I’m a list maker: grocery lists, packing lists, to-do lists. As a result, I possess an inordinate number of notepads, journals, and tiny notebooks. Too often, I find forgotten slips of scribbled-on paper in my purse and jacket pockets.
My attempts to go digital with my lists have met with mixed results. I can tick off work-related tasks electronically, but my personal to-do list is often an afterthought. My bills get paid, but pet projects — like finishing the photo album of my son’s fourth birthday party (before he turns 5), building my career network, taking a standup-paddleboard yoga class — languish in a vault of good intentions entombed in my smartphone.
So, in a quest to prioritize more projects like these, I sought out something analog that would honor my pen-to-paper nature — and help me accomplish the things I consider important.
It turns out, writing things down by hand activates the brain in ways that typing on a keyboard does not. While keyboarding (or thumbing a smartphone screen) involves repeating the same rote actions, writing requires fine motor skills to form letters with different strokes of a pen. Studies of young children have demonstrated that learning to write by hand is critical to the brain’s ability to process letters and read effectively.
Other research has shown that writing longhand improves our ability to absorb information. Scientists at Princeton and UCLA found that students who handwrote lecture notes understood and remembered the concepts they were taught more effectively than those who took notes on keyboards.
Getting a better handle on information was, in fact, the inspiration behind the Bullet Journal, the paper-based calendaring and productivity system I decided to try. Developed by New York product designer Ryder Carroll, the Bullet Journal has evolved into a simple-yet-powerful system for helping people adopt a more mindful approach to their to-do lists.
Bullet Journal Basics
Are all the things you’re spending time on each day worth your time? The basic structure of the Bullet Journal compels you to ask — and answer — this question regularly. (You can buy ready-to-use Bullet Journals or create your own by following the instructions at BulletJournal.com.)
Each day, you create a daily log to capture the things on your mind — events, tasks, notes. You focus on actionable items and the things that mean the most to you, using customized bullets to categorize them. Carroll calls this process “rapid logging.” (See “Rapid Logging 101,” below, for tips.)
At the end of the day or the start of the next, you review your daily log, which puts you in regular contact with your priorities. “It’s about consistently being mindful of your time and of the things that matter to you,” explains Carroll. “And the only way I’ve found to do that is to see those things every single day.”
The Bullet Journal also features a monthly log, which gives you a bigger-picture view of tasks and events slated for that time frame. At the end of each month, you filter and migrate the things that still matter to the next month. Again, reflecting on each item is key. “If you don’t have the time to copy your notes about something once a month, then chances are it just isn’t really valuable or important to your life,” Carroll says.
A future log serves as “a parking lot for tasks,” he explains: You can record things that interest you months before they’ll actually happen. It gets those niggling ideas out of your brain, freeing up space for you to think about what’s essential right now. “For me, there’s an immense benefit to decluttering your head every day,” says Carroll. “And the best way you can do that is to get the things that are causing the noise out and on paper.”
Beyond the To-Do List
Most paper planners feature pre-printed calendar and notes sections, but the Bullet Journal’s blank pages inspire what Carroll calls collections, open spaces to capture or group notes on any topic you like.
Here’s where you can really express yourself. Some people use collections to solve problems. For example, Kim Alvarez, who blogs on Carroll’s Bullet Journal website as well as on her own site, www.tinyrayofsunshine.com, says her collections help her outline project plans. You can also use these pages for tracking behaviors — spending, dietary habits, workouts — that you’re trying to refine, she explains. “It’s very motivating to see progress in a tangible way.”
And, of course, there are those lists: books to read, recipes to try, things to be grateful for, creative projects to tackle (my list includes that birthday-party album and a homemade beanbag chair). Collections are about what inspires you, what makes your daily life easier, and anything that makes you feel successful or creative.
Awareness, With a Side of Productivity
The simple act of sitting down with my journal each morning has made a noticeable difference. I’m better able to organize my mind around my activities and tasks for the day, sifting out (at least some of) the distractions. I feel a sense of accomplishment each time I review what I’ve achieved. By migrating tasks and creating collections, I’ve made more-thoughtful decisions about my to-do lists, rather than just plowing through them.
I’ve also come to value the dedicated time each morning, however brief, to consider the details of my life. Which is by design, of course.
“Every day, you are gifting yourself with this time that’s just for you,” says Carroll. “You’re rewarding yourself to think about what you care about, and you’re making progress. You’re improving yourself along the lines of what matters most to you.”