Bullet Journaling Is Not Journaling

Here’s a thing I started recently: Journaling.

Believe it or not, it’s a thing I wasn’t doing before. But the more I read about productivity and best practices and the habits of “successful” people (and especially writers!), the more I came across it. So I took it up, opened a blank notebook, and started a habit.

But because I’m me, on some level I fear that I’m doing it wrong, or at least not doing it optimally. And because it’s the 21st century, I turn immediately to Dr. Google to allay my fears and correct my faults. And what’s the first thing I see when I google “journaling”?

Bullet Journaling.

This is a term I’ve heard before without actually learning anything about it, and it sounds simply procedural. Journal in bullets! Something something guns! Usually I journal longhand, letting the drivel spill out however it comes, which is usually either in short, choppy machine-gun sentences, or in longer, rambling passages. But bullet journaling? Well, that sounds like just bullet points in a list — rather than mucking about with all those articles and properly conjugated verbs and appropriately undangled modifiers, you just list your thoughts. Okay, far out — that’s all I need to get started! So I try a day like that — and I run dry in about thirty seconds. What gives? On a normal day, I can free-write for an hour if I’m not careful. But when I simply list the thoughts without exploring them, I run out of thoughts quicker than a soda machine at fat camp. So I go googling again.

And … oh. OH.

Bullet journaling, it turns out, is less about writing and more about listing. It’s not so much about exploring your thoughts, it’s just about decluttering your head by putting on paper everything you need to get through in the day. With maybe a motivational quote attached. It’s making a to-do list. Setting reminders. Notes-to-self. Less stroll-through-your-headspace, more inventory-your-tornado-wracked-warehouse.

Uh, okay, but that’s not “journaling,” is it?

But it’s worse still. Bullet journaling isn’t just a practice, it’s a product. In fact, Bulletjournal.com has an array of notebooks ready for you to purchase, not to mention an app, and — coming soon — a book!

I don’t know about you, but the moment I hear somebody saying that their practice will change my life and make me a better person, oh and by the way, buy our fancy stuff to do it properly — well, that reeks ever so slightly of bovine defecation. The best practices in life are the ones you can start doing now, meaning right now, without any special apparatus, without any practice first, without watching any instructional videos. Drink some water, for example. Take a few minutes to just breathe. Get up and walk around a little bit. If “journaling” requires me to slap down $18.95 for a proprietary journal or invest in colored pencils or notecards lined off at laser-accurate increments, then that’s a thing I won’t be doing.

I say that not as a knock on Bullet Journal — the products or the practice. I’m sure that if I were a different type of person, I might even nurse a fetish for such things (apparently Pinterest and Instagram are lousy with people fawning all over each other’s immaculately designed to-do lists, which … okay, I guess?). But that, to me, ain’t journaling. It’s to-do listing.

So Bullet Journal, you are not for me.

For me, the journal is less about a stately declaration to myself of Things I Must Do Today. That — and the Bullet Journal MO, it seems (and again, I didn’t exactly research in depth, so, you know, grains of salt and all) — implies urgency and pressure. Which is sort of the antithesis, to me, of the whole idea of journaling. Journaling, I think, is about writing without rules, without goals, and (perhaps most importantly), without an audience. It doesn’t replace any of my daily writing, rather, it sets the tone for that writing. The journal is a clearing of the throat before I step up to the microphone. A deep-knee bend before approaching the starting line. A rev of the engine before I slam it into gear. It’s a little brain-dump to decrapify my head of all the garbage I don’t want to think about, and to crystallize my thinking about the things I do want to think about.

Here’s how I’m doing it so far:

I take five minutes every morning (and occasionally visit it on the weekend as well) just to jot down some thoughts. What makes it in is whatever’s front-of-mind: muses on the current project, nerves and apprehensions about the day, rants about the idiot that blocked me in while I was dropping my kid off at day care. Usually a reflection on the morning’s workout, since that’s usually fresh in my brain. It’s even more free-form and less coherent than what I post on the blarg, which may tell you something about the state of it. Coincidentally, it almost always clocks in at about a single side of one page. Or maybe it’s not a coincidence. Designers are cagey.

I don’t use an eraser at all, I don’t go back for misspellings, and I try to keep the pencil moving for the full five minutes. And once the five minutes are up, I stop! (I actually wrote out “I STOPS” and conjured in my head a grumpy Gollum hunched over a desk with a pencil and now I’m giggling inwardly, you’re welcome.) I finish the sentence I’m writing, close the book, and don’t think about it again until the next morning.

And, you know, it’s nice. I can’t tell if it’s actually helping my process or adding productivity to my day, at this point, but it’s nice to have a little ritual, since I don’t drink coffee or take the morning paper or anything thoughtful and meditative like that. I mean, I run, and there’s that, but that’s not every day. And as far as the free-form writing goes, there’s something about putting pencil to paper that isn’t quite approximated by any amount of typing in any form. The skritch, skritch of a pencil (mechanical pencils only, DON’T GET ME STARTED) creating words is its own kind of soothing. And the fact that it’s for my eyes only is comforting as well — I have even allowed myself a few unintended sentence fragments and misplaced modifiers (gasp!).

It comes out looking like this:


(Typing was invented for guys like me!)

Notice the total lack of anything like a pretty color, the discounted-for-the-season 25-cent composition book, the handwriting that would put a doctor’s prescription pad to shame.

THAT’S a journal.

What’s yours look like? (And, if you’re a practitioner of Bullet Journaling — what am I missing?)


About Pavowski

I am a teacher, runner, father, and husband. I am an author-in-progress. I know just enough about a lot of things to get me into a lot of trouble. View all posts by Pavowski

4 responses to “Bullet Journaling Is Not Journaling

  • nights7

    I really don’t understand the whole bullet journaling phenomenon either. To-do lists and important reminders? Gross! And isn’t that what Post-it notes are for???

    Liked by 1 person

  • Movie Addict

    I have never understood the bullet journal phenomenon. I plan, and I have a planner that I decorate to crap with stickers, but I am not a bullet journaler. I love my regular journal, that I can use to write grateful thoughts in, and write about my day, and try to get rid of the anxious thoughts that tend to run my day if I’m not careful. But I’m not an artist. And bullet journals are for artists.

    Liked by 1 person

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