It started innocently enough, as most online searches do. I wanted a planner. It was mid-December, and soon it would be the New Year, when the pressure is on to be a New Me. Becoming more organized seemed a pedestrian—but satisfyingly attainable—resolution.
Instagram had incepted the idea into my brain weeks earlier, when it showed me an ad for 2019 paper planners. Neat lines and blank pages, all patiently waiting to be filled up with ideas, events, and to-do lists. All in servitude of my numerous New Year’s goals. I was inspired. Yes! I thought. Time to “get offline” and “go analog.” I entered the term “best planner” into the search bar and pressed Enter.
Hours later, I emerged from my phone screen frazzled and depressed. I had stumbled into #planner Instagram—#plannerlife, #plannergirl, #planneraddict—and gotten lost, hungrily scrolling through image after image of fanciful calligraphy and perfectly outlined lists and elaborate illustrations of journaling wood nymphs. My brain oscillated from curiosity (where do I find those neat stickers?) to reasoned awareness (of course I should be tracking my financials more closely), from unreasonable disappointment (why, oh, why hadn’t I ever taken a calligraphy class?!) to scorn (who needs an itemized table of contents for a damn to-do list?). I glanced away from my phone to my own “planner,” a battered, red, lined Moleskine full of scrawled notes written with free ballpoint pens I had collected from work conferences and hotel nightstands. Oh my god, I thought, I am a disaster.
All I wanted was to get organized, but my excursion into #planner Instagram threatened to embitter me. It was a noxious feeling of jealousy mixed with an equally rotten instinct for self-righteousness. I harrumphed. I am too busy to be meticulously crafting and drawing and slapping silly stickers to things!
Then I bought a planner anyway.
On January 2, I walked into an art-supply store and headed for the pen section. After much scribbling and doodling, I dropped a multicolor pack of Le Pens, three Faber-Castell markers, two rolls of crafting tape, and a gridded Leuchttrum notebook into my basket. As the cashier scanned my items, he turned the notebook over in his hands and looked up at me. “Bullet Journal?”
“Yes,” I replied sheepishly. “New year, new me, all that jazz.”
A beat of silence.
“Yeah, we’ve sold a ton of these,” he finally said.
I could feel his assumption of my impending failure. Of all of our impending failure. Perhaps he could see January 2, 2020, when the previous year’s abandoned planners would be cast away to the Island of Misfit Journals.
“I like your palette of pen colors,” he added.
I told him I chose colors that grabbed my attention, that maybe they would organize my mind’s eye. I didn’t tell him I thought they might also look nice on Instagram.
Humans seek order and patterns, but our eyes are equally drawn to gleam and glam.
Actually, colors have long adorned my planner. Black ink for to-do lists, blue ink to mark items to-done. I also use a highlighter system to organize ideas: yellow for conversations I’ve had with colleagues, pink for notes from brainstorm sessions. Like any digital native, I also take notes on my computer (Evernote for me). There, I use colors to differentiate notes about different topics, and I often use various serif and sans-serif fonts and formatting for headers and body copy. We all crave the signaling of informational hierarchy.
This is probably why #planner Instagram is so addictive. Humans seek order and patterns, but our eyes are equally drawn to gleam and glam. #Plannerstagram is where perfectly symmetrical lines meet aesthetically pleasing flourishes like curlicue fonts written in shimmering gel pens. Where one revels in the promise of a clear, clean organized mind. Where you never forget to pick up your dry cleaning or file your expense reports. Where your very anxieties can be sketched and beautified. The aspiration is boundless yet accessible.
One of the most popular #planner methodologies is the Bullet Journal. The Bullet Journal (known as BuJo among the hardcore) is a system for organizing information into bulleted lists that include tasks, events, and notes. There are various ways to log the information so it can be collected and grouped together, an analog hack to mimic the benefit of digital copy-and-pasting. (Just look to Instagram for countless, colorful examples.) On first glance, it might seem like a lot of work, but the system is simple and straightforward. A tutorial breaks it down in about five minutes. And it has an inspiringly humble origin.
Bullet Journaling was created by a guy named Ryder Carroll, a digital product designer who invented the methodology out of personal necessity. When he was young, doctors diagnosed him with attention deficit disorder, and over the years, he developed the organizational system as a way to keep himself ordered, focused, and intentional about his goals. He shared the methodology with a few friends, and after their encouraging reception, Carroll launched a website in 2014. Quickly the Bullet Journal spread around the world. Thousands of people uploaded Instagram posts and YouTube videos of their own adaptations. Millions viewed his tutorials. He even delivered a Tedx Talk.
But before BuJo got its mojo, Carroll experienced something similar to my own planner envy. “I grew up with ADHD and struggled in school,” he told me over email. “I would see the notes of my classmates—neat, artistic, and plentiful, entirely unlike my own. The more I tried—and failed—to be like them, the more anxious and disheartened I became.” That’s when he began formulating his own system and “stopped obsessing about perfection.”
When I asked Ryder what he would tell people like me who might suffer from planner self-loathing, he offered this: “It’s not about how it looks; it’s about how effective it is at moving you toward what matters. The more we focus on what other people are doing, the more distracted we are from what we actually need.”
As I began to imagine what I wanted my #plannerlife to look like, I thought of a Benjamin Franklin quote about organizing. OK, I admit, I actually looked up quotes on the internet about organizing that I thought I might inscribe on the first page of my planner as #inspiration for the year and found one that is often attributed to Franklin: “For every minute spent in organizing, an hour is earned.” There is probably some inverse version where for every minute spent fretting about organizing, an hour is lost. My fear was that if I created a bespoke planner, I would fixate on the frills and not focus on the function. So I decided to stay authentic to the system I had already created for myself and not wholesale switch to the BuJo method.
Perhaps for some readers, this abandonment of total self-transformation is sad-trombone. But real life rarely has “extreme makeovers” where people learn to “tidy up” in 45 short minutes. Goals are usually achieved incrementally and over time. It’s why we break down our problems with tedious to-do lists. My incremental change? I wanted to disentangle doing from dreaming. So I decided to separate task lists from ideas, using a Hobonichi Techno Cousin for planning and to-dos and the Leuchttrum for jotting down thoughts. These notebooks in my hands aren’t particularly beautiful, and my handwriting is still ugly (though more colorful now), but so far, I’ve gotten things done (like writing this story).
I spent about half an hour setting up my January schedule. Each day I’ve spent about 10 minutes when I get to work and 10 minutes at the end of the day updating my lists and taking account of notable conversations I’ve had. If Franklin is right, I’ve already amassed about 150 hours. What will I do with all that time? Maybe launch my own #planner account.
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