to maintain it. "Forget about what you see online," Carroll tells me. "It's not about how it looks, it's about how it feels and most importantly, how it works for you."

The goal of a bullet journal, he says, is to reduce complexity and provide clarity.

"We live in a world now where we are constantly inundated by information and we have very few refuges that we have built into our lives," Carroll says. He says a big part of bullet journaling is "creating a personal space ... to check in with yourself."

Carroll, now 37, developed bullet journaling as a note-taking method while dealing with his own learning disabilities as a kid. It not only helped him capture and organize all the thoughts crossing his mind, but it also helped him become a more structured person.

Though bullet journaling has evolved in the past few decades, Carroll says he views it as "a mindfulness practice that's disguised as a productivity system."

"Bullet journaling helps you de-clutter your mind in a very meaningful, consistent way," he says. "I feel like that's something we could all use a little bit more," he says.

Carroll looks on as I hesitantly flip through my decorated, yet barren, notebook and makes an observation. "Yeah, I mean, I'm feeling a lot of self-judgment about the book," Carroll he says. "The first step is to figure out how to reduce that. Part of the process is figuring out why is this is not helpful."

"If there's any takeaway, it's that you should be excited to come back to [your bullet journal], like that's your safe place," Carroll says.

After our chat, I took his recommendation and started on a clean page in my notebook. I'm also following three other pieces of advice to be more productive:

1. Be patient with yourself

"There are really only a handful of components to the bullet journal. I think a lot of people are intimidated by the fact that it's such a different way of taking notes," Carroll says. "The first thing is to be patient with yourself."

I, on the other hand, had become a little anxious about using my habit and expenses trackers.

In one way, the bullet journal was already proving effective — it helped me figure out what I did not feel ready to tackle.

My habit and expenses tracker seemed like great ideas until I shunned them.
My habit and expenses tracker seemed like great ideas until I shunned them.

"Bullet journaling allows you to check in with yourself on a regular basis and that is really important because you start identifying patterns like this job isn't working out," Carroll says.

He adds: "You don't feel as overwhelmed because you're taking all those things and putting them on paper, so you can actually work on them and it's not theoretical anymore."

Carroll instead encouraged me to step back, not worry about the templates and just write down tasks, ideas and notes as they came to mind.

2. Start with the basics

Carroll urges people to start with the basics and read his instructions first. My mistake here involved copying other people's bullet journal pages and not thinking through what would be most helpful for me.

My first attempt at a monthly spread! #bulletjournal #bujo

A post shared by Tabitha Wurst (@tabithawurst) on

"Do things that will actually have an impact on what you are trying to accomplish and what works for you," Carroll says.

With his own bullet journal, it's more about function than form.

"Perfection is your enemy with bullet journaling," Carroll says. "It's never about being perfect."

3. Balance your ambitions with reality

When looking at the days, weeks or year ahead, it's important to figure out the most valuable use of your time and how to go about those tasks, Carroll says.

"It's great to have ambitions that are really far out, but where are you right now? Where are you today and what are the problems that need to be addressed today?" he says.

My first Bullet Journal attempt, the future log gives the year's plans at a glance.
My first Bullet Journal attempt, the future log gives the year's plans at a glance.

Carroll recommends that you ask yourself, "What do I want to accomplish at work?", "What do I specifically need help with?", "What is the problem I want to solve?" and "Does this need to get done now?"

"Every one of these things gets put through this kind of micro-existential crucible," Carroll says, "Chances are most of the things that you're working on are not valuable."

This also creates space to be more productive at work.

You need to "reconcile your ambition with your 9-to-5 or 9-to-9 [job] in the case of New York," Carroll adds.

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