In today’s increasingly digital age, where we rely on technology to keep track of our events, tasks, to-do lists, ideas, and more, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed. Writing stuff down can feel just as daunting when notebooks, sticky notes, and pieces of scratch paper are piled in an unsearchable stack.
Brooklyn-based interaction designer Ryder Carroll works with a myriad of high-profile clients, and also has a revolving list of personal passion projects. To make sense of it all, he developed a system called the Bullet Journal. Relying on a structure that’s purely analog, Carroll arrived at a basic format that enables anyone to get organized and, in the process, comfortably customize it for their own personal needs.
The Bullet Journal gets its name from the three different types of bullets used for tasks, events, and notes. This helps you log different types of data quickly and distinguish between them at a glance. Symbols such as stars, checks, and strikethroughs allow you to give priority to certain events or mark them as irrelevant. An index in the front allows you to keep track of all activity and the monthly spread gives you the big-picture on what needs to be accomplished. These types of symbols are equivalent to the Favorite, Tagged and Flagged Collections in the Livescribe+ app.
We had the opportunity to catch up with the busy designer and talk to him about the process of developing the Bullet Journal, how it’s helped people from varying backgrounds, and why the Livescribe 3 smartpen can complement and even enhance a system that is proven to increase productivity. Personally, with a feature such as Livescribe’s pencast, we think adding auditory context to shorthand notes could be an incredibly useful asset, along with the ability to carry around searchable digital notes wherever you go.
Without further ado:
What was your inspiration for developing the Bullet Journal?
I had just completed a really big contract and I wanted to work on a personal project. So, I was looking around to see what I could share with the community at large that could be most beneficial. Something that had been happening over and over again is when I showed people how I took notes, (or) journaled.
It seemed to resonate with them so I figured I would spend some time trying to really put together a system and formalize the methods I was using.
How long did it take you to arrive to the current system you’re using?
A very long time and I definitely don’t see it as being done, either, by a long stretch. What you see is the best methods and the best grouping of methods that I had come up with to that date. Since then, it’s definitely evolved and it took a long time to get to what you see presented on the site now. I see it as an ongoing process of refinement.
It’s a lifetime; it’s essentially starting from not being able to take notes at all to developing a system that can track everything. I tried out many things and I think why I arrived at what you see now is that individually, those may not be the best systems to tackle certain events – but together, I find them to be the strongest constellations and methods.
Have you received any inspiring testimonies that have made you especially proud of this system?
Yes, absolutely. The response has been very overwhelming. I receive a lot of messages from individuals who convinced me that it really has changed their lives – especially people who either have some kind of health problems, psychological disorders, or learning disabilities, and find this system really beneficial.
I’ve also spoken at a school recently, and at a wellness fair just to show people an alternative to traditional note taking. The feedback has been great and also what’s been really rewarding is to see how people customize their Bullet Journals.
At the end of the day, the big thing about the Bullet Journal is that it’s a series of methods so if a method doesn’t work for people, then I always advise not to use them. If they do work for them, great. And if there’s something they need the book to do, that it doesn’t, then they should go ahead and invent it.
A lot of people made contributions that I think are really clever.
So, you definitely don’t mind the fact that users are posting their own Bullet Journal hacks in a public forum?
I think it’s fantastic. That’s the whole idea. The Bullet Journal is essentially a series of systems I developed because they’re the things that worked best for me. I would never presume that it would be the beginning and end for anyone else. I think, if anything, it just provides a framework for them to start from somewhere and then create their own methods to build on the existing system, or modify the system. I definitely support people posting hacks as long as they let people know where to find the core site, so people can learn the core system before they start modifying it.
Have you found any useful additions or iterations on the system, based on user feedback, that you’d like to incorporate into future versions of the Bullet Journal?
Yes. One I thought was really interesting; a very simple one I use a lot now is called “threading.” Sometimes you’ll have collections that are spread out across the book that are related to one another. For example, a shopping list – or if you’re planning a party, sometimes you’ll create a collection. That collection will start on a couple pages and then two months from now, you have to keep working on it but the collection continues in a separate space in your book.
Essentially, the concept of threading is applying the page numbers of the continuation to the previous instance and vice versa. So, if a collection is on page 8, for example, and continues on page 20, on page 8, you just put a little dash next to the page number and put in “page 20” so you can very quickly find where the next instance of that collection is.
Small stuff like that, it’s very simple and quick. There are a bunch that people have come up with that are really good and some that aren’t so great but again, in my opinion, it’s what works for each individual and, yeah, people are clever.
What would you say to someone who is interested in the system but complains that his or her handwriting is sloppy or illegible?
I think that if they take a little bit of time to work on their handwriting, that would help. I do it myself. I think that slowing down is a big tip that doesn’t seem intuitive to a lot of people because they’re jotting things down as fast as possible.
One thing I try to get across with the Bullet Journal is take a second, think about what you’re about to put down, and then write it down. If your handwriting is bad then slow it down even further. It doesn’t have to be beautiful but it can certainly be legible.
What do you think people find most useful about the system, overall?
I think that it’s very forgiving because of the fact that you can put in any kind of content. You’re really not limited to any templates. Most of the methods that you see surround content – there’s a title and there’s a page number but there’s no real templatized grid.
You can use it as easily for a sketchbook as you can for a math book or a shopping list. The flexibility of each page, I think, works for people. Also, something that sets it ahead, that’s really powerful about it, is the fact that if you don’t use it, it doesn’t continue. You’re not missing out.
That’s the case with a lot of rigid systems, especially analog. You have printed chronological templates. So if you don’t use the book for a while, you end up with a bunch of blank pages.
In this situation, most people feel like they’ve failed and they get bummed out. Essentially, they don’t want to see it anymore. Whereas, with the Bullet Journal, if you pick it up two months later, if you took a break or went on vacation, it’s no big deal.
Why do you think writing with a pen and paper is so important in this digital age?
I think it’s a great way to detach myself from my otherwise digital world. I am a designer, by trade, so I spend all my time online. It does a lot for recall. It’s the first time, a lot of the time, for me to capture my ideas. It works really well for that.
Sometimes I don’t really know what I’m going to try to articulate. So with a blank page, I can either capture it with images, or with words, or with diagrams and that’s a flexibility that is only really possible with analog.
Other people don’t feel as comfortable catching these things in a digital format either. Again, it’s a use case. For me, it’s a break. It’s a way to get perspective.
What has your experience been using Livescribe with the Bullet Journal system? Has it been helpful to have your notes on your iPhone or iPad?
In my preliminary tests, I was really impressed with the fidelity. I used it to draw and doodle a bunch. The fidelity of the handwriting and drawing was really impressive.
I think there definitely is a lot of potential.
As mentioned above, Ryder Carroll is a Brooklyn-based interaction designer whose client work has included Talbots, White House Black Market, and Adidas.
Ready to get started? May is approaching, so now is an ideal time. In the video, below, Ryder provides a quick overview of how the Bullet Journal works. Visit the Journal’s official site to get more in-depth information for long-term set-up and organization.