My failed bullet journal should’ve been a clue to my executive dysfunction

A while ago—ten years, give or take—I came across this seemingly revolutionary method of organisation called the Bullet Journal, affectionately called BuJo. Never one to run out of notebooks, and being hardcore obsessed with productivity (I once downloaded every todo list app I could find), I decided to give it a try. I’m not going to make you head over to the website and read about it, but I’ll summarise how it works as best I can.

You start with a dot grid notebook, because that type of notebook just lends itself better to the system compared to ruled or grid paper. You have long-term planning, and short-term planning. Long-term planning starts at the beginning of your notebook, where you dedicate one page per month for the year. Then, daily, you start a new list over the remaining pages of the notebook. Each of those lists is titled with the date. Fair enough. Then, using different bullet types, you make notes or tasks.

I’d say the main “productivity” or “getting shit done” principle that I wanted to share is around how tasks are written. You write a bullet or dot point, and rather than crossing out the entire item of text when it’s completed, you turn the dot into a cross. (Insert some shit about how crossing it out seems not like it’s “done” but that it’s been rejected, or something. I’m not sure if that’s something that’s shared on the Bullet Journal website, but whatever.) If you want to postpone it, you turn the dot into a chevron-like arrow that points to the right. If you want to plan for it long-term and pop it into, say, the month of May, then you turn it into an arrow that points left, to indicate that you’ve scheduled this in your May page that you set up earlier.

Look, let’s just say, I very quickly realised that the Bullet Journal is just a glorified fucking to-do list. And I’m also looking at the website for the first time and it looks like it’s now being sold as some phenomenon where you can pay for a “course” to learn the Bullet Journal Method® and even purchase a dedicated Bullet Journal? Wait, so just getting a dot grid notebook doesn’t cut it? You have to spend money on some branded fancy shit? I shouldn’t be surprised. This always happens with everything on the internet. People start monetising and trademarking things and now the whole thing is being branded as a “mindfulness practice” that’s going to change your life. If I didn’t know about this ten years ago, then the amount of sourness in my mouth wouldn’t be there and I’d definitely be drinking the Kool-Aid.

Anyway, back to my point. Before discovering the Bullet Journal method (not putting the registered trademark after that, sorry), I was already doing something similar. I was writing the date on a piece of paper or a notebook, every day, and writing down the tasks I wanted to do, in bullet form. If I had a good day, I’d start one of the items on my list. If I had a really good day, I’d maybe finish one of the items. But I never finished everything. So when I looked back on what I wrote, I was writing the same list of half a dozen items, over and over again, just with a different date written above them. I hadn’t done any of them. I just got a kick out of writing my tasks out and then not fucking doing them.

I was obsessed with trying to find the perfect system for myself and the simplicity and organisation of the Bullet Journal method seemed like an optimised version of a todo list and a diary in one. So I thought it was going to work. Not to rain one anyone’s parade—as I’m sure it works for some people—but it didn’t work for me. Can you guess what happened? Yeah. Every day, instead of writing the same list, I’d write new list items, but at the end of every day I’d turn them into an arrow pointing right. Postpone. Every day.

A close-up of a notebook with neat printed handwriting with some tasks written and some listed exercises
I couldn’t find an exact example, but the fact that I started filling my bullet journal with workout logs was probably a sign…

I laugh looking back at this after my ADHD diagnosis, realising that no productivity todo list was inherently going to help with my executive dysfunction. It wasn’t in the tool or the method. It was internal. It was me. I was the common denominator.

I’ve now got a better grasp on managing my productivity and have a couple of systems in place that work for me. I just wish I hadn’t wasted so much time trying to find a new shiny thing to improve my productivity. Maybe I was looking for dopamine, or maybe I was distracted. But for almost my whole life, I’ve been a “live and die by my calendar” kind of person. When things really moved digitally, I embraced it even more. I used to put everything in my calendar, but now I put almost everything. The “almost everything” excludes a couple of tasks like chores and sorting out finances, but even routine things like going to the gym and time blocked out to focus on specific tasks are in my calendar.

The next tool I use is an app in which I dump all the tasks that need to be done. I settled on Things—the pricing is extortionate, admittedly, but it’s the simplicity of todo lists, made beautiful. I put all my tasks in there because, if I don’t write it down somewhere, I’ll forget. If it’s not in my calendar or written down, it’s not happening. 🫠 I’ve now learned that it’s important for me to chunk larger tasks into smaller ones, and it is also important for me to make deadlines for myself and stick to them. I don’t have a problem with deadlines for stuff that’s due on a certain date, but I will leave a lot of other things hanging or until the last minute, like writing this blog post (lol), cleaning something up, and texting someone back, just to name a few.

I will actually use paper to write my tasks down too, but will add them to Things eventually. The paper also serves as a spot to doodle and draw during meetings, or a way to take notes, so my paper ends up being a semi-organised mess. My silly ass stopped buying notebooks a while ago because I was always hoarding them and never using them. So I’ve literally been writing these todos, notes, and drawing on the back of supermarket receipts. Normally I’d save paper and never get paper receipts, but my local supermarket has forced the paper receipts, probably to somehow assist in minimising theft.

I’ve not always taken notes in meetings. I’ve not always doodled during meetings either. I actually only recently decided that it was necessary for me to do both these things because it helps me concentrate and focus on what’s being said in the meeting. I work from home pretty much full time, and I was tuning out so badly during meetings because I would rather do something bloody else. I am embarrassed to say that I would often start online shopping or texting friends when I was supposed to be listening in on an important meeting. The only times I was paying attention was when I was playing with my hair, flicking a hairband at my desk, or trying to weave a snagged thread back into a cardigan (which really did happen one time). But making written notes and drawing on scraps of paper has been my way of managing my focus because it gives my hands and brain something to do.

It really still is a journey, but the Bullet Journal can fuck off. (Sorry, not sorry.) Yes, Things costs money, but a lot of todo list apps are free, and paper is readily available, and calendars are too. You may not always need to pay for some glorified diary and access to some videos that show you how to plan your life under the guise of a mindfulness practice that promises massive life improvement.

Also, if you’re reading this and you lust after the perfect planners and organisers that people have, but you can’t for the life of yourself, figure out how to get there, I’m here to tell you that it’s OK. It’s OK to not be that person. I once wanted to be that person and I faked it for a while. I collected stationery and stickers and my handwriting can be insanely neat and I “appear” organised. But it’s not the same as actually being organised and doing things. Sometimes the least complicated thing works, and what works for you is also not the same as what works for other people.

Disclaimer: This post isn’t really a review, it’s literally just my opinion based on my own experience. Your mileage may vary.

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Oooh. You want my take? 👀

The “Bullet Journal” concept isn’t an original idea — Ryder Carroll was simply the first person to patent the concept and trademark it.

Dot grid journaling has been around for ages, before Bullet Journal was patented/trademarked. People used to DIY their planners all the time. The only difference between planners you buy at the store and ones you print/draw yourself are one is mass produced for public purchase and consumption.

Once I realized this, I started hating the BuJo concept completely. I realized a guy probably read the term someplace else on the internet, or maybe he did brainstorm it himself but made something of it after seeing other people do different ish, and ran with it.

I started making planners with grid paper in middle school. A BuJo is a glorified planner you DIY 100%.

Sure, its supposed to be “simple” and “minimal”, not creative AF like a lot of people make theirs. Again: GLORIFIED DIY PLANNER.

I enjoy DIYing my planners because of the creativity it offers, and I need a planner with a Monday start because of how I visualize and process time. I’m planning to get a blank notebook or DIY my own notebook to doodle/sketch things in, because I find myself loving the creative aspect something wayyy more and don’t want to spend that much time drawing out a planner.

I’ve figured out the sizing for each day’s square in a month and marked it with a ruler, so I do feel as though I could easily DIY my own journal. 🤷‍♀️

Because…yeah. I don’t really “Bullet Journal”; I DIY my own planner. 👀 And Ryder Carroll didn’t patent that…or invent DIY planners or dot grid paper. 💁‍♀️

…and if anyone lusts after the pretty DIY journeys people have: start small. Learning to draw and doodle is messy and imperfect. Do what feels right. Be okay with messing up. I hated my October 2024 monthly spread drawing, so I started over. 💁‍♀️ There are no rules to creativity.

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