Let me tell you about a book I’m reading: Stumbling on Happiness by Daniel Gilbert. I specifically want to talk about page fourteen and the frontal lobe of the human brain. It turns out that the frontal lobe houses our anxiety. Removing it has a calming effect. But removing the frontal lobe also destroys the human ability to plan. 

“What is the conceptual tie that binds anxiety and planning? Both, of course, are intimately connected to thinking about the future.”

Daniel Gilbert, Stumbling on Happiness

This is fascinating. Planning and anxiety share a biological geography. They don’t just live in the same town, they live in the same house. They’re either roommates or possibly the same person in a different mood. As soon as I read this, my brain jumped to bullet journaling—my tool for planning and reducing anxiety.

There are two things that keep me bullet journaling: 1) It clears my mind; 2) It gives me joy. Clearing my mind means reduced anxiety. Together with increased joy, this spells happiness. (This is my conclusion anyway. I’m only a third of the way through Stumbling on Happiness so I’ll get back to you if I find the science disagrees.)

Clears My Mind

My bullet journal is an external hard drive for my brain, but prettier. I use it to get thoughts out of my head. I also use it to record plans so I don’t have to track so many things in my mind.

Except this isn’t quite right. My bullet journal doesn’t just store information, it enriches my thought process. The act of bullet journaling helps me refine my thoughts and understand my feelings. 

There are three techniques that I use in my bullet journal: planning, journaling, and drawing. Each enhances my thought process in its own way.

PLANNING. The repetition of tasks at different scale levels (year view, monthly calendar, weekly schedule, daily outlook) allows me to see one task in multiple contexts. I can also visually rearrange tasks. My brain has a hard time doing these things without the bullet journal.

JOURNALING. Sometimes my thoughts can spin in on themselves obsessively. The act of writing them down allows my brain to move on. My thoughts often come out jumbled, but once they’re recorded on paper it doesn’t matter that they’re a confused mess. I can write myself into clearer thoughts, or rearrange words to make sense of them.

DRAWING. My years in architecture taught me how much drawing is a form of thinking. In school, our professors admonished us if we hadn’t drawn yards and yards of sketches during the design process, because it meant we hadn’t thought deeply enough about a problem. In my bullet journal, I typically tie my choice of illustrations and colors to my mood or mindspace that month, which helps me capture subconscious thoughts and emotions. Choosing a theme reveals something to me about my headspace.

My brain can become a jumbled mess. I have come to depend on the bullet journal to help me organize my thoughts so I can think clearly and keep anxiety in check.

“Planning requires that we peer into our futures, and anxiety is one of the reactions we may have when we do.” 

Gives me Joy

Gilbert’s use of the phrase “trapped in the moment” caught my attention (see quote below). 

“…damage to the frontal lobe impairs planning and anxiety…Without it we are trapped in the moment, unable to imagine tomorrow and hence unworried about what it may bring.”

Daniel Gilbert, Stumbling on Happiness

I was startled by this idea that a person could be trapped in the moment. As a dancer, I’ve worked hard to live in the moment. Dance is an evanescent art form. It dies the second it happens. Fully inhabiting each moment gives it its best life and creates rich, joyful experiences for both the performer and the audience.

But I also love planning. I’ve often had to justify to myself why I spend so much time planning, so much time thinking about the future instead of living in the moment. 

I’ve come to believe that I love planning for two very good reasons. First, I enjoy it. When I’m planning I am thinking about the future, but I’m also, paradoxically, living in the moment. It’s a pleasurable task in and of itself. Second, recording my plans for the future, whether it’s next year or this afternoon, reduces my anxiety about things that I can’t actually control in this moment, which makes my subsequent time more pleasant.

All this reduction of anxiety and clearing of thoughts makes sense. The bullet journal was created for this very purpose, as Ryder Carroll so eloquently explains in his TEDx talk, in which he describes how his childhood ADHD led him to create the bullet journal method.

Our frontal lobes can lead us to experience high anxiety. Removing or damaging the frontal lobe induces calm, but at the cost of losing the ability to plan, which is part of what makes us human. Bullet journaling is one way to tame our brains into working for us. I know that for me, keeping a bullet journal clears my mind and reduces anxiety.

What I love most about this, is that it leaves me free to live in the moment without being trapped in the moment. It makes my brain a happier place to think.

How do you balance planning and living in the moment?

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