Behind the Account: A Look into Vanessa Yang’s Bullet Journaling

You know her, you love her, and if you aren’t following her on Instagram at this point, what are you even doing? Over the past few years, Vanessa Yang has dedicated a huge chunk of time to bullet journaling, a system of personal organization that includes keeping a journal full of to-do lists, schedules, and assignments, often arranged aesthetically. She started putting photos of these journals on social media, where her account (@vanessajournals) has amassed over 37.1k followers as of November 22. Vanessa sat down with The Tower and answered a few of our questions.

PC: Vanessa Yang (’21)
As well as to-do lists and schedules, Vanessa’s bullet journaling spreads are often decorated with aesthetic photos, doodles, and song lyrics, such as the one pictured above from “Stay Awake” by Dean Lewis.

Q: How did you first get into bullet journaling?

A: Once upon a time, in the simpler days of twenty-minute-homework and nine-PM-curfew (middle school. I’m talking about middle school), young Vanessa decided she wanted to teach herself the elegant art of “modern calligraphy.” You know what I’m talking about: the kind of script usually employed by wedding signage and insightful quotes like shoot for the moon; even if you miss, you’ll land among the stars. I was very—very, very, very—bad at calligraphy, but in my hunt for inspiration, I fell down a rabbit hole on Instagram that led me into a different, much more niche digital community: the bullet journalists. I was drawn by the concept, but even more so by the aesthetic—twelve-year-old me was very susceptible to a good color scheme. I probably spent too many hours one Sunday afternoon watching YouTube video upon YouTube video of “how to bullet journal!” and “top ten bullet journal mistakes NOT to make!” and from that point on, I was sold. 

Q: How long have you been bullet journaling?

A: I started my bullet journal in the summer before freshman year. I was about to move from Shanghai to San Diego, and I wanted a way to simultaneously organize the massive to-do list in my brain and record my last days in China.

Q: How often do you bullet journal? Does practice help?

A: I try to bullet journal every day, mostly because I get stressed out easily and the routine is good for my brain, so it helps me to write all my tasks out and cross them off one by one. I think maybe bullet journaling has the perception of being something you need to “practice,” especially given the way in which social media portrays the visual aspect, but at its core the bullet journal was created to enhance the productivity of the individual, and in that sense there’s no “practice” involved so much as creating a regular routine. 

Q: Do you like it? 

A: I do really enjoy it, and I hope there’s no perception of me, like, in my room alone, writing about my innermost thoughts and fears and experiencing complex emotional self-revelations; I like bullet journaling because in it’s essence, it’s a glorified to-do list. It helps me get things done but still satisfies the part of my brain that wants to add fancy handwritten titles and pretty colors to everything. As someone who hesitates to identify primarily as an “artist,” bullet journaling is a nice middle ground between a sketchbook and a planner.

Q: How do you find inspiration for your spreads?

A: As many others do, I find a lot of inspiration from other accounts on Instagram. I could scroll through the Explore page forever, looking for visual elements and structures that spark my interest that I might implement into my own work later. You might call that plagiarism—maybe even intellectual property theft, and you might not be wrong, in all fairness. However, my English teacher, Mr. Hendrickson, recently shared with me a piece called “The Ecstasy of Influence” by Jonathan Lethem, which speaks to the nature of the creative world as being built on what is basically plagiarism. It discusses how the process of borrowing motifs and inspiration from other artists serves to benefit the greater community, and how certain ideas do not belong to people, societies, or groups, but rather, they belong “between” people. So really, I guess I get my inspiration between people, in a way. 

Q: Does bullet journaling affect other aspects of your life, like organizational skills?

A: It definitely has (at least, I think!) made a positive impact on my life in that I’ve become more naturally organized and I like having structure more now. Having a bullet journal regularly is helpful because it makes me plan out all my activities and create to-do lists for myself and stuff, which makes me feel more obliged to actually do the things I have to do. However, there is a flip-side to that where I end up being a little bit obsessive over my schedule and feeling like I need to have everything be perfectly set up before I can take on a task, which, if I’m not self-aware of it, can definitely become counterproductive sometimes. 

Q: What prompted you to make an Instagram account?

A: As cheesy as it sounds, I think I just wanted my own little place to record the process, to record the weeks going by and to look at how my bullet journal evolved one month, six months, a year down the line. I definitely didn’t start with the goal of, like, trying to be an influencer, or anything—not that I am anything close to that now—and I didn’t foresee anything even remotely close to all this happening to my little account (shoutout to anyone who remembers the humble beginnings of “cup_doodles”). Right from the beginning I liked being able to scroll through my different experimentations and say wow that is ugly I am never doing that again, or oh, I really liked that one, because it helped me keep track of my progress and sort of know what I wanted to work on or experiment with in the future.

Q: How has having an Instagram account been? 

A: I try not to take it too seriously or let it take over my life, and as long as I stick to that, everything is usually fine. It’s really cool to engage with other people all of the world who share the same aesthetic vision as me (because, in the end, I think the digital landscape broadcasts more of the visual aspect of journaling rather than the productivity aspect). Also, it’s very interesting to see what people send me under the cover of anonymity via the online service Tellonym. I expected to get more questions about pens and notebooks, but that is certainly not the case; a terrifyingly large proportion of the submissions are either completely irrelevant or weirdly personal. Some examples have been stuff like: “What does love mean to you?” “thoughts on Selena Gomez,” and “how many children do you want?” 

Q: Is it stressful trying to maintain your account?

A: It definitely used to be more stressful because I went through a phase of trying to post every single day. That, needless to say, lasted about four days before I ran out of both pictures and motivation. Now, I think it’s important to prioritize things over journaling sometimes and to realize the point of my journal isn’t to post content online and stress out about it; it’s to help me get my work done.

PC: Vanessa Yang (’21)
Between each month’s worth of spreads, Vanessa will often have full pages to indicate a new month, as pictured above. For June of this year, Vanessa had her separating page as a rainbow, which she explained in the caption was in honor of Pride Month.