A graphic representing some common visual elements of bullet journals: habit tracker, tasks, and goals.

THE CULT OF PRODUCTIVITY

Bullet journaling didn’t change my life.

It reflected it — in illuminating ways

Search on the term “bullet journal changed my life” and you will get more than 13 million results. This article won’t be one of them.

My age may make me immune for life-changing-ness, though I will confess that I can recall a very few such events earlier in my life: going to an art colony at age 30, which started me on a lifelong creative journey; overcoming a personal crisis after blithely imagining that selling a condo, quitting a job, and moving to a city where I knew no one would be a piece of cake at midlife. (Spoiler: it wasn’t. But after recovering from the emotional gut punch, I got back into the ring and scored a TKO against my demons.)

In 2019, after an extended period of unemployment and under-employment, during which I began exploring launching a handmade business, I started a new full-time job, working in a large “matrix” organization. If you’re not familiar with that term, it means: you report to a manager in your department, and then to project managers outside your department. Blurred authority leads to difficulties in making decisions and resolving conflict. I don’t deal well with ambiguity and unclear expectations, and I didn’t need to start keeping a bullet journal to know that. I’ve spent the vast majority of my work life either in a small company or studio, or in a small team, where my role was defined and where success (mostly) didn’t depend on anyone else’s efforts.

I was immediately assigned to do UX design work on a website with an extremely tight deadline and external stakeholders who everyone warned me were difficult to work with, and an internal decision-making process I didn’t grasp. I also inherited the design work for a website that had been passed on from two previous designers, in yet another “chain of command.” I didn’t know what I didn’t know and I started feeling like I was drowning.

Intrigued by all the gorgeous bullet journal pages I was seeing on my Instagram feed—and without knowing anything about the method—I decided to give it a whirl to try to keep track of everything going on at and outside work. Over the course of 8 months, I experimented with different layouts for weeks and months, with color coding tasks, and with tracking habits. Here’s some things bullet journaling (re)taught me about myself.

  • I’m overly analytical. I try hard to resist the urge to research the hell out of everything before making a decision, but I’m not always successful.
  • I’m not very good at setting goals. I tried to do quarterly and yearly planning but after um, January 31, I gave up that idea. I bought two different creative business planner pdfs, but I never could keep it up. Plan for next week or even the next couple of weeks or a month? Okay. Quarterly and annually? Hell no. I’ve lost jobs without warning and my older sister to a sudden death. As the old Yiddish saying goes:

Man plans and God laughs.

  • Habit trackers aren’t for me. Related to not setting goals, I kept failing at forming new habits and felt crappy about myself every week. I think I actually did better after I dropped the tracker block in my journal. Or maybe I just need to make smaller goals and tasks.
  • Dones rock my world way more than To Do’s. I’m one of those people who will write down something I just completed so I can have the pleasure of checking it off as done. (In other words, cheat.)
  • I’m great at generating ideas—for crafts projects, products to make to sell online, things to write about—but I’m not that great at following through. I’ve hung up The Cult of Done Manifesto on the wall next to my desk, and I need to remind myself of its tenets.

Failure counts as done. So do mistakes.

  • I’m likely much harder on myself than are my friends or coworkers. Most nights during the week, I just don’t feel motivated to check off any personal to do’s. I have noticed that when I get off track in a nightly bit of slow-stitching or the like, that my personal stress-o-meter goes way up at work.

Laugh at perfection. It’s boring and keeps you from being done.

  • I’m too easily distracted by the next shiny thing I see (an idea for a craft to make or a topic to write about).

But yeah, maybe it did change my life…a little teeny bit

If all the above sounds like a bullet journaling failure, that’s not entirely accurate. Every Sunday evening, I look forward to setting up the coming week’s spread, pulling out my markers and colored pencils and washi tape. I enjoy collecting inspirational quotes to add to the next month’s start page. I have [mostly] managed to stop feeling like a failure for not creating Instagram-worthy pages.

Writing out weekly goals has helped made me be more mindful and focused, and I’m getting better at making bite-size goals and tasks.

I also write down goals for my creative hobbies, which I never used to do. That’s helped spur me to use even a few spare moments to sew or draw; now when I wake up too early in the morning, I often use this “found time” to sketch.

Having a portable, analog place to record everything I accomplish over the weeks and months is satisfying.

And my journal makes me look totally cool at work.

Designer. Craft artist. Point guard (ret). Collector of windup toys & push puppets. PhD, sociology. chrisaraymond.net | chrisaraymond.dunked.com

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