Awhile back I noticed something strange starting to appear in the feeds of the many productivity bloggers and get-stuff-done gurus I follow. Their blogs and social media accounts were suddenly studded with pretty but mind-boggling pages of annotated bullet point to-do lists and complicated color-coded charts.
I was witnessing the blooming of the bullet journal craze.
If you're not familiar with the concept, the idea of the bullet journal was dreamed up by Brooklyn-based designer Ryder Carroll, who claims using pictures and charts helped him sort through the chaos of his ADHD brain. How does it work?
The essence of the idea is "creating an indexed breakdown of the year - each month and each day - with tasks jotted down daily and then either checked off, scheduled or relocated into other parts of the journal. Notes on everything from reading lists to life goals can also be taken and cross-referenced, with a selection of symbols used to add extra meaning to thoughts or events," explains the Guardian's Nicola Davis.
The million dollar question: does it work?
The results are often quite beautiful (if utterly baffling to the uninitiated eye), but does all this doodling and checking actually lead to greater productivity? Davis talks to a number of scientists who believe it just might.
First it's important to understand a huge body of scientific research shows that old fashioned journaling -- nothing fancier than dumping your thoughts onto the page -- can be hugely positive for mental health This suggests that basically any way you find to get your thoughts down on paper is probably going to help you calm your mind and get stuff done, though no specific studies have yet been done on bullet journaling (so this is all just informed speculation).
That being said, this more graphical form of journaling might provide unique benefits, several experts believe. Neuroscientist and author Daniel Levitin, for instance, suggests that one of the system's advantages is that it works like an external memory extension.
"The conscious mind can attend to about three things at once. Try to juggle any more than that and you're going to lose some brain power," he tells Davis. A bullet journal might be helping its fans get past that inherent mental limitation.
It might also help shut down a psychological phenomenon known as the Zeigarnik Effect, which states that it's easier to remember uncompleted tasks than completed ones. When an undone task keeps intruding into your thoughts, simply planning out when you'll complete it can help clear it out of your mind, research shows. That's why you often write a to-do list, feel better, and then simply lose it. It's also why bullet journals may be so soothing for some, according to psychologist EJ Masicampo.
Masicampo also suggests another reason the doodling, noodling quality of bullet journals might be more than a simple waste of time. "Research tells us that if you can take time off from your workflow and let your mind wander - maybe doodle, listen to music, draw pictures or even just stare out the window - those periods of inactivity are actually essential to having productive periods of activity," he explains in the Guardian article.
"When you've got a piece of paper in front of you, it sort of encourages you to expand your visual field and expand your imagination," he continues. The bottom line is this: if the bullet journal craze appeals to you, the word from science is that there's good reasons to give it a try.