I’ve been curious for a while about the Bullet Journal system. As an obsessive practitioner of Getting Things Done, I can’t see myself starting a Bullet Journal but its framing as ‘the analogue system for a digital age’ has intrigued me since I first encountered it. The video below provides an overview of how to keep a bullet journal:
The basic ontology of a bullet journal incorporates tasks, events and notes. These are incorporated into an organisational structure built around four core modules: index, future log, monthly log and the daily log. The bullet journal enables you to “track the past, organise the present and plan for the future” by providing a framework through which future plans become present commitments and past actions. If I understand correctly, it’s basically a funnel through which your plans over a six-month window get cashed out as monthly and daily priorities. The importance accorded to reflection ensures that commitments can be dropped along the way. It is a “customizable and forgiving” system for self-organisation, built around a hybrid journal which is a combination of “to-do list, sketchbook, notebook, and diary”.
I find it hard not to wonder if some of the appeal rests on paper-fetishism. This certainly plays a role in how Bullet Journal markets itself. For instance this video frames notebooks as a “creative playground” through which we “breath life into ideas”:
I can see the appeal of having an artefact like this. Externalising your commitments into an application like Omnifocus can be a hugely effective way to organise your time, once it has become a habitual process. It can be enormously practical as well, if you’re liable to lose your bullet journal, write indecipherably or otherwise fail to exercise the physical care in relation to an artefact which a system like Bullet Journal requires. But you can’t hold your Omnifocus. You can’t flick through it. Much of this lack is aesthetic. Reliance on a digital system precludes certain experiences which an analogue system facilitates.
I wonder if there are also practical losses as well. Could some modes of reflection be foreclosed by the insubstantiality of the system? Getting Things Done as a system relies on the series: “a number of events, objects, or people of a similar or related kind coming one after another”. It reduces all our projects to the same basic ontology: an interlinked series of actionable steps through which we cumulatively bring about a substantial outcome. This reduction is what makes it so powerful. The value of Omnifocus lies in it giving us powerful tools through which to calibrate this reduction. But it also carries the risk of eviscerating the lived meaning of these projects, particularly when enacted through a digital system. This problem is inherent to the moral psychology of the to-do list:
This is the mentality that cognitive triage generates: things are conceived as obstacles to be eliminated rather than activities to be enjoyed. As the list gets bigger, it becomes harder to see the individual ‘to do’ items as activities in their own right. They are reduced to uniform list items and nothing more. Things you enjoy and things you despise are given equal weight. The logic of the to-do list is one of commensurability and this is the problem with it. The process of triaging combined with the logic of the to-do list can lead to an evisceration of value: the potential goods internal to activities, those experiences of value that can only be found through doing, get obliterated by the need to cross items off a list.
Might Bullet Journals help preserve the relational richness of our projects, opening out powerful modes of engaging with them while closing down the conveniences which digital systems afford? I’d be curious to hear what others think. Particularly anyone who has used Omnifocus and/or GTD before moving to a Bullet Journal. My hunch is there’s a basic trade-off here between convenience and reflection. It’s easy to slip into using Omnifocus/GTD in an unreflective way but the brute physicality of the Bullet Journal renders that largely impossible. Many might stop using their notebook as a Bullet Journal but if you stick to the practice itself, it more or less ensures you use it in a reflective way.