Unravelling the mystery of the bullet journal

Falling down the rabbit-hole of an insanely popular hashtag, and living to doodle about it.
(Source: Instagram, @lizchadsey)

On a recent Saturday evening, I was at home with a cold, knee-deep in tissues, and even deeper intothe Instagram hashtag #bulletjournal.

If you aren't yet a bullet journal convert, here's what you need to know: bullet journaling is the hottest organizational tool since the Palm Pilot and it's touted as the diary/journal/agenda to end all to-do lists, calendars and vision boards.ย 

And people are obsessed with them.

On Instagram there are more than 430,000 posts with the hashtag #bulletjournal and 44,000 with #bujocommunity. Pinterest is teeming with photos of colourful graphs and meticulously organized pages.ย 

At first glance, it looks ridiculously complicated. Instagram photos showcase pages with intricate hand-drawn designs, jumbles of bullets and charts, and networks of to-do lists. But as I research on, I realize the bullet journal is essentially a DIY planner that rejects the restrictive parameters and uniform layouts of pre-packaged planners.ย 

Created by Ryder Carroll, a Brooklyn-based designer who spent years developing a system to track of his passion projects, work and to-do lists, the bullet journal is, in essence, an analog organizing system. "He sees this as an evolving, adaptable practice meant to be self curated as you determine what works best for you," reads a post on the official Bullet Journal website.ย 

But what is it, really?

"It's hard to answer," laughs Kat Akerfeldt, an assistant curator at Toronto's First Post Office, a museum and post office operated by the Town of York Historical Society, who hosts monthly bullet journaling workshops. "When you boil it all down, it's basically a glorified to-do list."

Akerfeldt said the main components of the bullet journal, as designed by Carroll, include an index to track your pages, a "future log" to plan out the months ahead and a daily log to create to-do lists, which feature bullet point entries that turn into "Xs" when the task is completed. You write as you go, adding "collections" to the following pages, such as goal-oriented charts to monitor your water intake, daily fitness activities or how many books you've read.

While perfect colour-coordinated examples abound, Akerfeldt tells aspiring journalists not to get discouraged. She recommends people pick and choose what works for them and change the format if it's not working. Don't be afraid to get messy and don't take it too seriously, she said. With Akerfeldt's 10-person workshops selling out since September, people seem eager to know more. Back then, only around half her participants knew what a bullet journal was. Now, everyone knows, and some arrive with partially-completed journals.

"It's absolutely snowballed," she said.

Akerfeldt sees the appeal as two-fold: bullet journals cut down on the number of notebooks and scraps of paper one carries around โ€” Akerfeldt merged her running log, gift idea list and address book into one bullet journal โ€” and the free-form style offers a relaxing, creative outlet for people who want to doodle, sketch or experiment with calligraphy.

For some, embracing an analog method might also be a response to "digital exhaustion," Akerfeldt said.

"(Today) everything is an app," she said. "You see it in a lot of places โ€” people choosing to do something with their hands, make things."

As for me, I'm still partial to pre-packaged week-by-week agendas. I like to note down appointments and birthdays on the exact dates months in advance and I write messy to-do lists a journal could never contain.ย  My local bookstore running out of agendas led me down the #bulletjournal rabbit hole.ย I sketched out my own bullet journal plans before putting pen to paper in a blank Moleskine notebook. Now, it looks like a regular homemade week-by-week agenda. Interspersed with pages tracking books I've read. And exercise I've done. And friends' addresses.

One thing's for certain: it'll never be on Pinterest.ย 

Katrina Clarke is a Toronto-based journalist who writes about relationships, health, technology and social trends. Find her on Twitter at @KatrinaAClarke.