What #BuJo Culture Gets Wrong.

Are you exhausted by blog posts about bullet journaling yet? How about Instagram posts, or YouTube videos?

Well buckle up, because I got something to say about bullet journals.

Full disclosure, I maintain a bullet journal (I will never use “BuJo” unironically because it sounds like a code for blowjobs to me) and have done so off and on for years now.

If you’ve stumbled upon this post and are wondering what a bullet journal is, it is, in short, a combination planner and journal maintained in a blank notebook. It is fully customizable, and was inspired by a system created by Ryder Carroll, featured in the video below:

Ryder says that his inspiration for creating the bullet journal system was to manage his life as a person with ADHD. As a result, it’s very useful for organizing and planning, replacing dozens of scraps of paper and post-it notes that might otherwise take over one’s desk, purse, pocket, or wallet.

A huge following sprang up surrounding the bullet journal system, and it evolved, taking on a life of its own that far outstripped Ryder’s original system.

Now, I’m not here to tell anyone what’s right or wrong, and even Ryder says there’s no wrong way to bullet journal; that’s the beauty of the system. It can be whatever the user needs it to be. It is infinitely customizable, adjustable, and modifiable. I mean, it’s a blank notebook, right?

The system that Ryder initially envisioned was a series of notes each day that could be migrated; ideas, additions to standing lists, things like that would go to what he called Collections. Tasks and appointments and events would be migrated to the days that they were to be attended or accomplished. So each day was a running list, and each day could be closed out when the items were migrated. Very helpful for ADHD and anxiety sufferers.

If you look up bullet journal or BuJo on Instagram or YouTube today, you will find people creating complicated, intricate spreads with hand lettering and artwork, trackers and systems, that really bear little resemblance to Ryder’s original system.

Initially I became enthralled with this content and put a lot of effort into creating Instagrammable spreads in my journals. I worked hard on it, particularly putting a couple of hours in at the beginning of each month to “set up” the journal. I was excited about this new project.

But after a several months of this, a problem raised its head. I wasn’t using the journal. My intricate spreads were blank, abandoned. This was for a few reasons.

It was too complicated.

The system I had pieced together was too unwieldy for me to whip out the journal and note something down. My “dailies” became nothing more than to do lists, and I tried to flip to the collections pages to make notes because the space pre-allocated for daily entries in my complicated system was not sufficient for little notes, ideas, etc. As a result, I would lose things. The ideas I was sure I would remember until I had a chance to sit down and page through the book flew out of my head before I got to my bus stop.

It was too stressful.

The pressure of creating new, fresh spreads that I could post soon shut me down completely. The worry that I would ruin something I’d spent hours creating kept me from using the spreads I had created. Then, with the trackers, they existed as a reminder of things I had failed to do, a record of my personal shame.

I started looking for answers.

Of course, I started looking within the online bullet journal community. I tried all kinds of keywords, minimalist, simple, etc. Even the “minimalist” bullet journal content was too complicated for what I needed.

Just as a note, the bullet journal community online has become intensely gendered. On the feminine side are intricate, artistic, complicated spreads. On the masculine side are bearded online media bros who celebrate the bullet journal as the ultimate tool for productivity and rationality and structure, all the while sneering at “female” bullet journal spreads. I’ve been trying hard to find content in this space that breaks out of this binary and have been frustrated at basically every turn.

So I went back to Ryder’s original system. I made a couple of tweaks, such as including monthly calendars (they help me know which dates fall on what days of the week for future planning), and I included a habit tracker, not for compliance, but for tracking mental health. And I started using the journal as Ryder originally intended; a list of notes and ideas, rather than as a fancy to do list. I also developed some personal rules for bullet journal maintenance.

My bullet journal rules.

I want to preface this by saying that I’m not telling anyone else what to do. If you find planner peace with complicated spreads, do it. These rules are for me

1. No Rulers.

A lot of people use rulers or straight-edges to set up. Hell, even Ryder does in the video above. But I really need perfection to not be a part of this process at all, so forgoing rulers helps me understand that this is a messy, spur of the moment process, and that perfection is not the goal. This helps with the anxiety I feel about using the journal.

2. No Boxes.

The heart of these complicated systems are boxes. Boxes for your days, boxes for your weeks, boxes for notes, boxes for to do lists. Boxes ended up constraining my use of the journal, editing what was important enough to include and what wasn’t, resulting again in my losing information.

Okay, I still use some boxes, for tracking things that only require a checkmark or something, but for daily pages, no boxes. I don’t care if a day takes up two pages. In fact, I would be pretty delighted if one did, because it probably means I did a lot of brain work that day.

3. Migrate at the End of the Day.

Everything goes on the daily list of notes. Everything. At the end of the day, appointments and tasks get marked off or migrated to collections, etc. That closes out my day. Nothing left un-dealt-with to keep me up at night. Everything has a plan or a place as appropriate. And it prevents me putting off writing something down until I can flip through to the right place, resulting in better capture of information.

4. No White Out.

I’m a creative worker, as a writer, and messiness is important to that process. Failure is a part of creativity, and allowing those mistakes to remain on the page allows me, perhaps counter-intuitively, to accept that. I may scribble them out and write the correction next to them, but no white out, no hiding mistakes. Only acceptance of my flawed self.

The result of following these rules is a messy, minimally decorated (I knew I would need to be able to work in my journal with just what I could carry in my purse), and honest reflection of my life, and looking back through it has made me feel good, helped me remember things, and encouraged me to consume media (books, movies, YouTube videos, articles) that I had noted down and then promptly forgot. I’ve captured more ideas, whether good or bad, than I had before. It has been a success.

And I couldn’t be happier.

One thought on “What #BuJo Culture Gets Wrong.

  1. Marlene Lee says:

    I can identify with you about the highly decorated layouts. I would get frustrated if my pages did not look as neat as those. I came across a pocketsize Moleskine lined notebook that I had kept 10 years ago when I was raising 3 kids with their extracurricular activities and keeping track of my elderly mother. This little book got me through it and it was before I knew about the bujo community. Some pages I did days others I had weeklies with boxes drawn and notes on the following pages. Customizing as I go.

    Now I ve gotten more complicated with preprinted planners…and my life isn’t that complicated now. Time to go back to basic. Thanks for a well written article.

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