Bullet journaling when you’re not an artist

The whole point of (keeping a notebook) is to make it yours … and do it in your own way … That’s how you need to treat every notebook you’ve got! You need to be okay with whatever you put in there being complete garbage … This means that even if you don’t know how to draw, it’s okay for you to draw. Even if you don’t know how to doodle, it’s okay for you to doodle. Even if you don’t know how to write, you know what? You are totally okay to just go write something. And if you don’t like it, you can tear it up and throw it in your neighbor’s yard.” — Merlin Mann

I am not, shall we say, blessed with artistic ability. Well, I have a hard time picturing what I want something to look like and I have zero spacial skills, true story. (If I’m not wearing my glasses, the world is flat. I thought that’s how it was supposed to look until I was 39 and went to the eye doctor. Things just … stick out … like that in real life?! How weird.)

My girls ARE quite artistic. Abby made me a bullet journal for Christmas a couple of years ago, which was super fun and gorgeous. They spend a lot of time on their monthly spreads because they enjoy that kind of creative outlet.

I, on the other hand, get stressed out by the thought of drawing a stick figure, never mind some crazy two-page spread like you see on Instagram. Look, I am not kidding when I say I have a hard time visualizing anything but lines and words on a page. But hey, I mean, it’s my journal. It just has to work for me.

And if it doesn’t, well, I can rip out that page and toss it in the neighbor’s yard. (I don’t know why that is such a hilarious image, but it tickles me to no end.) It’s a notebook, for God’s sake, not the crown jewels.

I set up a few static pages at the beginning of my journal so I can track day-by-day what’s interesting to me: Calendar pages (one per month) to track appointments, birthdays and my period; a book log to keep track of days I read as well as the books I finish (titles only); anxiety days (out of curiosity because I think I’m getting better but am I really?); an exercise log (yoga, walk breaks, etc.); and the Great Reading Retreat Clean-out (I mark the days I work on decluttering and jot notes about what I’m doing). I also have a couple of pages that detail other areas I’m trying to be mindful about, such as a list of five questions I like to answer at the end of each week in the pages of my journal.

On the bulleted pages, I start with a monthly calendar in list form — who needs boxes? — and then it’s just a free-for-all of whatever I feel like writing. I journal in the mornings to ease into the day: Make my coffee, sit down and write. I can’t say I’m doing much more than sorting through what happened the day before and reminding myself of any must-dos, but the process is settling somehow, regardless of the nonsense I’m producing.

And trust me, it’s all nonsense. This is just for me, so I don’t get hung up on making it anything other than what I need it to be at that moment: A place to vent, to review the books I’ve read, to write down the gifts of the previous day, to work through what is happening / has happened / what I’d like to see happen.

I have my favorite brands of journals and pens, but we don’t need to go into all that. What brand of supplies you use isn’t nearly as important (or interesting) as what you want to do with your journal. You could have a 29-cent notebook and a pencil you found underneath a couch cushion and it would still do the trick.

I’m a little embarrassed to show pages because they are absolute crap but then again, that’s the point, right? That our journals do not have to be Instagram-worthy?

Okay, fine:

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Writing rules

I was up at 2 a.m. the other night, rehashing the day’s events (wow, boring), when it occurred to me that if I lived my life by the rules I follow in my writing, I would be much better off (that’s how I broke the negative thought spiral, incidentally, coming up with this list). Observe:

Rule 1: Never marry anything you write. When I write, I know that I am going to have to cut all kinds of words and sentences. Really good words and sentences! Words and sentences that are the most brilliant words and sentences I’ve ever produced! It doesn’t matter. If it doesn’t work for any reason, then it has to go.

I don’t find that hard, actually. Because I really don’t marry anything I write — it’s all expendable. But in my life, I act like every thought I’ve ever had, every expectation, every belief is set in stone. And when something comes along to challenge it, I completely fall apart. Retrenching is next to impossible. I will not retrench! I will die on this hill! Even if this hill is small and stupid!

HA HA HA. Idiotic.

Rule 2: Let the words do what they want. I don’t really know how to explain this one except to say the words are anarchists and I let them do whatever it is they need to do on the page. I don’t have to think about it. I just type. When I try to control what the words do, that’s when I run into trouble. If I let them do their own thing, it’s easy.

In real life, I try to control: Everything. I don’t let the day unfold; I power through it. This is something I’ve been actively working on since my birthday, so I can report that I’m getting better about loosening my grip. I don’t always remember that I’m letting the day do whatever it wants, but that’s the goal.

Rule 3: You can rearrange later. Sometimes when the words do whatever they want, they’re out of order. I read through what I’ve written and am like, oooooh, wait, THIS should be HERE and THAT should be THERE. It takes mere seconds to cut and paste, but the finished product is better for it.

But what happens in real life? I have a hard time rearranging my expectations when things change. And I will fight that change with every fiber of my being because THAT IS NOT HOW IT WAS SUPPOSED TO GO. It’s exhausting, really.

Rule 4: Utilize your resources. You know what’s a great writing resource? Thesaurus.com. I use it when words don’t want to repeat but I can’t quite think of an alternative. I use it when I’m looking for ideas. I use it when I’m curious about their word of the day. I’ve got it bookmarked.

Over here in my real life, I am terrible about utilizing my resources. I act like I have to do everything by myself. I’m getting better about asking for help, but it’s still hard. (Asking for help as a form of self care? Man, there’s a post that needs to be written, obvs by someone smarter than me.) I skip breaks, I forget to introvert, I get cranky and wonder why everything is so hard.

Oh, TW, you are hilarious. Also amusing, comical and uproarious. (Sorry, making myself laugh over here.)

Rule 5: Sometimes, you just gotta get those words out the door. In the newspaper business, deadline means a story is done. Even when it’s not. You hit send knowing your words are imperfect, that it’s not your best work and that people are going to actually read this crap. It’s sort of liberating.

As is the theme here, in my life I tend to strive for perfection. Which is kind of funny because I’m also one of those people who gets frustrated and decide that half-assed is good enough, damnit, because I am over this crap. Huh, maybe that goes hand in hand: I try to be perfect, I fail, and then I quit. So it never gets out the door at all.

I think the only thing I can do after writing that particular rule is to just stop and hit publish. BOOM. (I’m telling you: Liberating.)




Self-care: Changing my definition

What I thought of as my self care routine was the equivalent of considering that picking someone up in your car, not saying a word, and then driving them around the block and dropping them off 10 minutes later is the most romantic date you’ve ever been on. You’d never do that to someone else, so why would you do that to yourself?

— Kyle Nicolaides (HERE)

So. Self-care. I’ve had an epiphany. Um, over the course of like three months or something because I’m an idiot and it takes time for me to sort through whatever it is the universe is trying to tell me. And also because “health” is one of my grand plans this year and self-care is certainly a part of that whole ordeal.

I found the above quote when I was researching bullet journals — I was setting up my 2020 January-June journal and thinking about what sort of habits I wanted to track. That quote struck me as being sort of funny — in a sad kind of way because wow, relatable — and then I forgot about it.

Until Abby and I were at Friday Lunch one (when else?) Friday and I had a lightbulb moment. Abby was talking about the guilt she feels when she rests / practices self-care. How she can’t turn off her brain. And I was like, Oh, well, why don’t you just journal about what makes you happy and then cross stuff off that list? and she was all, Do you think I haven’t tried that yet? Because I have and it doesn’t work.

Hold. The. Phone. That sounds vaguely familiar … because I’ve also read the articles and made the journal entries and I am also terrible at it.

Ah, it’s so humiliating to find yourself giving pseudo-advice to your kid and then getting called on the bullshit that it is.

What I think of as self-care is really the bare minimum a person has to do to maintain any semblance of health. Because there’s always something else that is more important, or I don’t have time, or I feel guilty about taking the time when there’s so much else I should be doing.

The lightbulb: I think of self-care as special treats. And if something is a treat, that means it’s not necessary. It’s frivolous. It’s stupid. It’s easy to toss aside.

But in reality — and a shout out to Oxford Dictionary — self-care is “the practice of taking an active role in protecting one’s own well-being and happiness, in particular during periods of stress.”

And then it occurred to me that taking care of myself is already routine, in that I have to, like, shower and brush my teeth and stuff. I just don’t think of those things as “self-care.” Could those things help me protect my well-being and happiness? Maybe even give me a buffer on the anxiety front?

Hmm. I have to wash my hair — but I can use a lavender bar and an organic conditioner.

I have to shower — but I can use the pumice stone Mom gave me for Christmas (hi, Mom!) on my heels.

I have to wash my face — but I can use a nice bar of soap and moisturize afterwards.

Which made me wonder: What else could I do to make what’s already routine into something more restorative? What could I add to my routine?

Meditation as self-care? Music? Reading? Eating for my guts? Exercise and family time and allowing myself to be bored? Being honest with myself and saying “no” to those things I don’t actually like but feel like I have to do?

I’ve been looking at this all wrong, in other words. I practice self-care every day — I’m just not mindful about it. I have to take that extra whole minute to apply moisturizer before I go to bed. I have to get up from my desk and leave the office for a real lunch break. I have to open a book instead of an app on my phone. I have to tell myself that nothing else is more important in that moment. The chores of life can wait their turn. And that this is nothing to feel guilty about. You can’t save anyone else if you don’t put on your own lifejacket first and all that.

I’ve got the theory down! Um, just keep your fingers crossed for me on the actual practice, which is the part I always fail.

New year’s grand plan no. 2: Decluttering projects

I’ve mentioned my reading retreat a couple of times, I think — you can see it if you click HERE (an old post on Pointless Ramble from Dec. 2012) — and if I have, then I’ve also mentioned that while it was a good idea in theory, it turned out to be not so good in practice. Um, as you can see in THIS post (March 2015).

I’ve never actually used my retreat as a retreat. Well, when the girls were young, they’d find me, and then I’d feel like a jerk for hiding. And then, when we started decluttering at the beginning of our minimalist adventure, the retreat was the dumping ground for all the crap we planned to get rid of.

Because there were always more pressing areas of the house to tackle, like the kitchen or the bathroom or bedroom closets. I’ve tried a couple times over the years to go through my retreat, but I’ve never been successful; that room is stressful and I hate even going in there. So I always tell myself I’ll tackle it later.

Well, it’s later.

I’ve been thinking a lot about energy flow, stagnation and resistance. How I crave peace and calm but have this dusty, dirty, cluttered, overwhelming space in my house — inside my own bedroom — that is a panic attack waiting to happen.

And maybe I will realistically never use this as a reading retreat — but I can tell you this, I’ll never know if I don’t clean that thing out. I’ve given myself until the end of March; I need a hard deadline or I will continue to put this off. I’ve set up a page in my journal to keep track of my progress. And I’m keeping this advice from Martha Beck in mind (full post from her website HERE):

Don’t try to de-clutter everything at once. Choose ONE drawer or ONE shelf or ONE flat surface in your home. Clear everything out or off of it. If you are a natural-born de-clutterer, you’ll find yourself throwing away or donating items you don’t use. If, on the other hand, you are more a natural-born hoarder type, you might feel clutching anxiety when you try to let go of an outmoded object. This reflects an unwillingness to let go of outmoded beliefs as well. As you do the thought work, your anxiety and resistance will ease up.

UNWILLINGNESS TO LET GO OF OUTMODED BELIEFS? Have you been reading my diary, Martha Beck?

The thing that just kills me is that I am a seasoned minimalist, I’ve done the hard work, I know what it takes to declutter AND I STILL have this issue! What the hell! And I know that I have this issue because I’ve put off cleaning this area for so long — because I don’t want to make the hard decisions on what to do with film negatives or old cards or my scrapbook supplies or collection of Everyday Food magazines. I don’t want to sort through photos or letters or old decorations that I put in my retreat in the first place because I don’t know what to do with them. I’ve got years and years of layers in there.

No wonder I’m overwhelmed. But I figure if I can just hang in there for 20 minutes to start, maybe I’ll eventually be able to last a half hour, then an hour, and then it will be over and done.

So far it’s going okay. I’m trying to dust as I go and get rid of the easy items first — like books I’ve read once and will never read again. It’s simple to toss those in a bag and donate them to the library board’s book sale. Film negatives can wait for February. 😉

And since apparently I am all high on the new year and possibility, I’ve decided that, after my three months are up and my retreat is squeaky clean, I’m going to start in on my laundry room. I tackled one cupboard during my Simple Year (HERE) and have yet to go back. It’s another chaotic dumping ground.

Wish me luck. Also: Anyone else have a decluttering goal for the new year?

Resistance and flow

Life has tossed me a couple of related gems recently from four completely different sources and I think that maybe the universe is trying to tell me something.

First: I happened upon THIS interview by Marie Kondo with Elizabeth Gilbert on the topic of “tidying the mind.” I’m going to quote what most struck me because A) I’m lazy and also 2) this is way more genius that I can summarize/rewrite:

“You can’t work on yourself and not work on the space you live. And you can’t do work on the space you live and not work on yourself.”

“If you’re too afraid to look into the scary attic of your mind, look into the scary attic of your home. It will be a portal, a doorway, that will take you into the parts of yourself that you’ve been afraid to look at.”

“I always say to women, ‘Start knowing’ … Go deep and say, ‘It’s time to know.’ You have to believe the force of knowing is in you. We’ve inherited it from our ancestors; they passed on everything they went through. There’s an old version of you that lives in yourself. Ask her.”

— Elizabeth Gilbert

Second: I was at acupuncture, all laid out in the amazing chair with heat and massage, when my acupuncturist comes in to insert the needles. She looks at my left wrist — that’s where I always keep a hair tie for emergencies — and she says, This looks tight, I’m going to just take it off. We’re going for energy flow here, not stagnation.

My response: Laugh. Her response? We talk about that all the time in the clinic, clutter as stagnation. When energy is cut off, you’re also cut off.

And then she starts talking about the different forms of stagnation: A thousand saved emails, a cluttered house, even your weight. And when you’re energy is blocked, you’re in a state of stagnation.

So I looked up the definition of stagnation (I mean, this is me we’re talking about) and it is “a state of not flowing or moving; a lack of activity, growth or development.”

Third: I find THIS post by Kyle Nicolaides about journaling as a way to cope with depression and anxiety, and there’s a section where he’s talking about habit trackers — how you should approach them with lightness and joy instead of just another thing you have to do and that, upon failing, beat yourself up over. He further says that missing days at a time — weeks, even — on a habit you’re trying to cultivate means that it’s something your heart didn’t really want OR it’s something important that your heart is avoiding.

And fourth, an email newsletter I somehow got signed up for after helping a new wellness business with a press release, in which she writes that, with the winter solstice right around the corner (aka longest night of the year here in the western hemisphere) we should be asking ourselves two questions:

  1. What is too much in my life that might be causing me harm? (Think worry, sugar, toxins, fear, sitting, processed food, rushing around, over-committing, over-spending.)
  2. What is not enough in my life that can help nourish me/heal me? (Think sleep, nutrient dense foods, meaningful connections, healthy routines, movement, nature, mindful awareness.)

There’s a theme here, simply that resistance affects flow. That we know what we need to confront but we tend to numb and therefore further harm ourselves instead of just dealing with it. That it’s easier to be stagnant than get to the root of the problem. That change is hard and requires actual work. But if our heart isn’t in it, we won’t even start.

It’s interesting to ponder and also kind of scary. I’m still sorting it all out. As always, thoughts welcome.

Breaking negative thought loops

The problem is not that we have negative thoughts. The problem comes when we believe our thoughts are true. — Melli O’Brien

I can’t be the only one who falls down the negative thought loop rabbit hole several times a day, rehashing stupid stuff I did years ago / five minutes ago, comparing my life to others’, having conversations that I will never EVER have in real life, going over old hurts, feeling ill used and unappreciated.

It’s exhausting. And the kicker is IT’S NOT EVEN TRUE. It’s just my mind messing around. You’d think, as a writer, I would be coming up with all kinds of awesome ideas to explore, either on the blog or on the job, but no. I’m over here being a jerk, fighting against myself.

Wondering why my anxiety is sky high.

I recently did some research on negative thought loops and, specifically, how to stop them. There were several tips and tricks, like pretending you’re in an elevator looking down on your life’s path — all your thoughts, all your actions, from the day you were born until the day you die — so you can visualize how tiny this one “thought” is.

I’m claustrophobic, I hate elevators, and I find visualization difficult. I like words. Which is why I love this revelation: When you notice yourself in a spiral, you acknowledge that thought and then think the opposite.

And not only do you think the opposite, but you make it over the top ridiculous. And you say that ridiculous thing out loud.

This is so much more my style. And the crazy part is that it actually works.

Because, of course, that over the top, ridiculously optimistic thought isn’t true — but then, neither is the negative thought. The truth is in the middle and, somehow, countering the negative spiral with its positive opposite helps me get there.

It makes me laugh. It stops the loop. It’s a reminder that I am not my thoughts — and I don’t have to believe everything I think.

I also like this technique because I can do it anywhere and I can do it fast — but if you’re more into taking your time unpacking a loop, you can also see it through to its conclusion, then write down the following in your journal:

  • What was the thought?
  • What was the emotion behind it?
  • What were the sensations I felt while in the loop?
  • What behavior led to the loop?

This exercise is supposed to help you identify the cues that lead to the spirals. These negative thought patterns are habits, coming out to play at particular times. And if you can figure out when that’s most likely to happen, you can stop the loop before it even starts.


The interesting part about my new over the top approach to spirals is that I find they are happening less frequently, and that when they do start up, I can stop them faster and easier each time. I also don’t dread them like I used to — it’s just creative fun time. I’ve shared this technique with my co-workers — kind of had to, since they’re all like, Why is Trisha saying all this idiotic, positive crap? — and it helps break the tension when we are collectively feeling overwhelmed and defeated about the job we do.



Two Techniques to Break Negative Thought Loops

How to Break the Cycle of Negative Thoughts in Your Head

4 Keys to Overcoming Negative Thinking for Good


I’m learning …

The scene: Saturday morning. Eric’s birthday. Abby’s last full day at home for Thanksgiving break.

Abby has scheduled a coffee date with one friend; we plan to meet up afterwards to get some “love pack” items for her college squad (basically paper bags filled with little fun items to get them through dead week and finals), go grocery shopping and pick up the pizza that Eric has requested for his birthday dinner (that we have to cook at his mother’s on Sunday because I still don’t have an oven). My mother texts: Can we stop by after vigil Mass so she can say goodbye to Abby? Abby texts: Coffee date over with one friend but another has asked to meet up. Maybe we can go shopping after Mass.

Oh, and we’re supposed to be at my sister-in-law’s at 1 p.m. for Saturday Thanksgiving, since my nephew had to work actual Thanksgiving.

Eric wants to get our holiday card photo picked out and ordered because there’s a good deal online. And then add some more stuff to the cart so we can get to $30, which will translate into a 70 percent savings. But we’re not at $30. What else can I find? Nothing, as it turns out. Hmm.

Wait, I need to get the turkey bones I inherited from my mother into the crock pot to make broth.

All right, turkey down, there’s still time to make it to town. Johanna isn’t ready; it’s fine, we can do her grocery shopping on Sunday. Eric goes for a walk. If I leave RIGHT NOW, I can still get everything done …

And then it hits me: What in the actual hell am I even doing?

Abby is a big girl. She can pick out her own token gifts.

Eric can figure out the photos.

Going grocery shopping and picking up the pizza can wait until Sunday.

All I really need to do is pack a Trisha-friendly lunch for Saturday Thanksgiving and maybe fold some laundry. And bask in the wonder that is crock pot turkey stock.

Because the holiday season has started and I’m giving myself permission to do less this year — I forgot that last part. I’m resetting expectations and identifying priorities. Not worrying about whether or not something is perfect. I’m letting go of guilt. I’m playing with kittens who want to help me write blog posts. (No offense, Goose, but your grasp of grammar is subpar.) I’m letting go of self-imposed chaos and overwhelm. (Thanks, V.)

I mean, I’ll probably forget again. It’s a work in progress. It’s hard to let go of guilt and perfectionism and to embrace this aspect of minimalism — the doing less part. It’s a struggle to rewire your brain. It’s crushing to even think about forgoing traditions, even if they don’t serve us anymore.

It might be an interesting December. 😉 Anyway, I want to hear if you’re trying to do less this year, too — we can start a support group.