I have known my oldest friend since we were eight. Like many old friends, we argue a lot, about matters both important and trivial. But the thing we argue about the most, the thing we have argued about for years, the thing that forms a cleavage as vast as the Grand Canyon, is how to organise the files on our computers.
Her method is legible and easily understood by anybody. Her folders are neatly organised by media type and year. Subfolders are listed alphabetically. It is all perfectly logical in a way that Spock would approve of. My folders, on the other hand, are arranged in a bottom-up fashion, with names that make sense to me, subfolders that belong where I, but only I, would think to look for them, sub-sub-folders nested within them, a numbering system that prioritises the ones I need most often close to the top of the list, and so on. It is organic and, to most outsiders, a complete shambles. But it works for me.
So it is with organising my life. I have tried paper diaries, Google Calendar and to-do apps. No matter the form, what they all have in common is a rigid structure imposed from above. You have a certain number of lines for each day or a finite number of categories into which your plans must fit, or a small palette of colours to highlight or distinguish between events. It drives me insane. So I made my own system: a Google spreadsheet with columns titled “today”, “tomorrow”, “this week”, “weekend”, “this month” and “three months”, and tabs to keep track of expenses, books I’ve read, travel plans, story ideas, and general note-keeping. It’s messy and entirely manual: there are no shortcuts, no functions, no add-ons.
Which brings me to the Bullet Journal. When my colleagues at 1843 suggested I try this so-called “analogue system for the digital age”, I was sceptical. This “system” was developed by a designer in Brooklyn called Ryder Carroll, and has sparked a thriving sub-culture of “bullet journalists”. There are blogs dedicated to the art. The Instagram hashtag #bulletjournal has 2.2m pictures, many of beautiful, arty journals. The hashtag #bujo has another 1.7m. It appeared to be some sort of cult of productivity.
Still, the simplicity of the idea was appealing. Here is how it works: you take a blank notebook, any blank notebook. You can, if you wish, buy a special one, but the notebook isn’t the point – the Bullet Journal is a method, not an object. You number the pages as you go along, having set aside a few pages at the front that over time become your contents list. Then each month you handwrite a calendar called the “monthly log” followed by a “daily log” of tasks, events and notes, marked respectively by bullet points, circles and dashes. Each day you manually cross out tasks you have completed and then rewrite the undone ones for the next day.
This system has two attractions. The first is flexibility. The pages are blank, yours to make of what you will. Most diaries and apps operate under the assumption that each day is equal, and allocate them the same amount of space. But in reality, some days are busy while others are spent binge-watching Netflix, which means that some pages become crammed full of notes while others sit there empty.
The Bullet Journal’s blank canvas erases these false restrictions. My entry for July 13th is only three lines long (come on, it was a Friday), but on the 14th there were 11 items on the agenda. As I went through the week, I added random observations up the side. Not all make sense on re-reading – why did I annotate my to-do list for July 11th with “daddy pig: why not papa pig?” – but recording your thoughts as you make plans and list ideas gives the Bullet Journal a nice sense of temporality and intimacy. The slots in my Google spreadsheet, say, don’t tell me when I wrote something, or what else I was thinking about as I wrote it. It is clinical by comparison.
The second attraction is inconvenience. Rewriting those undone items is a bloody hassle, so each day, for each task, you ask yourself: is this really something I need to do? Does it have to be on the list? If I’ve been writing and rewriting something and haven’t done it for two weeks, should I just either do it or ditch it? Using Bullet Journal made me more aware of what I was postponing or deluding myself about. I’ve finally concluded I’m probably never going to get around to deleting idiotic pictures from my photo library stretching back three years. It wasn’t the thought of actually doing the task that eventually put me off. It was rewriting it on a new page. Nor am I ever going to go through my files to chuck out old paperwork. For years I dutifully copy-pasted these items around my spreadsheet, or just let them linger in that “three month” tab. No more! I am free of these mundane tasks forever.