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Bullet Journals &

Aspirational Labor

During my reading on gender, labor, and the internet, I was especially interested in Brook Erin Duffy’s recent work on what she calls “aspirational labor.” For her 2017 book “(Not) getting paid to do what you love: Gender, social media, and aspirational work,” Duffy conducted extensive interviews with internet influencers. These were bloggers and social media personalities whose content focused mainly on fashion, beauty, and/or lifestyle. Duffy considers these content creators’ work “aspirational labor,” which she defines as

“a mode of (mostly) uncompensated, independent work that is propelled by the much-venerated ideal of getting paid to do what you love. As both a practice and a worker ideology, aspirational labor shifts content creators’ focus from the present to the future, dangling the prospect of a career where labor and leisure coexist.” (2017, p. 4)

Duffy introduces aspirational labor as a term because her sources frequently reported that their “cultural work” was “motivated by creative impulses or economic demands” both of which were closely linked to their professional aspirations (2017, p. 95); these motivations weren’t leisure-based, but they weren’t purely exploited consumer labor, either (Duffy, 2017).


Aspirational labor is built on a “Do What You Love” ideology (Duffy, 2016). Duffy draws on Miya Tokumitsu’s argument that the “Do What You Love” ideology

“obscures inequalities of class, ability and education, while surreptitiously assuring individuals that ‘their labour serves the self and not the marketplace’ (2014: para. 5). This argument neatly maps onto larger critiques of the so-called ‘new economy’, wherein neoliberal ideologies shift risks and responsibilities onto individual citizens (Neff, 2012; Sennett, 2006).” (Duffy, 2016, p. 442).


Duffy notes that “[m]any other features of aspirational labor are also coded as traditionally feminine,” including an “emphasis on community building [that] encourages the calculated deployment of affective relations” (2017, p. 224). She also points out that this affective labor is “largely invisible, a reality which captures the legacy of ‘women’s work’ as undervalued and unpaid activities—despite its central role in maintaining the capitalist circuit production” (2017, p. 224).


So aspirational labor is gendered, future-oriented, and built on the idea that cultural labor benefits the individual doing it while obscuring the value it creates for others. I believe that bullet journals are related to aspirational labor in two ways. First, many of the bullet journal users posting their content online appear to be influencers engaged in generating revenue through their blogs and/or social media. For example, most of the bloggers I linked to in the previous section on gender blog professionally, presumably earning money through affiliate links, ad revenue, and brand sponsorships.


Most of the top posts in the Instagram #bulletjournal tag are from users whose full-time job is closely related to what they post online. (While some are running blogs or social media pages professionally, others are offering calligraphy services for weddings or teaching online classes in lettering.) Overall, bullet journals seem to be extremely popular tools with a certain subset of internet influences that are interested in art, DIY, organization, and family, or a combination of all of these things. Whether these users have found bullet journaling on their own or whether they’ve been recruited by Carroll for the purposes of promoting bullet journaling, I can’t say.


Second, bullet journaling is a future-oriented practice that is wrapped up in “Do What You Love” ideology. In his TEDx Talk, Carroll claims that bullet journaling will help its practitioners craft an “intentional life,” which is the life that “you want to live, not the one that you endure” (2017). Presumably, this means that bullet journaling will make you so efficient and creative at your side gig that you’ll be able to make it your full-time job, and self-employment will give you more time to watch sunsets and learn how to cook and basically control your labor in every way, freeing you from living at the whim of corporations.


Even my own bullet journaling constitutes a kind of aspirational labor. Whenever I make a goals page for a month or a semester, I’m not just sketching out what I need to do—I’m also trying to write into being the sort of strategic, thoughtful soon-to-be-academic who makes the most of her opportunities in graduate school. I’m trying to build habits, relationships, and research projects that will eventually lead to me being valuable on the job market and in my future career as an academic. I think of this labor as personal career-building that will allow me to enter into a profession that is personal satisfying as well as economically sustaining. However, this labor will lead me to create knowledge and develop skills that will eventually be valuable to universities and academic publishers; ultimately, I’m aspiring to have my labor exploited in a more personally satisfying way.


Works Cited   

  • Duffy, B.E. (2017). (Not) getting paid to do what you love: Gender, social media, and aspirational work. New Haven: Yale University Press.

  • Duffy, B.E. (2016). “The romance of work: Gender and aspirational labour in the digital culture industries." International Journal of Cultural Studies, 19(4), 441-457.

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