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One of the best books that I have read over the past year was all about writing in a notebook. It fascinated me how the author, Ryder Carroll, could write 296 pages straight on how to write in a notebook. And, believe it or not, I read all 296 pages, whereas with non-fiction books, my bookmark normally gets stuck somewhere halfway through.

Then again, it was not just a book about writing in a notebook, it turned out to be a giga-bestseller that millions of enthralled posts circulated on social media about. And it was not just about writing in a notebook either. It was about the Bullet Journal method, also called “the Marie Kondo of journal writing. The Bullet Journal method has been a huge craze in the US in recent years (leading to an overnight 18 percent increase in notebook sales in the U.S. in the year 2018), and that craze is now sweeping Europe. If you were wondering why there are so many stationary items at standard retailers lately, now you know the reason.

We breathe life into our thoughts by putting them on paper – Ryder Carroll

Fascinated by this fad, I decided to give it a try. I have a penchant for new techniques that attempt to make the brain more innovative, so I started on the Bullet Journal method with real dedication. The investment is small: A pen and a bullet journal is all you need. A bullet journal is a notebook with dots instead of lines. And, to be honest, the results are amazing. After just a few weeks, I noticed that I could make more connections between streams of thoughts and that I started to think and work in a more visual way. The method also brought me into a more relaxed state of mind and the sensation of living more lightly. But above all, I noticed that my output became more creative and that the idea machine called my brain came up with even more innovative ideas.

With such magnificently impressive results, you might think the method entails quite a bit, but in actual fact, it is not that bad. The creator of the method, designer Ryder Carroll (who devised the method as a way to deal with his ADD), summarizes the essence of the method in just nine words: track the past, order the present, design the future. The method is based on four basic principles.

Topping the list is the principle of intentional living. This means setting goals, working constructively towards those goals and being reflective on your path towards them. The second principle has to do with planning. You break down your goals into different tasks, which you in turn divvy up into different ‘logs’: a Future Log, a Monthly Log and a Daily Log.

When you do not get around to a task, you decide what to do about it. Do you migrate the task to another time, or do you drop the task because it is not going to contribute that much to your goals after all? So planning makes you very aware of what you are doing and want to do, and puts a stop to endless to-do lists. The third principle revolves around note-taking and indexing.

Along with your tasks, you also keep a brief, to-the-point record of what happened each day (‘events’) and keep notes. To make it easy to find those notes, create an index, or table of contents, at the beginning of your Bullet Journal and refer to the numbered pages theme-by-theme. The fourth and final principle focuses on flexibility.

Your Bullet Journal is supposed to adapt to your needs, not the other way around. And those needs may vary all the time. If you are preparing for your vacation and need a better overview, then you create a specific collection for that purpose. If you feel the need to get creative, then you will turn your bullet journal into a true work of art. It doesn’t matter, as long as it helps you with your interpretation of intentional living.

If our life is an ocean, then our days are waves; some big, some small. Your Bullet Journal is the shoreline and is shaped by both – Ryder Carroll

Of course, there is much more underpinning these four principles. Carroll describes the mission behind the method as making us aware of how we spend the two most precious resources in our lives, our time and energy. As such, it is much more of a self-awareness method than a productivity method. Or, better yet, “a productivity ecosystem of various techniques and philosophies,” as Carroll himself describes it. In that respect, it has much in common with the Design Thinking method. Both seek and find a combination of the business-like, results-oriented on the one hand, and the playful, creative on the other.

Even in science, the Bullet Journal phenomenon has not gone unnoticed. A group of British scientists examined the posts people made from their Bullet Journal on Instagram and found that people tended to highly customized how they use their Bullet Journal with a myriad of creative flourishes and different types of ‘trackers’. So, in their research, the fourth basic principle of flexibility clearly came to the surface that way. Another aspect that prevailed in the study was the reflective behavior of the people who keep a bullet journal. The art of intentional living is thus affirmed.

In a world where wifi amplifiers hang from church spires, no place is sacred anymore – Ryder Carroll

But aside from intentional living, it primarily provides a huge boost in creativity and innovativeness. That boost is not disruptive. Carroll resists the urge to be disruptive and is much more an advocate of a continuous learning process toward mastery: “Unlike in the West, where ‘disruption‘ is a buzzword for our favorite kind of progress, ‘kaizen‘ (Japanese for ‘honorable (zen) progress (kai)’) focuses on bringing minor improvements to the surface.” The boost in innovativeness is largely driven by the fact that the method is not a digital one, but old-fashioned with pen and paper.

Bullet Journaler Bert Webb writes about using the Bullet Journal, rather than a digital productivity tool, as follows: “During my daily, weekly and monthly review, while browsing forward and backward in my bullet journal, my brain invariably makes more connections between ideas; something I couldn’t do when I was still using a variety of digital tools.” The method forces you to take your time and dwell on things. And that quiet and time to be one with that paper is sorely needed according to Carroll: “The blank pages of your notebook provide a safe playground for your mind.” And so it would appear.

Acknowledgments: All quotes are from the book: Carroll, R. (2018). ‘The Bullet Journal Method; capturing the past, organizing the present, planning for the future.’ Lev.

About this column

In a weekly column, alternately written by Eveline van Zeeland, Eugene Franken, Helen Kardan, Katleen Gabriels, Carina Weijma, Bernd Maier-Leppla and Colinda de Beer, Innovation Origins tries to find out what the future will look like. These columnists, occasionally supplemented by guest bloggers, are all working on solutions in their own way on the problems of our time. So that tomorrow will be good. Here are all the previous articles.