When Brooklyn-based designer Ryder Carroll was a kid struggling to control his attention deficit disorder, he was taught that the best way to remember something was simple: take notes. But there was one problem--he was never taught how to take notes.

"I was just taught to take as many notes as possible. But when your goal is to take as many notes as possible, you're most likely not taking in the information that's being spoken," Carroll says. 

Carroll realized that what he needed to do instead was be more mindful about how he took notes. That not only meant that he had slow down and take time to process what he was writing down, but he also had to come up with a system that would help him keep track of his notes.

After more than 20 years, the now-35-year-old finally came up with a method that helped him stay focused. Turns out, it works for lots of other people too: His solution gained millions of fans after he released a video tutorial of his methods on the internet. Carroll keeps what he calls a  Bullet Journal.

The Bullet Journal can be customized, but it contains four main components: an index that helps you keep track of what you have written in your journal and where to find it, a section to write down future tasks and events, a monthly calendar, and a daily task list. You use various symbols (a dot, a circle, and a line) to distinguish between tasks, events, and notes. A star indicates that something is important, and an x means that you completed the task.

 

Carroll first launched the video detailing how to bullet journal in 2013--that video now has nearly 1.5 million views on YouTube. In 2014, he launched a Kickstarter to create a notebook with pages that followed the Bullet Journal system built in. Two years later, you can still find Instagram users raving about the journaling system daily using the hashtag #bujo. Inc. spoke with Carroll to find out how he struck productivity gold, and how he's still perfecting the bullet journaling  system today.

Trial and error.

Carroll says that each section of the bullet journal was created to solve a different problem. First, he found that when he was taking notes during classes in college, he had trouble marking down the significance of certain notes. For example, a teacher might have said during a lecture that one piece of information was something that would eventually be on a test, or that another piece of information was something that the students should mention in a presentation later in the semester.

In order to solve this problem, Carroll first created the bullet system, where he would use different types of circles or bullets to signify what a sentence meant. That made it easier to scan his notes, but he discovered that it was still hard to find notes from certain dates. So he added a front page "index" to his notes--a section where he could say that lecture notes were on pages 1-5, to-do lists were on pages 6-10, and drawings were on pages 11-15.

Even after Carroll graduated college, he discovered that this system worked so well that he kept using it in lieu of a normal planner. But, as his career plans got more ambitious, he discovered that his daily task lists were littered with tasks that never got completed--notes that he needed to "design an app" or "build his website" weren't helpful. So he added a section for a "monthly" task list, to place to-dos that would take a little bit more time to complete. Then, the first iteration of the Bullet Journal was born. 

Still a work in progress.

Even though Carroll first released the Bullet Journal system to the world three years ago at the encouragement of friends, he says that he's constantly perfecting his note-taking system. After he published his first Bullet Journal video, the most frequent suggestion that he got from viewers was that he should add a section for "future" tasks--tasks that would be addressed more than a month out.

He also found that the original symbol  he used as his "bullet"--a square--was difficult to write neatly if he was writing quickly. He realized that he could save a quarter of a second--and write more legibly--if he used a simple dot instead of a square.

"For me, the Bullet Journal isn't finished. It will never be finished because we grow and as we grow, we need to find different ways to stay organized," Carroll says. 

For Carroll, minimalist symbols work best. But he's seen Bullet Journal users add in a color-coordinated organizational system, or create their daily task list in the form of elaborate doodles.  

To figure out the list-making method that works best for you, Carroll suggests starting with a very minimal to-do list and index, and then gradually adding more symbols or drawings to see what helps you remember to come back to your to-do list each day.

"If you feel inspired to come back to the notebook, you are doing it correctly. It's definitely about adapting the Bullet Journal to make it work for you, Carroll says."