How to Manage ADHD with the Bullet Journal (2023)

How to Manage ADHD with the Bullet Journal (1)

When I got diagnosed with ADHD in my early thirties, my psychologist advised, “You will need to be meticulous about creating external structure to compensate for the structure you’re lacking in your mind.”

Of course, that’s easier said than done.

I’ve obsessed over systems and routines since my teenage years, when I read The Seven Habits of Highly Effective Teens for a high school leadership class. Over the past twenty years, I’ve started and abandoned more paper planners than I can count. I’ve used Trello and ToDoist, Omnifocus and Things. I’ve bought packs of index cards for a Hipster PDA. I’ve scribbled reminders on Post-Its and stuck them around the edge of my computer monitor until it looked like a lion’s mane. Nothing stuck. Then I stumbled across some gorgeous bullet journal photos on Pinterest. With that predictable ADHD zeal for new projects, I immediately ordered a notebook from Amazon and picked up some cheap washi tape at Michaels.

Four years later, I’m still using a bullet journal. The system works for me as nothing else has. Earlier this year, I finally got around to reading The Bullet Journal Method by Ryder Carroll, and realized why the system works so well for me. Carroll himself has ADHD and developed the bullet journal as a way to manage it. The deeper I’ve dived into the bullet journal system, the more I’ve realized why and how it works with my ADHD.

There are tons of introductions to the bullet journal system online. I’m not intending this article to be one of them. If you’re new to the concept of bullet journaling, the best place to start is Carroll’s video introduction. Instead, I’m writing this to explain how I use my bullet journal to impose structure on a naturally chaotic mind. Keep in mind, I’m not a psychologist, an expert in ADHD, or even a particularly productive person. I’m just a woman who’s managed to keep her shit more-or-less together with a notebook and a pen.

Embrace the structure of the bullet journal system.

Creativity is one of the gifts of ADHD. Our brains are such jumbled messes that we can’t help making connections between seemingly disparate ideas. Our attention drifts away, catching on details most people overlook, even as we miss the glaringly obvious thing that’s right in front of us. Maybe that’s why structure is so important to people with ADHD. As creativity expert Julia Cameron once put it, “In limits, there is freedom. Creativity thrives within structure.”

(Video) Why the Bullet Journal is the Best Planner for ADHD Brains

It’s ironic, then, that ADHD makes creating and maintaining structure such a challenge. I crave structure like a new mom craves sleep, but at the same time, structure repels me. I love the artificial constraints of a writing game or challenge, but hate living my life by anyone’s rules, even my own. I’m convinced the bullet journal works so well for me because it’s a perfect blend of freedom and structure.

The freedom of the blank page prevents the structure of the bullet journal system from chafing. At the same time, the structure of the system prevents blank page paralysis. Every time I start a new journal (usually every six months), I know exactly what will go on the first page. There’s none of the hand wringing about defiling a beautiful, blank journal with our imperfect thoughts that so many writers have experienced.

The bullet journal provides structure in two ways: through the constraints of the system itself and through the daily rhythms and routines it encourages. No two bullet journals look alike, but they all have these common elements:

  • A future log to keep track of important dates in the months ahead
  • Monthly spreads to track commitments, goals, and progress each month
  • Daily entries consisting of tasks, events, and notes all rapidly logged using a designated system of bullets
  • Collections pages to corral notes, brainstorming, doodles, journal entries, quotes, ideas, etc.
  • An index to keep everything organized

If I found a ready-made planner that incorporated all of those elements, I would inevitably throw it away unused, complaining it was too constraining and complicated. Yet when I apply that same complicated system of constraints to a blank page, something magical happens: buy-in.

I love experimenting with different layouts, refining my system of bullets, and deciding which projects are worth tracking in the index. Each blank pages is a new iteration, a new chance to experiment and refine. The process gives me ownership over the structure. As a result, my brain doesn’t rebel against this constraints of the system. Buy-in leads to compliance, both in the system itself and in the structure it imposes on my daily life.

Reflect every night.

A bullet journal only works if you use it. You can set up a bullet journal that incorporates all of the structure I just described, but without a daily cycle of planning and reflection, you probably wouldn’t see much benefit from it.

Every night before I go to bed, I try to complete my daily log. On bad days, I’ve been known to start my daily log just before bed. I check off the tasks I completed that day, and add in whatever additional tasks I completed. In that way, the daily log becomes both to-do and done list. I’ve found that keeping track of what I accomplish every day helps me to feel more in control of my life. Like many people with ADHD, I often struggle with depression. During depressive episodes, I make a point of logging my small victories, everyday tasks that become enormously difficult under the crippling weight of depression. Taking a shower, buying groceries, walking the dog — no matter how small the accomplishment, I write it down. Sometimes I’ll add a sticker to my daily spread to reward myself.

After logging my tasks, I add notes: moments of gratitude, cute things my daughter did, random things that happened, ideas for things to write about, challenges I faced, important information to remember, and questions I’m pondering. These notes often end up being useful later. I’ve flipped through my bullet journal in the doctor’s office to determine exactly when my daughter’s fever started. I’ve looked through it when cleaning out the fridge to determine how old my leftovers are. ADHD is associated with short-term memory problems, so the more I write down in the moment, the less I have to rely on my faulty memory later.

These notes also contribute to my mental wellbeing. In The Happiness Project, Gretchen Rubin describes how keeping a three-sentence journal boosted her happiness by helping her to remember small, cherished moments. In the past, I’ve tried keeping separate gratitude logs in my bullet journal, but I found that I never went back to fill them out. Then I would look at the empty gratitude page and feel anxious and guilty. Now I add moments of gratitude to my daily log using a heart icon. Sometimes I like to flip through my old logs and search for the hearts amongst the dots and dashes of my daily tasks and notes, little moments of happiness shining through the business of daily life.

(Video) The Best Planners That Work for my ADHD Brain

Finally, I write the header for the next day’s entry. I’ve found that doing this dramatically increases the odds that I will actually pick up my bullet journal the next morning. (It also helps that I leave my bullet journal open to the next day’s entry before I go to bed each night.)Then I jot down any tasks I’ll need to remember the following day, and consult my phone calendar to write down any appointments or deadlines. I sleep better knowing that I’m not going to forget to take out the garbage or finish a deliverable.

Adding the next day’s header also signals my brain that I am done working for the day. Because I work from home, there’s no hard stop to the end of my work day. Completing my daily reflection in the evening is my cue to relax and wind down. Once the log is done, so am I. In The Bullet Journal Method, Carroll suggests taking that one step further and using the evening reflection as a cue to end screen time usage for the day.

Plan and prioritize every morning.

If I did my daily reflection the night before, I wake up with a basic plan for the day already filled out in my bullet journal. If not, I’ll add a header and start from scratch. For me, morning is the time to refine and prioritize. I add tasks that I didn’t think of the night before. I strike through tasks that no longer seem worth my time. I’ll draw a star next to my most important tasks, or highlight them if I have a highlighter handy. My morning planning and prioritization usually takes five minutes or less.

During the day, I try to remember to glance back at my bullet journal every now and then to check off tasks and remind myself what I’m supposed to be working on. ADHD often leads me on strange tangents. I think of it as checking the signpost to make sure I’m heading in the right direction.

Like my evening reflection, my morning planning adds some structure to my day. One of my biggest challenges in working from home is actually getting started. I’ve always been a slow waker, and I will linger over coffee for hours given half the chance. Opening up my bullet journal in the morning signals my brain that it’s time to get moving.

If you have my brand of ADHD, you might be rolling your eyes at the very concept of a daily cycle of planning and reflection. Believe me, I get it. In over twenty years of trying, I have never once been able to make a morning routine stick for more than a few days. But nine days out of ten, I will remember to pull out my bullet journal and plan out my day. It might happen after an early morning of meditation and yoga. It might happen after several hours of drinking coffee on the couch and playing on my phone. It might happen in a waiting room if I overslept and had to run out the door to make an appointment. But it usually happens. If it doesn’t?

Forgive and document lapses.

Like many people who were diagnosed with ADHD in adulthood, I grew up seeing my many lapses as some kind of moral failing. My report cards in high school constantly said, “Does not live up to potential.” I had the gut-deep sense that a better person would be able to stick to routines, stay focused, and get more done.

My diagnosis helped to reframe my own history. It was a relief to realize my ADHD legitimately made organization and productivity harder for me than for most people.

(Video) Chaotic Lists and How I’m Using a Bullet Journal With ADHD.

Forgiving myself for occasional lapses has been key to sticking with the bullet journal system as long as I have. Some days my own brain wiring gets the better of me. I open up my bullet journal and realize days have passed without an entry. Weekends and travel increase the odds of missing a day. When that happens, I don’t beat myself up for it. Instead, I have a system for dealing with lapses.

If only a day or two has passed, I just add a header retroactively, noting PD, post diem, in the header. Sometimes, I combine days, especially over the weekend or after a vacation. “PD: Wednesday — Saturday in Seattle,” one such header reads, followed by a list of memorable details from the trip. In a perfect world, I’d take the time for daily planning and reflection even during vacation. To be fair, sometimes I do. But since the bullet journal is a tool I use to focus and prioritize, I don’t blame myself for neglecting it on my days off. It will still be there Monday morning. Completing reflections after-the-fact helps me remember the things that I was too busy enjoying to journal about at the time.

Writing PD in the header is both a warning that my notes from those days might not be 100% trustworthy (thanks, short term memory problems), and a barometer for my mental health. Weekends and vacations are one thing, but a string of PDs over the course of an ordinary work week is usually a sign that something is wrong. Maybe I am slipping into another depressive episode, or maybe I have too much on my plate and need to scale back and focus on self care. Either way, missed entries are information in their own right. I’ve learned to see my bullet journal as the canary in the coal mine, signaling when things are going wrong before I’m consciously aware of it.

When I am struggling the most, days pass by in a fog and time slips away from me. In a full-blown major depressive episode or moments of crisis, weeks might go by without a single entry. When that happens, I dramatically write “Lost Days” as my header, and do some rapid-log journaling about my wellbeing over the missing period. The act of chronicling my pain helps to shine a light on it, dispelling the mental fog and despair. It helps me gather my thoughts after moments of crisis.

At first, completing these Lost Days logs felt shameful. I saw them as yet another exhibit in the gallery of my struggles with structure and organization. Yet I’ve learned that acknowledging my pain is one of the first signs that I am ready to start healing. The bullet journal gives me a method to dispassionately document whatever knocked my world off-course, be it another bout of major depression or a pre-eclampsia diagnosis followed by an emergency c-section.

And if, for whatever reason, I’m not up for logging my missing days? I turn to the next blank page, make a header for the current day, and start where I am. It’s like meditating. When a stray thought draws my attention away, I acknowledge it, name it, and move back to center. I do the same thing with my bullet journal practice.

Use the bullet journal for everything that’s feasible.

I’ve experimented with a number of systems combining the analog bullet journal with various productivity apps. For several months, I used the bullet journal for my daily, process-level planning and Trello for long-term goal setting. I’ve tried using Evernote for weekly reflection, and the bullet journal for rapid-fire daily logging. While both of those systems have their advantages, I ultimately find they have one major drawback: when my planning was spread out across multiple systems, I had to stop and remember where I kept everything. For some people, that might not be a big deal, but ADHD makes organizing and remembering information difficult anyway. Now I use the bullet journal for everything I feasibly can, and I’m happier for it.

At this point, I only supplement my bullet journal with my phone calendar and iOS Reminders. I initially enter appointments into my phone and set up the appropriate reminders, both for appointments and for recurring tasks like taking the garbage out or buying birthday presents for my nieces and nephews. At the beginning of every month, I check my phone and handwrite all of my appointments into the calendar on my monthly spread. Then I check my phone again during my evening reflection. It’s redundant, but that’s the point. My phone is the best place to keep anything I need to be reminded about on a certain day and time, but copying the information down into my bullet journal makes sure I am consciously aware of my commitments.

In 2017, I fell in love with traveler’s notebooks, heavy-duty covers that hold smaller notebook inserts in place with elastic bands. After months of eyeing them on Instagram, I wanted an excuse to buy one. I followed a few bullet journal bloggers who used traveler’s notebooks systems. Why not try it myself?

(Video) Bullet Journaling for Creatives and People with ADHD

I ordered a gorgeous leather traveler’s notebook from a local company, Foxy Fix. When it arrived in the mail, I set up my new bullet journal system. My notebook held four inserts, so I used one for daily logs, one for collections, one for drafting poetry and fiction, and one as a book of prayers. Then I cheated and stuck a tiny sketchbook in the back pocket. I figured I would blow through the daily log inserts rapidly (and I did — each one lasted about two months!), but that the other inserts could last longer, saving me time on migrating from one journal to the next. I also loved that the traveler’s notebook came with a pen loop and pockets to hold washi tape and stickers. It felt practical to me. Practical and pretty.

I collaged each of the kraft paper insert covers. I ordered a vinyl dashboard (basically a clear pocket that wrapped around all four journal inserts) and collaged that as well. I carefully wrapped strips of washi tape around old store loyalty cards and stuck them in the front pockets of the cover for easy travel. My traveler’s notebook was beautiful and I loved it. That’s why it took over a year for me to admit that it just didn’t serve my bullet journaling purposes.

In the end, my traveler’s notebook gave me the same dilemma I faced when spreading my planning between my bullet journal, Trello, and Evernote. I was constantly stopping to remind myself which insert held everything. Furthermore, separating my daily logs into their own insert, the initial feature that drew me to the traveler’s notebook, turned out to be more of a bug. Because I filled up my notebook inserts at different rates (a daily planning insert might last for two months, a collections insert for a year), finding information from old inserts got a lot harder. It’s easy to find information in an old bullet journal — just look in the index. But I never found a good system to index my various collection inserts. As a result, I’d have to flip through two or three old inserts to find a specific page of notes.

At the same time, I found myself getting annoyed that my collections insert and my daily planning insert no longer reflected the same season of my life. It felt vaguely ridiculous that the last page of my current collections insert held notes from a meeting I’d attended months ago. Not only that, but any deliverables or next steps from that meeting had sensibly been added to my old, retired daily log, currently housed in a basket on my bookshelf. I thought bullet journaling would be more efficient if I separated my daily planning from my collections, but I misjudged. It turns out, the daily planning gives context to the collections.

To me, the beauty of the bullet journal is that it holds everything. As Ryder Carroll writes in The Bullet Journal Method:

Through trial and a lot of error, I gradually pieced together a system that worked, all in my good old-fashioned paper notebook. It was a cross between a planner, diary, notebook, to-do list, and sketchbook. It provided me with a practical yet forgiving tool to organize my impatient mind. Gradually, I became less distracted, less overwhelmed, and a lot more productive.

The longer I used my traveler’s notebook, the more I had to admit that I was only sticking to it because of the sunk cost fallacy. Finally I gave in and ordered a cheap journal. The wave of relief that washed over me as I set it up caught me by surprise. I’d known for months that a single-notebok system worked better for me, but I hadn’t realized how much of a cognitive load I was carrying just by spreading out my planning system over a couple of inserts. Eliminating the decision about where to add each new brainstorming session or set of notes simplified my planning process. The simpler the process, the more likely I am to use it.

Obviously, just because the bullet journal helps me manage my ADHD, there’s no guarantee it will work for everyone. Writing by hand on real paper every morning and evening helps to keep me centered, but I can understand how it might drive some people crazy. Whether you prefer analog or digital, though, I think the principles that make the bullet journal helpful can work for anyone. Find a structure that works for you, use it for everything, and forgive your momentary lapses.

I love the bullet journal method because it ultimately works with, not against, my ADHD. It gives me the structure I need to compensate for the disorganized nature of my thoughts, and enough freedom for my creative nature to thrive.


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