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.