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"Purposeful Living": Ryder Carroll

& the Origins of Bullet Journaling

 Every bullet journal is different, which makes the practice of bullet journaling rather hard to describe. The most common materials for bullet journals are blank, A5-size, dot-printed notebooks, which are then used to create personalized planners. These planners vary widely in terms of their “spreads” (two facing pages of the notebook when opened flat), design, and content, as well as in terms of the actual notebook and writing materials chosen for the task. Some bullet journals are ornate, brimming with sketches, stickers, washi tape, calligraphy, and even watercolors. Others are pared-down pages of black print and a few simple symbols, consisting mainly of lists and a calendar page or two.

Ryder Carroll, a digital project designer, published bullet journaling as an organizational technique for keeping track of one’s life on in 2013. In his first YouTube video about bullet journaling, he calls the technique “an analog system I devised to help you track the past, organize the present, and plan for the future” (Carroll, 2013).

Carroll’s original concept was quite streamlined: a bullet journal consisted of an index page, a monthly calendar, and daily calendars/lists, with “migration” (moving tasks over from month to month) as a central method of making sure important things got done. In the video, Carroll calls it “an ever-evolving system” designed to make “the difference between being busy and being productive” (2013).

What started as a straightforward productivity system has grown substantially in popularity, enough so that Carroll can now focus full-time on promoting his technique (presumably enabled by sales of his book, sales of the Bullet Journal-branded Leuchtturm notebook, and YouTube ad sales).’s About page describes Carroll and bullet journaling:  

“Now he focuses on helping others learn what the bullet Journal method is truly about: the art of intentional living. [. . .] It’s best described as a mindfulness practice disguised as a productivity system. It’s designed to help you organize your what while you remain aware of your why. The goal of the Bullet Journal is to help its practitioners (bullet journalists) live intentional lives, ones that are productive and meaningful” (Carroll, n.d.).


What started as a productivity tool has become redefined in Millennial buzzwords: “intentional,” “mindfulness,” and “meaningful.” Carroll’s 2017 TEDxYale talk further elaborates these connotations.

Carroll’s talk reveals a distinctly Neoliberal ideology as he situates bullet journaling as a tool for ownership of one’s time and purposeful productivity. “I believe that we are responsible for creating the moments of joy in our own lives,” he claims, and that the practice of bullet journaling will “help you close the gap from leading a distracted life, to leading one of intention” (TEDx Talks, 2017). He bases this claim in his personal experience: “I’ve been doing this for years,” he says, “and it’s shown me just how much power I actually do have in shaping my life” (TEDx Talks, 2017). Further drawing on Millennial, tech-influenced language, Carroll notes that the content of one’s bullet journal will become “a lot of personal data, and that data can provide you with profound insights into your life” (TEDx Talks, 2017).

At the very end of the talk, Carroll states that “The intentional life is the one that you want to live, not the one that you endure” (TEDx Talks, 2017). This suggests that if you are just thoughtful and organized and purposeful enough (and buy Carroll’s book and journal, of course), you can overcome the late capitalist fatigue so common to contemporary Americans. Balancing long hours at work with family, creative pursuits, personal health maintenance, and even with waking up early to watch sunrises and learning to be a fantastic home cook (two potential outcomes of purposeful living that Carroll suggests in his talk)—all this can feel like a breeze, not a hurricane season.  

However, Carroll’s method and marketing materials are not the final word on bullet journals. With users all over the world taking up this practice, how is it being used, and how are those users presenting their practice in online spaces?


In the next section of this project, I’ll discuss my practice as a “bullet journalist,” how I came to bullet journaling, and why I find it useful.

Works Cited

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