How Bullet Journal Helped Me Deal with My Anxiety & Why I Will Never Force It on You

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By Rajashree Gandhi

It has been over a year since I started using a bullet journal. It feels like possessing an extra mind that works towards a better ambience for the existing one.

A simple Google search suggests how massive a trend bullet journaling is. It has benefited a variety of people, including mental health survivors. This essay is part enthusiastic recommendation, part mindful warning. Bullet journal gave me tools to deal with anxiety specific behaviours. However, like every other trending lifestyle/idea, it has the potential to induce other anxiety specific behaviours in many people.

While it hasn’t fixed all my problems, or transformed me into a warrior who’s slaying at life, it does help me in identifying the negative loops and patterns that hold me captive. I can then loosen their grip on me and gravitate towards things I have always wished to try but was afraid to pursue.

A Note on Productivity Internet and Mental Health

Have you found yourself troubled by the aggressive, intimidating, White-dominated shit-hole that is Productivity Internet? Here is where a plethora of articles, apps, and videos mask themselves as well-intended, angelic agents of self-improvement. However, the language and tone is burdening, apolitical and often very gendered. It is particularly insensitive to mental health survivors and those with chronic sickness. It puts the entire onus to lead happy, productive, successful lives on the reader without ever questioning capitalism and allied systems of exploitation. Productivity Internet is the last place I had ever imagined to find a life-changing solution.

But here’s the thing, bullet journal changed my life, and is completely capable of failing to change yours. I share my experience without denying you your own, with a gentle nudge to give it a shot.

What is a Bullet Journal:

To put it simply, bullet journal is the holy union of a blank notebook and a black pen. It’s not something one can rush out to buy or download, but has to be set up, much like how we set up our room according to our needs and wants.

A part of Bullet Journal’s genius is that a digital product designer, Ryder Carroll, chose to design an analogue organiser inspired by his own learning disability. Caroll’s 2015 video is the only reference one needs to get started with bullet journaling.

Bullet Journal: Image Courtesy Rajashree Gandhi

Bullet Journal: Image Courtesy Rajashree Gandhi

The Bullet Journal Community

Today there’s a large and growing online community of bullet journal junkies who share new ideas to build on the basic system Caroll created. Unlike their spreads (pages in the bullet journal) which are very artsy and colourful, Caroll keeps it simple and minimalistic. This should encourage those of us who are not exactly artists, nerds or full time lifestyle bloggers. While it can be soothing to add colours to the pages, not doing so is as legit, and also saves time. Having said that, maintaining even a basic Bullet Journal requires time and patience, something which I lacked.

ALSO READ: The Phantom Pain Monster: My Battle with PTSD and Fibromyalgia

And yet, every time I grumbled, “I don’t have time for this,” I asked myself, “What am I doing with all the time I keep saving?” – a worthwhile self-investigation to conduct in this age of machines and applications. I have lost uncountable hours to negative mental patterns, regretful behaviours and procrastination. If something can help me handle a fraction of that, I would like to offer it my time and energy. Even the best designed apps need updates and Bullet Journal is no different.

How is Bullet Journal Different From Calendars, Diaries and Apps?

Bullet Journal can be personalised and adapted to suit oneself. It provides structure to the long to-do lists we keep making as a prelude to panic. Yet, it doesn’t cage us like calendars and dated diaries.

We live in a thriving digital world. But (and I guess science can back this up) we’re likely to be more relaxed, focused and creative while using pen and paper while planning, as opposed to using the various flickering, distracting screens of our connected devices. If your mind is housed by tireless anxiety, paper can provide the calm, quiet, tactile contact you seek desperately, without leaving your eyes, neck and back feeling tensed.

Keeping a diary has been a historical practice, one of privilege over those who couldn’t read/write and had to sustain with oral narratives. As school children, we are encouraged by teachers and parents to maintain a diary, without being explained why. I never followed, but I have enjoyed making unusual lists on empty bills. I scribbled on the back pages of the cutesy notebooks I have collected over the years, too scared to ‘spoil’ them with my thoughts, some of which felt unworthy, mediocre and ugly. Bullet journal gave me both: structure and motivation. It delivered on its promise: track the past, organise the present and prepare for the future.

Journaling Through Anxiety Specific Behaviours

Anxiety is like juggling various extremes. I’m either completely scattered and distracted, responding to every stimulus that comes my way or I stay fixated on one tiny and irrelevant detail until my muscles ache.
Writing my thoughts, tasks, goals into the daily, monthly and future logs of the bullet journal helped me slow down the trains of my thought. Anything that doesn’t have a dimension of time was put into collections, for example: I have two pages kept aside for planning my workshops and another two for all metaphors or poetry elements that pop in my mind in the middle of other work. Titling these pages and entering them into the index reduces a whole lot of mental labour later.

For those who can remember all this orally or keep ‘mental notes’, both my thumbs hereby rise up for you. But me, I need to write down the smallest task on most days. Obvious acts like taking a bath and taking pills may be easy for many, but mental health often causes you to forget basic tasks or their motivations. Outsourcing the mental load to checklists and trackers frees up abundant space for creativity and commitments.

‘How We Spend Our Days is How We Spend Our Lives’

Anxiety is non-stop self-doubt, guilt, confusion wherein we headline every little instance of failure and downplay our biggest achievements. Coupling to-do lists with done lists, as suggested by a bullet journal junkie, helped me understand where my time flies, and the umpteen things I do get done without knowing it.

Unlike other planners, bullet journal allows recording all the efforts outside professional commitments, like health, finances, hobbies, family. I realised how life is made richer by performing emotional labour for our loved ones, by creative articulation of our politics, cooking, cleaning, acts of self-care, and is not limited to what the employer/institution demands of us. Our failures at work/studies cannot define us for too long if we take into account the numerous things we do to make ourselves/others happy.

Anxiety is not completely isolated from other behaviours: sleeping, eating, drinking water, social media activity etc. To find out one’s own patterns, triggers and situations that lead up to anxiety and panic attacks, one needs data. Making trackers for mood, food, exercise, periods and bowel movements at different points helped me identify linkages and what I need to do/not do to stay healthy.

Sorting The Grain from The Chaff

The most common response I get from my ‘normal’ friends is, ‘Tu itna sochti kyu hai?’/‘Why do you overthink everything?’ It frustrates me because I can’t seem to stop and to be very honest… nor do I want to.

It is ‘over-thinking’ that helps me ideate, wonder, analyse and even write poetry. But the other side of the coin is irrational worry and endless what-ifs, if onlys and flashbacks.

Bullet journal helps me secure my thinking skills as a strength rather than a weakness. Shitty things happened to me like they happen to others, but to interpret them as ‘learning experiences’ was tough until I unpacked them in the pages of my bullet journal. Over-thinking has been replaced with self-guided reflection and deducing key take-aways.

Bullet Journal: Image Courtesy Rajashree Gandhi

Unplugged, Yet Connected

By this point, I sound like a complete narcissist or someone who cannot think beyond themselves. It is both true and false. While anxiety leaves you alone with yourself, it peoples your head with voices and manages to disconnect you from yourself. A smartphone doesn’t solve this disconnection, despite being so personal, as it largely hinges on your interaction with the world. Bullet journal helped me unplug from the world and connect to myself, considering one voice at a time. It sculpted parts of my loneliness into solitude and allowed me to reflect without having to share it or get it approved by anyone.

ALSO READ: Overcoming Depression: A Non-Stop Fight

I made wish lists to remember what I want to cook/read, notes to remember what I need to share with my therapist/to note insights surfacing in each session, habit trackers to form new habits. We brush our teeth every day without putting it in any to-do list because our parents trained us for the sake of good dental health. Wouldn’t it be nice to train ourselves to make new habits, of our choice, for our mental health?

Paralysing Fears: Quitting/Failing/Being Judged

Seeing the hype around bullet journal can be triggering for people with anxiety. The fear of failing is a demon that paralyses some into inaction. Further, the should/must vocabulary used in productivity internet burdens the reader. If your anxiety mind is anything like mine, it will trigger you.

There’s never a disclaimer that if a system (be it bullet journal or a fancy diet, workout, art project) doesn’t work out for you, it’s not your fault or failure. Another pit one might fall into is that of perfectionism and compulsive maintenance of the journal. I started to learn hand-lettering so that my journal looks as fancy as the ones I see online, without pausing to ask, do I really want to?

Anxiety also causes fear of being seen/read/judged. The biggest (and the only one as far as I’m concerned) plus a smartphone can offer over a bullet journal is privacy. It is not easy to carry your bullet journal if you’re worried sick of what your judgemental colleagues think of you. Your friends might consider it lame or bougie or boring or whatever. If your family isn’t fancy and liberal, it might not be easy to write about your love life unless you find those lockable notebooks.

Accepting Advice, Rejecting Suggestions

While it can be fruitful to explore various solutions being shared on productivity internet, its better to reject what they suggest: glorification of work stress/being overworked. The internet raves about GTD (getting things done) and gyshydo (getting your shit done), as if calling work shit makes it any nicer/easier. It particularly targets working moms to talk about work-life balance, showing how gendered our ideas of productivity are.

Most people who perform various kinds of intense labour have never needed a productivity solution. It is neo-liberal capitalism, and white-collared jobs that convince us that our ultimate goal is to be not happy, not responsible, but as productive as possible, flaunting our modernity and utility.

It is tempting to indulge in comparison, perfectionism and imposter syndrome while maintaining a bullet journal, but it is honesty, playfulness, patience and curiosity that form the best attitude towards journaling. Viewing the bullet journal as an aide for my anxious mind and not as a revolutionary lifestyle helped me keep it very personal. Perhaps, that is why it continues to feel special and intimate. It fills me with hope to imagine everybody who struggles in their mind finding their own special, intimate systems and solutions.

Views Expressed are Personal.
Rajashree Gandhi is a writer and educator. She conducts Wonderstorms: writing and creativity workshops for school children and young adults. She loves poetry, pickles and female friendships. Find her @raju_tai on Twitter or Insta

Disclaimer: Material on The Health Collective cannot and is not intended to substitute for expert advice from a trained professional.

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