Bullet journaling

Use it for accountability and creativity

It's the time of year when many people make goals to shed undesirable habits and encourage healthy behaviors, and meeting a buddy at the gym or a meditation class can provide accountability. However, a pandemic restricting indoor activities and social gatherings puts a damper on this time-honored method. A bullet journal can provide another means of accountability, while also encouraging creativity, mindfulness and insight.

A bullet journal is simply a journal with items listed to help you focus on tasks as well as behaviors, actions, goals and a myriad of other possible items. It provides an accounting of what you have done, your current actions and what you hope to do in the future. Many of us already use to-do lists to lay out our tasks, but these "external brains" can be cumbersome and overwhelming at times.

Ryder Carroll, the originator of the bullet journal, struggled with ADHD in college, and developed the bullet journal to keep him organized and on track. Since sharing his system publicly in 2013, the market for stationery and pens has grown substantially as bullet journaling has been adopted as a proven method for organization as well as cultivating new habits.

While any notebook will suffice to begin a bullet journal, proponents often choose a notebook with grids of light-colored dots, which allow the user to draw their own lines, graphs, grids and possibly other artwork. Carroll advises beginning with an index and then page spreads that contain yearly tasks listed by specific months, as well as a monthly task list and a daily task list. Each individual task is listed with a bullet point and crossed off when finished. Tasks include things like scheduling a haircut or oil change, calling a friend, purchasing a gift or returning an item to a store.

At the end of the month, Carroll takes a look at what he hasn't accomplished and asks himself the very important question: Is this still worth my time? If so, add the item to the next month's list in a process called "migrating." If not, cross it off. This, he says, is the difference between being productive and being busy.

Collections are another important grouping of a bullet journal. This allows us to aggregate random ideas into one place. Some examples of collections are vacation ideas, house repair tasks, our "someday" bucket list, books we'd like to read, new words that we learn, recipes we enjoyed making and eating, what we love about ourselves, self-care ideas and so on.

Gathering ideas in one place allows us to focus on what is important to us, as well as to prioritize tasks within these lists. Sure, we may not have time to read all the books on our list, but we can choose one to begin.

This method of upscaling a to-do list is an introduction to bullet journals, but some have further expanded their bullet journals to cultivate desirable habits, which is a common theme this time of year. How much water would we ideally drink in a day? How long do we wish to meditate on a daily or weekly basis? What are we grateful for? Are we eating enough or too much? Are we active in our daily lives?

Creating a monthly system to keep track of habits or to organize desires and thoughts is perfect for a bullet journal. Doing so in an artistic way by incorporating drawing, collage or painting helps express our creativity, which many people find calming and relaxing. It can also be a joy to look through an artistically created and personalized bullet journal.

Besides keeping ourselves organized and productive, a bullet journal provides a means to observe our behavior over a period of time. What tasks do we tend to ignore? Those that require executive function? Or provide self-care? How does staying up late affect our mood the next day? Do we tend to get grumpy when we ignore self-care or eat poorly? Does our mood improve when we are active?

Insights we may have overlooked become apparent because we are keeping track. This is a big component of mindfulness. Making choices because we are actively choosing often results in a different outcome than when our choices happen because we are too tired or not paying attention to actively choose what we desire. It is the difference between being a passenger in this conveyance of life or in the driver's seat.

Carey Smith learned about bullet journals from her artistic daughter.

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