A bullet journal, in the digital age

A bullet journal is essentially a blank notebook that you can customize into a planner, a calendar, a to-do list, or a scribble pad for your notes and ideas


Bullet journal is the creation of Brooklyn-based digital product designer Ryder Carroll.
Bullet journal is the creation of Brooklyn-based digital product designer Ryder Carroll.

When I had a full-time job, I would always begin my day at work by tearing the previous day’s to-do list from the ruled pad on my desk, and starting a fresh one for the day. I used to get these ruled pads from my wife’s office—white or pale yellow. There was a certain joy to tearing off a page and beginning a new list: Transfer the pending points, and add an asterisk before some that require urgent attention.

For my personal to-do list or, as the Americans say, “honey do’s”—pay bills, get cash from bank, buy wrapping paper—I had a Filofax for which I would order refills from abroad every December. Birthdays and anniversaries would be on the Filofax. I would also hoard Moleskine notebooks—always squared pages because they were good for my terrible handwriting.

All this was about 10 years ago when there were no smartphones with pop-up calendars and “reminder” apps. These days, my chores are all on my phone, and the birthdays and anniversaries on calendar apps.

But I still have a couple of red Moleskine notebooks.

In January, I opened a new Moleskine daily diary, and then struggled to think what to write in it. I began with a quote I really like: “Belief is so often the death of reason,” from the Game Of Thrones. Sometimes I jot down an interesting word I come across, a few events, a list of books read so far this year, and any interesting idea that may come to mind.

Earlier this month, the wife’s niece, a history teacher in London, paid us a brief visit. One evening, she opened a notebook, took out a colour ballpen from a clutch of a dozen-odd that she had brought with her, and started filling up tiny squares on a page in the notebook. It was as if she was colouring the squares of a crossword puzzle.

She said she was writing her “bullet journal” (or BuJo for short). I had heard of it, and seen some online (it’s been around for two years), but had never seen one in real life. The pages in her notebook were like a piece of art.

A bullet journal is not a “Dear Diary” notebook.
A bullet journal is not a “Dear Diary” notebook.

A bullet journal is essentially a blank notebook that you can customize into a planner, a calendar, a to-do list, or a scribble pad for your notes and ideas. It’s not a “Dear Diary” notebook.

You start by creating an index, and allocate pages on the basis of priorities: Create a daily to-do list, a monthly log and a future log, a habit-tracker, a budget planner, add a list of books you wish to read, and so on. You write everything in your handwriting; there’s nothing pre-printed, not even dates and days.

But what I don’t understand is when our digital devices are so full of planners and reminder apps, why would someone want to go back to pen and paper? Why the hype? Or, as a website headline says, “WTF is a bullet journal?”

BuJo is the creation of Brooklyn-based digital product designer Ryder Carroll. He calls it “an analog system for the digital age”. To get an idea, watch his “How to Bullet Journal” video that has been viewed over 4.5 million times.

Carroll has created simple symbols for the to-do lists: A black dot for a task, a forward arrow means a task from a previous list (they call it migrating), a star adds importance to a note, etc.

They advise you to start with a simple, blank notebook. And if you enjoy it and get into the rhythm, check out the several brands online. The preferred choice seems to be the Leuchtturm1917 A5 Notebook (Rs3,461; Amazon.in).

Your best place to start is the website Bulletjournal.com, where Carroll has suggestions for beginners, and examples of modules you can create. Do a Google search and you will find a large BuJo community and scores of beautiful templates. You start with a simple design, and you can make it as complex as you desire.

The niece said she finds the journal adaptable, creative (“the digital ones are regimented”) and good for multitasking. It brings her joy, and also helps her to be better organized. New York magazine’s Science Of US site says in a headline: “The Bullet Journal Works Because It Soothes Your Panicky Mind”.

I don’t know about that but I’m just curious and asked my niece to help me start one on my red Moleskine. She created a two-page “habit tracker” for me, and also gifted me a set of colour pens for fun. I have points like “walk”, “diet” and “read” that I have been tracking every day.

I must say there is something to be said for the sheer joy of making notes on good stationery. No digital app can match that.

Shekhar Bhatia is a science buff and a geek at heart.

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