A Mad Man’s Bullet Journal

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I recently wrote these words in my journal: “I think social media and the internet, while a great gift, has also been a curse. I fear it has greatly exacerbated my anxiety and depression. It has robbed much of me. Turning – at least to a degree – to an analog life might be just as vital – if not more so – than my mood-stabilizing meds.”

The internet offers us a set of tools with certain promises: Social Media promises intimacy and connection. Various websites promise entertainment. Certain apps promise everything from relief from depression to better health to greater organization and focus. I benefit enormously from the internet, and I am forever grateful to it, but the promises of ordering, focusing, and deepening my life have failed abysmally. I have found emptiness, anxiety, and over stimulation where I sought for focus and order. I have found shallowness masquerading as productivity, and the perpetual hum of distraction that lies behind these helpful tools debilitates me. I have had to turn away from the digital age, and find an analog system that fulfills the promises the internet failed to meet.

Enter the Bullet Journal. Most tout it as a revolutionary way of organizing one’s tasks and obligations, and indeed it is, but I am interested in it as something more: as a tool for overcoming depression and anxiety.

So What Is a Bullet Journal?

A Bullet Journal is a system of journaling designed to seamlessly capture all aspects of life. It is made up of a few basic components: an Index at the beginning to categorize and reference everything you record as you record it; a future log for long-term planning; a month log for goals and planning; a daily log for daily goals, journal entries, projects, and notes. And then there are the bullets: an elegant system of symbols that allow you to quickly gather information. The system is brilliant, and is infinitely customizable. The Bullet Journal is designed to be as seamless and helpful as smart phones and tablets, and for me it has replaced them entirely.

Bullet Journaling and Mental Health

My life is chaos. Like many, I have to find order in the tide of desires, cravings, emotions, stresses, and relationships. I have the added struggle of a propensity towards severe depression and anxiety – a propensity that is greatly exasperated by the constant noise and stimulation generated by our connected age.

I’ve spent the past 5 years trying to bring order to my life. I have the underlying desire, not just for stability, but also to create value in the world. I’ve sought desperately for tools that will help me accomplish both. Along with Yoga, mindfulness, the habit loop and Deep Work, the Bullet Journal is one of the most powerful discoveries I’ve made in this quest for tools.

So why is the Bullet Journal so helpful for my depression and anxiety?

It encourages mindfulness. The daily log requires us to sit down and meditate on our day, weighing what is valuable and what is needless. This introspection leads to a life of  greater awareness and mindfulness.

It brings illumination and order to life. The brilliantly simple system eliminates anxiety-producing unknowns. It forces things out of the shadows, and it offers obvious ways to deal with those unknowns.

It helps one track lead metrics vs. lag metrics. Lag metrics are the overarching things we want to change about ourselves: we want to lose weight; write more;  be more productive; drink less. Focusing excessively on these lag metrics, however, leaves us feeling helpless, and is one of the hallmarks of depression and anxiety.

Lead metrics, however, are the small, measurable actions that eventually drive us to accomplishing and surpassing our goals. The Bullet Journal is uniquely powerful at resetting our focus from what we lack (the lag metrics) to what we can tangibly do to effect change, (lead metrics.) (For more on lead and lag metrics, read Cal Newport’s Deep Work.)

A Madman’s Bullet Journal

Google Bullet Journal and you will find an unending array of perfectly drawn, ornately designed pages, often featuring perfectly manicured fingers fondling an expensive, gorgeous pen.

My bullet journal is no such a journal. You will not see any of my pages on Instagram or Pinterest. In fact, I pride myself in having an intensely private journal that looks more like the scribblings of a madman on the walls of an asylum. My journal is about life: messy, nuanced, and sometimes incomprehensible. While it is not pretty to look at, my bullet journal has profoundly altered my life.

Time slows down

This is the first and most astounding aspect of the journal to me. Our lives fly by in a dismaying blur, and we wonder where all the hours and days went, but Bullet Journaling has reversed this effect, and it was the last thing I was anticipating. Time slows – I am more present, more mindful. Days and weeks feel longer. One month feels like two months. I am more productive, and I enjoy my time more.

This is because bullet journaling, when used properly, encourages two behaviors: 1. deliberation and mindfulness, and 2. judging which tasks and behaviors are actually valuable, thereby draining the shallow or needless activities that suck meaning from our lives.

I’ve lost weight

Because of the Bullet Journal’s innate ability to turn our attention to lead metrics rather than lag metrics, I’ve found myself focusing less on my appearance (I suffer from tremendous low self-esteem) and more on doing and tracking healthy behaviors. The end result is that I’ve lost weight.

My relationships are more fulfilling

I feel more present to my friendships, in part because the Bullet Journal offers me a mental clarity, or mental space, which I can fill with things that truly matter to me. I feel much closer to my partner as well as to my friends and co-workers, because my mind is spinning less wheels. All those wheels are now down on the page, and there are no mysteries trying to resolve themselves in my brain.

I am more relaxed, more productive, and sleep better.

As I’ve already mentioned, the Bullet Journal, when done properly, helps us order life, weigh the activities that truly matter, and eliminate unknowns and mental plate-spinning. The end result is that I’m more relaxed, more present, and I sleep better.

At the end of the day, I am so excited about the Bullet Journal and the potential  it has for battling depression and anxiety because it has made me happier. The past two months have been surprisingly fulfilling, and I am deeply grateful for what the bullet journal has given me. If this sounds like a shameless plug for an online product, I suppose it – I can live with that. The Bullet Journal is a tool for reaching towards the things I hold most dear: wholeness, vitality, presence, connection, and creativity. Because this is a blog about all those things, I would feel greatly amiss if I didn’t express how the Bullet Journal has changed my life.

If you want more information on the Bullet Journal, please visit bulletjournal.com, and watch this intro video on how to start your own.

  1. Stephen,

    This is awesome. It was like so much of this story of discovery and healing was written by me and was about myself. I started my bullet journal this past summer for almost all of the same reasons that you did. I am still very much a work in progress (and the journal is too). I love that it can evolve and work into anything I need/want it to be at any given moment.

    I am a 911 dispatcher, which is an extremely stressful profession. I use my bullet journal as an outlet for stress, to help with otganization, tracking money and bills, reminders, and any possible task I might be facing throughout each week and month. But more than anything, it is a true journal for me which allows me to pour out emotions when I deal with a particularly awful call or event.

    The reason I am writing is to ask if I may share your post to a site that I am an administrator for that works exclusively with first responders (law enforcement officers, fire fighters, paramedics, nurses, correctional officers, K-9 handlers, dispatchers, and anyone else that works in the emergency response arena). As peer support personnel and administrators, we always ask the members of our site if they ever journal and I have been looking for a way to introduce bullet journaling and its benefits to the group. I feel that your post would be perfect as an example, along with an explanation from me (giving my experience with the bullet journal idea as well). Would you be amenable to that? If not, I completely understand.

    Best wishes on your continued healing and bullet journal journey.
    Heatherlynn

  2. This is interesting, Stephen. I had heard of bullet journaling but was unsure what it was. I have evolved for myself, over time, the habit of keeping a planner with notes-to-self and to-do lists, mostly related to the classes I teach and art deadlines. You’ve inspired me to use the bullet journal method to modify, organize, and expand what I’m already doing. I’ll let you know in a couple months how this is going. I’m glad for your endorsement of this method – and that you are finding it so personally helpful.

  3. Bullet journaling is amazing. I just keep a really simple one but being able to keep all of my goals and habits in one place has done wonders for me. More productivity and more peace of mind.

  4. I have found that since I started my Bullet Journal that my mental health is finally starting to get the attention that it needs. I actually feel like it isn’t an annoying chore to sit down each down and jot down a quick note about my moods for the day, which is allowing me to see some pretty interesting patterns that I never would have caught on to before. It’s also a great space to take note of moments where I accomplished something that I would have been incapable of doing previously. I only wish that I’d discovered it a bit earlier on!

  5. Thank you for this fascinating resource! ♡
    And btw, you need not fret about your appearance, for you are very attractive, as I am sure your partner will attest.
    I find the internet useful to learn and to enable me to connect with real people, e.g., GCN and Meetup.com. But I have also learned it is a means, not an end.

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