A silver bullet? How a notebook changed my life

If like me, you’d never heard of Ryder Carroll, you’re not alone. It’s not like the Brooklyn-dwelling digital product designer is a household name. Until yesterday, I’d never heard of the guy either. But he changed my life and so many others when he invented a system of task organizing he dubbed bullet journaling.

I first learned about keeping a bullet journal during a Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators meeting when author Janet Fox spoke about it. I was intrigued but felt like it was too complicated and free-form for me. How could I possibly keep my ADDled brain organized with something so seemingly random?

But a bullet journal can be complex or it can be fairly simple. The idea is basically to keep all your thoughts, ideas, to-do lists and calendars in one place – a notebook. Any notebook. That you WRITE in.

It starts with a few pages in the front of the book that will serve as your index or table of contents – this is key. Then numbering pages as you go along, for each topic you write about in your journal, you enter it the index so you can find it again later.

So, for example, you know all those scraps of paper you’ve collected over the years with suggestions for books to read – you can put all of those on one page in the journal with the heading “Books to Read.” Then when you are heading to the library or bookstore, you can scan the list (finding the page via your index) and pick which book to seek out.

OK, so maybe this seems counterintuitive with all our phone apps meant to keep us dialed in to our lives. But here’s the thing. How often do you actually go to your Goodreads list? Where do you keep your ideas for your next project or notes for that project? Have you lost them? Do you use multiple apps to keep track of all the things that pop into your head daily?

I used to do everything on my phone and kept a random notebook with thoughts. But I found all those apps overwhelming and the ideas would get lost in the ever-present notebook. Maybe that’s just me. I do still use Google Calendar for my appointments and the mundane tasks of life, but all my lists and ideas – they go in the bullet journal. The reason this works, at least for me, is because it keeps all my goals and lists organized and in one place so I CAN FIND THEM AGAIN.

Bonus: I’m not using digital media, so I don’t get distracted by something I see on the web or an email that’s popped into my inbox. In other words, I’m not tempted to “multitask.”

Yes, I put that in quotes.

McGill University neuroscientist Daniel Levitin wrote about the phenomenon of multitasking for The Guardian. Quoting Massachusetts Institute of Technology neuroscientist Earl Miller, he wrote, “‘When people think they are multitasking, they’re actually just switching from one task to another very rapidly. And every time they do, there’s a cognitive cost in doing so.’ So, we’re not actually keeping a lot of balls in the air like an expert juggler; we’re more like a bad amateur plate spinner, frantically switching from one task to another, ignoring the one that is not right in front of us but worried it will come crashing down any minute. Even though we think we’re getting a lot done, ironically, multitasking makes us demonstrably less efficient.”

I love that. It sounds a lot like ADD and not exactly productive, right?

E.J. Masicampo, a psychology professor at Wake Forest University, studied something called the Zeigarnik effect whereby unfulfilled goals can linger in the mind … even hound us. Ever wake up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat realizing you’ve got a project due in a day that you haven’t even started? It’s like that.

Essentially, his team found that participants who planned out a goal were less likely to get distracted by another (easier?) task than those who had not thought about a plan.

“If you just take a moment to make a specific plan for a goal that was previously unresolved and worry-inducing, then it gets rid of that stickiness,” Masicampo told Nicola Davis of the Guardian.

Levitin noted using a blank notebook might also have a positive impact on productivity. Some people spend time creating gorgeous layouts in their journals – some may be daunting to see. On face value this may seem a waste of time, but Levitin thinks otherwise. “Research tells us that if you can take time off from your workflow and let your mind wander – maybe doodle, listen to music, draw pictures or even just stare out the window – those periods of inactivity are actually essential to having productive periods of activity,” he says. “When you’ve got a piece of paper in front of you, it sort of encourages you to expand your visual field and expand your imagination.”

A plethora of research has also shown how expressing one’s thoughts in writing can improve mental and physical health. By jotting down a thought as it pops into your brain, you can temporarily put it aside and stay focused on the task at hand. Can you say productivity?

So, there is science that illustrates why bullet journaling works for so many people. In fact, Carroll, the bullet journal’s creator has ADHD, but relishes the break from screen time (which has its own negative effects on the brain).

Writing on nice paper is soothing to me and there’s a certain gratification I get from checking off a finished task (which I will do as soon as I post this). My bullet journal keeps me accountable and organized – like any trusty sidekick should.