Productivity Coach in a Notebook by Jan @plannerphile

Everyone wants to be more productive; spend less time working and more time having fun. Finding time to do the things that brings us joy is becoming increasingly more difficult. Heck, having time to stop and think about what actually brings us joy seems impossible sometimes; if we stop there’s always the fear of missing out (FOMO).

Modern life is a swarm of distractions, dinging phones, entertainment on demand; we’re scared to disconnect. Sustained attention, that is, thinking deeply about a problem without constantly stopping to text or check social media, seems a distant memory. Chronic distractibility, resembling attention deficit disorder (ADD) symptoms, is what ADD world expert Ned Hallowell calls attention deficit trait (ADT).

Productivity Coach in a Notebook by Jan @plannerphile

Easily confused with ADD, Hallowell says ADT is not a genetic disorder but is a direct result of modern life. We are capable of sustaining attention, reasoning and problem solving but it’s easier to give in to the temptation offered by the ding of a notification and be eternally side-tracked by “busy” work without really doing anything.

I believe the pervasiveness of ADT is why the Bullet Journal® has become so popular, but what is it about Bullet Journaling that makes it so helpful for the attention challenged and why is it a great productivity tool for modern life? To answer these questions we need to check in with cognitive psychology.

Productivity Coach in a Notebook by Jan @plannerphile
Critically, attention is where cognitive function begins. If you can’t pay attention to something in your environment then you can’t process it and get meaning from it. Being able to disengage attention from one thing and redirect it towards another is essential but rapid shifting of attention back and forth between stimuli comes at a high cognitive cost.

“Multitasking” is a productivity myth because research has found the brain is unable to split attention across tasks to get things done faster. If you’re talking on the phone, while checking your socials and typing an email and find yourself signing off “love you” to your boss on the phone, you have fallen into the multitasking trap.

So if doing three things at once is not quicker then how can we be more productive? Productivity comes by paying attention to a single task and following it through to its completion; we do our best work when we are fully engaged. However, full engagement is easier said than done when we have a million to-dos buzzing around in our heads all clamouring for our attention so we need some way to clear our minds.

Daniel Levitin, renowned neuroscientist, in his book The organized mind: Thinking straight in the age of information overload suggests that even when we’re trying to focus our attention on one task the mind wanders to incomplete tasks if they’re not captured. Levitin suggests the best way stop the mind wandering is by writing down the incomplete tasks in a trustworthy system-that he calls an “external brain”.

Productivity Coach in a Notebook by Jan @plannerphile

Writing down incomplete tasks gives the mind explicit permission to stop mentally rehearsing the to-do item and conserves the cognitive energy needed to focus our attention on completing our priority task. The research also suggests just writing down random thoughts anywhere isn’t sufficient, this is why basic to-do lists don’t improve productivity; the mind needs to be confident that the system is trustworthy.

For our mind to deem a system trustworthy it must be simple, flexible, accessible, and reliable; the Bullet Journal is such a system. Because we can “rapid log” our incomplete tasks, schedule appointments, make lists, take notes, draw diagrams, and index them all in a single notebook our minds are free to focus.

Interestingly, research by Roy Baumeister and colleagues (2011) has found that incomplete tasks need not actually be completed to relieve the burden on the mind. That’s right, we don’t actually have to complete the task – just writing it down on a “Someday/maybe” list in our Bullet Journal can stop all those nagging “musts” and “shoulds” from interfering with our concentration.

Productivity Coach in a Notebook by Jan @plannerphile

So what about the magic of old-school handwriting? Why can’t we just type down everything that’s on our mind? That would be quicker and we could move on to doing “real” work, right? Wrong. Interestingly the research finds handwriting is superior to typing in terms of memory recall-in fact 2 times better. Typing may be the best way to capture verbatim information but it is not the best way to remember something. This is because when typing, information enters your attentional system with little conscious thought or cognitive processing so you could actually be thinking about your date last night and still keep typing accurately, not remembering anything you’ve typed.

It seems we need to “do” something cognitively with the information, transform it in some way in order to recall it better later on and handwriting does that. Additionally, when handwriting, our mind is interacting with the information while recording the ideas and actively processing the concepts for better long-term understanding. How many times have you written something down only to truly see the problem for the first time? For me it’s the only way out of writer’s block, it’s also the only way for me to self-reflect successfully.

What hasn’t been investigated to date is whether typing to-do items into a digital calendar or note system is more difficult to recall than writing it down on paper. In my experience, once typed, anything in my “Reminders” app on my phone is never thought of again, and that’s enough proof for me.

Productivity Coach in a Notebook by Jan @plannerphile

Creating order from chaos is only possible with structure. Hallowell, in his book Driven to distraction at work, suggests a plan, a schedule, and a set of prioritized goals are what allow us to achieve our full potential and writing these down solidifies them in our mind; making them real. In fact research suggests we are 42% more likely to achieve our goals if we write them down.

In a recent Evernote podcast Michael Hyatt, productivity expert, explained: “When we write, we get clear. When we get clear, that acts like a magnet that pulls us towards (our goal)”. Many creative people resist structure because they feel it restricts their freedom and suffocates creative expression. To the contrary, structure actually allows more room for creativity because once you have a plan, a schedule, and goals you can control the way you spend your time rather than it being frittered away with distracting thoughts, emotions, and behaviours that aren’t part of the life you want to live.

Bullet journaling combines planning, time-management, creative expression, reflection, and goal-setting; like a life coach in a notebook.

Productivity Coach in a Notebook by Jan @plannerphile

So let’s summarize

Cognitive psychology suggests bullet journaling is effective for 3 reasons:

  1. Our minds recognise it as a trustworthy system because we’re able to write anything down in a single notebook and use a simple, but effective page numbering and index system so we can find information again quickly.
  2. Handwriting allows for mental clarity and a deeper understanding of our thoughts, ideas, to-do’s and goals.
  3. It assists us to easily create structure in our lives by allowing for planning, scheduling, goal-setting in a single notebook.

Edward de Bono, inventor of the lateral thinking technique once said: “complexity means distracted effort. Simplicity means focused effort”. Bullet journaling is an elegant solution to a complex problem, genius in its simplicity like so many other life-changing inventions.

If you haven’t tried bullet journaling already start here and we’d love to hear your feedback.


In his book Driven to distraction at work, Ned Hallowell mentions that we need to be cheerleaders for each other in the modern world because we now interact more with screens than we do people and many of us lack the support, encouragement, and positive energy from others in our lives. Cheerleading is central to the success of bullet journaling. Our tribe continues to support and encourage each other to do more, be more, and have more positives in our lives. Let’s keep cheering each other on! Thanks Ryder Carroll for the opportunity to write this blog post and to contribute to this growing community.



Image by: jason blackeye

About Jan Eppingstall

Jan is a New Zealander living in Melbourne, Australia and is currently completing her psychology Ph.D. while wrangling 2 sons, a husband, and 3 cats. As a plannerphile, ataxaphobe, aesthlete, doodler, pinoholic, ailurophile, and supporter of the Oxford comma, Jan can be found anywhere good bullet journals are sold :)
  • Such a fascinating article, Jan. It make so much sense and it’s truly brilliantly written! I love that we’re getting into the science of why Bullet Journaling is effective 🙂

    • Jan Malcolm

      Thanks so much Kim 🙂 I’m glad I was able to communicate the research that supports it because it makes bullet journaling, for me anyway, so life-congruent 🙂

  • “…supporter of the Oxford comma”. I love that! Your article reads beautifully as a result. I’m going back to a comma before “and” now. I also love neuroscience and bullet journaling. Great article.

    • Jan Malcolm

      Thanks so much fellow “Jan” I’m so glad you enjoyed it!

  • Laura Hickman

    Amazing article Jan, beautifully written and so, so relevant 🙂

    • Jan Malcolm

      Thanks so much Laura. Hope I’ll be back with more posts in the future! Thanks for taking the time to comment.

  • Wow what a great article, I’m in love with this method, thanks to it I have accomplished more that I can believe! I just wish this articles and web could be translated in other languages, the other day I was teaching my mom how to use it and she loved it, but it was hard because in spanish we don’t have many blogs about this life changing method, so I had to improvise!!

    • Jan Malcolm

      Thanks so much Laura for your kind words. I don’t speak Spanish but I think you should start a blog about bullet journaling in your native tongue 🙂

  • Cirrus Just Cirrus

    Because of my asperger and the fact that I overthink rather quickly and get stifled by the choice, i decided to make the system even simpeler. I only do dailies in my notebook. I have my monthlies in an online calendar, plannen in advance in a calendar that i use with my gf. The only thing i need to write down are my dailies, notes and lists and such are in my commonplace notebook.

    • Jan Malcolm

      Thanks so much for your comment! I have been thinking the exact thing for the people I work with who have attentional problems Cirrus Just Cirrus. The dailies and the lists would be enough to get a great deal of benefit from Bullet Journaling. Cheers for the share.

  • Paul

    Great article – one typo, David Levitin should be Daniel Levitin.

    • Jan Malcolm

      Spot on Paul whoops :/ Will get that changed

      • Jan Malcolm

        Done – thanks again Paul 😉

  • Jan! What a wonderful post. One of my favorite by far and so well put. Now that structure is what I waver in and out from. I am so glad you wrote this as I needed a reminder to know that sticking to it and remembering to write it down has always been my solution to getting things done. Thank you! xox

    • Jan Malcolm

      Thank you so so much N’Deye you’re comments are always so encouraging. I’m glad you got something out of it 🙂

  • Charlie Furr

    Hi Jan, thanks for the article. I’ve recently started bullet journaling (at least I giving it a good trial) and all of your points have struck a cord with me. I note that the illustrations in the article are all of simplified journals without the colourful writing, doodles etc. that I came across when researching the concept. While I prefer the simple approach, I envy those who have the skill and inclination to decorate their journals. Notwithstanding that, how does the ‘decorative approach’ jive with the science of bullet journaling as you have described in your article.
    Thanks again, cheers C.

  • Nessa McCasey

    Thanks for such an encouraging, informative article! I have been resisting my bullet journal recently and actually never did it well, even though I am in my second journal now. I probably need to just show up more often… And by the way, I too, am a supporter of the Oxford comma!

    • Jan Malcolm

      Thanks for your lovely comments Nessa! I hope you continue with the Bullet Journal and let it be what it needs to be. It is so personal. I have been creating less collections as I get busier with the final stages of my PhD but I know when I have free time I will be able to return to it. Stick with it 🙂

    • “I probably need to just show up more often…”

      I second this about myself. It’s so easy to just look at the pretty journal and draw a blank at what to write next, so we often don’t write anything at all. This quickly becomes the norm and we eventually just let it fall by the wayside because we feel so inadequate as artists who actually have something worthwhile to say.

      So, yeah, BTDT (Been There, Done That).

  • Great article. I found myself relating to some of the symptoms of ADT you mention in the first image of your bullet journal. I’m also an INFJ, and I think that has a lot to do with my attention span and ability to concentrate. I too have been shouting the praises of paper and pen for writing things down—especially for setting and achieving goals, the focus of my new nonfiction book series entitled “SMART FOCUS.”

    Many of the statements you mention (especially the points about using pen and paper as an external memory system) correlate to David Allen’s methods in his book “Getting Things Done.” Another great resource I highly recommend is the “Autofocus System,” created by Mark Forster. I’ve been seriously thinking about using this system in my Bullet Journal for a while now. I have a separate weekly planner and don’t want to have to resort to using my BuJo for planning as well, so I’m keeping it mainly for lists, notes, ideas, etc.

    Thanks again for some wonderful insights. Now, I’m off to browse more BuJo content for more ideas and inspiration.