Intentional Living Grows Through the Bullets of a Journal?
Capitalism and the Organized Life
Mao Zedong once wrote that political power grows through the barrel of a gun. I am no Maoist, but there seems to be a cult growing around the bullet journal. It is enough to make me wonder if intentional living grows through the bullets of a journal. It started earlier this year, when I noticed that my coworkers had very elaborate planner books. I have kept a yearly planner and separate goal book for a few years now, but these books were always utilitarian. In the books, I very plainly record my schedule and goals throughout the year. These books were used to track my progress or organize my life. I never considered the aesthetics of keeping a schedule. Then, suddenly, it seemed that everyone had fancy books with stickers and colorful pens, in which they tracked the minutiae of daily living. It seemed like a lot of work…and a lot of cost…as these planners cost $80, plus various accessories. Generally, I had been paying less than $10 for my planning supplies. However, the siren call of stickers, pens, lists, and schedules called me to Michael’s, where I had a 50% off coupon. I bought my own fancy schedule book, albeit a cheaper version.
Image stolen from internet.
First of all, I was surprised to find an entire aisle of the store devoted to planner books. When did this happen? I only noticed the trend this year, when suddenly everyone had these books. And now, boom…a whole aisle! According to the Star Tribune, the first official bullet journal was launched in 2014 by Ryder Carol and today over 281,000 people follow @bulletjournal on Instagram. The goal of these journals, planners, or notebooks is to live more intentionally (Pearson, 2018). Bullet journals are particularly popular among millennials, who on average spend $60-80 on purchases at Appointed, an online store that specializes in paper products such as journals and calendars. A London based psychologist named Dr. Perpetua Neo (whose name seems like a character from the Matrix or a diabolical machine) posits that millenials like these planners because it gives them a sense of control (something they don’t have much of in the face of wars, unstable economy, debt, etc.) (Babur, 2018). That is an interesting theory. Sure, I want control in my own life. But, what is the end goal? Why be in control and what must one be in control of? Common categories for the planning products include finance, goals, health, and spirituality. For me, I want to be more productive. In this sense, bullet planners are something akin to Pinterest meets the scientific management of the personal life. I imagine that if somehow I squeezed out just a little more time from my day, I would be a better person. It is about control, but it is also about productivity and the self as a project.
Scientific management was method of management developed by Frederick Winslow Taylor in his 1911 book “Principles of Scientific Management.” The book was based upon lessons learned when he tried to increase the productivity of workers at Bethlehem Steel. Scientific management involved such things as timing the workers, controlling their movements to improve efficiency, and paying them on the basis of their productive output (Mihm, 2018). Taylorism is alive and well in workplaces today. For instance, each time a work place does a time study to increase efficiency, it is following this century old method of increasing worker productivity by cutting superfluous worker activity and establishing benchmarks or output goals. Amazon warehouse workers have been made to wear bracelets that track how long it takes to fetch items, which they must do each nine seconds (Salame, 2018). From a Marxist perspective, capitalists try to increase the productivity of workers to increase their profits. Workers generate profit for capitalists because there is a gap between the wage they are paid and the value of their production, which is called surplus value. If workers were paid the exact value of their production, there would be no profit. For instance, at one of my jobs I take photographs of Santa Claus. This generates $1000-$2000 of sales each day. In order to make a profit, the photo company must make sure that wages paid to Santa, the photographer, and the managers is less than $1000-$2000 per day. Of course, there are other costs as well, such as photo paper, the camera, costumes and uniforms, receipt paper, etc. These are considered constant capital, that is, they do not generate profit and therefore, while these costs can be cut (such as wasting less photo paper) they are mostly money sinks. On the other hand, labor is variable capital. A lot can be done to manipulate variable capital in order to generate more profit. Wages can be cut, productivity increased, work day lengthened, breaks shortened, staffing deceased, etc. The matter of profit making is complicated by the fact that things such as competition, the replacement of workers with machines, and the need to invest in new technologies tends to cause profits to decline with time. That means that inevitably, labor costs have to be cut and the exploitation of workers must be increased to remain profitable. Scientific management was a way to increase profits by squeezing more productivity from workers.
What does all of this mean for personal lives or have anything to do with planners? No one profits from how many books I read in a year, how many days a week I work out at the gym, or any number of things I might track in my journal. However, I believe that the rise of bullet journaling serves capitalism in a number of ways. For one, it seems that some aspects of bullet journaling apply scientific management to the personal life. That is, if a person tracks their goals, daily habits, spending, fitness, or other facets of their life in an intentional manner, a person can eke out more productivity. Productivity is viewed as a virtue in our society. It is rare to be shamed for being productive or sad because your day was exceptionally productive. Max Weber argued that the virtue of hard work associated with Protestantism (frugality, discipline, and hard work) were important in fostering the growth of capitalism. While Marxists look to material conditions and would view these values as a part of the superstructure of a society, these sorts of values certainly play a role in the functioning of an economic system. Capitalism functions a lot better if the workforce generally values productivity and hard work. On the other hand, because we are overworked, we have little time for leisure and personal pursuits. Our free time has to be regimented because it IS in limited supply. My time sheet for two weeks of work at ONE job was 116 hrs this week. I have two other part time jobs in addition to this. My coworkers who lovingly fill out their journals also work multiple jobs. There is no way for me to read 30 books, see 50 new species of birds, or attend 150 political events a year without some radical scheduling. My desire for productivity in my personal life is a desire to live as something more than a worker. My desire to work is the desire to sustain myself and have some extra for living (hobbies, travel, experiences). The sad thing is that about 8 million Americans have multiple jobs. Pretty planners might be a way to beautify the prison of work that we find ourselves in until retirement or death removes us from the labor market.
I drew a volcano in my book.
Another aspect of this trend is gender. These planners are marketed to women. I was frustrated that the designs for the books, stickers, and other accessories were SO extremely feminine. The planner was full of floral prints, rainbows, unicorns, pastels, You Go Girl, Girl Boss, vapid inspirational words or quotes about being a free spirit or following your dreams, and other traditional gender tripe. Why can’t planners have skulls, fossils, bats, moths, dark colors, swear words, quotes from revolutionaries, glow in the dark, scratch and sniff, etc. I want a planner that says I will work until I die or that suicide is always an option. I don’t need the “Happy Planner” (the brand I bought) since I think “The Scarred by Depression Planner” is a more accurate description of my way of life. Why do women have to be happy? What if someone wants “The Angry Planner” wherein you write your goals into little flaming piles of shit? Anyway, I am sure if these planners remain popular, these products will start to appear (if they haven’t already) to draw more consumers into the market. However, right now the planners are very traditionally feminine (which isn’t terrible, but just seems narrow and to me, indicates that these planners appeal to white, middle class women with semi-conventional tastes. . The fact that these planners are marketed to women also indicates some things about society. One, women don’t have a lot of time! Planners are a way to manage time, which many women lack due to responsibilities as paid workers and unpaid workers who take care of children, elderly, or adult men by cooking, cleaning, and managing homes. It also represents the ways in which women feel pressured to view their bodies and selves as an unfinished project. Tracking diets, exercise, hobbies, goals, etc. are a way to become an ideal woman.
I drew a bird. But will it really be …my year?
Anyway, I bought myself a planner. I chose one with a travel theme. I like travel and I want 2019 to be a great year. I enjoy tracking things and I will admit that I view myself and my life as an unfinished project. I am never enough. I will never be enough. I doubt that a planner will help me feel like a enough, but it might help me squeeze more productivity out of each day. Or, perhaps it will serve as a memory book of all the things I did or tried to do in 2019. I don’t think there is anything wrong with creating fun schedule books. I just think this trend represents a certain way of existing within capitalism and patriarchy. In previous societies, such a thing might be unthinkable because days, hours, and even linear time are concepts that discipline us into workers…and there was a time long ago when we weren’t workers or at least not the wage workers we are today. I don’t think bullet journals are some kind of capitalist conspiracy to oppress us. For people with ADHD it may help organize life in a useful way. For others, it may be a fun, relaxing, hobby akin to scrap booking or more traditional journaling. However, I do think that if a person is going to live intentionally, this should also mean intentionally questioning why we must be so productive in the first place and who profits from our sense that we are not enough! Certainly the companies that make these books profit if they are charging $80 for them! Health and fitness industries, travel industries, cosmetic industries, magazines, etc. all survive by the insecurities of women who feel they are not enough. I am not above this. I am not enough. And because of that, capitalism will always be able to squeeze just a little more from me at work and at leisure….
Babur, O. (2018, October 22). Bullet journaling is everywhere now. Our love of planners is about our desire for control. Retrieved from https://www.vox.com/the-goods/2018/10/22/17996604/bullet-journal-control-planners-bando-appointed
Mihm, S. (2018, February 23). Amazon’s Labor Tracking Wrist Bands Have a Long History. Retrieved December 3, 2018, from https://www.bloomberg.com/opinion/articles/2018-02-23/amazon-s-labor-tracking-wristband-has-a-rich-history-behind-it
Pearson, E. (2018, November 06). Bullet journals go mainstream as more people strive for an ‘intentional life’. Retrieved December 3, 2018, from http://www.startribune.com/bullet-journalists-jot-down-tasks-goals-and-memories-in-hopes-of-planning-a-more-intentional-life/499841641/
Salame, R. (2018, February 20). The New Taylorism. Retrieved from https://www.jacobinmag.com/2018/02/amazon-wristband-surveillance-scientific-management