As I was researching and writing my book Building a Second Brain, I picked up another book to read on the side: The Bullet Journal Method (affiliate link) by Ryder Carroll.
There aren’t many books on effective notetaking for the modern world, especially ones that have been as successful as BuJo (as it’s affectionately called).
I have to admit: I didn’t think I had much more to learn on the subject. I figured I had already seen it all.
But as I turned the pages of Carroll’s book, he introduced me to ideas that profoundly changed how I think about notes, journaling, productivity, and even what it means to live a good life.
On the surface, BuJo looks like a particular format for journaling and taking notes in a paper journal. But once you dive beneath the surface, it is actually a holistic methodology for taking action, clarifying your values, and focusing your attention on what matters most (that just happens to be manifested in a paper journal).
Here are my 10 favorite quotes from The Bullet Journal Method, including how each one shaped my thinking.
#1 – Find your place in the digital age
I had always thought about personal productivity and digital notetaking as a highly niche subject for “techies” and “nerds.” But seeing it framed this way made me realize that it is much bigger than that.
Post-pandemic, we are all living, working, entertaining, and educating ourselves online. The Internet has shifted from a subculture into the culture.
This shift has been so sudden and so all-encompassing that we are all struggling in one way or another with “finding our place” in this brave new digital age. Whether we are immersed in technology and the Internet every day, or are completely new to digitally native ways of living, we are all in the same boat.
Self-reflective practices like BuJo give us a way to ground ourselves in our most important values and principles before we step outside into the information maelstrom.
#2 – Connect with what you want
Carroll doesn’t shy away from pointing to what he sees as the root cause of many productivity challenges: our lack of self-awareness.
I couldn’t agree more. We buy tools and download apps to change how we feel inside. This sometimes works briefly, but doesn’t affect the fundamental issue – our relationship with our selves.
When we are disconnected from who we are, what we want, and what is important to us, no external change truly makes a difference.
Carroll’s words remind me that as much as I enjoy taking in information from the outside world, my true north lies within me.
#3 – Treat each new idea as an experiment
Every time I encounter this line of thinking, I feel convicted.
It is so clear that we are surrounded by endless knowledge, yet more often than we’d like, we are also starving for wisdom. We are exposed to countless strategies and solutions to every problem under the sun, yet too often, we don’t apply them.
This advice encouraged me to slow down, to treat each new idea as a practical experiment, and to wait to see what results it produces before rushing on to the next fascinating concept.
#4 – Pay attention to what resonates
I also talk about the importance of resonance in my work, but this quote reminds me that it’s more than just a handy filter for deciding what to capture.
We know that there is tremendous value in deeply understanding ourselves and our values, but we also feel daunted by the herculean task of understanding who we are. It seems like a hopeless endeavor to fully uncover everything we have inside.
But there is a simpler, more “bottom up” way of understanding ourselves: paying attention to and moving toward what resonates with us. This can happen on the scale of a year, a month, a week, or a minute. Every moment is an opportunity to move toward some things and away from other things.
The sum total of thousands of such micro-decisions is a completely different life heading in an entirely different direction.
#5 – Study your mistakes
I had never thought of my notes as a “decision log,” but that is absolutely what it is.
Our memory is notoriously weak, and that includes our memory of the circumstances surrounding our past decisions. What were the factors that led to that decision? What other options did I weigh? What were the potential risks and pitfalls I wanted to avoid? What goals or outcomes were most important to me?
As Carroll notes, these questions are equally valuable when applied to our successes as to our failures. The goal is not just to win, but to understand what winning means to us and what we are willing to invest in order to achieve it.
Every choice becomes a lesson when we take notes on it.
#6 – Start small and build from there
This has been important advice for me when learning any new system or approach.
Often, I find myself treating a new system like an ideology or religion – either I have to accept 100% of it without question, or reject it completely. But most things aren’t so black and white. The world comes in shades of grey.
It’s difficult to know which parts of a system to adopt, because that requires discernment and self-reflection. At the same time, it’s also not that hard, because there is no risk in getting it wrong.
We can approach learning new things with an experimental mindset of trying one piece at a time, and only keeping what works.
#7 – Keep your filter a little loose
I strongly recommend an “actionable” approach to managing information. For me, the only thing that justifies all the time and effort of notetaking is having practical use cases for that information.
Carroll’s words remind me that there is sometimes a disconnect between present resonance and future action. Often, we write something down not knowing how it will eventually be used.
This reminds me to keep my filter a little loose. To allow some things to make it through even before their utility is clear. I’ve found that these ambiguous nuggets become the future seeds of projects and goals that I never would have come up with otherwise.
#8 – Keep your notes short
I also talk extensively about the importance of distillation in my book. As information gets distilled, it becomes more potent, more usable, and more valuable.
This quote reminds me that distillation doesn’t have to happen as a late stage of my workflow. Especially as my discernment grows, I can often distill something right at the moment of capturing it, saving me tons of future effort down the line.
I can attend meetings and decide not to take notes. I can read books and not save any highlights. I can take classes and work with coaches and watch movies without the compulsive habit of meticulously jotting things down.
Part of distillation is removing anything from my notes that isn’t truly essential.
#9 – Keep your future self in mind
An important, subtle aspect of effective notetaking is about honoring your relationship with your “future self.”
Do you respect them? Do you value them? Are you looking out for their needs? Are your actions today making their life easier? Or are you borrowing from your future self without planning on paying them back?
Your relationship with your future self is a lens through which to examine your relationship with your self now. Because you will be that future self in just a minute.
I constantly have to remind myself that my notes aren’t just serving my needs in the present, but in the future too. Without a future, there is no point in taking notes at all. And without a present, no notes will be taken in the first place.
Ultimately, reflective practices like journaling and notetaking are about integration. We are slowly drawing our past, present, and future selves into closer alignment by communicating back and forth through time.
With alignment comes integrity, strength, character, and power – the ingredients of a rich life.
#10 – Start with yourself
This final quote reminds me that who I am inside determines the life I live outside.
There is no point in complaining about my circumstances, trying to change other people, or seeking to make a difference in a cause I believe in without first starting with myself.
My problems, my baggage, my fears, my blindspots – these elements of my inner world are the ones I have by far the most control over. If I am unwilling to face them, what are the chances I’ll be able to face challenges outside of me, over which I have far less control?
When it comes to the impact I can make on others, what I do and what I say pales in comparison to who I am. People don’t model what I tell them; they model who I am.
This perspective seems selfish, but it is also honest: the only change you are truly responsible for is the change happening inside of you.
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