A few years ago, I stumbled upon the Bullet Journal system. As a brief explanation in my own words, the Bullet Journal is a system that allows quick and efficient organization and prioritization of anything you want to keep track of - notes, to-do lists, event planning, thoughts, or anything else you don't want to forget. It's typically done using a notebook and pen to write things down as you go through your day.
As someone who spends a large chunk of their day writing things down, I was instantly drawn to this system. I spent some time trying to find something that would keep whatever was in my head organized. Digital tools never worked for me - they're super-easy to use, but I found myself either forgetting to check my tasks or not keeping them up to date. I bought a planner or two in the past but my days are not typically busy enough that most of the pages were 90% empty. The Bullet Journal system seemed to cover most of the issues I had with other tools, so it seemed perfect for me.
The first two months using the Bullet Journal system were terrific. I found myself happily jotting down all types of notes, to-dos, and future activities, and it felt like it was working great. I would rarely forget the tasks I had to do, reviewed my notes and lists consistently, and kept things well-organized so that I wouldn't find myself buried with old items as would often happen when I used other tools.
However, after that initial "honeymoon" period, I found myself getting more and more exhausted with the system. Gradually, I began feeling less excited to create new lists, or start a new monthly log, and wouldn't write down all the tasks I needed to take on during that specific day.
Falling for the same old traps
The first signs of disinterest began when I noticed lots of empty pages in certain sections of my notebook. One example was with the Bullet Journal's Monthly Log section. You take two pages and write down all the days of the month on one page, keeping the other page open to write down any notes to deal with in that month. Since I rarely have tasks that I have to deal with later in the month, I was just adding two or three items and leaving the rest of the pages blank.
Whenever I saw those blank pages staring me in the face, I felt a bit of disappointment in myself for not having enough things to fill all the sections that the Bullet Journal system recommends. That feeling led me to think that the Bullet Journal system was not for me, and it made me begin to think if I should just give it up - another tool abandoned and left in the dust.
Before I did that, I wanted to check what other people were doing. The Bullet Journal system has become a favorite way for people to organize their lives, meaning that there are plenty of others out there using the system and showcasing what they're doing on social media, so I was bound to get some ideas and inspiration.
I found millions of posts of the most creative, colorful, and artistic notebooks I've ever seen. One glance at #bulletjournal on Instagram shows over 2 million pictures and videos of beautiful ways to set up a Bullet Journal. Unfortunately, this had the opposite effect on me - Instead of finding inspiration, what I found was overwhelm and shame.
My notebook was merely a plain grid notebook, and I only ever used a single black pen. No colors, no fancy drawings, nothing. So I immediately bought colored pens and began sprucing up my own notebook. But since I never developed the ability to do any type of drawings, they made my notebook look even worse than with just plain words in a single monotone color. It made me feel horrible for having such an "ugly" journal, leading me to lose all interest and give up.
So, what exactly happened? I fell into not one, not two, but three different traps:
- I was following the instructions from the Bullet Journal website on how to set up the system exactly how it was specified. I didn't allow myself any flexibility to modify anything that was defined because I thought that was the only way to get things going. This thinking led me to believe that I was doing something wrong because some parts weren't working for me.
- On a subconscious level, the rigidity of the system as specified on the website most likely caused my brain to shut itself off towards the Bullet Journal system. Deep down inside, most people don't like being told what to do. Even if we aren't aware of it or verbalize it, our brain's tendency is not to always follow the rules for different reasons.
- I began comparing myself to all those highly-creative people and started to tell myself that it probably wasn't worth the effort if I couldn't get anywhere close to what others were doing. I never stopped to think about how the system had been working for me, or how my situation was different from theirs. They might have a ton of creative ability, and that's their sole way to express it entirely, or maybe they have a lot of free time to spend drawing and coloring in a notebook.
These traps are very common to fall into, no matter the situation you're in. A frequent occurrence with parents is when they tell their children to do something, and they do the opposite. Or, for example, if you're thinking about going to the gym and a super-fit person walks by you - chances are you will not even start because you'll compare yourself to them and think you'll never be able to reach that level of fitness.
While it's easy to fall into these traps without realizing it, there's one sure-fire way to get out of them and avoid them all together. The solution is simple: make the process your own.
Getting out of the trap
Every single person on this planet is different. We all have different ways of handling any situation that we confront on a daily basis. However, people often tend to strictly follow other people's advice blindly. While some guidance can help get you up and running with whatever you want to do, these instructions typically come from a single perspective. What worked for someone else doesn't mean that it will work for you.
Not every single thing needs to be done strictly and to the letter. Unless you're doing something that can have catastrophic consequences, like performing brain surgery on someone, or doing some type of dangerous construction work while you're on a thin steel beam 500 feet in the air, there's no need to have to do every single thing as you're told.
When I was trying to fit the Bullet Journal system into my workflow, there were a lot of great parts that I enjoyed for organizing my tasks on a notebook, but I was tied down by trying to make all the pieces fit. I kept the things that I felt useful and eliminated everything that I found tedious, and I once again found joy in the system.
You can begin doing this in any part of your life. When learning something new, it's good to read a book or take an online course to get started. But exploring your new skills on your own once you have the basics down will rapidly increase your knowledge compared to continuing taking lectures or reading more books. Or if you are given a task at work, find ways to make the work both more enjoyable and higher quality than what others have been doing to grow your career.
I do what works for me, you do what works for you
When you take a process and make it your own - meaning that you do what works for you - you'll put yourself on the fast track to success. When you take the right parts, remove the sections that aren't serving you, and you add your own unique touch, you'll begin to feel empowered and can take ownership of the process. You're no longer bound to someone else's vision of success. There's no more comparison because it's your own unique process. Forget about what others are doing and keep on doing the things that move you forward.
Once you take ownership of anything, even if it's made from something or someone else, you will begin to shape your own success. Because success generally leads to further progress, the feeling will inevitably expand throughout other parts of your life, and it will be is more motivating for you in the long run.
Small steps for your Practical Good
If you like the idea of making any process your own and put your unique stamp on things, here are a few steps to get you started:
- In whatever you're currently doing, if you're following someone else's process or methodology precisely as they do: stop once you have a firm grasp of the basics. You'll need to spend some time at the beginning of every process getting as familiar with your new routine. However, don't stay stuck there once you have enough details. Once the process feels like it's becoming a chore instead of something exciting, that's when you need to break free from what you were already doing.
- Start eliminating the parts you don't like about the process you're in and keep the ones that work the best. After you've done something for a while, you'll have a clear sense of what feels right and what doesn't. Spending some time to figure out if the things you don't like can be removed from process won't affect your results while keeping what feels right will help keep your motivation high.
- Be creative and add your own twist to the process. Make your journey interesting by adding your individual steps to your routine. It can be tweaking some of those things that you don't like into something more enjoyable, or it can be something entirely new. Experiment and be original - you'll have a lot more fun along the way.