The Banality of Bullet Points

I have recently noticed, much to my dismay, that my attention span has declined radically. This has been most noticeable when doing unstructured work like research and writing. I frequently find my mind wandering after 20-30 minutes, and have to force myself to re-engage with the work.

Many of the usual suspects are undoubtedly implicated here. My mobile phone, everyone’s favorite whipping boy, has done a remarkable job of conditioning me to punctuate my day with frequent Twitter refreshes. It is also probably not a coincidence that my attention span now mirrors the atomic unit of my calendar, the 30 minute meeting. But complaints about mobile devices and fragmented work schedules are de rigueur at this point. Today I would like to focus on a different culprit: the pernicious bullet point.

Bullet points have long been criticized by reactionary prose writers for being too reductionist and encouraging superficial thinking. At the same time, they are promoted by the business-writing orthodoxy as a tool to navigate the frenetic communications environment in which we find ourselves more sucessfully. Both perspectives are certainly valid, but I have a different complaint: bullet points inherently fragment your thinking.

I have recently begun using the excellent tool Obsidian for note taking after experimenting with alternatives like Workflowy and Roam Research. Perhaps because of my experience with these tools, I find myself defaulting to using a bulleted list as my default note structure. This is despite the fact that a key benefit of Obsidian over its competitors is the ability to take notes in markdown syntax and take advantage of the richness that this provides.

These bulleted lists and notes are relatively well suited to some contexts like meetings, where I’m just jotting down relevant facts or action items. But when applied to deeper research, they simply facilitate laziness. I find myself falling back to incomplete sentences and fragmented thoughts rather than developing a coherent narrative.

A new year’s resolution then: I will use fewer bullet points and more prose. Perhaps, if coupled with some thoughtful adjustments to my other behaviors, this will help rebuild my tattered attention span and knock the dust off my prose.

Written on January 5, 2021