It’s January, the time of year when simply everyone is suddenly committed to whipping themselves into shape, eating healthily, and getting organized. If my inbox is any indication, gyms and diet programs have made heavy investments in marketing this month, but when it comes to productivity, we’re on our own. Most of us learn about new systems that promise to revolutionize our lives the old-fashioned way: by ogling posts by total strangers on Facebook and Instagram.
Judging from an informal poll of my Slate colleagues, January 2017 is the month when productivity proselytizers pushed the bullet journal into the forefront of the national psyche, though the system has been around for several years. A bullet journal, if the concept hasn’t yet penetrated your consciousness, is a mighty mash-up of a running to-do list, a mid-range planner, and a life log. The best way to learn more is to watch the video in which creator Ryder Carroll explains the system.
To summarize: You should write down the things you need to do, the places you have to go, and ideas that occur to you. Then, at the beginning of every month, you should look at your list, jettison the items that are no longer relevant, and start afresh. In essence, it’s Getting Things Done for people who like old-fashioned pens and paper.
That’s not a knock. Though the different icons appear complicated at first, simplicity is very much a feature of this “system.” Having a clear sense of the tasks on your plate is an essential step in clearing them—thus, adherents claim, freeing up brain space for big thoughts and fresh ideas. The easier it is to maintain a system, the more likely you are to follow it, and bullet journals are designed to be easy to maintain: You can use any notebook and start at any time. And unlike dated planners, which induce guilt about wasted paper if you neglect them for months, weeks, or even days, you can make a fresh start in a bullet journal at any time simply by turning to a new two-page spread.
What’s more, you can go basic or go big—and though the system was invented by a man, it seems to have found a niche among women who appreciate bullet journaling for its aesthetic potential. When it comes to selling art supplies, bullet journaling is the new adult coloring. Facebook and Instagram are full of over-the-top multi-colored BuJo “spreads” lovingly created with colored pens, stencils, and washi tape. After a few minutes on social media, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that many BuJoers spend more time creating beautifully lettered and colored pages than they do on taking care of tasks.
The genius of bullet journaling is that it can be used to make you feel productive for doing virtually anything, no matter how important—or unimportant—it might seem to other people. Bullet journals can help you keep track of training for a marathon or studying for the LSAT—but they can also help you keep track of watching TV or going to bed early. I’ve seen bullet journal spreads designed to help their creators keep track of everything from baby sleep to prayers and face-washing. This might make bullet journaling seem trivial if you’ve never tried it—but for many people, imposing order on mundane tasks is a way of infusing them with meaning. If keeping track of how often you shower suffuses basic hygiene with a sense of purpose for you, who am I to judge?
Before you ask, allow me to suggest a few spreads that have worked for me: Every day I keep track of things I’ve done to bring down the patriarchy; ways I’ve challenged the gender binary; and, of course, how many glasses of water I’ve knocked back. Whatever productivity system you use, hydration is always important.