Here is the full transcript of Bullet Journal creator Ryder Carroll’s TEDx Talk: How to Lead an Intentional Life at TEDxYale conference. This event took place on October 15, 2016 at New Haven, Connecticut.
Listen to the MP3 audio: How to Lead an Intentional Life by Ryder Carroll at TEDxYale
I believe that we are responsible for creating the moments of joy in our own lives. We can’t take credit for a beautiful sunrise, but we can take credit for being there to see it.
We can take credit for the decisions that we made that allowed us to experience that moment. You decided to leave house early. You decided to go for a hike. But making good decisions is really hard. It’s something I’ve struggled with my entire life.
When I was young, I was diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder. At the time, there was not a lot known about the condition, and there were no resources, not to mention that there was no Internet. So the few tools that I could find were either too rigid or too complicated. They didn’t work the way that my mind worked.
A big misconception about ADD is that we can’t focus. In my experience, I could focus. I was just focusing on too many things at the same time.
So, over the next 25 years, I silently made it my mission to design my own resources. Over time, I actually outgrew my ADD, but I found the methodologies I’d developed remained relevant, incredibly helpful, so I shared them with a couple of my friends. I was really surprised to find out that they too found it helpful.
Who knew? I designed it for myself, I’d never assumed that it would work for other people. But with that in mind, about three years ago, I built a website and shot some videos to teach the system to others, in hopes that it might help them the way that it helped me. I called the system “The Bullet Journal”.
If you search for the Bullet Journal on YouTube or Instagram today, you will find hundreds of thousands of examples of how people have adopted the Bullet Journal to help them deal with challenges in their own lives. Those tutorial videos have been seen over 5 million times. It’s incredible.
I just wished that I’d had this knowledge when I was that young struggling kid. That’s why I’m very excited to be here today to share some of what I’ve learned with you.
We’re going to talk about how to declutter your mind, how to cultivate your curiosity, and how to remain focused over time. These practices will help you close the gap from leading a distracted life to leading one of intention. And it all begins with reflection.
You see, studies suggest that we have over 500,000 thoughts every single day. Remember, as a kid, my biggest problem was I was focusing on way too many things at the same time. Doesn’t that sound familiar though? As an adult, that’s just known as being busy. But being busy doesn’t mean that you’re being productive, right? A lot of time, being busy just means you’re in a state of being functionally-overwhelmed.
And a lot of this is due to the overwhelming amount of choices that we have to make in our modern life. Freedom of choice is absolutely your privilege, but it’s a privilege that comes at a cost, because for every one of these choices that we make, we have to make a decision. And every decision requires us to focus. And focus costs us our two most valuable resources: our energy and our time.
We don’t like to think about how to invest our energy and time because it’s really stressful. “What do I want to do with my life?” It’s a very overwhelming question. It’s kind of like going shopping when you’re super hungry but you have no idea what you want to eat. Have you ever done that? You walk in, and there is a million different options, you’re immediately overwhelmed, so you just start picking all sorts of random junk. Most of it will end up in your pantry of shame. The rest will go bad in the fridge. It’s always a waste. But you’ve vowed to do better next time as you pick up the phone to order pizza again.
Decision fatigue is a real condition, and it can lead to decision avoidance. Rather than dealing with these thoughts, we just start stuffing them into the back of our mental pantry until we have no more room left to think clearly. That can cause an incredible amount of anxiety and stress because we feel like we’re losing control. We’re overwhelmed. We need room to think and to focus.
So how do we create room? Like when cleaning a pantry, we have to start by taking everything out. We have to externalize our thoughts to declutter our mind. A good way that I found to do this is to create a mental inventory. Simply take a sheet of paper and a pen, write down the things that you need to do, the things that you should be doing, and the things that you want to do.
Holding thoughts in your mind is like trying to grasp water — it’s nearly impossible. But by writing down our thoughts, we can capture them clearly so we can work with them later. So now we have this mental inventory; now what?
This mental inventory will actually give you a pretty clear picture as to how you’re investing both your time and your energy. So the next step is to ask yourself, “Why?” Why am I doing these things? It’s a simple question. But you don’t have to dive down some existential rabbit hole; simply ask yourself, “Does it matter or is this actually holding me hostage?”
We burden ourselves with unnecessary responsibilities all the time. We’re so distracted by all the things that we should be doing and we could be doing but we completely forget to ask ourselves, “Why are we doing these things? Do I even want to be doing those things?” But now we have a mental inventory to remind us.
So, for every item on this inventory, ask yourself two questions One: “Is it vital?” Is this item vital, this task vital; think rent, taxes – that kind of thing. Two: “Does it matter?” Does it actually matter to you or to someone that you love? If the answer is no to both of those things, you’ve just identified a distraction, and you can cross it off your list. For every item that you cross off your list, you’re becoming less and less distracted.
OK, so now, your mental inventory is divided by the things you have to do, and the rest is probably related to things that you aspire to — your goals. And the key to setting goals is to set yourself up for success. And the best way I found to do that is to take your goals and to break them down into small actionable projects. If you don’t know how to cook, but you want to learn, don’t start by tackling an incredibly complicated meal for six people.
Even if you don’t make a total mess, the experience will have been so unpleasant that you run the risk of ruining your curiosity about cooking all together. Natural curiosity is incredibly important because it’s genuine, it can’t be faked. These small projects allow us to cultivate our curiosities and help them grow; maybe even help some of them blossom into fully-fledged passions. At the very least, we learn more about ourselves, about the things that we want.
So what do these small projects look like? For one, they have to have no barriers to entry. What does that mean? You don’t have to wait on anybody or anything; you can get started right away. Two, they have to have a very clearly defined list of actions and tasks. And three, it should take less than a month to complete. If you estimate your project will take more than a month, that’s fine. Just break it into two smaller projects.
These projects don’t even have to be part of some big epic goal. They can be self-contained micro goals. The goal really here is to be able to indulge your curiosity, try it on for size and see if it fits so you don’t waste time. Unfortunately, time is not a renewable resource. You can’t make time. You can only take time.
It’s our responsibility to take the time to identify the things that interest us, to figure out ways to pursue them because project after project, goal after goal, we will learn what we want to eat, and we’ll have acquired all the skills that we need to prepare a beautiful meal. We’ll go from this state to something more along these lines. But it takes time. And it takes dedication.
Please, raise your hands if you’ve ever accomplished the goal that you set for yourself. Congratulations. Now please, raise your hands again, if by accomplishing a goal it was like a dream come true, it was exactly like you thought it was going to be. All right. Not as many hands.
Why is that? It’s because time has passed. You’ve learned new things, your circumstances have changed; you’re not the same person anymore. This mental inventory is like a map and as we navigate our lives, we have to dedicate ourselves to a habit of keeping that map updated with all the new things that we discover. If we don’t, our map becomes inaccurate, and we start to go off course, we drift. And all of sudden, the distractions start leaking back into our lives.
Even if it’s only five minutes a day, just five minutes a day, we have to dedicate ourselves to a practice that allows us to keep our mental inventory updated. Over time this skill, this practice will also provide you with a lot of personal data, and that data can provide profound insights into your life: what have you tried, what have you not tried, what should you do more of, what’s working, what’s not.
I’ve been doing this for years, and it’s shown me just how much power I actually do have in shaping my life. It’s allowed that young struggling kid with ADD to stand on this stage today in front of you. It’s also allowed this adult to get through the speech, but we’re almost there.
OK, so, to recap: reflect — declutter your mind by creating a mental inventory, get rid of what doesn’t matter.
Ideate – figure out ways to pursue the things that interest you by creating small actual projects.
dedicate – get into a daily practice of keeping your mental inventory updated.
Reflect, ideate, dedicate. Rid yourself of the things that don’t matter, so you have the time and the energy to focus on the things that do. It’ll help you go from leading that busy life to leading an intentional life, to close that gap. An intentional life is the one that you want to live, not the one that you endure. The intentional life has the power to grant you more of those beautiful moments in the sun.