Journaling Has Gotten Out of Control

Is it just me, or has journaling gone off the rails?

Journals these days are somehow simultaneously beautiful and militant. In the bullet journals splashed all over Pinterest, people not only track minutiae such as daily weather, exercise, and water intake, but they sketch pretty drawings of mini water glasses that they fill in with blue each time they drink. Inspirational quotes about “getting shit done” abound. Daily planners have evolved beyond simple monthly calendars and are now Passion Planners, Life Planners, Focus Planners. Each one runs for $25 to $50, and some are over $100.

Take the SELF Journal, which costs around $30. Here’s their promotional video. (Worth a watch, I promise.)

According to the video, the creators “researched the most successful, high-performing people in the world” to differentiate outstanding performers from the average person. So the journal will help you to recover from a serious case of averageness and “reach your goals quicker than you ever thought possible.”

Here’s where, for me, it gets creepy. Each day in the SELF Journal is broken down into 30-minute increments that start at 6 a.m. and end at 9 p.m. This allows “you to optimize your day from sunrise to sunset.”

Optimize my day? Am I a robot? If I started planning my day at 6 a.m., there would be a whole lot of z’s written in those first two hours.

Here’s the thing. I almost bought this journal. Then I realized I thought it was batshit crazy. There is a section for happiness tracking. Happiness. Tracking. What in tarnation is going on here?


I’m not even trying to pick on the SELF Journal. They’re all similar. And obsessive journals are a symptom of a widespread sickness: Our demand for constant productivity. We expect ourselves, our co-workers, our spouses, and our children to continually produce. For me, rather than take an evening off for a bubble bath and a nice book, I find myself reading a self-help book and scribbling down notes. Or researching homemade pasta recipes so I can finally use that damn pasta maker I bought 5 years ago and stop feeling like a failure. When Joe hops on his computer to play games, I will wonder why he isn’t cleaning the bathroom.

Recently, I told Joe I think I forgot how to rest. I was only half kidding.

Blog-Quitting My Job

What worries me more than our need for never-ending productivity is that we expect perfect output at all times. We want an Instagram-worthy creative process. The SELF Journal calls its back pages “freedom pages” which are meant for jotting down thoughts or ideas, but the sample they show in the video contains only flawless drawings. In this world, there is no room for messiness.

Is freedom allowed only at the end, in the hidden spaces no one sees?

Full disclosure: I started a bullet journal last month. But mine is a majorly scaled-down version that works well for me. A lot of the rules were too strict and stifling for my taste, so I took the ones I liked and abandoned the rest. I don’t draw. I don’t cover up mistakes. I don’t track my happiness. The only focus on achievement is in the realistic goals I set for myself, and when I don’t reach them, I try again the next day. And I love it. It’s a fully personalized journal that I am creating as I go. None of it is made to be shared on social media, although I will share a few photos so you can see how average I am.


I am here to make a case for the messy journal. I’m sure options like the SELF Journal are a great tool for some. But for me, I have no interest in becoming an optimized human. I want to be flawed, messy, spontaneous. My grad school mentors’ writing notebooks were falling apart and filled with sticky notes, scratch paper, and napkins covered in ideas. Their pages were a launchpad for creativity; they exuded joy. And that’s all I want from my own journal.

In fact, that’s all I want from life—joy, spontaneity, and hard work. All of these journals are missing this connection.

Then again, maybe these aren’t things a company can sell.

Until next time,

My signature

6 thoughts on “Journaling Has Gotten Out of Control”

  1. It’s very interesting what you wrote. I belong to those who for personal reasons needed to monitor even the times they took a shower, believe me, not out of obsession but out of necessity, and I needed it. I also belong to those who draw very well, who knew the bullet journal in the jungle of pinterest and not having understood anything, tried to equal the “influencer of the bujo” (I baptized them) and was not spun by anyone. Then I understood, after having used and studied the bullet journal for a long time, what it is. It’s a method, which has little to do with obsessiveness and drawings, customizable and useful for the well-being of people. Everyone uses it as they wish, the basic method is just a suggestion from the inventor to explain how he created it and how he uses and experiences it day after day. He says so too, the fundamental thing is to personalize it, otherwise it is only a notebook. You actually use the Bullet Journal for what it was born for, like me! I don’t think there is a rule in the world that distinguishes what is right from what is wrong in this case. If a person feels like using it to brag about their skills in drawing….obviously they need that! If another uses it to become a robot…he obviously needs that! I am happy to meet on the net people who simply use it for the purpose, and not for the embellishment, which remains only a wrapper!

    1. Hi Mirimal, thanks so much for your comment. I’m glad to hear that I use the bullet journal how it was originally intended. Like I said in the post, I actually do love it. I just had to scrap the things I found suffocating. I appreciate your insights!

  2. I felt the same after seeing how extravagant and elaborate some get with their journals of any kind. Looking back, I think I was a little jealous of the beautiful layouts and also thought it was excessive in that it seemed to take so much time. I journal using on lined pages and now use stickers, Washi tape, stamps, and pictures. I’m not great at drawing, so I don’t. But I don’t think it’s out of control. It’s a creative outlet, and it’s satisfying to see the end result. Some of my pages are very simple with very little embellishment, and some are crazy busy with embellishments and artsy stuff. It depends on my mood.

    1. Thanks so much for your comment. You’re right that the design element can be a creative outlet, and that it is perfectly fine if you want to spend your time doing that. For me, the issue was more selling this idea of journaling in order to optimize your life, as if life is something that can or should be perfect or smooth or 100% planned out. I think we have gone overboard with the idea of an optimized life.

      1. AH! I read your post again and see it more clearly now. I interpreted “journal” as a documentation of life, more along the lines of the old-fashioned diary with maybe some planning or to do lists in the mix. Mine is definitely not structured like the SELF Journal. I see that as more of a planner than a journal, and I agree that those are getting a little (a lot) overboard, and I would never buy one of those. What threw me is the placement of your “Perfect Examples” pictures. I thought you were calling those perfect examples of being out of control. Give me blank pages and let me go as crazy (or not) as I wish. 🙂

      2. Ah, yes, that makes sense. I was lumping all of it together in my head–the perfect pages, the emphasis on productivity–but the creative side of it can be fun. I think it’s good for us to be conscious of it, though, to make sure we aren’t pressuring ourselves to be as perfect as the Instagram models. Sounds like you have that down. 🙂

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