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Book Catechism: The Bullet Journal Method, by Ryan Carroll


Track the Past, Order the Present, Design the Future.

How did you come upon this book?

I am a Lifehack dabbler, always looking for something to make life easier. One of my interests is time organization methods. I have tried many of them, to little effect, because they are too complicated. During an internet search I found a video about the Bullet Journal method, and from there arrived at Ryan Carroll’s website. His organization method is simpler than most, and it can expand in complexity as needed. I liked that about it, and that got me started with Bullet Journaling.

I bought the book to have a paper reference for the method, and to see if there were any tips or tricks that would improve my game.

Also, I felt a tad guilty that I was using his method and he wasn’t getting a dime. All my money was going to the Moleskine and Traveler’s Notebook companies.

So what is the Bullet Journal Method?

It isn’t complicated, but I don’t want to completely explain it here. There are enough websites doing that already. A Bullet Journal centers around a daily list of todo items (called the Daily Log) and a system of symbols that either mark the items as to-be-done or direct them to another list where they wait to be done. It is a hierarchy of lists, starting at long-term and drilling down to daily. An item can be migrated to the Daily Log if it is to be done today. If it can wait, you can move it to the monthly list, or even a longer-term list called the Future Log. The key to the system is the migration, which keeps items moving from one list to another until it gets done or is archived somewhere for later reference.

And for things that aren’t strictly todos, or for special todos like grocery lists or things to buy for a camping trip, you can assign them to special lists called Collections. Collections are indexed for easy reference later.

The point is that there is a Daily Log that allows you to organize your day, and other lists that allow for everything else. You index these lists as you go, so they are easy to find when you need them.

Sounds like sliced bread just got displaced from the greatest thing list.

Sure. It’s not everything and it isn’t for everyone. But I like its flexibility. You pick up a notebook, any notebook, and you start on page one. When you need a new list you turn the page and continue. Unlike most systems, where you create a set of cubby holes to sift data into (such as tabbed sections of a notebook or separate files for different subjects), with a Bullet Journal you just keep adding to the end. You keep track of what you add by maintaining the index.

But the whole thing is free form. Some months I don’t have a lot to do and I may only generate a few bullet lists. Other months will be very busy and I will have pages and pages. That’s what is nice about it. It expands to fit the project rather than the other way around.

Ok, fine. It's a good system. How is the book?

The first 100 pages or so lays out the system, and were fine. The last 200 pages Carroll jumps into the Zen of Bullet Journaling, about how it will change your life.

First of all, I don’t need a personal organizer that changes my life. I need a personal organizer that reminds me to take out the garbage on the right day. My view of personal organization is purely utilitarian. When Carroll starts getting into the Zen of it, it wears on me quickly.

You have something against Zen?

Oh, no. I like Zen. But Zen is a practice all in itself that does not need Bullet Journals to make it complete. Carroll is trying to make a todo list into something more than it is. This is a common ploy in self-help books. How tidying your house will cure your problems. How running will wipe away your depression. How getting your finances in order will perfect your life. 

It’s all hogwash. Religion and philosophy perfect your life. Keeping a todo list is a tool to free you up to find personal peace, but it is not inner peace itself.

Since you brought it up, what is inner peace?

It may be different for different people. But inner peace is a profound experience, rooted in the transcendental. It is an end in itself, not a means. Personal organization is not an end, it is only a means. You organize so you can move on to inner peace. 

Organization is not the goal that provides joy. It is only a step on the path, and nowhere near the end. When Carroll starts spewing advice about how to solve life’s problems, he loses me. Nothing about the Bullet Journal is important enough to bring me to a state of joy. 

Can you give us an example of taking it too far?

“We can’t always control what fate drops in our lap. In the moments where we do have a choice, we must be vigilant about what we let into our days because we don’t have life to spare...We ask ‘what is vital’ and ‘what matters’ to help us filter our distractions from our lives....Adding this lens of impermanence to your Reflection can provide clarity by reminding you of what’s at stake. We remember death so we don’t forget to make the most of our time alive” (p.182).

Wow. Pretty heavy for a book about managing your todo list.

Exactly. What he says isn't wrong. I just prefer my grocery list not be delivered with a dose of Henry David Thoreau.

Gotcha. So you don’t like the book.

I like the book fine. The pages about how to organize a Bullet Journal are good. But the attraction of the Bullet Journal is its simplicity, not its function as the doorway to nirvana. I suppose if you had never heard any of this mindfulness/carpe diem stuff before, if you had never listened to a Sunday sermon or a graduation address, it might be a place to start. But if you are looking for a philosophy of life, there are better places to look.

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