I’m about to get real with y’all in this post. It’s a topic that has been weighing in my mind, and maybe it will resonate with you too. As one of my faculty mentors says, “I offer these humbly, knowing it may miss the mark, come too late, or be too early to be understood.” So take what is helpful to you. For a long time, I have felt competing pressures to constantly be doing something while also trying to be present and live my life in its full capacity. That’s no surprise – we get constant messaging to be more productive, about “lifehacks” to save time, and achieving our dreams. So when I started the bullet journal it made sense that people would start to make comments about how I was wasting time “decorating” instead of using that time to “get something done.” But here’s the thing: I am not using my bullet journal to get more done. And I’ll tell you why.
For so many years of my life I’ve been trained in the value of productivity, efficiency, and methodically working toward my goals. I was well-rewarded for always being on the move, always achieving something, and then moving onto the next thing – my family would nod, my teachers praised me, my supervisors trusted me with projects, I got good grades and the belief that I “had my shit together” which somehow equated to being successful. It’s what I was trained to do – and I got (am) very good at performing like I have it figured out.
In high school the hamster wheel was about being in clubs, having a job, being president of something, getting high grades so you can get into college. Then in college it was a bigger, badder hamster wheel that involved pressure to have jobs, grades, (unpaid) internships, a social life, and clubs so you could get into graduate school or “The Job”… I was kind of foolish to think it would end in grad school. But, once I was in graduate school, I started getting tired of constantly running on a treadmill, chasing after things that may or may not have been what I really wanted, checking off boxes on a list that wasn’t mine.
After school, you don’t get a syllabus or a rubric anymore. There are definitely checkboxes at your job, but somehow it’s different from being a student. And “suddenly” you feel a sense of liberation and fear that you have the space to write your own list. So what do you put on that list?
When you get to create your list, decide how you spend your time, what do you choose to do? What items are put on there by other people and what are the things you put there on your own? And what are the things that give us life instead of take it away? And… what is it I want my life to be about? And I knew, it wasn’t about just DOING THINGS. It was about the depths of my friendships, my connection to my family, my health, passions, not just how many boxes I checked off.
So when I started bullet journaling, I wanted to give space to both “being” and “doing.” I absolutely wanted to keep my goals in mind, and of course I believe in having intention, but I also wanted to use it to create space for the things that make life worth living (to me). The system isn’t just for doing work for me – it’s to make sure I’m doing the right work. Not necessarily a LOT of work, though some days that is absolutely true. A long time ago I decided I wanted to be more about who I am than what I do – which is EXTREMELY hard and I STILL live as a doer, but that is my intention.
So what does that look like in my bullet journal?
The world is always spinning, and especially in our doing-focused US culture, it can feel like your entire worth is measured on what you do and produce. But hear me, friends, when I say I want to know about who you ARE, not what you produce. What does your life tell you about who you are? How can your bullet journal reflect that too?
So thoughtful & well grounded – made me pause & think. Thank you.
My bullet journal just shows me how many thoughts I have running in my head and seeing it all on paper does overwhelm me, but I am glad I put it all down. Days or weeks past and when I flip through previous pages it makes me see all that I have done and sometimes even realize the small things which I am grateful for in my life. I can attest that mine doesn’t look pretty, just basic black pen throughout. I hope to make more time to add more color to my journal. 🙂
You definitely don’t have to add color if you don’t want to, Carolina! You do you. I’m glad that you are seeing your life unfold in your journal – it is like your journey in a notebook!
So true – I definitely use mine as a brain dump a lot of the time, with some tasks migrated from week to week. I know I need to do them when the time is right but if they’re written down, they’re not interrupting my thoughts so I can focus on the task at hand. And the setup and colouring time is about me time – I could do it in a pad but why not in my journal (plus if it’s pretty, I want to use it more!) ??? xx
This is a great post Jessica, thank you for sharing. I think it’s really important to create something that gives you jouy, not only pushes you forward towards the things you ‘should’ do. Life is full of moments if you just have the time to be in them.
—- “The system isn’t just for doing work for me – it’s to make sure I’m doing the right work.”
This is so true and something I try to keep in mind all the time. That is what I want my Bullet Journal to help me with. Making sure I am productive while doing the right things, so I also have time to just be.
Thank you for sharing! 🙂
thank you for leaving this comment (even though I’m so late to reply, sorry!) – I’m glad it was meaningful for you, it was defintely something on my mind and heart <3
I’m so glad you opened up about what the purpose of the journal is to you. I.,have a chronic illness so it’s a bit unpredictable whether my days will be productive. When I’m having a flare,i have no choice but to just be and it’s taken me a long time with the illness to accept that it’s ok to not be doing something all the time.My life sounded a lot like yours, the pressures of school, grad school and working/raising a family. My work is different now as a SAHM and blogger but my life is more rewarding being present with my kids and working on our home and working on my blog to help others like me appreciate the small victories in their lives. Thanks for continuing to be such an inspiration to our bullet journaling community.
my daughter’s recent diagnosis with a chronic illness has forced me to come to grips with the same thing. That I can’t expect her (or me) to always be doing something and that it is ok if we don’t. Kudos to you for allowing yourself to do that.
I’m so sorry to hear your daughter’s diagnosis with chronic illness. It’s hard enough for us adults to handle it, let alone a child. I see that the chronic illness forces me to slow down and be present. I require a lot of cuddling and reassurance when I’m in pain and my boys and husband are happy to provide it. The to do list can wait, it will always be there tomorrow but those little moments with my family won’t.
you are so sweet. Sorry about the late reply – life got in the way – but I’m glad we are both trying to center on things that help us live meaningful lives (however we define it!)
Love this. It’s perfect. I feel the same way. But sometimes I’m overwhelmed with the doing that I can’t fit in the being. I need a way to move in that direction. Thank you.
I hope you’ve had luck pulling in more “being” lately 🙂 I think that’s why I haven’t gotten back to your comment in so long! LOL
So, so, so important! Thank you for sharing!!!!!!
As someone who is a little further down the path of life than you are, I have to say these are wise words and your groundedness will serve you well later in life. We all get so caught up in checking the boxes and being busy that we forget to stop and enjoy just being alive. THOSE are the moments we’ll look back on and remember. The quiet minutes you sit enjoying the birds singing, feeling the sun warming your face, or watching your kids laugh and play. Not the completed to-do list at the end of the day. It’s about immediate gratification or long term satisfaction, I think.
I’m not saying I’ve got it all figured out, because I’m certainly a slave to that to-do list most days myself as a busy working mom of two teenagers. But, if we can try to remember these ideas and to incorporate them in little ways on a daily basis we begin to affect change in our lives and slowly can become who we really want to be.
Thank you for sharing!
Great perspective, Jessica! I’m definitely at a fork in the road with my bujo – between using it to promote productivity and minimize forgetfulness, BUT I also ENJOY just playing with it – the washi and lettering and decor. It fills my cup, while also keeping me together (or at least I look like it!). Thanks for sharing – makes me feel more satisfied with my bujo journey to hear thoughts from a pro like you!
AH (delayed reply, I know) – but this was so sweet thank you , I definitely don’t consider myself a pro, but I’m glad it was a helpful post 🙂
As a mom, a grandmother, teacher and one of your many fans, I’m so very proud of you and congratulate you on the writing of this article. You have placed value where it will mean so much to you as you continue being successful. I retired a couple of years ago but work part-time as an academic coach. The relationships with family and friends are the connections that last a lifetime.
I am humbled – thank you so much for your encouragement – it’s a hard lesson to learn sometimes 🙂
You are very wise! Beyond your years! This is what takes some of us until we are in our 40s to get on board with, yay! You rock. This is so important in our rushed, so-called “productive” Western world.
Ohhh yes that endless productive Western world…. haha – I’ve been trying to add more “being” in my life… which might explain why it’s taken so long to reply to your post! LOL
I love my Bullet Journal for my work. It keeps me moving forward, but I have a second Bullet Journal that I keep which records my ” just being moments”. I document all the things that are important to me, things that I want to remember, like a funny phone conversation I had with my sister or something romantic my husband may have said to me that day. ( “I’d marry you a million more times, if I could” is one of my favorites!) In my house, we celebrate birthdays in a big way, and I love to write down all the special details that could easily be forgotten with the passing of time. The care in the thoughtfulness of the day locked in my journal to help me remember the love and joy we shared that day. I’ll also tape photo’s into my Bullet Journal which makes it even more fun to return to over the years. I realized that I don’t have to write in it every day. I write in it only when there is something that touches my heart or something I want to remember. I’ll write something as simple as ” Date Night with hubby” and include something that he may have said that was funny and what we did, or ” Spoke with Aunt Willy and Uncle Ben today” with a little detail of the conversation. I know they will not be with us forever and to have our simple, sweet conversation documented will one day be even more special to me. The date nights, coffee times and getting together with friends and family are the sweet moments that our busy, push through it, move forward, lives are truly desiring and I want to remember those special moments and thanks to keeping a Bullet Journal, I will. It’s like having one great big gratitude log with details and pictures!
That will be an AMAZING momento and legacy to have. It’s amazing what i tell myself I will remember – and of course promptly forget. So what a practice – I am not diligent enough to keep up with that often times!
My favorite post! You should be proud of yourself and write more content like this!!! When you reach the level of followers/onlookers that you and some of your planner friends have, I think it’s important to show how wonderfully human you are. These were incredible thoughts that you got out and at the same time will help inspire others to look deeper inside themselves. Bravo girl! You really shine in this piece 😀
Manda – I have to tell you (even though I’m late AF to respond right now) that when I read this comment in my email, my heart melted and it was so touching. I was a little worried writing a post like this, because it’s not strictly bullet journal related all the time, but I am SO GLAD it was inspiring to someone. <3
Yah girl. I’m about to move into a new journal, and I’m looking at stamps and stickers (I’ve been scrapbooking for 17 years, I have tons of supplies) as ways to make my monthly/weekly set up more streamlined, so I can focus on using my planner smarter, because my life is about to get more crazy. It’s all about what works for YOU, and to heck with the naysayers.
Thank you so much for this article. What I love about my bujo, is that it has reawakened my creativity. Because of some of the things I’ve added to my bujo, I have been able to create routines and procedures (I’m a teacher, too) for improving the parts of me that I lost in all of my helter-skelter adulting. I’ve also had to relearn some time-management strategies to use my “on-time” more effectively, but not necessarily to accomplish more. Since beginning him my Bujo in June, I’ve had so many moments of awareness, regarding how I never seem to get it all done, even when I’m busy. I’ve had to allow myself grace and down-time. I now use my Bujo as my me-time, when I’m not giving love and time to my students or my three rescue dogs. I’ve been able to live more in the moment, because I reflect on what is working and not working. I’ve also had to realize: I love doodling and creating, but there are never enough hours for everything. I can’t do the planner challenge every day, or the rockyourhandwriting chellange daily, but when I do, I enjoy it. I guess all of this is to say, that I’ve always been achievement oriented in the way you mentioned super involved in everything through my formalized education, and I had already earned my MEd by 27. Then I began my doctorate later on. It wasn’t until my doctoral program that I realized how much emphasis I placed on achieving academic success and how little energy I placed in other facets of my life. I’ve since taken time off from that and have found a great sense of fulfillment in doing things I enjoy, even if it gets no recognition from anyone else. Thanks for your email updates to your blog. I enjoy them.
Oh my goodness Annika, I hope you read the post i Just did about my Heart List – because I felt the same drain. Achieve achieve… for what?? To lose my sense of curiosity of the world and what makes me come alive for no other value than my joy? That’s a cost that’s too high to bear. <3
Thanks for writing this. I use my bullet journal as a way of not forgetting. Whether it’s a random thought, something that I need to get done, or something that happened. It’s all relevant and it’s not necessarily for me to be more productive, because I feel I’m doing fine there. It’s mainly because my brain just doesn’t retain everything I want it to.
You’ve given me some important food for thought. At the moment, I am keeping my bujo pristine and looking good. At the same time, I have another notebook where I scribble notes to myself, write through my thoughts about what I’m reading or listening to and plan my ‘real’ bujo. This has been somewhat of a dirty little secret, but I think it’s time to get real and write it all down in one place as a running documentary of my messy, chaotic and busy life, where I definitely get a lot done. Maybe the hashtag #real_life_planning would take off?
Thanks for sharing, I think you’re brave and fabulous.
I am humbled at the words “brave and fabulous” thank you – I hope you’ve merged the two pieces together! I think that’s something I’ve had to learn is how to allow others tos ee my mess – and get to a point where *I* am okay with my mess, because that is ME and part of me figuring my shit out!
I enjoyed this post. It has actually come at a time when I am changing my thoughts about my personal planner / bujo / Everything book. My conclusion has recently been to leave work at work, and my personal journal, which is a traveler’s notebook of my design, contains my brain storms, goals, a weekly and monthly planner, and then I have decided that my daily pages (a two page layout) are strictly for my pleasure – creativity, prayer, gratitude, and memorable moments. I too have always been about doing something. I have always felt that I had to be doing something, and now I am choosing to teach myself to stop and just enjoy, but if I want to do something, I want it to be something creative – lettering, writing, doodling, sewing – just creating. Thank you for posting what i have been feeling.
I LOVE this article! I would also love to hear more about your “5 minutes of nothing and connection.” Thank you
I really resonate with your post. It reminded me of an article I’ve been wanting to write about productivity and when it is too much. Being interested in minimalism and essentialism, I think that my bullet journal helps me create margin for the things that are truly important in my life and spend less time in busywork. Thank you for sharing your thoughts it is refreshing to read such ideas!
Did you ever write this article? I’d love to read it as someone who is interested in minimalism as well 🙂
This is definitely enlightening. Too often I’m caught up in “what I should be doing”, and putting those things in my bullet journal. Studying for the CPA, exercising, all these super important things that yes are good to have and to track, but they hover over the “wants”. Looking back through all my daily logs, I never see time scheduled for “me”. Hardly is there time in there to play a video game for some time, or put on a face mask and paint my nails. It’s always the “impressive” to-do’s ingrained from college and high school and always reaching toward my next “aspiration” goal. I think if I sat back and actually put in time for myself in my dailies, maybe those other larger and important tasks wouldn’t seem so daunting (and end up unchecked, as unfortunately they often are). Thanks for this post! I think it’s important to remember that a bullet journal isn’t just for the heavy-duty to-dos: it’s for life’s good moments as well.
Lovely! So freeing ~
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