Does the Bullet Journal improve productivity because it is analog, or because of the process?
Despite the increasing advances in productivity software to help do things like automatically schedule a time to read, exercise, or work on that novel, I find myself feeling like I’m becoming less productive. There has been a rising movement of people moving to analog methods of productivity that are experiencing massive changes to focus and productivity.
Another interesting insight I’ve seen is that there are people who have successfully replicated the Bullet Journal method using digital tools. Primarily people seem to set up their digital Bullet Journals in note takers (like Evernote or Notion), but some create hybrid systems that use task managers.
To me this implies that there is something more to just the fact that pen and paper is being used. I feel like even if the pen and paper help, something about the process and mindset behind the tools is probably doing the heavy lifting.
I tend to notice 4 major advantages of analog formats promoted in defense of eliminating digital productivity tools.
A study “The Pen Is Mightier Than the Keyboard” concluded that those who took notes long form by hand performed better in tests. The assumption centers around the fact that typists basically transcribe lectures without process, and recontextualizing the information. It seems as though it would have been more responsible to re-perform the experiment and require the typists to subsequently re-write their transcriptions in their own words to see if the results changed.
Another study published in the “Note-taking with computers: Exploring alternative strategies for improved recall” contradicts the conclusion of the previously mentioned study, however. It was shown that those who transcribed on a computer vs taking notes by hand performed better on immediate recall. In the third experiment, individuals were allowed to re-review their notes which showed the best performance of all.
Another two tests were done using only typing as the note-taking method. The second showed that taking organized and structured notes provided the best long-term recall: though they did not mention how the structuring was to be done.
Another study “The effects of handwriting experience on functional brain development in pre-literate children” concluded that early development children showed improved reading center activity in the brain when handwriting compared to typing. This study conclusion seems more focused on the acquisition of reading skills and doesn’t really imply any benefits for those who have acquired those skills.
Another thing that is touted as a benefit is the friction involved in the act of using a physical journal. Unlike digital tools, if you don’t finish something you must either let it fade away as you advance in pages or actively choose to re-write it.
The proposal is that this forces the Bullet Journal practitioner to develop a clear focus of the priorities in their life. This seems like a pretty reasonable assumption to me.
Another benefit I see often is that using an analog journal helps you because you are focused on the pen and paper not your computer or phone. While digital distractions are a problem we arguably spend less time planning than working, and work tends to happen where distractions occur.
Another proposed idea is that unlike digital tools where you are confined to software limitations, pen and paper lets you choose what ever layout best fits your needs from day to day. This seems reasonable especially considering that typically with digital systems changes made don’t just effect the moment, but the past and present: this can cause a lot of fiddling and paralyses.
After researching I feel as though the benefits of Bullet Journaling that people are feel are not because of pen and paper being better, but because the constraints of pen and paper force better productivity practices.
For example, the research shows that digital not takers forced to transcribe, organize and re-structure, and then review it has better results. It’s easy not to do this with digital because you know that if you don’t address the structuring and re-framing the files will always be there. This isn’t an option with the Bullet Journal though because the friction of the migration process forces you to constantly re-review, and re-contextualize information until it is no longer important.
Additionally, the lack of fear about changing the way you work from day to day not having backward and forwards compatibility issues helps analog users just get to work.
Presumably if a digital user were careful to continue to review, organize, edit, and not lock themselves into long term structure they could have the same or better results.
I want to perform an experiment in which I create a baseline of what benefits can be realized by switching to the Bullet Journal method. After that, I want to continue the
Bullet Journal method in digital form to determine if the same or better results can be maintained.
Analog Bullet Journal Process
Before switching I will complete at least 6 months of analog Bullet Journaling and have at least 2-3 full journal migrations. The creator of the program recommends using the vanilla Bullet Journal method for 2-3 months so this will allow 3-4 additional months to make modifications to the system into account.
- BuJo Method: This is Ryder Carrol’s official book explaining the Bullet Journal method and philosophy. I will be using this book as the boundaries for what is considered the Bullet Journal method and highly recommend it for those interested in the system.
- Todoist: This will be the digital task manager that I’m using while working on fleshing out a full digital system.
- Google Drive: I’ll be using everything from email, docs, sheets, and google keep to organize my plans and knowledge.
I intend to continue exploring this idea through 2019, and will be updating iterations of my setups over time. Between these larger full revamps of my setup, I’ll also be regularly discussing progress and thoughts in the Pen Pals newsletter.
I have to balance time between work, family, creative projects, health, and writing. I have made the choice to focus my time on creating and not promoting information, and rely on more slow word of mouth growth.
If you think that this article (or site in general) would be of interest to any friends or communities you are part of, I would greatly appreciate you sharing it with them.