For GRITS Learning to Clean House: Bullet Journaling 101

The women I grew up with always had everything together. We’ve already written about their seemingly endless patience and grace, and the neatness and beauty that seemed to come with it. When I imagined myself as an adult, I pictured myself following their mold, complete with a color coordinated closet, spotless dining room table, and effortless ability to keep my head above water without breaking a sweat.

But I’ve always been messy. As a kid, my room could never stay clean. The closet had more clothes on the floor than on the hangers, my grades were good, but I always forgot to bring my homework to class. My mother was not pleased. While I understood the value of keeping a space organized, I could never put it into application. I envied my classmates, pretty Southern girls who all had the same handwriting and tucked their Lilly Pulitzer planners in their perfectly organized backpacks. Every year, my school planners went unused, my handwriting got worse, and my hopes of ever getting it together faded. Eventually, I came to terms with the fact that mess was just something I would have to live with.

This continued until my sophomore spring, when, long story short, I started going to therapy. It wasn’t my lack of organization alone that brought me there, though the mountains of clothes on the floor or the messy desk I was unable to work at certainly weren’t helping the anxiety I was feeling. In other words, my intermittent despair about the pointlessness of getting up in the morning was exacerbated by the laundry shoved at the foot of the bed. My panic about overwhelming coursework and extra-curriculars wasn’t soothed by my inability to remember assignments I failed to write down.

I didn’t bring myself to therapy because of these concerns, but I spent a lot of time talking about them. Suddenly, my apathy about the lack of organization in my environment wasn’t just a fault of mine. I wasn’t trying to break the mold of the women who’d raised me. My messiness was a symptom. Instead of immediately suggesting medication or meditation, my counselor asked me to think about things in my room I wanted to clean, and how to clean them. We talked about the little steps I could take to prevent my fresh laundry from ending up becoming my new carpet. My mental health became inexplicably tied to my organization.

I’ll be talking more about my mental health on the blog in the coming months, but needless to say, a diagnosis of depression changed the way I approached almost everything, including the way I organized my life. I’m not gonna lie and say I became a suddenly clean person—clothes still end up on my floor far too often. However,  I have started taking steps toward getting it together, and the best tool I’ve found the most is my bullet journal.

If you don’t know what a bullet journal is, you probably haven’t been on Youtube, or Pinterest, or Buzzfeed in a while. Essentially, it’s a customizable planner system that works in whatever way you need it. You find a notebook you like, create a layout that suits your needs, and adapt it as the month goes on. There are as many different ways to use a bullet journal as there are types of people who use them, and one of their biggest strengths is how customizable and flexible they are. There are some classic layouts the creator, Ryder Carroll, came up with to suit his lifestyle, but if those don’t work, you can adapt them or scrap them entirely. Some people go heavy on the ornamentation, with lots of designs and hyper-specific lists and keys to distinguish the importance or due date of their tasks, but there are plenty of bare bones journals, with spare layouts that focus on simple list making or tracking.

I’d tried bullet journaling before starting therapy, but it had never stuck. I could never commit to (or maybe prioritize) creating ornate decorations or hyper specific to-do lists that ran minute to minute. But post therapy, one of the greatest lessons I learned was that sometimes it takes effort to take care of yourself. There are parts of self-care that deal with lighting candles and treating yourself to your favorite snack, and I’ve got plenty of experience with those. But the self-care I’ve had to learn is about making things easier on myself. Taking fifteen minutes at the start of the week to write down the big assignments, meetings, and goals for the week can save me a thirty-minute break down when a paper sneaks up on me. Getting to cross off tasks as I complete them gives me a sense of satisfaction that encourages me to keep going, and also shows me the progress I’m making. Tracking my spending in my journal not only keeps my from hyperventilating before I open my banking app, but also sometimes prevents me from making purchases (if I’m not willing to write down the cost in my journal, I probably shouldn’t buy it.) My bullet journaling system keeps me from common pitfalls that can cause me to make mistakes, mistakes that left freshman year Michaela arriving late to a meeting because she couldn’t remember which pile of papers held her notes for class, or ruining a perfectly good twist out because she couldn’t find any of her three bonnets.

Bullet journaling and therapy have made me pay attention not only to what goes on around me, but also to myself. During the school year, I’m overenrolled, overinvolved, and overwhelmed. With the amount of commitments I have, I rarely pay any mind to myself. During our sessions, my therapist often asked me if I was taking a moment to relax during the day. Was I taking note of my emotions and exhaustion? Was I prioritizing simple things that often fall to the wayside when I become depressed, like showering, or picking up my clothes off the floor? My bullet journal helps me keep track of these things.

At the beginning of the month, I make a chart I call my habit tracker—quite simply, it’s the place where I ensure that my actions are moving me toward the person I want to be. My monthly habits are a mix of physical goals like going to the gym or stretching daily; emotional goals like praying and meditating; and tasks I know I’m likely to forget or set aside in favor of passing out at the end of the day (brushing my teeth, taking my medication, changing into pajamas each night).

It is hard for me to admit I need help achieving these tasks that are supposed to be done without thought, but the shame I felt about getting help with these things is what kept me from improving my mental health for so long. Turning to my bullet journal is one step closer to turning to a person for help. When I see in my habit tracker that it’s been three days since I’ve reached out to anyone to talk, or that I haven’t yet showered, it reminds me—take care of yourself. Pay attention to yourself.

All of this effort I’m putting into bettering myself and my mental health doesn’t mean that I don’t still sometimes end up with a messier room than I’d like. It doesn’t even mean I always keep up with my journal—right now, a combination of spring break and general apathy means I’m behind on my habit tracking. But bullet journaling has changed my life because it’s increased my awareness by drawing my attention to myself. It gives me an avenue to notice habits I fall into that are often signs of impending issues with my depression, and it gives me a tool to pick myself up when inevitably, a depressive mood causes me to feel like I haven’t made any progress. Instead of feeling hopeless and without a clear way to get to where I want to be, I can make a little list: pick up thirty articles of clothing, text your mom, brush your teeth. It may not seem like such a big deal, but sometimes it’s the little things.

The women I grew up with seemed super human to me because they accomplished everything all on their own, and I thought that was what adulthood was—doing it alone. Not asking for help. Achieving everything with so much ease that others wonder how you do it. But a major part of growing has been acknowledging my mental health issues, and I’ve learned that there’s nothing wrong with making things easier on yourself. Instead of taking pride in how much I can juggle on my own, depression has taught me that there’s value in doing things at my own pace, in my own way, with all the help I need. Whether it comes from medication, therapy, or prayer, you’ve got to find what works for you instead of trying to overwork yourself.