How I Learned to Love Paper Again

I was never very good at managing paper. For much of my life, I was a “stacker.” Stacks of paper covered my desk and any other available space. When I tried to file things, it just got worse. Stacks of file folders would appear alongside my stacks of paper.

The worst part was that none of it was my paper. It was imposed on me by banks, credit card companies, direct marketers, and other scourges of society. I didn’t generate much paper myself. I was never much of an artist, and my ability to take and organize written notes was abysmal. Whenever I waged a battle against the stacks, I would inevitably find two or three notebooks that I had used for a few days and then lost to the paper piles.

Managing electronic files, on the other hand, came pretty easy to me. I love fiddling with technology, and with the help of OmniFocus and AppleScript, I developed an extremely efficient process for managing my day-to-day tasks and processing the large volume of e-mail I receive each day. I also purchased an expensive – but quite awesome – document scanner, which let me quickly move any paper documents into my paperless workflow.

Sounds great, right? Well, there were a few problems:

  1. Over time, I became better at capturing “to do” items, organizing them into projects, and rescheduling them than at actually accomplishing things.

  2. On those rare occasions when I did need to write something like a check or greeting card, my handwriting was atrocious. (It was never great, but the situation reached a point where I literally had to reteach myself how to make certain letters on scrap paper in order to write something.)

  3. I was overdosing on screen time. All of my work and leisure activities (even exercising!) involved staring at a screen, and eye strain, neck pain, and headaches became a near-daily occurrence.

In August of 2013, I came across a simple, paper-based planning system called the “Bullet Journal” in my Twitter feed. The creator, a Brooklyn-based art director and interaction designer named Ryder Carroll, put together an excellent web site and video that explains how it all works in a few minutes.

On the surface, it seemed like something that would have zero appeal to me, but I clicked through, watched the video, and quickly found myself itching to give it a try.

A few things really appealed to me about it:

  • There is a methodology to it, so I didn’t have to worry that I would take notes on something important and not be able to find them easily later. (This was a big issue with my “notebooks buried in the stacks” system of the past.)
  • The methodology is super simple, so there was a chance I would actually use it.
  • You build your own template on blank paper as opposed to using a pre-dated “day planner” system. You can use a bunch of pages on one day and none the next day. Either way, there is no guilt that you’re not doing it right or “wasting” pages if you miss a few days (or weeks).

I won’t be able to explain the system better than Ryder does on his site, but if you check it out, you will see what I mean. There is enough structure to keep things organized, but it’s also “duh, why didn’t I think of that” simple.

I didn’t jump right in, since this is exactly the type of thing that I tend to get really excited about initially and then lose interest in after a few days. However, it was still floating around my head as the final days of August wound down. So, I made like it was 1999, drove down to my local Barnes and Noble, and purchased a large Moleskine notebook[1] in time to start journaling on September 1.

Fast forward seven months later, and I have just finished filling my third large size journal. The Bullet Journal has really become an essential part of how I get things done – both on the work and personal fronts.

One big difference is that I do more thinking and planning in the evenings. By the end of the day, my eyes are tired from looking at an LCD screen all day, so the last thing I want to do is stare at a task list on my computer or iPad. In contrast, I find sitting down with my pen and notebook very relaxing. When I combine it with some music and perhaps even a Guinness, it is even better. It doesn’t feel like work. It feels like me getting my shit together.

Working with a notebook is also distraction free. I love the power that computers, tablets, and smartphones put at my fingertips. However, it is frightening to think about how few original thoughts I have while sitting at a computer. It’s easy to spend a work day (or 30) reacting to e-mails and firefighting instead of actually creating.

Once I began using the Bullet Journal, my brain started clicking in a way that is hasn’t in years. Every time I have an interesting idea, I jot it down. Some times the jot is one bullet. Other times it’s five pages. Some times I look at it the next day and think “Wow, I can’t believe I thought that was a good idea yesterday.” Other times, I’d think “Wow, that’s cool. I’ll come back to this some day if I have time.” Even if I don’t ever have time to come back to it, getting something cool out of my head and on to paper feels pretty good.

Bullet journaling also forces me to have honest conversations with myself on a day-to-day basis. With an electronic task management app, deferring something to tomorrow (or next week) is a button click. With my Bullet Journal, I need to physically write the task again on the subsequent day. This has two very positive effects:

  • Re-writing the task adds just enough friction that if it’s something that will only take 5 or 10 minutes, I’ll often just do the task rather than copying it to the next day. (It’s kind of embarrassing that I wouldn’t just do this with an electronic system, but that “+1 day” button was just so easy.)
  • If I’ve re-written the same task for three of four days, it’s honesty time. Put your big boy pants on and do it today, or admit that you’re not going to do it and cross it out.

It’s also kind of nice having a written log of what happened each day. In theory, I had a historical record with my electronic task management system, but digging through a database of completed tasks is not much fun. Now, if I am sitting down for a performance review or some other type of “What have you done for me lately?” discussion, it’s easy and gratifying instead of frustrating and time-consuming.

Over time, I’ve started logging more and more personal items as well. For a while, I was using the Day One app for personal journaling. It’s a great app, and I really enjoyed it. However, I ran into the same issue of not having the appetite for any more LCD screen time at the end of the day. There was also something about journaling in a beautifully designed app on my computer that made me feel like every entry needed to be profound and written in perfect grammar. Now, I literally just jot down bullets about good, bad, and interesting things about my day alongside my tasks and notes. It’s not the perfect prose for when historians are researching the story of my life, but it actually happens consistently and is valuable to me.

All in all, it’s pretty amazing that such a simple, analog system has had such a big impact on my productivity and overall mental state over the last seven months. It may not be for everyone, but it’s worth a look. I’ve already lured my wife and my sister into the order of the Bullet Journal, so maybe you’re next.

[1] Don’t do this. I’ve since discovered that Moleskines have terrible paper. Treat yourself to a Leuchtturm1917 or a Rhodia webnotebook. You’ll thank me later.