By: Ashley Pandya

You’ve sensed it in the air. The rustle of freshly snipped washi tape. The chill that a perfectly straight line inked in gel pen sends down your spine. The sting of eye strain as you doom scroll through TikTok, the words “study with me! 🥰✨” burrowing into your brain. Even if you haven’t partaken, the art of the bullet journal, and its effects on internet productivity culture, are likely familiar to you to some degree. Youtube, Instagram, Pinterest, TikTok, countless social media sites include subcultures that meld together studying, planning, and mental organization with lofi hip-hop beats and ambient candle lighting. A majestic, ever-elusive, frankly maddening whirlpool of constant unattainability, where improvement is both a blessing and a curse.

Am I being dramatic? Without a doubt. Am I nevertheless kind of right, that the experience of bullet journaling can be addictive in its rewards, exhausting in its means? Also yes. 

If you have healthy avenues to express your dissatisfaction in life, you may not be particularly familiar with the mechanisms of modern “study culture.” The bullet journal (bujo for short) was formally developed in 2013 by designer Ryder Carroll as an efficient way to organize tasks in a personalized, consolidated place. My bullet journal (which I will use for examples here because I am vain), while fairly standardized, is still unique in the eyes of the bullet journal community, as the purpose of a bujo is to be uniquely tailored to the needs of its owner in a way that a regular planner cannot be. Carroll came across the invention of the bullet journal while looking for solutions to maintain organization in his daily tasks while experiencing the symptoms of a learning disability. What characterizes his system apart from others, Carroll says, is that “The way bullet journaling is designed is that it evolves alongside you. I think it has become so popular because it becomes whatever you need it to be. Figuring out what you need it to be is very much part of the practice.” 

This, I would argue, gives credence to the enduring nature of the bujo. Because the journal in essence has but a few basic tenets, it has exceptional ability to evolve both over time and with the journalist. The use of the bujo has only steadily grown since its inception, leading to rises in different sects of the market, particularly those involving physical stationery. For example, there was an 18% increase in notebook sales from 2017 to 2018, attributable at least in part to the upward trend of bullet journal use. Similarly, sales of other kinds of stationery associated with bullet journaling grew: paint markers (+9%), gel pens (+6%), and porous pens (+5%), for example. This growth is particularly interesting given that, in the wake of the exponential proliferation of devices for digital art creation (iPads, Apple Pencils, etc.), one may assume that the sale of physical stationery is gradually becoming peripheral. The fact that it is not, however, indicates the extent to which trends in journaling culture rely on purchase power. The rise of social media content creators geared toward the fostering of a rich bullet journal subculture popularizes new products designed to enhance the experience of working: Zebra Mildliners, Leuchtturm dot-grid notebooks, lavender Ubotie keyboards, etc. This can often contribute to a feeling in newbies that making a bullet journal involves parsing through an immeasurably dense series of products before you can even properly begin. 

The fact that a system that, at its core, can be accomplished with a pencil and a spiral notebook is costing individuals hundreds of dollars highlights a broader trend at play: the connection between someone’s quantifiable productivity and their daily use-value. This has been notably exemplified during the pandemic, as millions find themselves swamped with tasks that grow faster than they can be checked off. Bullet journals, designed to de-clutter the mind, can lead to the adverse effect of decluttering what may not necessarily be clutter in the first place. 

During the pandemic, this inclination toward uber-productivity that can be deeply unhealthy has been particularly strong. A pervasive narrative, that the world is currently on “pause”, a critical time to get as much done as possible, has led individuals (incentivized by their employers) to overwork themselves constantly. Bullet journals are commonly serving as mausoleums, indicating how much we can work without feeling like we’ve accomplished anything at all. The pandemic has, in many different ways, shown that institutions grounded on a culture of “work ‘til you drop” where employees must harm their own health for the sake of production while also having to maintain the appearance of normalcy will never disappear, even in the face of widespread disenfranchisement. 

While that may be all well and good, however, acknowledgment of the existence of disempowerment alone does little to examine the nature of it. Productivity culture works in part by linking the laborer’s personal identity and self-worth with their rate of creation, not necessarily with the essence of the creation itself. Use of a bullet journal can do both, to varying degrees of inductive stress. Your journal is infinitely customizable and can be whatever you want it to be: minimalistic, maximalistic, reflective, actionable, reflective, casual, formal, personal, or standardized. This bevy of choices, though, can lead to the practitioner feeling overwhelmed, as if to be anything it must be a little bit of everything. We can get caught up in a grain silo of tasks, slowly suffocating on the prospect of somehow attending 4 concurrent Zoom meetings while making dinner. What we wouldn’t do, after all, to ensure we’re being organized, exacting, and productive when our livelihood depends on it, irrespective of the personal cost. 

This is by no means meant to knock the bujo system or the real benefits it can have on people’s mental health. Indeed, I’ve personally found that my sense of stability has increased over the pandemic when I am able to quantify my objectives on a piece of paper, rather than having them catastrophize in my head. But I also know that the part of my brain prone to catastrophe is also prone to burden in the act of trying to avoid burden. For me, it helps to remind myself that the pandemic is not an excuse to unrealistically expect increased performance from anyone, including myself, and is in fact a very good reason to allow leniency.

So, this has been a long-winded way of saying, please be kind to yourself. There will always be more work to do, and there will always be tomorrow morning. 

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