Jessica Chung has strong feelings about pens. Ballpoint pens, especially.
“They’re garbage,” said the Minneapolis educator.
The tools she prefers are gel pens, washi tape, stickers (“for fun”), watercolor paints (“which I love”) and brush markers. She’s also a fan of blank books with pages printed only with a dot grid.
Chung uses all of this to keep what’s become her passion — a bullet journal.
Every Sunday, she spends more than an hour artfully filling her notebook with to-do lists, meal plans and important upcoming meetings, handwriting a paper log that is part diary, part task list and part planner. To help cultivate “a more intentional life,” she uses two pages to write headers for each day of the week, then creates lists beneath each one. As the week progresses, she’ll update the pages.
“This process pauses me,” she said.
In an age of phone alerts, Google Calendars and Apple Watches, paper planner enthusiasts like Chung are embracing the old school arts of hand-lettering and calligraphy to organize their lives in a creative, analog way.
Just a few years ago, bullet journals were described as a cult craze. Now, they’ve turned into a global phenomenon, with more than 281,000 people following @bulletjournal on Instagram and an expanding number of blank bullet-journaling notebooks for sale. There’s even a self-care spinoff, called “heartsong” journaling.
“Even though there’s so much digital, I think people are wanting to get a little bit of a break from all that access all the time,” said Chung, who’s a curriculum coordinator at the University of Minnesota. “There’s a whole new wave and resurgence of paper planning. It’s a very cool thing.”
Digital designer Ryder Carroll developed the bullet journal system when he was a kid to help manage his attention deficit disorder. As an adult, he refined his journaling process, and shared his ideas online in 2013, thinking that friends and family might be interested. Instead, it went viral, moving to Pinterest and Instagram, where #bullet journal and #weeklyspread posts have reached into the millions.
In 2014, he collaborated with the German stationery brand Leuchtturm1917 to create an “official” bullet journal (the A5 dotted). His new book, “The Bullet Journal Method: Track the Past, Order the Present, Design the Future,” already is a best seller.
Carroll, of Brooklyn, has trademarked both the terms “bullet journal” and “bujo,” as it’s often called, and given a popular TED talk on “living an intentional life.” He says his journaling method helps him define what is important and meaningful and organize his time accordingly.
“For me productivity and focus always seemed foreign. They were very unnatural to me because my mind always worked differently,” he said. “I got a really early start figuring out how to overcome these challenges or at least find perspective that proved very valuable to me.”
While Carroll uses specific symbols (a dot for a task, an open “bullet” circle to record an experience, a dash for a note), many bullet journalists come up with their own design and structure. Chung, for example, uses a little heart to mark a moment she wants to remember and a tiny hourglass for something that she’s waiting for a co-worker to complete.
The ‘bujo’ community
Minneapolis filmmaker Alec Fischer learned about bullet journaling in college, and found it helped him manage anxiety. Now, he’s so into it that he’s working on a short film about Carroll and the bujo community.
He draws a weekly journal spread each Sunday, using a ruler and felt-tip pen, and finds the process meditative and thrilling at once.
“There’s just something for me that’s calming about getting it down on paper. It just helps me get it out of my head,” he said. “If I’m writing it down, somehow it feels like, ‘OK, it’s on paper, I don’t have to stress about it.’ That for me has been almost life-changing in a way because it’s really altered how I deal with my anxiety and my stress.”
Fischer often posts his weekly journal logs (complete with his doodled city scapes) to Instagram, where his friends look to see if they’re included in any of the activities he journaled about. He’s also been using bullet journaling techniques to plan and document the filmmaking process for his movie about Carroll. (The film is now in final edits.)
“I think people have found real connection through the community, which is awesome,” Fischer said.
That community continues to grow.
Leah Pihlaja, a marketing and events coordinator for Lakeville Liquor Stores, learned about bullet journals at work. She saw an intern using one, and asked her to teach the office about it during a “lunch ’n’ learn,” she said. Pihlaja is currently using a bullet journal to plan a project. She’s also planning to buy another blank book to devote to a slightly different form of journaling: a “heartsong” journal, a paper planner that was popularized by Rachel Wilkerson Miller, a BuzzFeed editor who wrote the book “Dot Journaling — A Practical Guide.”
Heartsong journaling is much like bullet journaling, except it focuses on meaningful events and moments. (Many of us accomplish this via the much less inspiring method of e-mailing ourselves lists of links.)
“I’d like to work my way into journaling as a way of staying focused more on my own self-care,” Pihlaja said.
Planning for flexibility
While cultivating planning as a hobby might seem like the ultimate Type A activity, Chung said it’s helped her become more flexible.
“I find that creating structure comes easily to me,” she said, “but I don’t get stuck in it.”
Chung has what she calls a “side hustle” running Pretty Prints and Paper, a business that documents and shares all things bullet journal. She has a website, blog and a YouTube channel with more than 30,000 subscribers and an even bigger following on Instagram.
She also teaches online and in-person classes in journaling and calligraphy, and is a popular workshop host at planner conferences around the country.
The conferences are “wild,” she said. “Have you ever seen grown-ass women get in line to buy stickers? That’s what’s happening.”
Her goal is to teach people how to create their own process, not to journal exactly like she does.
“I think that’s the hard part. You go from a blank page and you have to decide what is important to you and how your brain works,” she said.
But while bullet journaling can help set intentions and establish focus, it may not be best for what many view as the purpose of a planner — keeping a schedule.
“I do this in addition to a Google Calendar,” Chung said.
“I don’t schedule anything in here,” she said, turning to her bullet journal. “I just use it to be like, ‘OK, that’s the main meeting I have this week. That’s where my priority lies this week.’ My time, in real time, is through Google Calendar.”