At the beginning of this year, I started my 5th bullet journal.
What I mean to say is on January 1, 2018, I started a bullet journal for the 5th time. I’ve been familiar with the concept of bullet journals since about 2014. One of the blogs or podcasts or email lists I follow mentioned it as a productivity hack and I was instantly interested in how I could use one in my own life.
I tend to struggle with discipline. I suspect it’s one of those things in life, like potty training a toddler, where I’m probably doing better than I think, but I’m too close to all the bad stuff to really believe it. Usually, when I would reflect on my week, what I remembered was all the articles I didn’t read, all the time I spent streaming YouTube videos instead of reading more, every night I tried meditating and gave up because it’s actually the hardest thing ever.
To me, this meant I didn’t have the discipline to get things done. The bullet journal represented a way to make everything black and white. I would write out the things that were important to me and then I would either do them or I wouldn’t. There were no excuses. The bullet journal would be my discipline teacher and force me to be more productive than ever.
Except it didn’t. Because I am a person and a bullet journal is a stack of paper. The thing about a journal with the sole purpose of plainly listing all the things you accomplish in a day is it makes your failures just as obvious. And failure (especially when it’s linked to days I lost to depression) isn’t fun to look at. So, only a few pages into a brand new notebook, I abandoned the whole thing entirely.
And then, every six months or so, I would lust over artists on Instagram who turned their bullet journals into complete works of art. They’d fill pages with accomplishments and artwork. On YouTube there was an entire category of video where the host would flip through their journal month by month, showing off all the great things she’d done and how full her journal (and life) was.
I’d be re-inspired to make a bullet journal. Maybe if I made it beautiful and artful, it’d be more forgiving. I’d have more to focus on besides all the huge projects I wanted to finish but didn’t know how.
So I’d doodle. I’d try hand-lettering collection titles and include photos of pretty things on every page, just like the people on Instagram told me to.
The problem was I have no idea how to hand letter. And I was still forgetting to fill out pages, or not making enough progress on the project goals I’d mapped out for myself when I was feeling inspired. And then there were the habit trackers. Those things were just a giant sign that said, “You suck at life. You can’t do anything but sleep for two days in a row.”
Discouraged, I’d toss the whole journal.
That cycle repeated itself until late December of last year when I started thinking about a 5th bullet journal attempt. Why would I start something that has only resulted in wasted money and frustration? Well, for starters, I am a terrible decision maker. But most importantly, I finally changed my approach to bullet journaling and productivity entirely.
Before, I believed I lacked was discipline — that I just wasn’t as interested in productivity as everyone else was. The explanation didn’t quite fit, but I didn’t have another theory so I just accepted it. Then last year I published two books (each requiring over two years of work). And I worked my way through a five-year heartbreak. I created a successful poetry project and hosted a podcast. Basically, I did some things. And all of them took focused, sustained work, both professionally and personally.
So it couldn’t be that I lacked discipline. I just needed to change the system to fit me. I needed a journal that allowed for shades of gray instead of a black and white system.
More important than a discipline teacher, I wanted a physical representation of my year. I wanted to prove to myself that the days I consider uneventful or mundane add up to something bigger. I wanted to see how many good days I could collect in 12 months. How many days it took to recover from a bad day. How much I actually get done when I think I’m doing nothing. I just wanted a log of my life.
Thus, my 2018 bullet journal was born. And six weeks later, it’s not in the trash.
It definitely isn’t perfect. There are habits I’m tracking that I have yet to do consistently (or at all). My to-do lists went from a daily list to a weekly overview to now where it resembles a cross between a brain dump and a checklist. Sometimes I sit down with my journal every evening to reflect on the day and fill out the parts of my journal that are daily trackers. Sometimes I fill out 4 days worth of info during my lunch break at work. It’s definitely not a fool-proof way to learn discipline and habit forming, but so far, it’s a system that I have stuck with.
Which is really what’s important. It’s not being the most productive person in the world, or using a 14 page to-do list as a way to feel important. It’s definitely not having the prettiest journal. But it is a tool for persistence. It’s helping me see a project all the way through — thinking about different solutions until I find the one that works for me and not comparing what that process looks like for everyone else.
So, even if it took 4 years of frustration and like $150 in notebooks, I’m very grateful for the lessons I learned as a failing bojo keeper.