I Tried the Marie Kondo of To-Do Lists, and This Is What Went Down

Updated 07/18/19
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bullet journal
Talisa Sutton for Badlands

When it comes to organization, I’m type A through-and-through. An inbox with more than 10 emails at a time makes me stressed, a 20-minute queue at Trader Joe’s is my idea of hell, and I start every workday by writing down a fairly detailed to-do list. For me, organization isn’t trivial; it’s almost therapeutic, so when a colleague mentioned a productivity hack that people are calling “the Marie Kondo of to-do lists,” I had to know more.

It’s called bullet journaling, and the internet is going nuts over the über-organized system. “It fundamentally changed my life,” says Rebecca L., one of the many diehard fans who shares her gushing testimonial on the website. Holt J. adds that it “improved my physical and emotional health immensely.” Is this a to-do list or a Scientology manifesto? I wondered. It seemed extreme and almost cult-like, but I had to know what all the fuss was about (and why my humble list just didn’t cut it). So, being the intrepid reporter that I am, I plunged myself into the throes of bullet journaling. Here’s what happened when I tried out the task-list trend that promises to be the ultimate productivity hack.

At first glance, bullet journaling appears no different than a standard pen-and-paper to-do list. Multiple pages of a notebook (yes, we’re going old school) are filled with endless scrawl, numbers, and symbols. But don’t be so quick to judge—it’s definitely not as simple as it first appears. According to the website, BuJo, as it’s affectionately called, is designed to streamline a ton of confusing processes and be “your to-do list, sketchbook, notebook, and diary, but most likely, it will be all of the above. It will teach you to do more with less.” A true minimalist at heart, I was sold on the concept before I’d even bought a notepad. Let’s do this.

To understand the system, I wanted to find out more about the person who dreamed up this viral trend. “It’s an analog system I designed to track the past, organize the present, and plan for the future,” explains Ryder Carroll, the father of bullet journaling and a Brooklyn-based digital producer. A kindred minimalist and fellow type A, Carroll explains via an introduction video that it was born from frustration. “There are plenty of apps for [productivity], but I need a system flexible enough to handle what I threw at it, and fast enough that it wouldn’t get in the way,” he says. As a sworn fan of handwritten notes and a stubborn avoider of productivity apps, I felt like the system was made for me. It was time to KonMari my simple little list.

BuJo uses a system called “rapid logging,” a language Carroll made up to simplify tasks. His reasoning makes total sense: “Note-taking and traditional journaling take time; the more complex the entry, the more effort is expended,” he says. “The more effort expended, the more of a chore it becomes, the more likely you’ll underutilize or abandon your journal. Rapid logging is the solution.” It consists of four components: topics, page numbers, short sentences, and bullets. Sounds easy, right? Not quite. This is the process I followed to try it out:

Step One:

Take a notepad or pen—the website assures that any paper will do, but there’s also a special Bullet Journal Notebook available, thanks to a Kickstarter campaign. On four separate double-page spreads, write these headlines, known as the “core modules” at the top: The Index, Future Log, Monthly Log, and Daily Log. The index is used to track all your bullet journal entries, the future log maps out the tasks for later, the monthly log is divided into a calendar page and task page to structure monthly jobs, and the daily log is your new and improved to-do list.

I’ll admit my eyes glazed over about one minute into the demonstration video. Can’t I just write down a simple list of tasks? Why does something that claims to be simple have to be so complicated?!

Think I’m dramatic? Get the instructions directly from the guru with his video:

Step Two:

Now it’s time to bring order to your to-do list. Like a secret society for the super driven, BuJo uses a series of symbols to code each task. Regular jobs are entered in the daily log as a bullet point, events are marked with an “O,” and general notes follow a dash. When you’ve completed a task, attended an event, or acted on a note, you strike it out with a cross.

Again, I started at the system of symbols with blank eyes. It was like learning a new little language, when all I wanted to do was get my work done. Ironically, 20 minutes passed as I tried to master the system—time I could have spent doing said tasks. My scrawled little to-do list looks pretty mighty right now.

Courtesy of Bullet Journal

Step Three:

This is the part that fans swear by as sheer genius. At the end of each month, BuJo requires you to “migrate” content. Simply put, this involves glancing over your daily log and looking at the tasks you didn’t mark with a cross (i.e., no strike-through—there are very strict rules here). Again, more secret codes are used. Any points that need to be carried over to your monthly log are marked with a > sign, less urgent tasks are moved to the future log and indicated with a < sign. There’s much more to it, but that’s a simplified rundown for beginners.

If you’re interested in trying out bullet journaling, the website has videos, a detailed step-by-step guide, and even blog posts dedicated to new ways to make the most of the system.

I approached this task ready to drink the Kool-Aid and be a devout fan of a secret society of productive people. Instead, it took me 30 minutes to figure out the system, and it’ll supposedly be at least two months until I can start to effectively migrate tasks and fully appreciate the power of BuJo.

But despite being 56 days from mastery, I can see why the system has so many diehard followers. While marking and migrating tasks might seem like a lot of unnecessary effort, it does serve a purpose. “This process makes you pause and consider each item. If an entry isn’t even worth the effort to rewrite it, then it’s probably not that important. Get rid of it,” says Carroll. Marie Kondo would be proud.

There’s also a Zen-like quality to reviewing your task with intention. “The purpose of migration is to distill the things that are truly worth the effort, to become aware of our own patterns and habits, and to separate the signal from the noise,” says Carroll. In other words, it’s a way to wade through seemingly endless tasks and learn to be mindful about your priorities.

A few days in, the simple daily log has already proved its worth. I usually segment tasks under headings, making the list appear longer, but BuJo forced me to streamline the process and made my day seem more manageable. It also meant that I could see meetings and tasks at the same time, one of the key aspects that usually derails my time management when I forget about time spent away from my desk.

Does it live up to the hype? Yes and no. Now that I’ve learned all the symbols, I’m committed to keep using it (I did warn you I’m type A), but I’ll admit that on some days when I just want to work without referencing signs and migrating tasks, that humble little to-do list seems pretty appealing. It might be basic, but it gets the job done.


Shop the notebooks below to try bullet journaling yourself.

Rifle Paper Co. journal
Rifle Paper Co Garden Party Journal $24
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Poketo notebook
Poketo Object Notebook in Poppy $24
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Marble notebook
Papier Marble Notebook $16
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Geometric notebook
Delfonics Rough Paper Notebook $14
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