Image linked from BulletJournal.com blog.
In Neuro: The New Brain Sciences and the Management of the Mind, Nikolas Rose and Joelle Abi-Rached note that
“If our contemporary ethical practices are increasingly ‘somatic,’ that is to say, organized around the care of our corporeal selves, aided by rules for living articulated by somatic experts from doctors to dieticians, we should not be surprised if care of the brain becomes one aspect of this ‘somatic ethics’ [. . .] There is clearly an ‘elective affinity,’ to use Max Weber’s term, between this emphasis on plastic, flexible brains and more general sociopolitical changes that prioritize individual flexibility across the life span to accommodate to rapidly changing economic demands, cultural shifts, and technological advances—and that demand a constant labor of self-improvement on the part of today’s citizens.” (2013, p. 223)
This “somatic ethic” is often visible in bullet journals. Habit trackers of all sorts are commonly used by bullet journalers. (You can view some examples of habit tracker layouts and habits to track at MommyIsaWino.com and at Buzzfeed.) It’s very common for such trackers to include health-related tracking of some sort; common examples include how much water one has drank, hours of sleep, whether one has exercised or not, and one’s mood. Bullet journalers have offered examples of how to use a bullet journal to lose weight, how to use a bullet journal to manage depression and anxiety, and many more how-to guides for improving one’s health.
While such tracking pages reflect neoliberal anxieties about self-maintenance and serve as a site of self-surveillance, they might also provide actual help to some users. It’s notoriously difficult to break bad habits and establish new ones, and the gamification of habit tracking—especially the satisfaction one gets from marking a task off as “done”—could actually help people shape their behavior in positive ways (like eating more vegetables or giving up smoking). However, it’s also possible that such tracking practices might serve as a way for people to engage in damaging or compulsive behaviors like over-exercising and disordered eating.
Still, habit tracking might be exceptionally helpful in the case of chronic illnesses. Many chronic conditions such as diabetes, high blood pressure, and depression require regular action to maintain one’s well-being. Such a tracking tool might prove useful to those living with chronic illnesses, and for their healthcare providers.
There has been some research on this idea within the medical community. For example, Carol Hermansen-Kobulnicky and Mary Anne Purtzer have studied oncology nurses’ perceptions about patient self-monitoring (2014). The oncology nurses they surveyed felt that when their patients tracked their symptoms, the nurses were able to better understand their patients’ experiences (Hermansen-Kobulnicky & Purtzer, 2014). These nurses also felt that tracking symptoms did sometimes help patients improve their quality of life (Hermansen-Kobulnicky & Purtzer, 2014). Hermansen-Kobulnicky & Purtzer also found that patients were most likely to use journals or notebooks, calendars or datebooks, or resources offered to them by a cancer center in their tracking (2014), which suggests that bullet journals might be a natural tool for such tracking.
While the study above is preliminary and quite limited in its scope, it does suggest that literate practices like bullet journaling might be helpful to those living with illnesses, particularly when it comes to managing symptoms or behaviors related to their conditions. I believe that medical scholars, psychologists, and Writing Studies scholars should study bullet journals and other tracking systems to better understand how self-care, health, and written practices interact; while these practices might benefit some patients, it’s also important to better understand the limits and potential dangers of such self-regulating practices.
Hermansen-Kobulnicky, C. J., & Purtzer, M. A. (2014). Tracking and Journaling the Cancer Journey. Clinical Journal of Oncology Nursing, 18(4), 388–391.
Rose, N., & Abi-Rached, J. M. . (2013). Neuro: The New Brain Sciences and the Management of the Mind. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.