Despite the challenges of life in lockdown, this “new normal” has presented some unexpected opportunities. Previously, I’d been an intermittent diarist. Each January I would resolve to record daily my every negative thought and feeling, resulting in very little progress. As meditators and neuroscientists alike will tell you, “where attention goes, energy flows.” Attention has the potential to change the structure of the brain (ever considered the less catchy ‘where attention goes, neural firing flows and neural connection grows’?). I didn’t look forward to diary-writing and after a few half-hearted entries I would soon get fed up and leave the remaining pages untouched. One issue was uncertainty about my diary’s purpose. Should I be writing down the content of my dreams, or focussing on my waking life? Do I want to record my day, or forget it ever happened? How do I make my goals SMART – and do I even want to?
When this pandemic was in its early stages I found myself aimlessly browsing my local library’s creative writing section. I came across a book entitled How to Bullet Plan: Everything You Need to Know About Journaling with Bullet Points by Rachel Wilkerson Miller. I had heard of bullet journaling – a creative colleague I had worked with uses it (she loves Ali and Finn’s Positive Bullet Diary*) – but I still didn’t really know what it was. Is it a planner? A to-do list? A diary? It turns out it’s all of those things.
Bullet journaling, so-called because it uses bullet points as its core structure and utilises dot grid paper, was devised by Brooklyn-based digital product designer Ryder Carroll as a personal method of organisation to manage his ADHD. Encouraged by a friend, in 2013 he began sharing his method online. By the end of 2018 it had been the subject of 3 million Instagram posts. As Carroll explains in his book The Bullet Journal Method, it is an individually-customisable system: a way of tracking your past; ordering your present; and planning your future. And, as I’ve recently discovered, it is excellent for promoting and maintaining wellbeing.
During the past three months I have dedicated more energy to running, recording my distances and times in my bullet journal – leading me to run a half marathon. My mood has improved massively, which I attribute to this newfound love of goal setting (meditation, healthy eating and early nights have helped too). Imagining how I’ll feel looking back over this diligently-kept document of my past accomplishments, or dreaming up topics to devote future journal entries to, brings me joy. I actually look forward to opening my beautiful, brightly coloured journal every day and leafing through its thread-bound pages. Selecting the perfect pen and colouring in each square has become a daily ritual I relish. I am a true bullet journaling convert.
If you think this sounds overzealous or fanatical, there’s a reason: bullet journaling works. Here’s why. It’s a quick, simple form of regular note-taking (Carroll calls this “rapid logging”) that you’re more likely to stick to, because it’s flexible and uncomplicated. You make space to record all your appointments and important tasks in such a way that you can’t miss them, meaning you actually stay on top of things (imagine that!). Consider the principle that nothing need be lost if it is written down. You create one single place to list all those films and TV shows you’ve been hearing about, or those books you’ve been meaning to read. All too often my smart phone gets in the way of good sleep, so I prefer putting pen to paper before bedtime. It’s also very beneficial to get creative. And some have suggested that writing, as opposed to typing on a laptop, allows you to better organise your thoughts and can even boost memory.
The first step is to arrange your calendars, known in the bullet journaling world as ‘spreads.’ These are commonly broken down into annual, weekly and monthly. You can include daily spreads too, if you decide to use your bullet journal more like a diary (I’ve chosen to keep a separate reflective journal for this kind of thing). Then you start adding in your other sections. A key one for me has been my mood tracker (which I prefer to call ‘mind and body’). I also record my workouts, circling the dates on a one-page annual calendar spread using different colours to denote each different type of exercise (fancy). I log the good habits I want to stick to and the goals I’d like to achieve. I set a main focus every week and then review it at the weekend. You can even log when you do your chores, last visit the dentist, or take your car for its MOT – called a ‘when did I last…?’ log. At times when life is particularly hard this becomes an invaluable resource. It’s an approach that focuses on achievements and prioritising your values, rather than denying yourself or giving things up. By focussing your attention you create the right intention.
If this all sounds a bit too much to contend with, I can assure you it isn’t. I use about half an hour every Sunday to review my week and set up next week’s pages. It then takes five to ten minutes at the beginning and end of each day to fill in. The secret is keeping it simple; only keep the sections that work for you. Finding that you’re not filling in your daily diary? Write a weekly summary instead. Not sticking to the habits you’re tracking? Throw them out and set new ones. Mine went through three or four different setups before I settled on its current layout. And when things are more normal and I can hopefully return to work, I expect my system to change again. Unlike a traditional diary (which I found to be too rigid), you can purchase a blank grid page notebook that includes an index and page numbers, making your journal simple to navigate. The beauty of the bullet journal method is that you can change your system to suit you as you go along.
The Science-y Bit
Increased self-awareness can bring about change. This is a central tenet of Dialectical Behaviour Therapy (DBT), a type of talking therapy developed by psychology researcher Marsha M. Linehan for people who experience strong emotions. By tracking your mood, sleep, exercise, energy levels and physical health status you can increase your awareness of thoughts and feelings in relation to your activities – and hopefully begin to see patterns. Goal attainment can increase positive emotions – and we will reach our goals sooner and more easily if our emotions are positive. Positive psychology pioneer C. R. Snyder first began theorising about this in the 1980s, going on to write six books on hope and its relatedness to optimism. He demonstrated that clearly conceptualised goals provide direction and an endpoint for hopeful thinking. His “hope theory” comprises three components: having focused thoughts; developing strategies to achieve goals; and being motivated to make the effort required. We can apply this theory to our own bullet journal method. Its four subcategories are goals, pathway thoughts (the routes we take to achieve our desired goals), agency thoughts (our motivation) and barriers (which make it difficult for us to attain our goals). Goals that are valuable but uncertain are described as the “anchors” of hope theory. This is because we need to reevaluate our strategies along the way. Barriers offer an opportunity to strengthen new pathways; when faced with barriers we can either give up, or use our pathway thoughts to create new routes.
So, when we use our journal to review our goals each week, we are looking for new ways (via pathway thoughts) to reach them. Snyder says it helps if you ask yourself things such as “what is going on?”, “where do I want to go?” and “what is stopping me?” These are typical pathway thinking questions. Research on brain plasticity has shown that we can increase our neural growth through our actions, such as asking questions and deploying good strategies. This is what is also known as the “growth mindset”, a term coined by psychologist Carol Dweck to describe a type of positive attitude that, crucially, can be learnt and practiced to increase motivation and achievement. By recording and reflecting on our progress we activate agency thoughts, thereby increasing positive motivation. According to Snyder, if we view barriers to growth as challenges to overcome, using these pathway thoughts to plan alternative routes to our goals, we are said to have “high hope”. High hope has been associated with many benefits, including increased wellbeing and academic achievement. Reflection is the foundational principle of bullet journaling as a practice. It declutters the mind, cultivates curiosity and helps us to remain focussed over time (for more on this see Carroll’s Tedx talk).
The “father of positive psychology” Martin Seligman has spent his life’s work researching wellbeing and happiness. His Three Good Things exercise, explained in his most recent book Flourish, invites you to write down three good things that happen each day. Next to each positive event, you answer one of the following questions: “why did this good thing happen?”, “what does this mean to you?” or “how can you have more of this good thing in the future?” These questions encourage us to really reflect on and immerse ourselves in the good event, which increases our degree of positive emotion. It’s possible to incorporate this exercise into your bullet journal – and you should, because once you start you’ll want to keep going. Alternatively you could keep a daily gratitude list or note down one achievement each day. These exercises may even support healthier thinking patterns, the same way Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) seeks to do. For example, by keeping a record of your achievements you are building evidence to challenge negative thinking biases. Another CBT intervention that is very effective is Behavioural Activation, which focuses on behaviour and environment, rather than thoughts. By tracking good habits and logging your daily activities – known as Activity Scheduling – you increase the amount of positive reinforcement you experience. This helps to reduce the negative behaviours that may provide temporary relief, but ultimately maintain your anxiety or low mood. Become your own therapist!
Why else do I like bullet journaling? Because it is associated with positive emotions, not negative symptoms. Our brains have a natural tendency to focus on what goes wrong in our daily lives, as my previous diary attempts had illustrated. Using a bullet journal for wellbeing encourages us to dwell on the good things instead. It’s not a CBT worksheet with a mysterious acronym. Or a mnemonic that’s actually not so easy to remember. Or a digital calendar on an app. It is a holistic tool: something you can choose to build and create according to your own unique agenda. And that’s very empowering.
The Bullet Journal Method: Track Your Past, Order Your Present, Plan Your Future by Ryder Carroll (2018)
Flourish: a New Understanding of Happiness and Well-being – and How to Achieve Them by Martin Seligman (2011)
Positive Psychology for Overcoming Depression: Self-help Strategies to Build Strength, Resilience and Happiness by Miriam Akhtar (2018)
The Right to Write: an Invitation and Initiation into the Writing Life by Julia Cameron (2017)
Action for Happiness: Find Three Good Things Each Day
Mental Health Bullet Journal by Rachel W Miller for BuzzFeed.
How to Bullet Journal, by Ryder Carroll. Start here.
Journaling vs Bullet journaling. How to add long-form journaling into your Bullet Journal practice and why it can help.
How to Declutter Your Mind – Keep a Journal by Ryder Carroll, TEDxYale (2017).
A big thank you to Ruth for reading earlier versions of this essay.