I’ll be honest: I’m envious of diary people, the smug, strange genre of human being who possess the discipline to sit down before bedtime and compose actual introspective paragraphs about their daily lives.
But I, too, keep detailed accounts of my days. I itemize groceries for a chicken and feta meatball recipe I want to make next Tuesday; I make a packing list, complete with details about underwear and shoes, for a weekend trip; I brainstorm birthday gift ideas weeks in advance. I spend as much (or more) time detailing my life’s story on paper as diary people do, but I do so in a considerably less romantic and much more control-driven way: I’m a planner person.
According to Dr. Perpetua Neo, a London-based clinical psychologist who studies everyone’s favorite generation to shit on, I’m far from alone. Many other millennials are obsessed with organizing the most minute aspects of their lives, like meal planning, errands, working out, and socializing with friends — and that need for organization comes from a craving for control, which is driving their shopping habits for products like physical planners and bullet journals.
“Millennials are often demonized as being entitled, but actually, the problem is that Generation X just grew up in a context where housing was much more affordable and jobs were more long-term,” Dr. Neo said. “It’s easy to dismiss millennials for being different than their parents’ generation, but in reality, life has changed a lot.”
She continued: “This generation has seen a lack of economic as well as political stability with things like 9/11, and when there’s a lack of stability, we have anxiety. Anxiety is all about that lack of control.”
As millennials struggle to balance side-gig on top of side-gig, Dr. Neo said that paper planners are an attractive way to effectively organize the demands of modern life because they provide a refreshingly tactile break from technology.
According to Emily Roberts, a New York City-based therapist and author of Express Yourself: A Teen Girl’s Guide to Speaking Up and Being Who You Are, writing down tasks and to-dos has productivity benefits over typing them into a phone or laptop.
“When you write it down, you take control over your day or week,” Roberts said. “Writing something down makes it more important in your mind, and you are more likely to remember it.”
She also believes that the analog nature of using planners makes millennials feel more confident about even the most delicate of organizational balancing acts.
“We often get sucked into our devices and waste so much energy,” Roberts said. “One of the negatives about using a device to help manage our lives is that we rely on it and depend on it to remind us of what needs to be done. This makes us less confident, and our memory becomes less effective.”
Of course, young people aren’t contenting themselves with penciling in dates and meetings the way previous generations have. They’re using the bullet journal method, an aesthetically pleasing system that allows them to organize events, notes, lists, and tasks on paper exactly the way they want to.
The flexibility and customization that the “bujo” method promotes gives millennials the space to jot down a ton of information about how often they work out, what they eat, what they wear, and even how much they spend; without even realizing it, much of this generation became committed members of the quantified-self movement, which “embodies self-knowledge through self-tracking.”
As a result of the bujo trend, brands like California-based ban.do have seen planners and paper decorating accessories quickly rise to become their best-selling products. “When we first started doing these five years ago, I bought every planner that I could get my hands on and really dug into them,” Ali Labelle, ban.do’s design director, said. The planners (much like ban.do’s products overall) are clearly marketed towards women, and Labelle said that their core demographic are millennial women who “want to bring a little fun into a mundane practice.”
Labelle and her team solicited a lot of user feedback in designing and updating their planners. For example, ban.do users often prefer a horizontal page format but want space to add their own workflow columns. The team also regularly checks in on Instagram to see how millennials customize their pages; #omgbandoagenda is a hashtag entirely populated by users who share tens of thousands of photos of how they customize their ban.do planners.
“It’s a huge trend in the planner community to post your week planned out. People get really excited and they spend a lot of time formatting the planner; they really take it upon themselves to use things like washi tape, gel pens, and color coding,” Labelle said.
Appointed, a popular paper goods company based in Washington, DC, takes a much more minimalist approach to its planners to give users as much space as possible to exert control over their day-to-day planning.
“It’s a crowded category. Very few [planners] have function and design taking equal priority,” said founder and CEO Suann Song. Appointed’s planners are intentionally gender-neutral (in a paper industry that is increasingly leaning into #girlboss rhetoric), which is why the products can be found in many retailers who primarily stock lifestyle products for men.
By stocking paper tape and colorful pens that allow millennials to create different workstreams and take control of their own preferred layouts, Appointed and ban.do both position themselves as one-stop shops for all the bells and whistles that many love about bullet journaling.
Surprisingly, despite being a generation marred with debt and financial insecurity, millennials who shop at Appointed tend to spend between $60 and $80 on an average purchase, which typically includes both a notebook and a planner.
“Paper goods are a growing and thriving industry,” Song said. “The feedback that we regularly receive is that the tangible action of writing something down is satisfying. We know people keep and collect their Appointed planners. It’s about a sense of accomplishment, or it’s practical to hold onto them for reference.”
Natalie Daher, a journalist based in New York City, said that using a physical planner helped her establish a much-needed feeling of authority over her life during the stressful time after she was laid off.
“It gave me the ability to juggle several streams of income, my personal life, and work tasks in a tactile way,” she said. “I’ve hit a steady groove now where I constantly keep track of my tasks and events by day. I even document whatever kinds of media, culture, or art I consumed that week, so I can keep track of different podcasts and books. It helps me make sure I’m listening to or reading new things.”
Daher also said that while she regularly cruises the bullet journal hashtags on Instagram to see how other millennials have styled their weeks on paper, she finds the pressure to make her own weeks look “picture-perfect” enough to post too stressful. Dr. Neo said she often asks patients to be honest with themselves about whether Instagramming their planner pages contributes to that sense of control and mastery over their lives, or whether it’s simply a performative act that triggers counter-productive feelings of anxiety.
Unsurprisingly, social media’s tendency to present influencer-ized #goals lifestyles can also exacerbate the need millennials feel to control aspects of their lives they feel the least secure about — like eating and exercise.
For example, making a detailed weekly meal plan that includes a vegetable-heavy grocery list and recipes is a way to feel in control of one’s diet. Meanwhile, a millennial might meticulously outline a work-out plan in their planner to feel fitter and healthier. “We are being taught that we need to healthy,” Dr. Neo said. “That’s a lot of pressure, especially in age groups [like millennials], and so planning is a way to have control over the way your body looks.”
On top of the creative draw of bullet journaling, Daher also said that she loves how her planner gives her the freedom to visualize and manage the time she dedicates to self-care, which she accomplishes by crossing out an event or leaving intentionally blank spaces on days where she feels it’s time for a break.
Likewise, Ali Labelle sees ban.do users carving out time to reflect through many of the weekly spread photos they post to Instagram.
“People are realizing that it’s good to take a minute and think about what’s coming up, like, ‘How do I need to prepare, how am I fitting in my self-care into that routine?’” Labelle said. “A lot of women are sitting down on Sundays with their planners. I think it’s because our intoxication with ‘busyness’ is, to some extent, dying down.”
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