It all started with a kid with attention deficit disorder who felt out of place and struggled to focus in school.
Growing up in the 1980s, Ryder Carroll remembers that resources for his condition were minimal—and the few that were available were “too complicated or proscriptive to prove helpful.” “Nothing worked the way that my mind worked,” he recalls.
Left to his own devices, Carroll cobbled together a way to help organize his life and make sense of his thoughts. With just a notebook and a system that transformed it into an all-in-one to-do list and planner, Carroll cut down on his distraction and overwhelm while boosting his productivity.
His method? The Bullet Journal.
The ins and outs of this “personal operating system,” as well as its history, are detailed in Carroll’s 2018 New York Times bestseller, The Bullet Journal Method: Track the Past, Order the Present, Design the Future. Fascinated by order and discipline, Carroll experimented until he was able to piece together something that embraced the way his mind works and helped him to manage his life, combining productivity, mindfulness, and intentionality.
Little did he know his method would resonate with so many people. Over time, friends and colleagues began to approach him. Designers, developers, project managers, and accountants asked him about organizing their daily responsibilities, setting goals, and becoming less scattered. Realizing the versatility of his method, Carroll launched a website with videos and tutorials showing others the process of logging future events, organizing daily tasks and events, and capturing thoughts in notes. Bullet Journals quickly became a hit, sparking the creation of Bullet Journal communities across the web. Today, it’s a worldwide phenomenon: a four-minute how-to video Carroll uploaded in 2015 boasts 9.9 million views, and the hashtag #BulletJournal on Instagram has over 3.7 million posts.
The same thinking that led to the Bullet Journal is applicable to more than our to-do lists and calendars. Whether you use a Bullet Journal or not, Carroll offers several insights in his book that we can all apply in leading more meaningful and productive lives.
Small steps lead to lasting change.
Sustainable change happens when we adopt a patient, curious, methodical approach, rather than making abrupt, large life changes, Carroll writes. Out of three of his friends who quit their desk jobs to become yoga teachers, only one stuck with the dream a decade later. She implemented incremental change, first teaching a yoga class on the weekends, then experimenting with teaching at resorts, and finally teaching at yoga retreats. Large changes result in fear, Carroll writes, which slows down our momentum. “Peaks where we believe anything is possible are followed by shadowed valleys where we think maybe nothing is,” he says. To combat this natural response, Carroll encourages keeping in mind the Japanese concept of kaizen, which translates to “good change” or “continual improvement.”
This approach leads to seeking opportunities for improvement with what Carroll calls “small questions,” like: “What do I want to do? What small thing can I do right now to get started?” Tackling one small problem at a time reduces stress, increasing fulfillment in the progress. “Each solution builds on those that came before it,” he says. “Therefore these small steps add up quickly, effecting massive change over time.” Asking small questions results in manageable tasks, and setting them up as questions plays to our innate problem-solving mentality.
Paying attention is the key to finding meaning in the mundane.
In The Bullet Journal Method, Carroll tells an illuminating anecdote of his struggle with the chore of washing dishes after his partner took up learning how to cook for the two of them. She was going through a rough time, but still made a point to perform this act of service. Carroll came to discover that washing dishes was more than washing dishes: it mattered because it was a sign of love and respect. And their conversations during meals together deepened their relationship. “This task began to matter to me, and I tried harder,” he writes. “Meaning can reveal itself in the most unremarkable, unpredictable, and quiet of moments.”
The way to develop the practice of finding meaning is first by noticing and studying our daily experiences. “If we’re not listening to the world around us, as well as the one within, we may miss it—the music in the mundane,” Carroll writes. Then, he says, it’s up to each of us to reframe the mundane by digging for the “why.” Instead of the drudgery of the task, think of the experience that it offers —the satisfaction of a completed project, the delicious meal after a grocery trip, the comfort of crisp and clean sheets.
“This is not about positive thinking,” Carroll says. “It’s about systematically analyzing your efforts to define their purpose.”
We need a refuge from screen time to think.
On average, Americans spent almost 11 hours in front of digital screens daily in 2016, writes Carroll. Of course, some of that time may be devoted to organizing and planning digitally. Carroll acknowledges the usefulness of productivity apps, some of which he’s even worked on as a digital product designer. But they just don’t provide the refuge from screens that the Bullet Journal (or another analog system, for that matter) does.
Our brains need time to rest—and think. Those periods of distraction-free thinking and self-examination renew our creativity, refresh our motivation, and clarify our goals. If we don’t have the time to ponder and ask ourselves questions, how will we have new ideas or break out of the chains of life on autopilot? Pausing to think is essential for growth and for helping us become the best versions of ourselves.
Thinking with pen in hand is even more beneficial. Carroll observes that the experience of linking your brain, and often your heart, as you write, hasn’t been successfully mimicked digitally. “It’s why, to this day, so many ideas are born on scraps of paper,” he writes, calling the blank pages of a notebook “a safe playground for your mind.” “The simple act of pausing to write down the important minutia of one’s life goes far beyond simple organization. It has helped people reconnect with themselves and the things they care about.”
Carroll believes that Bullet Journaling is a “vehicle for self-exploration” that helps users reclaim agency over their lives. But whether we use the method or not, we can all use its principles to guide us as we seek to infuse our days with greater meaning, purpose, and intentionality.