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I first started looking into bullet journals in early 2018. I was planning on going back to school for a PhD program, and it occurred to me that managing class requirements was going to be very different from my organizational methods as an administrative professional.

In college and my master’s program, I was a diehard paper planner user. This was before the age of smartphones and long before I had any idea what Outlook was used for. I was an ambitious student who tended take on more work than was necessary, but I rarely turned in any assignments late, or missed club meetings, or showed up for work shifts late because I lived and died by the chunky planners I carried around. My daily consultations with them, the back and forth between the weekly layouts and monthly layouts, the scratched-out to-do lists and meeting reminders, kept me relatively calm through hectic semesters.

When I got my first job at a university, I was forced to rely on Outlook for the first time. The calendar function was a god-send, and I used my inbox and task lists to track whatever I still needed to accomplish that day. A year or two into my university work, I was introduced to David Allen’s Getting Things Done method, which allowed one to use Outlook to track projects via email and task lists. That proved exceptionally useful for me as a professional, though at home, I still cycled through endless to-do lists scribbled on scrap paper.


But in grad school, I knew that tasks would no longer came from other people’s emails—they would come from my syllabi and myself. So months before my first semester started, I started shopping online for a new planner. I wanted something that would give me plenty of space for to-do lists that also included monthly layouts. I wanted it to be smallish, to have nice paper, and to not be covered with flowers or inspirational quotes.


Apparently, I was looking for a unicorn. Hours of Googling and browsing brought me to the conclusion that a good planner—or at least my particular idea of a good planner—is hard to find. It didn’t seem like anyone was making what I wanted (at least not for less than $45 a pop, a price that seemed obscene for someone living on a stipend).


So eventually, after much resistance, I decided to give bullet journaling a try. The method came up very early in my Google searches, but the process seemed onerous and work-creating instead of work-managing. I was not enamored with the idea of drawing out all my own calendars, especially because of how beautifully ornate so many online examples of bullet journals looked. I didn’t have the skills, the time, or the interest to sketch out elaborate cover pages for my months, or to draw mood trackers in the shape of tea bags or flower petals—I just wanted something big enough to hold my life, but small enough to not create any additional stress.


To get started, I bought the cheapest bulleted notebook I could find and gave it a try. One week in, I loved it. It combined the calmness that comes from David Allen’s “mind sweep” (the practice of writing down everything you need to do, regardless of how big or small, in one place to reduce your mental load) with a calendar, space for taking notes at events, and the (for me) incredibly relaxing habit of scratching words onto paper with a good pen. I was convinced, enough so that I bought a set of colored pens and a nicer notebook.


Bullet journals are, as Carroll suggests, a reflexive and ever-evolving practice. As I transitioned to a higher quality notebook, I started looking for “spreads” (layouts) that would work better for me. What I included in my bullet journal and how I included it evolved. And based on what I found online, the online component of bullet journaling—the engaging with how-tos and others’ posted pictures—was a component of many others’ bullet journaling processes, as well. This led me to realize that a presumably personal, primarily analog tool was also deeply embedded in social digital spaces.

Everything I could think of had a place in my bullet journal (with the exception of work tasks, which remained in my Outlook account). I kept track of birthdays, plans with friends, vacations, and more in my calendar layouts. I tracked my spending and account balances in my “money check” area (something I had previously kept a separate notebook for). I kept daily to-do lists that included reminders like going to the gym, doing the dishes, journaling, working on graduate school applications, going to the grocery store, writing, calling my parents, and more. I tracked my labor in most aspects of my life: health, household, financial, academic, social, and more. I also included spots on my daily to-do lists for writing down three things I was grateful for, and I kept a miscellaneous section in the back of my notebook for meeting and event notes, as well as notes for large projects like moving and buying a new house.


What I liked best about the format was that it worked. I got things done, and rarely found important to-dos slipping through the cracks. I also found it deeply satisfying to mark things as completed in my habit tracker, or to mark things off my to-do list; in fact, I’d regularly add things to my to-do list after I had already completed them, just for the satisfaction of checking them off and seeing everything I had accomplished in a single day. (Though the flip-side was true, as well: even if I completed nine out of the ten things I had planned on doing that day, I could still feel disappointed about the last thing I hadn’t finished.)


But I never found myself limited by the space of pages, and I never worried about putting things in the wrong “place.” In past planners, I would have loathed putting meeting notes or brainstorming pages or journal entries into my planner—it would have felt generically wrong; but in the bullet journal, nothing felt particularly out of place. I also found it easier to remember what was most essential. In a list of ten things I needed to do, completing paperwork for the new house and sending it to our mortgage lender might sit next to walking the dog or washing a sink full of dishes, but it was easier to remember the long-term value of the former and attend to it first, without letting smaller, regular tasks slip from my mind.

For me, despite the occasional work it takes to draw out tracking pages and monthly spreads, my bullet journal has become not just a powerful tool, but also a practice. Using it feels like a natural part of my day: with my first cup of coffee, before I even check my email, I skim yesterday’s list, update my habit tracker, and make my list of daily to-dos. It helps my (naturally poor) memory, reminds me to prioritize keeping myself healthy, and helps me feel calmer and more purposeful. At times, it feels like a part of me—it’s always nearby, and I consult it whenever downtime appears in my day.

All that being said, I have never posted spreads from my bullet journal on Instagram or anywhere else, and it’s not particularly pretty. It’s a tool for me, not a communicative object meant for others. So the fact that others use their bullet journals differently is of interest to me. If bullet journals are presumably a personal tool, why have they developed such a rich visual life on the Internet? Who uses them, and what do they do for those users? That’s what I seek to explore in the rest of this project.

Works Cited


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