The Melodic Line: Bullet journaling, marshmallows and the reality of finishing what you’ve started

By Melody Chen


Distractions can deter you from reaching your goal, but it all comes down to how you control them in your mind. Illustration by Melody Chen.

You recently purchased a dotted journal after discovering a cool organizing trend on Instagram — bullet journaling. Prior to the purchase, you swiped through snapshots of Faber-Castell pens sprawled on an ornamental journal and warm wooden backdrops with decorative plants. It seems too tempting to not give it a try.

However, in less than a month, you realize that calligraphy is laborious, your pages are not close to “insta-worthy” and there’s another trend out there that seems more straightforward. And then you move on, past hundreds of uncompleted trials.

Short-lived satisfactions have dominated the lives of young adults. Typically, a flash of media craze would rampage the media and then quickly extinguish itself into nonexistence.

Technology has also taught us that it is fine to skip over half-done deeds. It is fine because you will “pick up” your work in the near future. It is fine to find momentary gratification so that your overall happiness stratum is a spasmodic high. These assurances won’t take you far.

Projects are often accompanied by small chunks of deeds. If these actions are not met, your goals will be far to reach. The average amount of time that people can spend without being interrupted is three minutes and five seconds. Hence, these distractions can amount to six hours a day.

I confess that I checked my email three times and did my school work while writing this article. According to a research in the journal Neuron from Princeton and the University of California, Berkeley, the ability to focus can only occur with short bursts of attention. Your mind may pause and simultaneously process your environment all while reading this article. Yet, this does not explain why we can spend hours on Netflix, Snapchat or video games.

Distractions are rooted by our willingness to succumb to it. The craze of a new trend like bullet journaling will only diminish if you readily give in to other alluring forked pathways. For example, the instant gratification of a pop tart will only delay you from reaching your long-term goal of dieting. This is evident in the Marshmallow Experiment.

In the experiment, Stanford professor Walter Mischel brought each 3 to 5-year-olds into separate rooms and presented a marshmallow. The researcher told each child that he or she can choose to eat a marshmallow at once or patiently wait to be rewarded two marshmallows when the researcher leaves for 15 minutes. Approximately 30% grabbed for the marshmallow within 30 seconds of the researcher’s departure.

The measure of delayed gratification, mastered by the children who waited for the second marshmallow, was an important predictor of future performance including higher self-esteem, better self-control and a decreased likelihood to abuse drugs.

Although the marshmallow was so tempting in the moment, the satisfaction would die down as fast as you pop it in your mouth. Your willingness to hold back the fleeting instant of a marshmallow will carry you down the path of your goal — twice a marshmallow.

Marshmallows aside, self-control is a major component of keeping on track. We have easily developed a habit of missing the target of our goals and caving in to a vicious cycle of gratification and guilt. With more attention-grabbing spheres, the vicious cycle will simply grow destructive.

Yet, distraction does not emerge from these spheres alone but includes our willingness to surrender to it. We are human, and we make mistakes. But that does not stop us from stretching our resilience to propose a solution. Moreover, we set unattainable standards to ourselves so that our energy to focus scatters elsewhere.

By breaking down the road to doable steps, you would have more energy to focus on that one task at a time. You can set a controlled time frame to check your social media or gobble a marshmallow. The completion of these daily engagements would give you long-term pleasure and motivation to complete the next.