As technological innovation marches forward in so many aspects of life, there is a movement gaining momentum to return to the past in search of something important that progress may have left behind.
No, you can’t beat the convenience of streaming and digitized music, but the listening experience still falls short of dropping the needle on a vinyl record. Similarly, while the ubiquity of tech-driven tools may make the process of managing our time easier than ever, we may actually end up increasing our productivity by decreasing efficiency through an analog, manual, pen-and-paper system.
Personally, I’d been successfully employing a time-management system for years—a simplified, customized amalgamation of David Allen and Steven Covey’s wisdom—designed using the online tool Trello. As someone who believes our most valuable investment is time, however, I was still curious when a friend I respect told me about a new system that he’d been using effectively. But when I invited him to show me, he didn’t pull out his phone or tablet, but a simple journal—a Bullet Journal.
The Bullet Journal is a product, but it’s also more than that. It’s really a modifiable productivity method that has grown into a community. The system, interestingly, was created by a digital product designer, Ryder Carroll, as a way to bring the discipline of task management under the practice of mindfulness. After testing out the system for a few months—and becoming an adherent in the process—I discussed the inspiration for the Bullet Journal with Mr. Carroll.
While how, exactly, I’ve adapted the Bullet system in my work as a financial advisor, writer and speaker—including the specific journal and writing tools I use—does make for an interesting story, today I’d like to address the bigger question:
Why take more time? Why sacrifice the ability to sync between devices? Why go back in time? Why go analog?
Here are the reasons I’ve collected, through research on my own and through my recent conversation with Carroll:
1) An analog process that takes you away from your computer is less distracting. Carroll isn’t anti-digital. He designs apps for a living, for goodness’ sake! “The thing that’s wonderful about digital applications and our technology is that they allow us to connect with the world in a way that’s never been possible before,” Carroll says, “but it comes at the expense of attention.”
The next email, reminder or alert moves us away from the primary objective of planning our days, weeks and months. So digital indeed giveth, but it also taketh away. And who wouldn’t rather spend less time in front of a screen, anyway?
2) It requires more effort. But this is a drawback, right? At least that’s what I thought originally. Obviously, on my computer, I can just copy/paste or move an unfinished task from today to tomorrow in less time than it takes a Tesla Model S to go from 0-to-60 miles per hour. There’s no alternative in the Bullet system but to physically…write…it…again.
But then it hit me—it’s a good thing I’m being forced to deliberate more meaningfully on the tasks that I set for myself. The system purposefully applies “specific types of friction onto the user.” But in Carroll’s words, “If you don’t have the time to rewrite something by hand, chances are it really doesn’t matter.”
3) It’s customizable. Autonomy is a powerful source of motivation, so having the ability to craft a personal task management system in our own image is important—and a feature lacking in most of the prescribed systems you’ll find.
“The Bullet Journal is more of a framework than a very specific system,” Carroll says, “and I give people the tools that they need in order to learn more about themselves and their own habits.” This kind of framework “allows you to pour your own life into it” regardless of how that looks.
4) It’s more enjoyable. It’s really “a mindfulness practice that’s disguised as a productivity system,” Carroll told me of the Bullet Journal concept. “Whereas the digital space allows you to connect outwardly very powerfully, I feel the analog space gives you the opportunity to collect inwardly, allows you to connect with yourself in a way that you can’t in a digital way, and it allows you, more importantly and specifically, to connect with your thoughts in a way that you can’t online.”
Even before Carroll put words to it, I realized this had been precisely my experience. In practice, my Bullet routine has become more an extension of my daily spiritual reflection than the beginning of my workday. It’s the bridge between meditation and vocation.
5) Most importantly, it works! “I put this out there because this worked for me. That’s the simple impetus,” Carroll says. As a kid growing up with Attention Deficit Disorder—“before it was popular,” he says—Carroll didn’t respond well to many methods of doing things that others taught him. So, it was through 25 years of “incredibly painful iteration” that he distilled his system into the Bullet Journal framework. It’s clear through its proliferation that the practice has worked for many others as well, myself included.
While Carroll told me that the next chapter of the Bullet Journal story will be to further validate its effectiveness with scientific research, I believe the signs are already there. We know that we could all use less screen time, that multi-tasking is actually a myth and that, when it comes to “learning and remembering course material, the pen is mightier than the keyboard,” according to Indiana University’s School of Medicine.
But screen or not, the best productivity system to use is the one that works for you. As I mentioned, the first system that ever stuck for me was a customizable online solution—and something like that may still be the best option for you. But I’m a Bullet Journal convert, and you can learn specifically how I’ve applied this framework to my own productivity practice.