Bullet Journal, from where is all started. When I was younger, my father would always call me impatient. Whenever we had plans I would bombard him with questions about the duration of the commute, the starting time, the hypothesised arrival time and a million variations of time related questions. Although growing up I would think of myself as impatient as well, with time I realised you can be overly punctual without being impatient. I was not overly eager to get on with my plans to the point of irritability; I just wanted to get things done at the time I mentally allocated for it.
I would have mental lists and scraps of paper with time schedules written down for every trivial task. My obsession with time often manifested itself in the most absurd of ways. I had a certain day of the week when I allowed myself to be spontaneous, and for the weeks leading up to the pandemic it was always a Wednesday between 12 PM to 7:30 PM. My timed spontaneity went back to my teen years, during which I would only allow myself to act out and be rebellious on Sundays and Tuesdays. I was a mess then, but a calculated one. The irony of timed spontaneity did not get lost in me.
I went back and forth about starting a bullet journal over the years , but the idea always overwhelmed me.
Like most people who never gave it a shot, it seemed more stressful than soothing. As the pandemic seized my sense of time, something which is especially infuriating for someone who had a perpetually toxic relationship with clocks, I realised I had no option but to finally give bullet journals a shot. I had to plan my day out in the most visually pleasing way possible to keep myself grounded.
When I first started I went all in. My tendency to be a perfectionist encompassed more than punctuality. I got washi tape and stickers. I learned ‘faux calligraphy’. I got way too many coloured pens. I started adding over fifteen tasks to my daily routine, ranging from when I would crochet and edit my photography to when I would call a friend or watch YouTube videos. I had habit trackers for my daily fruits and veggies intake, lists for my water intake, lists for my skincare routine, lists for my self-study, lists for my screen time. Each daily spread had its own theme, be it ‘winter forestland’ or Martian.
Although my life often felt like nothing but a list of tasks previously, bullet journalling made this take concrete form. It made me aware of how unhealthy I was to myself. I felt shackled to a piece of paper of my own design. With time I started to dread opening up my dotted notebook. I realised what was once therapeutic had become a source of stress. The lists which I failed to complete everyday added a mounds of guilt which started to pile up.
For the first few weeks of the bullet journaling burn out, I let the notebook collect dust.
I decided to go back and try again after a few weeks and allowed myself to experiment. The lessons I learned during the experimentation process allowed me to use bullet journaling as a method to alleviate my troubled relationship with schedules rather than worsen it.
First lesson: Sticking to what’s necessary
It can be tempting to get carried away by all the templates for bullet journals online.
Work out habit trackers. Serum trackers. Gardening trackers. Calorie trackers. Every human activity seems to have its own tracker template. Youtube videos on bullet journaling often make beginners think that they should incorporate whatever habit tracker they can find into their bullet journal.
I learned the hard way that sometimes all you have to include in your daily or weekly spread are lists which are absolutely necessary. If you struggle with staying hydrated, you can opt for a fluid tracker. If you really need to start putting in more effort on a new skill, you can try making a tracker for it.
Adding trackers which do not necessarily apply to you, or one you don’t actively need to work on only introduces clutter to your spread, and adds stressful steps to an activity which must be kept as minimal and stress-free as possible. The extra clutter can be the beginning of a slow burn out if you struggle with being a schedule-perfectionist. If possible, only add trackers and lists you absolutely cannot go about your day without.
Second Lesson: Make room for flexibility
Sticking to only a weekly or daily spread without change works for some people. For me it did not. On the rare weeks when I struggled with procrastination, weekly spreads just tempted me to keep postponing tasks to the following day. On days when my workaholic/studyholic side kicked in, daily spreads only added to my self induced stress as I made no ‘me time’. For me, daily spreads worked best on days when I just couldn’t get myself to work. Each box which went crossed out was an incentive to get more work done.
On the other hand, on exam weeks or busy work weeks when I could never find myself catching a breather, a weekly spread helped. It helps me visualise how my week would go which helped me strike a balance between rest periods and work periods for the given week, helping me steer clear from snapping. While it may not be the same for everyone, it can be very difficult to keep the bullet journaling process stress-free if you only stick to one spread without flexibility.
Third Lesson: Forget your imagined audience
When starting off, many people have the tendency to obsess over making their daily spreads perfect. Minor spelling errors can lead to crumpled up sheets. A letter calligraphed wrong may induce a minor rage fit. Gratitude or thought blurbs may feel forced and only included to supply an appearance of consistency.
Even if your bullet journal never reveals itself to anyone’s eyes but yours, the hobby almost inherently demands those who engage in it to ensure every sheet is visually perfect and consistent. Some go as far to make each sheet themed with abstract concepts and colour codes. All this does is help ensure burn out. Bullet journaling is not supposed to add stress. The only reason you may want to keep the journal visually pleasing is to motivate yourself, and being borderline neurotic about whether or not the doodles and margins mesh well with each other will only add stress.
If the decorating aspect is therapeutic to you, go full out. Just be mindful of your limits. Similarly, I like many others used to add gratitude and self-reflection blurbs every day for the sake of consistency. I realised writing them only when they came to me naturally made sure my feelings and thoughts were organic and not forced.
The Most Important Lesson of All: Remember Why You Started
Bullet Journals broken down to its basics is nothing but a mix of a diary, a daily planner and a to-do list. Some of us get into it because doodling and making visually aesthetic organisers for our day helps motivate and calm us. Others need lists for everything and the bullet journal is the perfect outlet. It can be easy to be influenced by others bullet journal and the ways in which they use templates and decor.
Nevertheless, at the end of the day it’s best not to compare. The activity should be healing and you should stick to what got you started in the first place and what helped along the way. If that was excessive decorating and doodles with a self-reflection note, make that your bullet journaling style. If it was lists with minimal designs and the minimal use of washi tape , keep it at that. We all have different ways of ‘doing’ bullet journaling and it helps to remind yourself that no one’s journal is ever perfect.
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