Ryder Carroll was diagnosed with ADHD in the 1980s, a time “when mullets were better understood than my condition.” Which meant that resources were slim and he had to help himself.
So he decided to create a system that embraced how his mind worked. It wasn’t that he was unable to focus. Rather, he had a “hard time concentrating on the right thing at the right time, on being present.” His attention easily shifted to the shiniest thing—and as he’d get distracted, the list of responsibilities and tasks would pile up higher and higher, sparking more and more overwhelm.
Throughout the years, his system has gone through a lot of trial and error.
Today, that trial and error has led to a creative, flexible, meaningful kind of journal Carroll calls the “Bullet Journal.” This simple system, which only requires a pen and notebook of your choice, has grown into an enormous, creative community and movement.
Carroll tells this story is his comprehensive, inspiring book The Bullet Journal Method: Track the Past, Order the Present, Design the Future. He notes that the Bullet Journal methodology is “an analog refuge” that’s invaluable in helping us define what truly matters in a world that’s overflowing with distractions. It “serves as a mental sanctuary where we are free to think, reflect, process and focus.”
Carroll told me that the Bullet Journal has helped him to “form a habit of switching off autopilot, to clarify what the busy rush of life tends to obscure.”
“In that space, I can cultivate greater awareness of how I’m spending my time and energy. Am I working on the right things? Asking the right questions? Is something adding value to my life, or is it simply a distraction?”
The Bullet Journal method consists of two parts: The first is the system, which helps us to organize the what: responsibilities, obligations, and tasks.
“But it’s easy to waste a lot of time and energy working very hard and productively towards things that end up not mattering very much.”
That’s why the second part is the practice, which helps us understand our why: regularly checking in with ourselves, our motivations, priorities, and beliefs.
“Bullet Journal serves to combine mindfulness with productivity, helping us to align our actions with our beliefs,” Carroll said. “This is my definition of intentionality.”
To get started, Carroll suggests watching the five-minute tutorial video at BulletJournal.com. There you’ll also find a written summary and list of how it works.
Essentially, the core parts of the Bullet Journal are: the index (like a table of contents with topics and page numbers); future log (where you write tasks and events that are outside the current month); monthly log (an overview of tasks for that month); and daily log (your catchall of thoughts and tasks in a succinct list form). There are also specific symbols and terms, which are fairly straightforward and certainly helpful.
“One thing to keep in mind is that Bullet Journal is about self-learning,” Carroll said. “It’s a process. When you’re getting started, and you’re feeling overwhelmed, only use the pieces that you believe will add value to your life. As you become more comfortable, add another piece. The system is modular by design, which allows everyone to customize it to their own needs. Figuring out what you actually need, is part of the practice.”
People have used Carroll’s Bullet Journal method in many imaginative ways to tackle all sorts of subjects, including school, parenting, prayer, mental health, software design, art, trauma, medicine, and minimalism. On his website, Carroll has a “show and tell” category, which features various excellent examples.
As he said, “I’m always astonished—and inspired—by the ingenuity and creativity of the Bullet Journal community.”
What’s so powerful for Carroll about the Bullet Journal method is that it becomes whatever he needs it to be at the time. Right now it’s long-form journaling. As Carroll jots down his thoughts, he marks some of them with a “+” symbol, which signifies things he’d like to explore more fully later.
“During reflection, I scan my pages for the ‘+’ , which I proceed to unpack through writing about them for 15-30 minutes. The point is to think more deeply about items that either challenge or interest me. What about this is challenging? What about this is exciting? Sometimes it goes nowhere, but often it can provide valuable clarity or insight.”
We are surrounded by distractions and noise which can make it harder to hear ourselves. Which can mean that we spend our days checking off tasks that aren’t necessarily that important to us.
Whether you decide to try the Bullet Journal method or something else, the underlying purpose is powerful and vital for all of us: to be intentional with our minutes, hours, days, weeks, and months, to design our lives based on what we sincerely care about.