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The One Thing You're Not Decluttering—But Should Be

Ryder Carroll
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Photo by Javier Díez / Stocksy
November 17, 2018

Want to make 2019 the year you actually start bullet journaling? First, do this listing exercise from a new book by the bullet journal's inventor Ryder Carroll. Not only will it provide the basis for your journal, but it will force you to be more critical about how you're spending your time—something we could all use a little help with.

Studies have suggested that we have 50,000 to 70,000 thoughts per day.

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For context, if each thought were a word, that means our minds are generating enough content to produce a book Every. Single. Day. Unlike a book, our thoughts are not neatly composed. On a good day they're vaguely coherent. Where do you even begin? What comes first? Inevitably we find ourselves tackling too many things at the same time, spreading our focus so thin that nothing gets the attention it deserves.

Being busy, however, is not the same thing as being productive.

This is commonly referred to as "being busy." Being busy, however, is not the same thing as being productive. For most of us, "being busy" is code for being functionally overwhelmed.

What do I mean by that? We don't have time because we're working on a lot of things, yet things aren't working out a lot of the time. This phenomenon isn't just a 21st-century problem, but it has been exponentially exacerbated by the countless number of choices technology has put at our fingertips.

As psychologist Roy F. Baumeister wrote in his book Willpower, "No matter how rational and high-minded you try to be, you can't make decision after decision without paying a biological price. It's different from ordinary physical fatigue—you're not consciously aware of being tired—but you're low on mental energy."

This state is known as decision fatigue. In other words, the more decisions you have to make, the harder it becomes to make them well. We need to reduce the number of decisions we burden ourselves with so we can focus on what matters.

How to take a mental inventory.

The first step to recovering from decision fatigue is to get some distance from them. You need some perspective to both clearly identify and corral your choices. We do this by writing them down. Why write them down? Each decision, until it's been made and acted on, is simply a thought. Holding on to thoughts is like trying to catch fish with your bare hands: They easily slip from your grasp and disappear back into the muddy depths of your mind. Writing things down allows us to capture our thoughts and examine them in the light of day. By externalizing our thoughts, we begin to declutter our minds. Entry by entry, we're creating a mental inventory of all the choices consuming our attention. 

Here is where your Bullet Journal journey will begin. Just like when organizing a closet, we need to take everything out before we can decide what stays and what goes. To begin, sit down with a sheet of paper. Orient it horizontally and divide it into three columns (you can either fold it twice or draw the lines). 

  1. In the first column, list all the things you are presently working on. 
  2. In the second, list all the things you should be working on. 
  3. In the last column, list the things you want to be working on. Keep your entries short and in list form. If one task sparks a stream of others, go with it. Give yourself some time with this exercise, and dig deep. Be honest.
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The Mental Inventory grants us the opportunity to take a step back and ask why. Go ahead, ask why for each item on your list. You don't need to dive down an existential rabbit hole. Simply ask yourself two questions: 1. Does this matter? (To you or to someone you love) 2. Is this vital? (Think rent, taxes, student loans, your job, etc.) 

Tip: If you struggle to answer these questions about a given item, ask yourself what would happen if said item just didn't get done. Ever. Would there be any real repercussions? Any item that doesn't pass this test is a distraction. It adds little to no value to your life. Cross it off. Be ruthless. Keep in mind that each task is an experience waiting to be born, offering a glimpse into your potential future. That's why everything on your list has to fight for its life to stay there. More accurately, each item needs to fight for the opportunity to become part of your life. 

When you're done, you'll probably be left with two types of tasks: things you need to do (your responsibilities) and things you want to do (that is, your goals). When you christen your Bullet Journal, you should do so with only things that you believe are important or will add value to your life. Being intentional about what you let into your life is a practice that shouldn't be limited to the pages of your notebook. 

Adapted from an excerpt from The Bullet Journal Method by Ryder Carroll, published by Portfolio, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2018 by Ryder Carroll.

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Ryder Carroll
Ryder Carroll

Ryder Carroll is a digital product designer and inventor of the Bullet Journal. He’s partnered with companies like Adidas, American Express, Cisco, IDM Macy’s, and HP. He’s been featured by the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Fast Company, Bloomberg, Lifehacker, and Mashable, and recently gave a TEDx Talk.