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Why I’m obsessed with reading books about writing in notebooks

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I cannot stop buying books about how to write in notebooks. It’s not that I require instructions. I’ve been doing it for as long as I can remember, long enough that I don’t need anyone else’s system: I’ve got 50 of my own. And yet, I’m still hopelessly, incurably obsessed with the notebook gurus. I am transfixed by this community of enthusiasts who have made careers out of telling poor, lost, notebook-less souls how to take control of their lives by putting pen to paper. These are people who’ve developed systems that help you structure your time, priorities and goals, often by means of elaborately structured principles and rules.

When I’m not keeping notebooks, I’m a cybersecurity researcher — or, put another way, I’m a computer person, and so are most of the people I work with and teach. One reason I’m so transfixed by notebook experts is that their systems bring together free-form, individualized artistic expression and the structured formatting and rigid rules of computer science. This may be key to the appeal of notebooking: In an increasingly algorithmic world, these systems let us crack open the black boxes of our lives, allowing us to develop systems of our own and helping us figure out what matters to us along the way.

I can’t be alone in my fascination. There are numerous systems on offer among the thousands of books available in the “journal writing” subsection of Amazon’s self-help category. Sales of paper notebooks have soared in recent years, with luxury notebook company Moleskine reporting an 18.7 percent increase during the first half of 2018. Sales of Leuchtturm notebooks (which include the official “bullet journal” notebook) have been rising by more than 80 percent each year. Meanwhile, on Instagram, there are more than 3 million posts with the #bulletjournal hashtag (and more than 2 million sporting the shorter #bujo tag).

Why couldn’t I make minimalism work? Because I wasn’t the one making the mess.

The notebook guru-in-chief is Ryder Carroll, founder of the ubiquitous bullet journal system. His jargon-heavy approach specifies strategies for laying out everything you need to keep track of — notes, events, to-do items — in a single notebook. Like a task-oriented take on Marie Kondo’s minimalism, Carroll’s system aims to help you figure out what really matters to you. To that end, it lets you lay out your days, weeks and months over neatly ordered (and conveniently indexed) pages. It’s designed to let you zoom in and out, from granular lists of what you did on a given Wednesday to more speculative descriptions of what you hope to achieve next April. As you move through the year, you’ll copy unfinished items from one section to the next, mapping out an account of the way you spend your time.

In the hands of Carroll and his fellow notebooking entrepreneurs, the little eccentricities and preferences of individual notebook-keeping — things like the shape of bullet points, or where you date pages, or how you mark tasks as done — crystallize into rules and jargon not unlike those of an introductory programming language. It’s a system that promises to let us reprogram ourselves, debugging our messy days and recompiling our chaotic lives into clean lists of rigidly formatted instructions and documentation.

But realizing that promise means substituting your approach for another one, followed by adherents around the world. If, for instance, you are a follower of Carroll, you know what a “task dot” is and how to use “signifiers” (symbols like asterisks and exclamation points that emphasize certain items). You know how to “migrate” those undone tasks with left- and right-facing arrows, and how to create a “monthly log,” a “future log” and more. Cramming all that into your head effectively means replacing your eccentricities with someone else’s.

Ideally, in your notebook, you get to invent your own language and systems, creating a self-contained bit of hardware and software just for you. But, especially for those of us who are rule-followers at heart, that can be a big leap, so perhaps it’s unsurprising that so many people are looking to experts for a little guidance on how to get started. All those rules about which bullets to use and when to migrate tasks and how to set up a new page are reassuring in their rigidity, but also encouraging in that you can easily adapt them to your preferences and needs. These systems promise to bring order and structure to your life but also give you the room to write your own code and change the rules as you go. They set up a scaffolding for your notebooks but allow you to tear it down bit by bit, the better to make room for your personal language and organizational quirks.

Moving is the worst. It’s also transformative.

The act of keeping a bullet journal is, in theory, about much more than just staying organized; it’s also about figuring out what you really want to be doing during your brief moment here on Earth. If it feels too cumbersome to move an unfinished task from one day to another, Carroll encourages you to just cross it off. “The purpose of Migration is to surface what’s worth the effort, become aware of our actions, and to separate the signal from the noise,” Carroll says on his website.

Thankfully, none of the gurus who’ve emerged in the past few years preach strict adherence. The half-dozen books I’ve read about how to keep a notebook (including Carroll’s recent release, “The Bullet Journal Method ,” Rachel Wilkerson Miller’s “Dot Journaling ,” Zennor Compton’s “The 365 Bullet Guide ,” Megan Rutell’s “Beyond Bullets ” and Rebecca Spooner’s “Journal Me Organized ”) all encourage readers to do what works for them, molding the formats to their own needs and preferences. Unlike, say, diet or fitness gurus, notebook gurus offer many suggestions but few hard-and-fast rules.

I am far too set in my ways and entrenched in my byzantine notebook routines to ever adopt anyone else’s. (At any given time, I keep three different paper notebooks — one for daily to-do lists and appointments, one for notes and ideas, one for teaching — and I fill every line on a page before I move on to the next one.) But even so, I am strangely inspired every time I read a really thoughtful treatise on how to keep a notebook, or watch carefully crafted instructional videos on how to create an index for your notebook, or look at Instagram photos of picture-perfect notebook spreads that I could never even dream of replicating.

Of course, I’m always on the lookout for new ideas to refine my system. Right now, for instance, I’m test-driving a new feature where I write down what earrings I wear every day, leading to speculations about how I should disambiguate between all the different pairs I own. Mostly, though, I read these books and articles because I like that there are so many other people as deeply immersed in their notebooks as I am in mine. These are people who wouldn’t scoff at the challenges of earring logging, people who understand the importance of conveying the right details as efficiently as possible.

Twitter: @josephinecwolff

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