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The Productivity Subculture That Won’t Quit

How BuJo is inspiring endless creative strategies to stay organized

Photo by Matt Ragland on Unsplash

Part 1 of a two-part series on bullet journaling, exploring the rise of its culture, its many uses, and the benefits of this productivity practice.


My decades-long love affair with paper planners came to an end a few years ago, when I turned to digital productivity apps. But since then, I’ve missed the simple satisfaction that comes with putting pen to paper and mapping out your life on the page.

Turns out, I’m not alone.

In 2013, Brooklyn-based designer Ryder Carroll took the productivity world by storm when he introduced bullet journaling, a method that he developed to stay organized without being restricted to a preformatted planner template. As Carroll says in his bullet journal tutorial video, “I needed a system flexible enough to handle whatever I threw at it and fast enough that it wouldn’t get in the way.”

Carroll’s system, now more than 20 years in the making, has become all the rage. You don’t have to take my word for it. Just search the hashtag #BuJo on Instagram to see for yourself. Fair warning: Be prepared to lose a good chunk of time going down the rabbit hole of elaborate designs.


A Customizable, Flexible Approach to Tracking Your Life

Why has bullet journaling, also known as dot journaling, taken off so quickly?

It uniquely blends together deliberate planning, thoughtful reflection, and self-expression in analog form. This allows users to stay organized in a minimalist way while helping them cultivate a sense of mindfulness as part of their productivity ritual.

Bullet journalers laud it as a method to streamline and record everything from their daily schedules to their business analytics. Because bullet journaling is infinitely customizable, different users create endless strategies and formats, including grids for:

  • Habit tracking
  • Meal planning
  • Financial goals
  • Reading lists

In contrast to other planners, the system is ideal for documenting random thoughts that occur to you throughout the day, which is a proven way to keep anxiety (and distractions) to a minimum. Rather than having to categorize each thought or turn it into an action step, you simply add it to your daily log and mark it with a dash to signify that it’s a note. You can even index it if you need to reference it easily.

For some people, the act of creating and updating their journal is relaxing in itself. Studies show a strong positive correlation between writing and health outcomes, including lower blood pressure, improved memory, and better immune function. In therapy, journaling is an essential strategy for helping clients process emotions, examine their thoughts, and tap into their creativity to leverage it more effectively in all parts of their life and work.

Those who use paper-based bullet journals also extol the Stoic calm that comes from stepping away from the screen to plan your day and design your life. Which is in part why the bullet journal is so popular. Plus, as any list lover knows, crossing off to-do items as they’re completed produces deep satisfaction and a sense of control. As one writer put it, “Your bullet journal is a catch-all for everything that itches your brain.”


A Closer Look at the Productivity Subculture That Embraced BuJo

Bullet journalers are as devoted as they come. Carroll’s tutorial video, which provides a basic introduction for newcomers, has been viewed more than 7 million times since it was posted in 2015.

Those who adopt the system are wildly passionate about it, sharing new symbols, layouts, and styles with the bullet journal community or crowdfunding new journals that exemplify the #BuJo way. These loyal followers are proud to call themselves productivity-loving nerds, and while many of the YouTube videos feature women displaying their designs, the BuJo movement has also been embraced by men.

Instagram, in particular, is buzzing with energy from bullet journal gurus and followers. Imagine the most beautiful and functional journal layout possible, then add expert-style calligraphy, washi tape adornments, and unbelievable illustrations in the margins or on header pages.

For some, the act of beautifying and customizing the functionality of their journal is part of the appeal. But for others, it’s a turn-off. Looking at the picture-perfect journals created by others can be overwhelming, especially at the beginning. One writer, who ultimately did not take to the movement, said the learning curve was too high: “It was evident that bullet journaling was for people with a specific type of drive and a dedication to living efficient lives,” she wrote. “In my own life, I went to Muji and bought a pre-organized $7 planner.”

Others argue that the proliferation of pretty Instagrams feeds an “inaccessible aesthetic,” which feeds into a rising tide of perfectionism, guilt, and shame among millennials and high achievers. I’ve seen this counterproductive dynamic in action firsthand with my clients, who are at first motivated by the possibilities of their new practice and then feel increasing pressure to create a bullet journal that prioritizes Instagram-worthiness over usefulness to their lives. Given all the research indicating how detrimental it is to compare ourselves on social media, it’s no surprise that some abandon bullet journaling and return to less trendy alternatives.

While bullet journaling doesn’t require any special equipment (any old journal and pen will do), there is an entire market of products catering to bullet journalers. From high-end pens to rich paper stock and whimsical paper clips, you could spend all your time (and a lot of money) purchasing enhancements for your journal rather than actually using it.

Despite those criticisms, legions of users have discovered ways to adapt and modify their bullet journaling practices in a way that does fit their lives. The radical flexibility of the bullet journal to “track the past, organize the present, and plan for the future” (the purpose as stated by Carroll) is why it was born in the first place.

Whether that process is a pleasurable one that takes a few hours of intensive crafting each week or involves five minutes of scribbling notes at the beginning of the day is an option that’s integral to the heart of BuJo’s purpose.


Bullet Journaling for Unartistic, Impatient People

Bullet journaling is much more than a glorified to-do list. It’s cracking the code on helping people be happier and more productive where other methods (and professionals like doctors and personal trainers) have failed. The unique combination of pure enjoyment, engaging multiple senses, and externalizing thoughts is what seems to make this method so effective — that is, if you can stick with it.

In Part 2, we’ll dig deeper into the benefits of bullet journaling and some low-entry ways to get started and sustain a journaling habit (even if you’re nonartistic and impatient like me).