I love planners. I love organizers. I’ve always been drawn to anything that promises to Tame the Chaos, because there is a staggering amount of internal chaos that comes with having an ADHD brain. It’s incredibly satisfying to me to “get organized.” But staying organized — that’s another matter.

Turns out, my brain is used to the chaos, and feels uncomfortably boxed-in by the same rigid systems I’m drawn to through the shiny promise of “you’ll finally have your s&*$ together.”
I usually give a new system 2 weeks before I’m back to the freedom of random post-it notes and lists and notebooks full of ideas and epiphanies that I will…never find again.

So when I heard there was a system that could give me the organization my brain craved *without* sacrificing the freedom my brain needed…a system that didn’t require remembering passwords or paying a monthly subscription fee or buying refill paper or anything, really, except a notebook and a pen…a system designed BY someone with ADHD… I wanted to shout its praise from the rooftops.

I settled for my YouTube channel. You can see the full extent of my enthusiasm here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5hLnY9L1c-M

I dove in headfirst and never looked back.

Well…I tried.

As I began to use my bullet journal, I noticed some limitations — what if I couldn’t find my bujo/left it at a friend’s house/am currently waiting tables and can’t carry it around with me? Where am I supposed to capture my awesome ideas then?

What if my schedule keeps changing? There’s only so much white-out you can use without getting frustrated at yourself for not being able to stick to what you had planned. Which for ADHDers, happens…often.

Cool, I feel super relaxed and confident about my schedule and…“wait, what do you mean we have a big important meeting today? It’s not in my bullet journal!” (The bullet journal is…not great at syncing schedules).

Turns out, I still need a digital calendar I can share with my team. I still need a whiteboard to quickly hash out a show schedule for the month and make adjustments as necessary. I still need a notepad on my phone to dump stuff when my bullet journal isn’t by my side. My bullet journal is not the One Tool to Rule Them All I hoped it would be. Which would have been terribly disappointing…

Except, in the time it took me to figure that out, my bullet journal was quietly doing amazing things for me.
Here’s what I really love about the bullet journal, after having used one for a year, and why I will probably always keep one:

It’s amazing at reducing my mental load.

I notice a huge difference on days when I offload to my bullet journal vs. days I try to keep everything in my head. I’m less overwhelmed, I have less anxiety — both of which are common issues for ADHD brains. Not only do I feel better, I also *work* better because my working memory is freed up for actually working, rather than trying to remember all the stuff I’m supposed to do.

It’s given me a relationship with myself.

Everything in my bullet journal, I put there. It’s an extension of me — my thoughts, ideas, what I find important and want to be a part of my life. As someone who’s often been swept into the current of other people’s lives and wants and goals, it’s good to have a touchstone to what I want, who I am, what I’ve accomplished. Yeah, I can do that in my phone or my computer, but those are tools I use to connect with the rest of the world — my bullet journal is a way for me to connect to me.

It’s a fantastic litmus test — if I’m too busy to update my bujo, I’m too busy.

It’s really easy for ADHDers to take on too much, because we tend to be enthusiastic about new things…and also underestimate how long those things will actually take. Not having time to plan is the canary in the coal mine that lets me know I’ve got too much on my plate and I need to say no for awhile.

I’m still 100% in love with the index.

It blows my mind every time I scribble something random and *can find it again later*. It’s so simple it’s brilliant. And hey — I can still write on post it notes!

It helps me prioritize.

The executive function deficits that come with ADHD can make it challenging for us to plan, prioritize, and sustain effort toward our goals. Which means we end up putting a LOT of effort into life that never really pays off. With the help of my bullet journal — even though I am FAR from perfect at using it — I’ve gotten better at spending my time and energy on stuff that matters, and I’ve made more progress toward my goals in the last year than I ever imagined was possible. I got to quit my day job to become a full time YouTuber and ADHD advocate, and even gave my first TEDx talk: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JiwZQNYlGQI

I’m grateful for what the bullet journal system has helped me learn about myself and accomplish, and I’m excited to see what 2018 will bring.

About Jessica McCabe

Jessica McCabe is the creator and host of “How to ADHD,” a YouTube series committed to educating and supporting ADHD brains around the world. Her outreach and her message have been featured by Upworthy, ADDitude Magazine, Today.com, and in her recent TEDx talk. She posts new episodes for her subscribers every Thursday at http://howtoadhd.com.
  • Glenn

    Thanks for your article! I am starting a bullet journal, and your article title caught me, and as I read through,I was like, “this is me” (of course,I stopped to pet the cat once and check my phone once while reading). Each year I try to come up with a scheme to be organized, but it falls short, doesn’t meet all needs, and is done with by mid February. I always know I have urgent stuff to do, but can’t think of it when I need it, and am distracted from doing that because I am trying to think of the other stuff that I can’t think of. I now hold out great hope that the bullet journal will be my answer. I DEFINITELY need to check out your Youtube channel.

  • Jeremy Cutler

    I agree wholeheartedly. Just started my third Bullet Journal, and it has done wonders for working with ADHD. I’m a people manager now, and I was terrified of losing track of things, because it would no longer be only my career that would suffer for it. Being able to keep track of things that need doing outside my head calms me down so much and lets me actually get things done. And the forgiveness of migration makes the system feel a lot less rigid.

    • Roger

      How do you keep track of people in your journal? I am struggling with building acquaintances into friendships.

  • MC67

    I really love your youtube videos and the research you do. My daughter has ADHD, and I have learned so much from watching. I love organizing and thought I’d try the BUJO. It was too much for me and I realized, that finding what works for you is what’s important. I think we think we have to follow the script to the letter when we try something new, but really being flexible and tweaking a system to work for us individually is key. I have a system that works for me and although I have not been diagnosed with ADHD, I do have executive skills weaknesses. We all do. Mine are different from my daughters which actually helps us both. Anyway, I do procrastinate and get distracted. I’m so happy to learn about things that help you and others because they help me be a better coach to my kids as well as a better teacher and a more effective human. Thank you for sharing so much of yourself with us. xoxo

  • I”m looking forward to figuring out and learning how to incorporate the bujo into my daily routine.

  • Hannah Bright Morris

    Can you share which BUJO you used? Brand, style, etc??? Thanks so much!!!

  • Susan

    Hi. I’m just starting and am interested in your videos etc. I heard about bullet journals a while back and like several of the people here, it resonated with me. So I started looking into it and was totally overwhelmed by all the colouring and drawing that people are doing. I don’t even think they should call it a bullet journal. Kind of defeats the concept of quick and simple. I am wondering if you are still using a paper calendar. I am not going to draw a calendar every month. I just bought an everlast notebook from rocketbook which can be reused and also you can “zap” things quickly to online places like google drive. I just need to get started.

  • Kelda Kellie

    Firstly THANK YOU JESSICA MCABE for bring this and all the wonderful entertaining ways to keep my ADHD on track so to speak. When more present and less overwhelmed, used some of your recommendations to keep the meltdowns at bay.
    Bought the Bullet Journal and just received it in the last week and like Susan feeling a bit overwhelmed, however I am determined to be a better organised person this year and achieve something.

  • Ari Sinclair

    I relate to this so much <3

  • Melanie Bowman

    I am new to bullet journaling and this has been so helpful. You get me! Feeling pumped…

  • Niccolo Waitforit Bentulan

    Do you know Dave Crenshaw? He has ADHD but is an author of time management and focus management. I think some aspects of bujo would work well with the principles he teaches.

  • LuAnn Braley

    Did I miss a link to your Tedx talk? I just watched Ryder’s earlier today. (Bujo newbie here, soaking up all the info I can!)

  • ShoShana Harris

    LOVE this post! I def need to look into Bullet Journaling. Never heard of it until tonight!

  • Kate Barrow

    Reading this was like reading a journal entry from my life. I’ve struggled with ADD and am currently not treating it medicinally, so being organized is critical. I really appreciate this post and am learning everything I can about BuJo!

  • Shar

    What?! Someone who understands my complete inability to manage a time management tool? I almost missed this post because I assigned your blog to the wrong category in my Feedly account. So glad I scrolled far enough this morning to see this. I’ve had crazy trouble using journals, with the number two problem being, how am I supposed to remember what’s in it or what I should add to it when I’m not carrying it with me, and the number one problem being that the reason it isn’t with me is because I lost it a long time ago. Ugh! I love the look of bullet journals but was sure that they’d be just one more source of distraction to me (Oh, look at all those pretty journals on Pinterest!) to the point that I sent my sisters a text saying, “If I ever tell you I’m going to start bullet journaling, please knock me out.” I’m definitely looking into your YouTube channel and would love it if you could teach me how to successfully use a bullet journal. I’ll have to send my sisters a follow up text: “Remember what I said about bullet journals? Hold off on that a second.”

  • dlehman1979

    I came across this article as I was looking for ideas for my personal bujo. My oldest is Autistic and ADHD. He has been over the frustrated at night and I couldn’t figure out why. After watching Jessica’s TedTalk, the lightbulb went off in my head. I asked my son if he was frustrated because he didn’t know what was going on the next day or daily in his life. He said yes. He was looking at my buju and I explain it to him. I asked him if he thinks this would help him be less frustrated. I bought him his own buju. Spoke with his teacher at school. We have been implementing it into his daily routine for the last week. This frustration at night has lessened. Thank you Jessica for sharing your story. It has helped me connect to my son in a way I didn’t think was possible.

  • Wonderful. Thanks Jessica. I love hearing that someone else is also working on an integration of the bullet journal while maintaining a digital calendar. I also need to stay up to date with my digital calendar as others have access to it and share it. Digital calendars are sooooo good at keeping track of future appointments, sharing calendars etc. but I love writing stuff down as a way of being grounded and connected. I keep flitting between the digital tools and the bullet journal, I realise both of them together can compliment each other. I often just do a daily bullet journal but not the weekly and refer to my digital calendar for weekly. Thanks for sharing the way bullet journals didn’t work as well as the way they did, I found it very encouraging.

  • Rhonda M

    Thank you! I am in management and for years I have been overloading myself with organizational tools thinking that I need to find one that worked. I have to keep track of real life, work projects and deadlines and more work. I have used electronic means…probably everything. I bought a BOJO and never started it because I was afraid of not organizing it correctly. I was mad at myself for doing something a few weeks and going back to my old ways. Yes, I have ADD. Medication helps now. But this whole time I thought it was my weakness. Thank you for your article…I am going to watch your YouTube and Ted Talk. I am going to give the bullet journal a go and tell myself it is ok to write something out one way and change it up if it isn’t working, but stay at it. Thanks again…

  • Leanne Fitzgerald

    Hi Jessica – I just wanted to personally thank you for sharing your ADHD experience with us and to let you know how much it resonated with me. You have given me renewed hope and perspective and I appreciate it so much! I have ADHD as well and I struggle with time management – essentially being time blind for all intents and purposes. Procrastination and distraction are central themes in my life – particularly if I’m not completely enthused about whatever it is I need to be doing. My ADHD brain has become addicted to chaos and now I’m trying to send it to organization rehab by embarking on my first ever Bullet Journal. Despite the full on invasion of bullet journal vlogs out there – my ADHD brain could not handle the images of all those colorful, beautiful, creative, doodily-doo Bullet Journals that were both amazing and overwhelming to me at the same time. I was so freaked out by it all that it was preventing me from even putting pen to paper. I had my pen and my notebook yet I was paralyzed to even begin. Too afraid that my Bullet Journal would not rank compared to those on my Pinterest Board…… But – I came back to where it all began – to Ryder’s website and to the motto that usually works best for me – keep it simple. So…here I go…..!

  • Chelsey Reschke

    I shared this with a colleague who struggles with ADHD and wow, what an improvement.