The long-awaited first book by the founder of the enormously popular Bullet Journal? organizational system.
For years Ryder Carroll tried countless organizing systems, online and off, but none of them fit the way his mind worked. Out of sheer necessity, he developed a method called the Bullet Journal that helped him become consistently focused and effective. When he started sharing his system with friends who faced similar challenges, it went viral. Just a few years later, to his astonishment, Bullet Journaling is a global movement.
The Bullet Journal Method is about much more than organizing your notes and to-do lists. It’s about what Carroll calls “intentional living”: weeding out distractions and focusing your time and energy in pursuit of what’s truly meaningful, in both your work and your personal life. It’s about spending more time with what you care about, by working on fewer things. His new book shows you how to…
* Track the past: Using nothing more than a pen and paper, create a clear and comprehensive record of your thoughts.
* Order the present: Find daily calm by tackling your to-do list in a more mindful, systematic, and productive way.
* Design the future: Transform your vague curiosities into meaningful goals, and then break those goals into manageable action steps that lead to big change.
Carroll wrote this book for frustrated list-makers, overwhelmed multitaskers, and creatives who need some structure. Whether you’ve used a Bullet Journal for years or have never seen one before, The Bullet Journal Method will help you go from passenger to pilot of your own life.
Ryder Carroll is a digital product designer and inventor of the Bullet Journal. He’s had the privilege of working with companies like Adidas, American Express, Cisco, IBM, Macy’s, and HP. He’s been featured by the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Fast Company, Bloomberg, Lifehacker, and Mashable.
The mystery box arrived unannounced. Stranger still, there was my mother’s unmistakable block script adorning the address label. Maybe a surprise gift, for no particular occasion or reason? Unlikely.
Opening the box revealed a mess of old notebooks. Perplexed, I fished out a nuclear orange one covered in graffiti. Its pages brimmed with rough illustrations of robots, monsters, battle scenes, and wildly misspelled words. Different kinds of . . . a chill went down my spine. These were mine!
I took a deep breath and dove in. This was more than a trip down memory lane. It was like reentering the husk of an all-but-forgotten self. As I leafed through another notebook, a folded sheet fell from its pages. Curious, I unfolded it to find a grotesque rendering of a very angry man. He was yelling so hard that his eyes bulged and his tongue flapped out of his mouth. Two words were written on the page. One small word, shyly tucked into a corner, revealed the identity of the apoplectic man: an old teacher of mine. The other large jagged word, the one revealing the target of his rage, was my name.
My problems started early in elementary school with the terrible grades, the red-faced teachers, the resigned tutors. My performance was so alarming that I spent a good amount of my summers in special schools and psychologists’ offices. Eventually I was diagnosed with attention deficit disorder (ADD). This was back in the 1980s, when mullets were better understood than my condition. The few resources that were available were either too complicated or proscriptive to prove helpful, or didn’t fit my needs. If anything, they salted the wound. Nothing worked the way that my mind worked, so I was left largely to my own dull devices.
The main culprit was my inability to rein in my focus. It wasn’t that I couldn’t focus; I just had a hard time concentrating on the right thing at the right time, on being present. My attention would always dart off to the next bright thing. As I cycled through distractions, my responsibilities steadily piled up until they became overwhelming. I often found myself coming up short or trailing behind. Facing those feelings day in, day out led to deep self-doubt. Few things are more distracting than the cruel stories we tell ourselves.
I admired my successful peers, with their unwavering attention and their notebooks brimming with detailed notes. I became fascinated with order and discipline, qualities that to me seemed as beautiful as they did foreign. To unravel these mysteries, I started devising organizational tricks designed to embrace the way my mind worked.
Through trial and a lot of error, I gradually pieced together a system that worked, all in my good old-fashioned paper notebook. It was a cross between a planner, diary, notebook, to-do list, and sketchbook. It provided me with a practical yet forgiving tool to organize my impatient mind. Gradually, I became less distracted, less overwhelmed, and a lot more productive. I realized that it was up to me to solve my challenges. More importantly, I realized that I could!
By 2007, I was working as a web designer for a big fashion label headquartered in the neon heart of New York City, Times Square. I’d gotten the job through a friend who worked there and was struggling to plan her upcoming wedding. Her desk was littered with notebooks, Post-its, and scraps of paper a couple of inches deep. It looked like one of those manic conspiracy map rooms you see in crime shows.
I’d been looking for a way to repay her for getting me the position. So one day, as I saw her scrounging for yet another wayward note, I awkwardly offered to show her how I used my notebook. She turned to me with raised eyebrows, and to my surprise—and horror—she took me up on the offer. Gulp. What had I gotten myself into? Sharing my notebook was like offering someone an unadulterated look into my mind, which, well . . . yeah.
A few days later we went for coffee. My clumsy tutorial took a while. I felt deeply vulnerable exposing how I organized my thoughts—the symbols, the systems, the templates, the cycles, the lists. To me, these were the many crutches invented to support a faulty brain. I avoided making eye contact until I was finished. Mortified, I looked up. Her gaping mouth instantly validated all my insecurities. After an excruciating pause she said, “You have to share this with people.”
After the awkwardness of that tutorial, it took a lot more prodding for me to share my system. But over the years, I found myself fielding shy questions from designers, developers, project managers, and accountants about my ever-present notebook. Some asked about organizing their day-to-day. So I showed them how to use my system for quickly logging their tasks, events, and notes. Others asked about setting goals. So I demonstrated how they could use my system for structuring action plans to tackle future aims. Others just wanted to be less scattered, so I showed them how to neatly funnel all their notes and projects into one notebook.
It had never occurred to me that these solutions I’d devised could be so widely applicable. If someone had a specific need, it was easy to modify one of my techniques to support it. I started to wonder whether sharing my solutions to common organizational challenges might help others avoid, or at least mitigate, the frustration I had endured earlier in my life.
All well and good, but if I was going to open my mouth again, there would be no more awkward freestyling. I formalized the system and streamlined it, stripping away everything but the most effective techniques I had developed over the years. Nothing exactly like it existed, so I had to invent a new language with its own vocabulary. This made the system significantly easier to explain—and, I hoped, to learn. Now it needed a name, something that spoke to its speed, its efficiency, its heritage, and its purpose. I called it the Bullet Journal.
Next, I launched a website featuring interactive tutorials and videos that walked users through the newly minted Bullet Journal system, aka BuJo. I smiled when the site passed 100 unique visitors. To me, that was mission accomplished! Then the unexpected happened. Bulletjournal.com was featured on Lifehack.org. Then on Lifehacker.com, then in Fast Company, and from there it went viral. The site went from 100 to 100,000 unique visitors in days.
Bullet Journal communities sprouted up across the web. To my astonishment, people were openly sharing their approaches to dealing with deeply personal challenges. Veterans shared their tactics for coping with PTSD by tracking their days in their Bullet Journals. People suffering from OCD shared ways to distance themselves from their overpowering thoughts. I was touched hearing from those like myself suffering from ADD as they shared how their grades improved and their anxiety diminished. In the often toxic world of online communities, these Bullet Journal groups created incredibly positive and supportive spaces, each focusing on different challenges, all using the same tool.
Sandy stumbled upon Bullet Journaling in May 2017, through a video on Facebook. Lack of sleep and caring for a toddler left her extremely disorganized and forgetful, which is not how anyone would normally describe her. Thoughts ran through her mind like squirrels: Had he slept long enough? Were his immunizations on track? When was that preschool application deadline again? As soon as she put one task to rest, another popped up in its place. She felt stressed and demoralized. Did other moms know something she didn’t? So when she heard about an organizational system requiring just a notebook and a pen, she felt she had nothing to lose.
The first step was to create a log of everything she had to do that month. She wrote each family member’s schedule in separate columns. They all worked irregular hours. It felt like she could finally press pause on the roller coaster for long enough to see who would be where for the next four weeks. It was horrifying to think about how easily one of them could forget to pick up their baby from preschool in a few years. It felt like it was just a matter of time before they would forget something important.
Sandy resolutely drew another column. She wrote down events and birthdays so they were easily visible. On her monthly financial log, she listed when bills were due and how much she’d paid. She also added daily boxes to track habits and goals—or just a reminder to stop and breathe!
Writing by hand was strangely soothing. Sandy didn’t want to set her hopes too high, though, when so many other systems had promised to get the organized side of herself back without delivering long-term change.
Sandy moved on to the next part of the instructions. They were intended to help her keep sight of the bigger picture. What were her aspirations for the coming year? On her Yearly Goals page, she dared to write down a passion project that she’d been weakly attempting for years—with no progress to show for it. Was her OCD sabotaging her resolution to spend more time lettering and drawing? Or was she just too busy? All she knew was that she had potential she wasn’t using.
Over the coming weeks, Sandy’s habit of sitting down with her Bullet Journal became as effortless as brushing her teeth. Silly as it seemed, crossing off little boxes kept her motivated by reminding her that there was a finite number of tasks to do every day. She didn’t forget about a single bill. Nor did she have to send any long, apologetic texts for forgetting someone’s birthday. Another surprising thing was that the layout of the Bullet Journal reminded her that mundane tasks were part of the bigger picture. The Monthly Goals and Yearly Goals pages showed her every day that she had a long game, and that she was on her way. Her trick was to add a tiny passion project—say, 15 minutes of lettering by hand—to every Daily Log, and to do it first thing every day. She always had 15 free minutes if she took them before checking her phone. It was like time had expanded.
Soon Sandy noticed that journaling garnered more benefits than just keeping her organized and sane. All her life, she’d suffered from a condition called dermatillomania, also known as compulsive skin-picking disorder, that she’d been ashamed of her whole life. For Sandy, it was mostly concentrated on her fingers. She’d canceled meetings and interviews because she felt her fingers looked horrible. Sometimes she couldn’t sleep because of the pain, and she’d constantly dropped things and was unable to do the simplest of tasks. For example, she’d always asked her husband or her mom to help her squeeze some lemon for her tea to avoid the biting pain of the acidic sting.
After Bullet Journaling for a few months, she found herself in the kitchen, tears welling up in her eyes. She looked down at her hands, finally squeezing a lemon, and realized that her fingers were no longer covered with wounds. With every line, letter, and notation she made, she’d kept her hands busy and let them slowly but surely heal. I’ve included the special page she designed in her journal to commemorate the day.
Not only did Bullet Journaling help her plan, track, and keep memories; it let her be creative, heal and no longer hide, and be a part of an encouraging, supportive community. She is not alone in this. I’ve also been inspired by the inventive, resilient, and spirited Bullet Journalists who have taken my methodology and customized it to fit their circumstances. This is in part why I decided to write this book.
Whether you’re an experienced Bullet Journalist or a newcomer, The Bullet Journal Method is for anyone struggling to find their place in the digital age. It will help you get organized by providing simple tools and techniques that can inject clarity, direction, and focus into your days. As great as getting organized feels, however, it’s just the surface of something significantly deeper and more valuable.
I had always thought my ADD made me different from others. One thing this community helped me realize is that my condition simply forced me to address something early on that has since become a common malady of the digital age: the lack of self-awareness.
In the most connected time in history, we’re quickly losing touch with ourselves. Overwhelmed by a never-ending flood of information, we’re left feeling overstimulated yet restless, overworked yet discontented, tuned in yet burned out. As technology leaked into every nook in my life, with its countless distractions, my methodology provided an analog refuge that proved invaluable in helping me define and focus on what truly mattered. Now countless others have found it key in helping them reclaim agency over their lives.
In 2015, Anthony Gorrity, a shy designer, quit an unsatisfying agency job and started freelancing. He’d been dreaming of going out on his own for years. What he didn’t anticipate was the added pressure to perform and the need to structure his own time. He tried a few apps to keep himself organized, but none were as flexible as he needed. He took to keeping notebooks of to-do lists, but they were a mess. Clients would call him without warning, and he’d rifle through six different notebooks trying to find the notes he needed. He knew he’d written this down . . . somewhere. . . . All of these frantic moments undercut his confidence. As someone who wasn’t a natural self-promoter, he had a hard enough time pitching himself to get work—and now it seemed as if once the work came in, a whole new set of stressful challenges awaited. He wondered if he’d made a mistake by going freelance. Then he had a distant memory of seeing a video of some guy demoing some super-complex journal system that he swore by. He started Googling all kinds of weird keywords until he eventually found BulletJournal.com. The system wasn’t nearly as complex as he’d remembered. He grabbed a fresh notebook and started consolidating everything he needed to do.
A few things changed. He became a lot more introspective. He realized that he loved making to-do lists, and he loved knocking out tasks even more. Best of all, self-confidence had room to take root in the clean, clear space of his notebook: Having things written down gave him the guts he needed when on the phone with a client. Being prepared, and knowing his material, made him feel less like a salesman and more like a craftsman. The Bullet Journal provided a framework that allowed Anthony to explore his potential.
This is a critical aspect of the methodology; it helps us cultivate a better sense of ourselves both in and out of the professional theater. The simple act of pausing to write down the important minutia of one’s life goes far beyond simple organization. It has helped people reconnect with themselves and the things they care about.
I spend much of my time nowadays connecting with fellow Bullet Journalists like Sandy and Anthony and fielding questions from the community. Many seek to expand the functionality of their Bullet Journals. Others delve deeper, tackling universal challenges that have become amplified in today’s frenetic world. In this book, I seek to address those questions and demonstrate how a simple notebook can prove invaluable in uncovering the answers.
The Bullet Journal method consists of two parts: the system and the practice. First we’ll learn about the system, to teach you how to transform your notebook into a powerful organizational tool. Then we’ll examine the practice. It’s a fusion of philosophies from a variety of traditions that define how to live an intentional life—a life both productive and purposeful. The result of my endeavor to translate this timeless knowledge into focused action resulted in the Bullet Journal method, the analog system for the digital age. It will help you track the past and order the present so that you can design your future. I originally developed it as a way to overcome my organizational challenges. Over the years, though, it’s matured into a personal operating system that has profoundly changed my life for the better. My hope is that it can do the same for you.