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Why the Humble Notebook Is Flourishing in the iPhone Era

The craze for bullet journaling shows that sometimes pen and paper is best—as long as the results can be Instagrammed.

I have never had a healthy relationship with notebooks. I hoard them by the dozens, I spend hours filling them, I have them shipped across the Atlantic Ocean by the German company Fantasticpaper. I’ve even been known to lie to them: When I was in middle school, I checked off a box in my assignment notebook labeled “shovel snow out of the driveway.” It became a running joke in my family because not only had I never once shoveled any snow, but also we had no driveway.

If I am in a meeting, then I am listing things to do, buy, write, read, or look up (occasionally, I am also taking notes on the meeting itself). Just in the past five days I have made lists of: books I have read so far this summer, books I still want to read this summer, emails I should send this week, writing projects to finish in June, groceries to buy, food in my fridge that needs to be used up before I go on vacation, things to do before I go away, and things to pack for my trip. My real work—writing lectures or things I actually intend to publish—all happens on a computer, of course, but my whole life happens in notebooks. And strange to say, it turns out I’m not the only one.

With the growing popularity of the “bullet journal” system, a surprisingly large community of notebook to-do list devotees has emerged on Instagram, Facebook, and Kickstarter. They share photos of their favorite monthly, weekly, and daily layouts. They debut new handwriting styles or bullet symbols, and band together to fund a dedicated dot grid bullet journal notebook manufactured by German stationery company Leuchtturm (Moleskines are so 2010). A bullet journal is, essentially, a notebook in which you write down everything you do, or need to remember to do, or just need to remember, using a set of special bullet point symbols that correspond to different types of entries. For example, a dot can be used for an uncompleted task, an ‘x’ for a completed task, an open circle for an event, a dash for a note.

A photo posted by ursala (@honeyrozes) on

If that doesn’t seem like a revolutionary concept, well, it’s not. But that hasn’t stopped the system from acquiring legions of devoted fans. Designer Ryder Carroll, who developed the system, posted a video explaining bullet journaling on YouTube in May 2015 that has since been viewed more than one million times. There are more than 100,000 photos on Instagram tagged with the #bulletjournal hashtag, and nearly 3,000 backers supported Carroll’s Kickstarter campaign in 2014 to revamp his bullet journal website and manufacture a customized bullet journal notebook (which is currently completely sold out). In recent months, media outlets including Buzzfeed, Quartz, Marie Claire, The Los Angeles Times, and Bloomberg have featured the system and offered how-to guides to new users (sample headline: “WTF Is The Bullet Journal, And Will It Change My Life?”).

“I get a lot of email from people telling me how greatly it’s changed their lives,” said Carroll, who launched the initial bullet journal website and video in 2013. At that point, he had already spent roughly 20 years refining the note-taking system for his personal use. One day, when Carroll was having lunch with a colleague who was overwhelmed by the logistics of her upcoming wedding, he offered to show her how he used his notebook. “I spent 15 minutes walking her through it and when I was done I looked up and her mouth was hanging open,” Carroll said. “I thought, ‘Oh no, she thinks I’m completely crazy.’ But she was like, ‘This is amazing, this is incredible!’”

Still, Carroll was shocked by how quickly the system took off after he began posting about it online. He launched the Kickstarter campaign in 2014 to build a website devoted to letting bullet journal users share their layouts and ideas because, he said, “it quickly became obvious to me that the most valuable part of the bullet journal was the inventiveness of its community.”

Several bullet journal gurus in that community have built significant online followings by posting photos of their hypnotically beautiful notebook spreads. “It’s pretty insane, I initially started posting photos of my journal on Instagram just to archive my process, and then I started racking up followers,” said graphic designer Ursala Hudson, who has been keeping bullet journals since December 2015 and whose Instagram account boasts more than 12,000 followers, despite featuring only 43 posts. The design of her journal is about much more than amassing an online following, however: It is integral to her productivity. “If my daily page doesn’t look effortless yet clean and pretty it disrupts my workflow,” Hudson said.

Kim Alvarez also routinely garners hundreds of likes on Instagram, where she has more than 40,000 followers, for photos of pages from her bullet journals. Her posts feature everything from painstakingly hand-lettered inspirational quotes about keeping notebooks and to-do lists, to colorful goal trackers and lists of possible layouts for other pages. (Writing in notebooks about things you want to write in notebooks is perhaps the height of notebook addiction—and an activity I know well.) In one typical spread, which has garnered more than 700 likes, Alvarez lists ideas for meals (sausage and spinach penne, slow-cooker honey garlic chicken) beneath two color-coordinated headers done in picture-perfect handwriting (“The Ideas,” in orange, and “food,” in light blue). To the left of the list of meals is a grid she uses to indicate whether each meal is intended for breakfast, lunch, dinner, or a snack, and on the opposite page, also labeled using the orange and blue motif, is a chart for assigning each meal to a particular day of the week. Like many of Alvarez’s and Hudson’s pages, it puts every list I have ever made to shame with its meticulous design and minimalist elegance.

Still, Caroll insists that bullet journals are not just for the artistically and aesthetically gifted. “A lot of people get very intimidated by the system when they see it on Instagram and Pinterest because we have these people who are incredibly gifted calligraphers putting together these pages and people think, ‘I can’t do that,’” he explained. “Just start with the basics and let it bloom from there. Is there a minimal and a lavish version of the bullet journal? Absolutely. And they’re both right.”

The system’s popularity actually stems from its tremendous flexibility, Carroll said. It can be easily adapted to suit different people’s lives and needs, just as he has adapted it over the years to different periods of his life. Yet, layouts and templates and rules are part of the point of bullet journals—you can choose and design your own, but every dedicated bullet journaler has them: rules for which bullet symbols to use, what pens to use (Pilot G-2 0.38 black), what notebooks to use (Leuchtturm 1917 dot grid), how to track your daily, weekly, and monthly tasks. The beauty of a bullet journal lies in it being both a notebook in which you can scribble any old thing and a highly organized, structured system that imposes discipline and order on your life. “People really enjoy the fact that here’s some support but it’s not templatized,” Carroll said.

The complex trackers and calendar layouts and systems of symbols, completely unintelligible to the uninitiated, give these notebooks the air of the technological solutions they replace—the slew of to-do list apps and goal-tracking websites that bullet journalers eschew for pen and paper. “I’ve had so many productivity apps and I use them for about a week and then I just ignore them—even the notifications that pop up on my screen, I just learn to tune them out,” Hudson said. “But the physical journal is always open on my kitchen counter or on my work table, and the list is in my face and I can’t ignore it. It’s annoying and I like that.”

Carroll found that productivity apps fell into one of two categories: apps that did a lot of things poorly, or apps that did a very specific thing well. “The difference with the bullet journal is that it becomes what you need when you need it,” he said. “With apps, a lot of times you think, ‘if only it could do X’ or ‘I just want to move it this way’ and that’s just not possible. With the bullet journal, you’re actively evolving your own tool.”

That’s not to say that bullet journals necessarily replace technological aides—Carroll, Hudson, and Alvarez all use digital calendars and often copy meetings or appointments from their online calendars into their journals, or vice-versa. “Since I started bullet journaling I haven’t missed any appointments or meetings—which is weird for me,” Hudson said.

There’s an irony in seeing such an old-fashioned technology as the notebook so widely celebrated online. But in another sense, bullet journal pages seem like a natural fit for the aspirational lifestyle motifs of social media. Looking at perfectly planned, beautifully penned bullet journal pages online quickly gives rise to the fundamental pair of emotions that Instagram seems to have been designed to elicit: “Why doesn’t my life look like that?” and “Maybe, with the right pen, and the right notebook, and the right handwriting, and the right stickers—maybe, my life could look like that!”

A photo posted by ursala (@honeyrozes) on

Many of the bullet journal pages posted online are so flawlessly neat and elaborately decorated that it’s easy to imagine their creators spending hours and hours laboring over them, but Alvarez spends only about ten minutes per day on her bullet journals. When she first started keeping a bullet journal, Hudson estimates she spent between two and three hours every day browsing photos online and experimenting with different layouts. But now that she has a system in place, she, too, spends around 10 minutes each day planning in her journal, plus an additional 30 minutes at the beginning of each week, and an hour at the beginning of every month. “I’d say probably a third of the time I don’t even look at my daily pages, but because I spent that initial time in the morning or late at night envisioning my day it plants the plan in my brain and I’m much more likely to accomplish all the tasks I’m supposed to do,” Hudson said.

I suspect that part of the bullet journal’s unlikely popularity stems from its very physicality—not just because, as Hudson says, that makes it difficult to ignore, but also because it makes the satisfaction of checking off a task, or the shame of not being able to check off a task, that much more immediate and palpable. Writing in a notebook focuses you on what you’re doing in a way that no computer-based activity can. Finally filling a notebook, and filing it away on your shelf next to the others, is a crowning achievement without any digital equivalent.

The bullet journal enthusiasts insist that filling notebooks is about far more than just getting things done or crossing off lists—it’s also about paying attention to, and taking stock of, your life. It’s an act of agency—deciding who you want to be and what you want to do and setting those decisions down in pen on paper where they cannot be deleted or ignored or erased. It’s an act of archiving—recording what you’re thinking, what your goals are, what your handwriting looks like, at a very particular moment in time, and then being able to look back and see just how far you’ve come since you were the 12-year-old who wrote in big pencil letters in a blue plastic spiral-bound homework planner about shoveling snow in a driveway that didn’t exist (and also, of course, being able to see just how much you still have in common with her). It’s this combination of productive, therapeutic, aesthetic, historical, and spiritual elements that makes notebook-keeping such an addictive and potent activity, even—or perhaps especially—in a world of countless productivity apps, online to-do lists, and gamified habit-building tools.

“It’s kind of a meditative process and I think it’s also like envisioning what you want out of life,” Hudson said of writing in her bullet journal. “I’ve probably accomplished more in the past seven months than I have in my life and I think that has to do with writing down my goals. My family and friends are all like, ‘What is this? You’re such a nerd!’ and then they’re like, ‘OK, I’m buying a journal.’”