Bullet Journaling with Artisans
Phoebe Hunter is an artisan - practicing as Huntermade by Phoebe - and a recent collaborator in discussing the bullet-journal method and digitial miniamlism. She invited my answer some questions in an interview about that topic.
You can also read Phoebe's questions and my answers below. The interview is also available on Huntermade.com.au, where you can also find Phoebe's work.
Bullet Journaling with a Book Binder (Chris Jolly)
Hello Chris! Thank you for doing an interview talking all things bullet journaling, digital minimalism and slow making. I thought it would be great to start with the basics.
What’s your background?
Ecology and making have been the two main threads in my background. I studied ecology, doing my honours in environmental biology, studying the use of tree hollows by birds in woodlands in the Mount Lofty Ranges. As for making, I always liked notebooks, particularly the emotive ‘weightiness’ they had as dedicated places for creation and reflection. It seemed natural to get idealistic about handmade notebooks, and I started making sturdy wooden-cover journals to be used while hiking in the hills. As a maker, I have taught myself over a long span of time, and I’m becoming sort of okay at it. I have learned to make books like book-binder, but the real question behind the process has been ‘how do I make a better notebook?’. These days I often ask ‘how do I make a book that is ecologically harmonious with my values?’. What does a better notebook even mean? What does an 'ecologically harmonious’ object mean? Sometimes it feels like there is plenty in figuring out just one of these questions.
I’ve been particularly lucky to practice academic study, and then to practice an old craft. They give different perspectives, but often of the same thing. I think the two perspective are valuable for answering the sort of question I want to answer.
When/how did you learn about bullet journaling?
Bullet Journaling (bujo for short) is one of those things that exists well in both a defined and undefined sense. It’s hard to put an exact time to when I heard about it. I think I came across bullet journaling a little over three years ago. Around this time the bullet journal method was spreading; it was becoming the sort of thing people had heard about but didn’t necessarily know about. This is when there was a website describing the method, but not a book yet. I remember having heard about bullet journaling a few times and wanting to know what its actual definition was. I referred to the website, but didn’t go much further for a while. My first attempts at bullet journaling were a little lacking in lustre. I was recalcitrant; at the time I was into more free-form journaling and writing (which does still remain my favourite type of notebook use). There are many ways to use notebooks, though, and they should all be explored. Over time, I acknowledged that it was a part of my work to understand the various methods of using notebooks. Bullet journaling clearly has value for a lot of people, and this was actually my main reason for learning about it. I graduated from knowing a little about the method to trying to understand how it behaved as a system. I was struck by the idea that there were specific reasons for the method working well which might act as an effective basis for customising the method. This idea has had quite an influence on how I think about notebook-based methods. I now tend to explore methods, not from the view of whether they work or not, but from the view of why they work in the cases where they do.
What has bullet journaling brought to your days?
Grounding, space, clarity. The best of these is clarity – it’s the result of the others. The sort of clarity I get from bullet journaling can be broad, but it’s usually targeted and pragmatic. Often it means being able to find a simple key to a complex problem, to pick out the best option from twenty viable ones. But the bullet journal isn’t a method for solving problems, as such. The useful part is what the bullet journal provokes, which is a tendency to slowly, deliberately, and wholistically consider the problem. The same effect can be gained simply by using analogue pen-and-paper methods; but bullet journaling is a great way to structure that sort of thing. Many people find the bullet journal useful for gaining clarity on long-term goals, intentions, and their state of being. I haven’t experienced an epiphany here, but I do find the bujo method emotionally valuable because of the increased calm, mental space in my life. Everyone will manifest the value of a journaling system differently, and indeed, everyone has different starting challenges, not to mention different things they personally want to gain from notebook-based practices in the first place. All the same, I suspect that there are core traits of the bujo method that spark the various manifestations of its value. I think one of those core traits is that it adds topography to an otherwise un-handleable landscape of information in modern life. This is something I enjoy about bullet journaling on a daily basis.
As an artisan of slow crafted things, why do you feel that an analogue system is important?
Slow craft means time, and care, deep conversation about the journey of a thing. These deep conversations (think: long series interactions) leads to an integrated view of things. Craftswomen and craftsmen tend to be process orientated because they see every single process feeding into the final result. Even the definition of ‘result’ for someone practicing slow craft can have a heightened wholism. When so much time is spent on making, the resultant object ought to be a long term one, giving value for years, if not generations, and even then only aging into its later forms, rather than becoming waste. There is a whole process just to forming an intention for the object and the life it will have – it’s not just about the physical making. My point here is that slow craft is heavy on process. It is process that makes me value analogue systems so much.
Analogue systems (like the bullet journal) and digital systems (like an organisation app on a smartphone) aim for the same result, but they get there in different ways. In other words, the process is different. Handwriting is a common but elucidating case style of analog systems. There is evidence that handwriting notes leads to greater retention of information in lectures than typing them. Handwriting is more limited in some ways, but that is its virtue as well. Handwriting forces decisions about what one writes down, focusing the mind on the dynamic processing of the lecture. The digital equivalent has a less direct interaction, but also has too much going on – too much ability and too many features – to do this so well. Much of the benefit of bullet journaling comes from the organic, limited, process-rich, interaction that comes from an analogue notebook-based system.
What is your making process + thoughts on modern artisans and makers.
It can be difficult to describe my own process, but I can talk about some the things that it has.
I’m a pragmatic maker. The objects I make gain meaning by their use, which is the filling-up of a notebook. I spend a lot of time considering the structures which will give integrity to the book and behave best over time. The process is exploratory, incremental, and evidence-based. I try to listen to what the books currently in use are telling me, and then I go on to make incremental, sometimes invisible improvements. These improvements slowly add up to much greater changes than a single, new, ‘bold’ design (but that is also important on occasion). My process is also fairly minimal, deliberately not focusing on many things. I try to avoid forcing things into complex variations, particularly if there are materials and structures that I don’t think will meld well. It’s better to respect the harmony and integrity
of the designs, but then slowly craft new ideas over time.
I have a hunch that my making process is embodied by a lot of old craft principles. There is a non-egotistical flavour to this type of making: An artisan makes and needs to do so to the best of their ability, but also fulfil simple, pragmatic roles as a part of their. It is humbling and ennobling to make like that, to be responsible for shaping a small part of the world. As with all artisans, my process goes into, and radiates from, the hands. I sometimes go to great lengths with hand-making. It feels more harmonious to retain control of my structures rather than letting equipment define my processes. The payoff is that I must keep things simple in order to manage.
Coming from this point of view, it is interesting to encounter some modern perceptions of artisans as outspoken innovators and entrepreneurs, or savvy marketers. There isn’t necessarily a problem with these modern threads – we are all shaping a part of the world in a unique way. However, I feel that these threads can create the perception of artisanship in places where it is lacking. Modern society actually has a pretty hard time grasping the nature of artisanship. Modern makers, even, can be good at their business, but without letting the work of the hands and slow craft guide their process. There are plenty of makers delving into the artisan practice, though. These are people I want to know. I want to learn about their making process, because it will assuredly be unique. I want to know about their philosophical process as well: the details of why they make certain, innocuous decisions. My overall thought on modern artisans and makers is that it’s vitally important to own your own process. Be a part of it.
Do you align bullet journaling with digital minimalism?
Yes. I’m fairly new to digital minimalism, but I see that digital minimalism and bullet journaling are aligned in both their philosophy and practice. Digital minimalism asks one to focus on what actually aligns with their values and goals, and to let the other things go. Digital minimalism is pertinent when we interact with digital systems that are much larger than what we can handle. he options of digital systems and the amount of information they throw at us is completely inordinate. We try to interact with these systems, but there is so much complexity there that we cannot engage in, and they end up ruling us. It’s dis-empowering. Bullet journaling is a counter point to that. The bujo system is one you create yourself, and it constantly adapts to include only the elements that serve you well. One of the philosophies that helped underpin the bullet journal method is the idea that we should only focus on what we actually do want to do at a deep level - the same philosophy behind minimalist practices.
Importantly, the practices of digital minimalism and bullet journaling feed into the other when actually applied. Cutting down on digital systems that eat up our time and don’t add value is supported by being able to transfer some digitally-based actions to bullet journaling. In the other direction, engaging in bullet journaling can increase one’s ability to be intentional and recapture time eaten up by digital systems. They are flip sides of a coin in many ways. A sharp example of bujo-led digital minimalism comes to mind: I have put a task in my bullet journal each month to call up one friend. This has proven more effective as a way of keeping close to someone than hours of scrolling through Instagram.
In a world with smart phones, where does the ritual of bullet journaling fit?
I have seen nothing that suggests that a smartphone can offer a replacement for practices like bullet journaling, despite how remarkable the devices are. The processes involved are vastly different. In fact, the smart phone offers so much else that bullet journaling is a good practice to make the use of the device more focused and valuable. Your intentions and your goals are what should steer your action, and that includes the use of your digital devices. Thinking of a priority list for a day, it’s best if the bullet journal literally fits in before the phone, so that the clunkier digital system doesn’t start to guide your day away from your intentions.
This is an interesting question though, because is it a good idea to physically replace a phone with a bullet journal throughout your day? As part of a broader approach like digital minimalism, bullet journals and smartphones can be wonderfully complementary. It think there can be a productive partnership where their co-use is guided by partitioning and prioritising their functions.
Advice for someone first starting out with bullet journaling + digital minimalism?
Bullet journaling and digital minimalism have some underpinning concepts, but they ultimately become your practices. Always refer back to the most compelling ideas, the ones that speak to you, but moving on from there it’s all about customising and refining your practice. I recommend an on-going approach:
Spend some time setting up whatever template you have for the practice. Then,
- Try it.
- Reflect on it.
- Add an idea that you think will enhance the system; or take one away; or alter the practice of one slightly.
- Reflect on how this goes over time.
I also suggest spending five uninterrupted minutes bullet journaling at least once in the day, even if you just spend it enjoying tea and flicking through the pages. Rather than being something that disengages you with a promise that it will streamline things for you, the bullet journal is only whatever you spend time making it – therein lies its effectiveness. If you take a moment to fully engage with your practice, it will serve you well.
Favourite tea to #bujoandchill with? ... (It’s a theme in my interviews now) ...
Assam ‘Golden Needles’ (from The Tea Catcher) in the first parts of the day, if I’m not brewing coffee on the aeropress. In the evenings I brew spiced rooibos, or masala chai.
Most important question to finish with, what is your favourite bird?
An important question, indeed! If I had to put a name to my favourite, it would be the Yellow-Tailed Black-Cockatoo. That is a majestic bird, and of course it’s also a user of tree hollows, the habitat feature I wrote my honours thesis on.