Remember that girl in your class? The one who always had the best stationery, with colour-coded, perfectly organised revision notes? The one who made lists for everything in glitter pens? And then annotated them with stickers? Well, these days she’s probably a ‘plan uencer’ – one of a new breed of influencers amassing thousands of followers for their artfully annotated to-do lists. Also dubbed planner addicts and planner girls, they’re masters at bullet journalling – or ‘bujo’ as it’s lovingly known.
If you’re not familiar, a bujo is more a beautifully presented, hyper-organised masterpiece complete with illustrations and words of encouragement, than a mere diary. So if you’re still scrawling ‘Call Mum; buy avocados’ on your hand, you might want to think about upping your game.
Helen Colebrook, 42, an HR consultant from Devon, started posting pictures of her planning about four years ago, and now has 66.3k followers on Instagram as @JournalWithPurpose. ‘I think it’s similar to the craze for cleaning and tidying up,’ she says. ‘If people are lacking motivation or feeling bogged down, it’s inspiring to see how others manage their time. The journalling community is really supportive. Whether you’re a student planning an assignment, or a working mum trying to start a creative project, there’s someone in this community who’s journalled their way through it.’
Although it’s a curiously analogue trend in a digital world, Helen says this is key to its appeal. ‘When I’m journalling, my laptop is off and my phone is nowhere near me,’ she says. ‘We have so many digital distractions now, but this feels meditative and mindful. I’m never more relaxed than when I’m planning.’
For Nicole Barlettano, 33, a graphic designer from New Jersey, who has 98k followers on Instagram as @Plans atBlossom, bullet-journalling has been ‘life changing’. ‘I think we’re all looking for ways to become more efficient, productive and creative, but for me planning is also a form of self-care,’ she says. ‘The process is in and of itself calming and rewarding.’ Nicole’s elaborately decorated bujos cover everything from Habit Tracking (‘floss, hydrate, unplug’) to a Declutter List, and look like they take longer to draw than they do to complete. She estimates that she plans for an hour or two every day. ‘I use this system because I enjoy it, so whenever possible, I make the time to do so. But I do feel the pressure to plan because I don’t want to let my followers down.
Helen likewise admits that creating her planner takes more time than a bog-standard to-do list, but thinks she achieves more this way. ‘In the morning, I’m really focused because I’ve planned it out the day before,’ she explains. ‘Plus, it allows me to reflect every evening about how I’ve spent my day, so you become better at time management and thinking about how you want to spend your time.’
Trend forecaster Emma Chiu, from JWT Innovation, believes that the appeal of such planfluencers is about squeezing the most out of life. ‘The mindset now is very much about living life to the full, filling our days with experiences, achieving every goal,’ she explains. And yet, at the same time, their activities can be strangely soothing. ‘Bullet journals are interesting because they are a way to mitigate burnout – in the same way that adult colouring books are calming – and yet they are in their own way another form of hustle culture [where people are obsessed with striving].’
Lise Lotte, 32, an architect from the Netherlands, started following Elle Fowler, the American @GlamPlanner (think lots of stickers, coloured pens and glitter), in 2012 and has since been inspired to start her own planning account on Instagram, @Lizzuplanns. ‘I always kept a planner but when I saw Elle’s work I kind of fell down the rabbit hole,’ she says. ‘I now go to big planning meet-ups all over Europe, to meet other planners and shop for stationery – sometimes there are more than 600 people there. I find planning uplifting and motivating – it gives my life structure and clears my head.’
You don’t need to be Dr Freud to realise that we find lists comforting in an otherwise chaotic world – and bullet journals and other types of super-planning take this to the extreme. ‘When life feels disordered or out of control, we naturally crave structure and a plan that we can stick to,’ explains psychologist Perpetua Neo. ‘It’s also reassuring to look back and see proof of what we have accomplished that day, week or month. Plus, ticking things off a list floods our synapses with dopamine.’
At the same time, the benefits of noting things down has long been, er, noted. Studies have shown that writing information down by hand makes us more likely to remember it. But conversely, the act of writing makes us able to free up space in our mind. The Russian psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik came up with the Zeigarnik effect – the theory that the brain remembers things we need to do, better than things we’ve done, which can leave us feeling weighed down with tasks. More recently, a study by Professors Baumeister and Masicampo from Wake Forest University showed that, while tasks we haven’t done distract us, just making a plan to get them done can free us from this anxiety.
Couple these effects with the simple joy of stationery, and no wonder planfluencers have taken off. Although the digital age was supposed to spell the end of paper and pens, for many people typing on a screen or clicking an app is never going to be as satisfying as clicking a brand-new propelling pencil. And if a new notebook makes you go weak at the knees, you’re not alone – #stationeryporn has more than 26k posts on Instagram.
‘There’s a lot of powerful feelings tied up in stationery,’ says Josie Parsley, co-founder of luxury planner company Fraser & Parsley. ‘It’s nostalgia, it’s escapism, it’s me-time. We started doing this in 2008 because my husband had nearly died in a car crash and my business partner Rachel’s husband was terribly ill. We just wanted something pretty and safe to escape to.’ While Josie says sales have been growing and growing, this year their planners have been ‘bananas’. ‘In uncertain economic times, small luxury items do well because we want to treat ourselves,’ she explains.
Katie Briefel, 27, an ad exec from London, says that following planning influencers on Instagram is both reassuring and alluring. ‘It gives me the same feeling as buying a new notebook – the sense that everything from that point on is going to be ordered and less messy,’ she says. ‘It’s also nosiness – in the same way people watch “What’s in your handbag?” videos, I like seeing how people organise their lives.’ Which, of course, might just be another way to procrastinate. To paraphrase John Lennon, life is what happens when you’re busy making planners on Instagram.