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Creativity mental health Psychology Writing

Bullet Journaling for Wellbeing

A Guide to Getting Started

What you will need:
  1. A notebook with dot grid pages. Some notebooks come with an index and page numbers, but one without is absolutely fine.
  2. A favourite pen. Possibly a ruler. A pencil is handy too. Coloured pens are optional, as are highlighters, stickers, stencils or washi tape.
What you won’t need:

How to Bullet Plan: a Practical Guide, Everything You Need to Know About Journaling with Bullet Points by Rachel Wilkerson Miller. I’ve read it so you don’t have to! (But if you would like a guide, this one comes strongly recommended.)

Dot grid My Notebook journal by Legami Milano (shown below).
Why Bullet Journal?
  • It helps you to organise your life and keep track of important things.
  • It builds executive functioning skills, like memory and planning.
  • It can be useful when trying to challenge negative thinking biases.
  • It creates focus, supports goal setting and increases goal attainment.
  • It is a place to celebrate your achievements, increase motivation and positive emotion, connect with your values and practice self-care.
  • With careful planning it can take just 10-15 minutes a day to fill in.
The Bullet Journal Method is an analogue system designed to track the past, organise the present and plan for the future.

It was originally conceived for organisation. To give an overview of how it works – and because good organisation is conducive to positive wellbeing – we will spend a bit of time in this area before delving into the wellbeing tips. It should be said that countless interpretations have evolved from this basic method. There is no ‘wrong’ way to bullet journal. The only prerequisite, for it to work long-term, is that it makes you more productive and/or brings you joy. If you are focusing on bullet journaling for wellbeing then you may prefer to skip over this section.

A brief overview of the bullet journal method by its creator Ryder Carroll.
Here are the core tools:
  • Index points to where information on different topics is located.
  • Rapid logging. Events/tasks/notes/lists are logged using a system of symbols to simplify, abbreviate, categorise and organise information.
  • Logs. These are for your events and tasks (known as “spreads”).
  • Collections. These organise related types of information by category.
  • Migration. This is the practice of periodically updating lists to new lists, such as carrying over one month’s unfinished tasks to the next.
Future log:

This log helps you to forward plan and keep track of key events/tasks, such as birthdays/holidays. It is the spread that goes first, either as a list or calendar (or both), and it can be 3-monthly, 6-monthly or 12-monthly. Spread the log/calendar across as many pages as you think you’ll need.

Monthly log:
  • One-page or two-page spread (or more for 6 or 12-month spread).
  • Layout can be a list (dates/tasks/events), or a calendar plus a list.
  • Copy the relevant dates, tasks and events from your future log.
  • Write your monthly tasks list – essentially you are using this space to note down everything that you need or want to get done that month.
  • Add-ons: important events/don’t forget, mood tracker, monthly goals.
Weekly log:
  • One-page or two-page spread.
  • Schedule all upcoming activities by referring to your monthly log.
  • Make space to keep a to do list and (optional) notes section.
  • Add-ons: habit trackers, main focus, meal planner, quotes, reflections, sleep tracker, weekly goals and review, and so on.
Daily log:
  • Log entries using short, bulleted sentences and organise by category (task/event/note) using symbols. Mark priority entries with a star.
  • Migrate any outstanding or incomplete tasks over to the next day.
Your bullet journal is a to-do list and planner and diary in one.

It makes capturing and organising information really fast and it helps you to focus on the things that are worth your time. Stress can impact on productivity and poor organisation can increase stress, so it’s win-win.

The productivity part kicks in when you take the time to evaluate your logs. At the start of each new month, look back over your weekly/daily logs to assess your tasks and timescales. Scan for open tasks and ask yourself, “which are worth my time?” Only these tasks get migrated. This process weeds out distractions, allowing you to focus only on what you consider valuable. It can be a helpful goal setting activity too.

Collections

At this point you might decide to log related tasks in a collection. For example, if you are working on a specific project, you would copy all related tasks on to one page (remembering to record the page number in your index). You can refer to your collections when planning your month or week. They can include reminders, like things you are waiting on, shopping/wish lists, or low-priority tasks you want to keep track of. Collections help you to organise your thoughts and plan your time.

Reflection and “Intentional Living”

It is possible to bullet journal without a daily log. In fact, you probably won’t need to use both. If you have a particularly busy day ahead then you could use a daily log; otherwise you can rely on the weekly spread.

It is helpful for this reason to leave enough space for a task list in your weekly spread. Once the week is up you then create a new weekly spread, where you migrate any relevant events and outstanding tasks.

In my case, I do a mini-review of my week every Sunday to establish which tasks are important. Only these are migrated over to the next week. Low priority tasks get migrated to another month or collection.

Carroll calls this process Reflection. If reflecting weekly feels too burdensome or time-consuming, try reflecting monthly instead. Use it as an opportunity to refocus your attention on what matters to you. This is known in the Bullet Journal Method as The Mental Inventory. It forms the basis for goal setting, weekly planning and “intentional living”.

If intentionality means acting according to your beliefs, then the opposite would be operating on autopilot. In other words, do you know why you’re doing what you’re doing?

Ryder Carroll, The Bullet Journal Method (4th edition), page 29.

Making to do lists addresses the overwhelm of decision fatigue too, with the benefit of having the lists all in one place so you can organise them.

The Bullet Journal Promise: “accomplish more by working on less”, page 16.
The Test: for each item on your Mental Inventory list ask yourself “is it vital?”, page 41.
Bullet Journaling for Wellbeing

“The power of the Bullet Journal is that it becomes whatever you need it to be, no matter what season of life you’re in.”

Carroll, page 44.

The bullet journal method is designed with flexibility of both form and function in mind, insofar as you set up the pages as you go along. The effectiveness of your bullet journal will depend on the simplicity of your method. This is especially true of your weekly spread, which you will use every day. These are my suggestions for making a bullet journal work for wellbeing, based on my experience of setting up my own.

The Weekly Spread
  • Weekly calendar spread: create this over two pages and schedule your daily activities a timeline order (symbols are optional). Reflect at the end of each day by adding anything else for an accurate record.
  • Choose a Main Focus. This is something you would like to keep in mind or work on throughout the week. It could be wellbeing related, like “aim to get more early nights”, or “catch myself catastophising.”
  • Goals. These can be more specific and measurable than your focus and could support monthly goals e.g. go for a run 3 times this week.
  • If you are using Custom Bullets and Signifiers (a key with symbols to denote different tasks/categories) keep them as simple as possible.
Daily Reflection: Improve Productivity and Boost Your Mood

I can only improve my time management if I know how I have spent my time. So, at the end of each day, I add in retrospectively any tasks I have completed but not logged. This gives me an accurate record of my day.

Having an accurate record challenges my negative self-perceptions. For example, I sometimes get a gut feeling I have not achieved enough with my time. It is difficult to buy into this negative thinking when I have evidence to the contrary! If I don’t have the time or energy for weekly reflection, seeing my achievements accrue day-by-day is motivation enough. And if I have genuinely achieved very little, then I still benefit from the bullet journal ideas for positive wellbeing (discussed below).

Journaling vs Bullet Journaling

There are several ways you can incorporate the qualities of a traditional diary or long-hand journal in your bullet journal.

  1. Write your diary entries in between weekly logs or after daily logs.
  2. Dedicate a page or two to record reflections, thoughts and feelings.

Alternatively you might decide to keep a separate reflective journal and keep your bullet journal for planning, positivity and progress.

One key benefit of the bullet journal is that it brings everything together in one single place, but it can still suit the multiple-notebook person who wishes to use a separate bullet journal for health/home/study/work.

In this video Carroll explains the differences between journaling and bullet journaling and shows how to combine the two.

Journaling vs Bullet Journaling by Ryder Carroll
Habit Trackers
  • These are great for motivation and reinforcing behaviours. You could consider including one with your weekly spread, starting with just three habits. Mark the relevant box for every day you do them.
  • You can change the habits from week-to-week or month-to-month.
  • Specific health and wellbeing trackers could include meal planners or sleep/water trackers. You might choose to include these if/when you have a particular health goal (mine is often “no caffeine!”).
  • You can track TV/smart phone usage, step count, days you cooked from scratch / packed a lunch / met your savings target – anything!
Bullet Journal Habit Tracker by Lynne G. Caine.
Mood Tracker

Mine takes up one landscape page for each month and looks like this:

 Tues 1st Weds 2ndThurs 3rd
6+ Fruit & Veg    
8+ GlassesxWater   
Fatigue / Lethargy   
Headache   
Nausea   
Nightmares   
Poor sleep   
Socialised   
Anxious   
Dissociated   
Flat / Numb   
Sad   
Sensitive   
Agitated   
Angry   
Distracted   
Irritable   
Paranoid   
Calm   
Content   
Elated   
Energetic   
Focussed   
My Monthly “Mind & Body” Mood Tracker
  • You could use ticks, crosses, coloured boxes – any method you like. I separate habits from physical symptoms by using different colours and I colour-code each mood type too (positive/negative/neutral).
  • It is possible to record morning and afternoon separately by using two different colours and splitting each box in half diagonally.
  • Another idea, if you want to capture the emotional intensity, is to use block colour for strong emotions and shading/dots for not so strong.
  • Keep it simple, though. If it’s not working for you, the next time you set up your monthly tracker try simplifying it and see if that helps.
Three More Monthly Trackers
  • Housework – list all the different chores and dot when you’ve done them. This might not be that fun, but it does remind me to clean!
  • When Did I Last? – e.g. car MOT, dentist, eye test, oil bicycle chain.
  • Workouts – each time you exercise record it in your bullet journal. Even if it’s a short walk, that still counts. I use mine as motivation.
Habit tracker by Martha @marthasjournal.
Bullet Journaling for Wellbeing: Collections

“Creating Custom Collections is a creative, enjoyable, and rewarding aspect of Bullet Journaling because you’re empowering yourself to solve your own challenges!”

Carroll, page 237.
Action Plan

Create an action plan for a particular goal or project using these steps:

  1. Define the goal/objectives
  2. Set a realistic schedule within reasonable time frame.
  3. What are the barriers/obstacles I might encounter?
  4. What strengths/resources do I have already to help overcome these?
  5. What will be my first step/s? Make this manageable!

This is ideal for turning a Mental Inventory into more actionable steps.

Brain Dump

Take up 1-2 pages and get all your thoughts out of your brain and on to the page. You turn all your worries, ideas and dreams in to a list or a mind-map, which you can then turn into actions (if you choose to).

Celebrating Small Wins
  • On one page list the dates of the month down the left-hand side and beside each date, on each day, write down something you achieved.
  • If this seems challenging at first then start by doing it once a week. It’s about congratulating yourself on the small wins and celebrating your accomplishments, no matter how insignificant they may seem.
  • Remember that once complete your tasks turn into accomplishments! An achievements page gives you a dedicated place to celebrate these.
Check-In

Use one page of your bullet journal to do a mental health check-in. Divide the page into four sections and assign a category to each quarter e.g. physical/mental/emotional/spiritual). Do this as often as you’d like.

“Every day, once a day, give yourself the present of savouring the good in your life.”

Carroll, page 187.
Gratitude Practice
  • List the dates of the month and on each line write down something you are grateful for. Or fill an entire page by writing a list in one go.
  • Gratitude lists work best if what you record is specific and genuine. So if you can, noting it down as soon as you think of it can help.
  • Try the Three Good Things exercise. Write down three good things that happened that day. Next to each positive event, 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?” Do it every day or three days times a week.
Random Acts of Kindness

Make a list of ideas for random acts of kindness, marking them off each time you do them. Or simply notice when you perform a random act of kindness and note that down during your daily or weekly reflection.

Carroll, “Less, but better”, page 236.
More ideas for your bullet journal toolkit

The possibilities are endless, but here are some of the ones I like:

  • Books – list the titles you’re reading and tick them off when you’re finished, or break it into smaller chunks by tracking chapter progress.
  • Films / TV shows – use this collection to list all the things you plan to, or want to, watch. Again, tick them off once you’ve seen them.
  • Turn this into a goal by choosing one thing to read/watch each week.
  • Mental health toolkit – list some coping techniques that help most.
  • Self-care – list all the things that do/don’t increase your wellbeing.
Some final words on persevering with your bullet journaling

This wasn’t straightforward for me at first. Sifting through all the available information and making a start was slightly overwhelming (and, I’ll admit, on some days it still is). It took some perseverance and I had to keep tweaking things until I found a set up I was happy with. It was worth it, though. (If you’re interested, I’ve written an essay on how I got started.) I still search Youtube and Instagram for inspiration (without overburdening myself) and I don’t keep any tried ideas that don’t bring me satisfaction or joy. Above all I keep it simple. Happy journaling!

Image: Can Bullet Journaling Save You? The New Yorker (September 2019)
Categories
Health and Fitness Psychology

In praise of… Running

Recently I participated in a panel discussion on the topic of dependency in relationships, where I shared my sober status publicly for the first time. Although this was daunting, spoken words can be taken back or forgotten. Expressing this sentiment in writing is more permanent. Sharing it makes me accountable for my sobriety; but at the same time, it is a personal thing to open up about online.

My anxiety and binge-pattern drinking have run side by side for a long time. I would not call myself an alcoholic, but I am in recovery. In the past, when afflicted by an obsession with alcohol and compulsion to misuse it, I have thought about assuming this label. Would it help or hinder? Am I deceiving myself by choosing not to? Does it even matter how I define it? I am not the only woman to question the stereotypes of sobriety This internal conflict is confusing and challenging to articulate. I need to accept the grey areas and let go of my self-consciousness. There is also an analogy about ‘desire paths’ in the penultimate paragraph that I wasn’t sure would fly, but I’ve decided to run with it (see what I did there?). This is my experience after all. I do also involve the experiences of others in this essay, which I hope does them justice. So, in the spirit of honesty and creative risk taking, I decided to publish it.

I was meant to write about running and creativity. This had been my intention ever since goal setting with bullet journaling helped me run a half marathon. Having formulated the surprisingly simple equation for unlocking my own creative potential (running + bullet journaling = creativity), another achievement followed and I created and published this website. I began to notice the meditative qualities of running, which until now I had not tapped in to. So I thought I would write about the creative output of my mind on running. But when I tried to express these ideas, I couldn’t. Somehow the sentences I constructed felt fragmentary. I wasn’t telling the full story. Why did I run in the first place? I did it for better mental health, that was a given, but I realised I was also running as a replacement for drinking. I had achieved sobriety because of running, and I loved running because I was sober.

When I lived in London I took up running as a means of travelling to work. My office was located just off Piccadilly Circus and I lived a few minutes’ walk from Lambeth Bridge, so I would pass the Houses of Parliament and St James’ Park on my way. The Tube intercepted such sights and I avoided it anyway due to claustrophobia; however my run-commuting was short-lived. Navigating an inner-city running route had its challenges. Hordes of tourists, relentless traffic, rushed commuters and aggressive drivers all conspired against me by barring access to the restorative benefits of running. When my knees objected to the hardness of the pavements I swiftly switched to cycling instead.

Not one to admit defeat willingly, I persisted with running – but I was inconsistent. I ran to stave off anxiety, which wasn’t present all of the time. Even then I only ever reached for my running trainers out of desperation, often by the time depression had moved in. This happened in 2016, as I was approaching the end of my employment contract with the NHS. I had left my office job the previous year for a postgraduate training programme in mental health practice. The pressure of workplace demands and coursework deadlines had increased my stress levels, and now my own mental health was suffering. My sleep was affected and I experienced panic attacks for the first time. Heart palpitations and a deep, pulsating sensation of pressure would creep in to my chest at night, accompanied by an overwhelming sense of dread. Only a change in my physical environment would break a run of sleepless nights spent in my own bed, blighted by nightmares. A friend would sometimes host me at her flat for this reason and I would get some respite. Our evening ritual combined three basic self-care practices: running; cooking; and sitcoms. Then I would retreat to her spare bedroom for an early night. At its worst my entire working day would be spent in a dissociated state. On better days I felt chronic agitation, not helped by my reliance upon caffeine and nicotine to cope. I remember my muscles aching from tension. It was necessary to expend some of this agitated energy, but gym sessions added more stress. Running was uncomplicated and felt gentle enough on my body. Intense worry still whirred in the background, churned out by the internal chaos I felt, but the instructions presiding over them were straightforward enough: breathe, swing your arms, put one foot in front of the other – and keep going. Having a running buddy helps; they will motivate us when we cannot do it for ourselves. It is comforting that our memories of kindness, shown to us by strangers as well as friends, survive long after the suffering we endure.

One of the advantages of living so centrally was my proximity to Westminster – and the London Marathon’s home stretch specifically. On marathon day I would make my way over to Parliament Square to soak up the atmosphere. I liked the mixture of emotions I felt watching the competitors and hearing the crowd cheer them on. It would stir my own tentative desire to cross the finish line one day, never mind that 5K was the longest distance I could envisage myself running at the time.

By far the most inspirational marathon runner I know is the journalist and author Bryony Gordon. Much-loved by her fans for her honesty and humour, she has been a columnist and writer at the Telegraph since her early twenties (she is now 40). I first discovered her when I stumbled across her Mad World podcast two years ago. She has hosted high profile guests such as HRH Prince Harry and Stephen Fry, but also people like 18-year old Jade, who talks about her personality disorder diagnosis, and former NHS mental health director Mandy, who discusses what it’s like to go from practitioner to patient. These are important conversations to be broadcasting. As a mental health campaigner, Bryony writes and speaks about her own mental health issues, which include obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), depression, bulimia, drug dependency and alcoholism.

There is a theory of addiction known as the self-medication hypothesis, which suggests that people become addicted to substances to relieve, change or control overwhelming psychological pain. Drugs and alcohol provide a habitual, short-term solution for managing strong emotions or, at the other end of the spectrum, emotional numbness. In other words, they offer us a way of coping with our distressing thoughts and feelings. No matter how destructive the consequences, substance abuse will be serving a purpose of some kind.

For Bryony, alcohol drowned out the negative voices and intrusive thoughts associated with her depression and OCD. In fact, she was still drinking during her training for the Heads Together London Marathon in 2017. That August Bank Holiday weekend she had her last drink. She wrote a book about it: Eat, Drink, Run: How I Got Fit Without Going Too Mad. This followed her memoir Mad Girl: a Happy Life with a Mixed-up Mind, so enjoyable I read it in one sitting. She ran the London Marathon again the following year – this time with friend and model Jada Sezer; they decided to run it together in just their underwear and trainers, to celebrate positive body image.

I appreciated hearing Bryony’s story. For the first time someone was talking about a toxic relationship with alcohol that resonated with my own. Those in recovery from addiction usually talk about hitting their rock bottom: the point at which they decided they could go no further in their addiction. This is a traumatic experience for some, but also a powerful catalyst for change. Bryony’s latest book, which comes out in August 2020, is called Glorious Rock Bottom. It is a sobriety memoir about how hitting rock bottom saved her life.

Experiences like Bryony’s illustrate the deep connection shared by addiction and mental illness. Marian Keyes is another writer who has spoken publicly about going to rehab for alcohol addiction. Aged 30 at the time, she thought: “if I am able to not drink, everything is possible.” (She says more about this on the BBC Radio 2 podcast What Makes Us Human?) Wonderful things did happen: she left rehab in 1995 and her first novel Watermelon was published that same year (she is now one of the most successful Irish novelists of all time). She has since opened up about her major depression, which came on abruptly in 2009 and left her unable to write. Alcohol was “the love of her life”, having helped her cope with low self-esteem and self-loathing since she was a teenager. She learnt she was an alcoholic whilst in rehab, realising at the time that alcohol was the real cause of her distress. In this excerpt she describes what it was like reaching her own rock bottom:

“I felt very depressed and very hopeless. And I was so grateful to alcohol. Because I thought, ‘my god, this is helping me. Because I am so unhappy and how would I manage if this was taken from me?’ And any addiction is progressive, like it gets worse and I continued to normalise the abnormal. I ran out of road. And it was the best thing that could have happened to me.”

How to Fail with Elizabeth Day: Marian Keyes (S7, Ep6).

According to the alcohol education charity Drinkaware, drinking heavily and regularly is associated with symptoms of depression, although it can be difficult to disentangle cause and effect when the two go together. Some people depend on alcohol to alleviate symptoms of depression (a short-term solution that increases them in the long run). This didn’t apply to me. There is no doubt that drinking affected my mood – wreaking havoc on my health, relationships and routine. When I was happy, I drank to get happier. But in the depths of depression I was immune to its intoxicating effects and would instinctively avoid it.

If you asked what purpose alcohol served me, I would say I used it to feel more at ease with myself, especially in the company of other people. And I enjoyed drinking. I really enjoyed it. Confidence was easier to fake in social situations and I cared less about others’ perceptions of me. But it was always much more than a social lubricant; drinking went hand in hand with social anxiety. It created an opportunity for me to escape into my own head, which I welcomed all too often. Nothing else seemed to matter with a drink in hand. On alcohol my anxious feelings made way for the warm, fuzzy dopamine release and rush of endorphins that would take the edge off any discomfort or undetected emotional pain. It suited my over-sensitivity to the environment by dulling the senses, shutting out the sensory overload that prevented me from joining conversations. Drink dampened the noise in my head too. I would feel pleasantly detached from my self-critical voice, as if it held less authority – enough to convince me that alcohol had some semblance of control over my anxiety (whereas in reality it only pushed the difficult thoughts and feelings away).

This was a comforting experience, until it wasn’t. It is common knowledge that alcohol induces two phases of intoxication: stimulation and sedation. This is known as a ‘biphasic’ effect (interestingly, someone who is sensitive to this may be at greater risk of developing alcoholism). For me, alcohol was an unreliable social crutch that could give out at any moment. The elation and extroversion it offered in the first phase, which facilitated new connections and closeness with others, became a barrier to forming meaningful friendships. It was in the second phase that my mind would check out. Friendships formed in the presence of alcohol felt inauthentic, as if mediated by a third party whose only motive was to drive a wedge between me and the world. The emotional fluctuations caused by alcohol would linger long after my last drink – and my social identity was equally unstable. My self-loathing had not gone, as I had hoped; it had simply been buried – and withdrawal would dig it back up again. The more typical hangover symptoms – headaches, dizziness, lethargy and brain fog – were damaging to my mental health too, compounding worry and rumination. Negative thoughts returned with a vengeance. Still, I normalised it. Surely everyone reacts this way after having a drink? My relationship with alcohol was becoming dysfunctional, but I was not prepared to end it just yet.

The following year I conquered a different addiction: I gave up smoking. Running didn’t seem so bad after this, so I signed up for the Hackney Half 2017. I had recently left a much-loved but highly stressful job in health and social care and I was taking a break from alcohol due to burnout. This was my particular pattern: take a break when things get tough and resume drinking when life is fun again. I spent the best part of my twenties yo-yoing back and forth like this. The day before the Hackney Half I had met a friend in my favourite North London pub garden and got stuck with a miserable lime and soda, while she enjoyed a cider in the sun. On race day I remember being offered a sip of beer by a spectator and feeling deeply irritated by his joviality. I was envious that he was enjoying an alcoholic drink, so relaxed and carefree he was heckling half marathon runners on a Sunday morning. If it were not for my running buddy I would have given up (the race, that is; I celebrated with a pint once it was over), who encouraged me towards the finish line. I remained in this on-off relationship with alcohol for two more years, until I realised for various reasons I had reached the point of no return. So in August 2019 I celebrated my 30th birthday in the pub, and then travelled solo to the Greek Island of Kefalonia for a yoga retreat – taking my new sober identity with me. Back in Oxford I gradually informed friends of my decision to quit alcohol. I avoided pubs for the first six months. And I started running.

Running might act as an antidote to addiction initially – activating our drive system as we strive to achieve that elusive ‘runner’s high’ – but it has so many mental health benefits, it soon takes on a life of its own. I had not appreciated this before sobriety (I did not make the connection between my anxiety and alcohol use until much later). It is a common phenomenon to substitute an addictive behaviour for another one – known as cross-sensitisation. Substances like alcohol and nicotine prime the brain for a heightened response to other drugs, which is the logic behind abstinence-based recovery. It also explains my current obsession with non-alcoholic alternatives. Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) recommends that people who have become dependent on alcohol do not drink non-alcoholic alternatives, as they do contain some alcohol (up to 0.05% ABV) – which could be enough to trigger the desire to drink more alcohol, or relapse from a recovery. This is why it is far better to substitute healthy activities, like exercise, for behaviours from the past.

Sobriety feels more achievable when combined with running. In fact, so does leading a healthy and happy life in general. By combating things like avoidance, inertia, procrastination and fear, running makes way for confidence, motivation and joy. It works wonders for our mood and energy levels. Physical activity can help to manage stress and anxiety, reduce the risk of depression, improve sleep and increase self-esteem. The mind-body connection is clear and running is a case in point. Furthermore, we benefit most when we are focused on feeling good, rather than looking good. Body positivity champion Bryony wants to remind people that exercise is for everyone. She runs for “the gains and not the losses” – for the way exercise makes her feel, “rather than losing weight or inches around [her] waist.” This distinction has led her to truly love exercise. She says: “I don’t always want to go out for a run, but I never regret going.”

As I sit here writing this and thinking about running, I can hear the objections by my own inner voice: “it’s too cold…it looks windy… you’ll struggle… just stay indoors, sit on the sofa and drink tea.” Finding the motivation to run is challenging, especially in extreme weathers. Waiting around for motivation to magically appear would usually disappoint me. Instead I try to treat my runs as appointments with myself. The act of putting on my running trainers is like a little nod of self-respect; it is when I stake my claim to all those feel-good chemicals that reward us with good feelings. My returns are higher levels of motivation, determination and sometimes, if I’m lucky, a natural high. I am so busy assembling my list of things to give up – alcohol, caffeine, sugar and shopping sprees – that I rarely stop to consider what I gain as a result. Energy, focus, resolve and self-belief: these are the qualities to have in abundance, not the external matter feeding our addictions (and keeping us stuck).

Alcohol does not serve the person who drinks to anaesthetise their feelings or alleviate distress, not in the long run. This may sound obvious, but in my case the suggestion that alcohol was unhelpful took a long time to sink in. Besides, I needed to find my alternative coping strategies. Sobriety unleashes emotions that have previously remained dormant, tamed by whichever substance we have reached for to numb ourselves. It is necessary to find alternative ways of coping with distress, because giving up drugs or alcohol opens up the floodgates to our feelings. Radical acceptance of those feelings is the prerequisite to change. Self-reflection can pick up the pace, but it requires courage – it must be motivated by self-compassion, not self-criticism. If, instead of being kind, we are harsh on ourselves, we run the risk of relapsing back in to bad habits.

Cheryl Strayed’s best-selling memoir Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail is an exploration of her addiction to heroin, unhealthy relationships and grief after the death of her mother, intertwined with the personal revelations she experienced during her solo hike along the PCT. “How wild it was, to let it be”, she writes. Being in nature is a powerful way of grounding ourselves in the present moment. It is where we find the time, space and silence for self-reflection; Wild is testament to that. Why else did I escape to Kefalonia before choosing sobriety, if not to experience its sunrises, sunsets, sandy beaches and calm waters?

Now I surrender to this intuitive need to be in nature as often as I can. I am lucky that my half marathon training can take place in green spaces. Being able to run in nature is a form of escape; a forest, for example, can be a natural place in which to run. My running route, less than ten minutes from my house, begins with a woodland trail leading me to farmland and grazing fields, where I pass rabbits, cows, horses, sheep and alpaca. During a trail run, a well-trodden path is the easiest kind to follow. The course is clear because the ground has been worn down, having been used countless times before. To me these paths represent my negative thinking patterns. They have been tried and tested many times and the destination is always the same. Sometimes the paths go round in circles; others lead to dead ends. Desire paths, however, emerge as more efficient or easily navigated shortcuts. They are created naturally, as a consequence of erosion caused by foot traffic. Andrew Furman, who is a professor in interior design and architecture at Ryerson University in Toronto, believes they tell us something about “the endless human desire to have choice. The importance of not having someone prescribe your path.” Similarly, author Robert Macfarlane calls them “free-will ways”. Freedom of choice is important when it comes to running; we can choose where, when and how to do it. Part of the pleasure is having something we can truly control, which is not always true for the thoughts in our head. For me, desire paths represent the new neural pathways I am creating when I engage in my latest running challenge. Like desire paths, their formation is based on our habits and behaviours. With each repetition of my run the pathways grow stronger and my running habit becomes more established. When I come across a desire path I am reminded of this – and my desire to surpass myself grows stronger too.

Previously, I wrote about how the act of logging my running activity has increased positive emotions by supporting my goal attainment. I was so happy after completing my first 10K that I filmed myself doing a victory dance, which I shared with friends (why, given everything else I’ve shared, does this disclosure feel shameful?). Celebrating the small achievements like this might feel awkward at first, but it will keep you motivated. I enjoyed building up steadily to a half marathon distance because it felt gratifying to achieve each goal along the way. This step-by-step approach made it pleasurable, meaning I was more likely to stick to my training. I never thought running would become a habit, but in 2018 I ran the Oxford Half marathon and I am hoping to run it again this year. Try it. Engage in some healthy competition with yourself. The desire to win will know no bounds.

Photograph: Forestry England.

Categories
Creativity Psychology Writing

In praise of… Bullet Journaling

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.

Getting Started

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.

Books

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)

Online

Action for Happiness: Find Three Good Things Each Day

Bullet Journal: the Analogue Method for the Digital Age.

Mental Health Bullet Journal by Rachel W Miller for BuzzFeed.

The Positive Bullet Journal by *Positive Planner (AKA Ali and Finn) can be purchased here (you’ll be supporting the amazing arts charity Arts at the Old Fire Station too!).

Getting Started

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).

Acknowledgements

Many thanks to the wonderful people at Restore and Oxfordshire Recovery College for their encouragement.

A big thank you to Ruth for reading earlier versions of this essay.

Photograph: Leuchtturm 1917.