bullet journaling:
what it is and why i do it

I’ve been bullet journaling since 2015 (this year will be notebook number 4). A personal planning system developed by a designer named Ryder Carroll, it went viral around 2016, probably due to all the elaborate, colorful Pinterest spreads by semi-professional journalers.

When this topic comes up with friends, I explain it by saying it’s like drawing your own planner, but more of a system than that sounds. Then I’ll pull up an image search that shows all the fancy habit tracker spreads by the aforementioned creative types.

It’s not much of an explanation, but it’s too hard to describe quickly without pulling out an actual Bullet Journal (hereafter, “BuJo”).

So I’m going to outline what this system is and how I use it so I have somewhere to send people. Conveniently, it’s the beginning of the year, so I’ve got a brand new notebook with blank spreads to showcase. Now is a great time to start if you’ve been looking for a new system or want to try using an actual, physical planner.

First, a disclaimer:

I’m a tech and Apple nerd, and I’m all about software. I’ve long lived by the iCalendar, with separate/synced calendars for my husband, my work, personal and joint activities, subscription calendars, booking through my website, etc. I actually use a third party calendar upgrade (Fantastical) because it integrates with Reminders. For work I use a robust CRM and a separate project management app that are both overkill for the size of my business. Bullet journaling is not a replacement for any of these things (for me). It’s an analog system with some content that overlaps. But a BuJo is more for my personal sanity, self-care, and habit development.

what is bullet journaling?

From the official website: “Though it does require a journal, Bullet Journal® is a methodology.” That journal is actually just an analog notebook with an index, page numbers, and usually a dot grid pattern. The methodology consists of “rapid logging”, which is basically list making with different icons to represent tasks (•), events (o) and notes (-). You use the bullet system on Daily Logs, but there are also Monthly Logs and Future Logs (year at a glance). You can create Collections, which are logs for a specific topic. You record everything in the Index so you can find it later, and at the end of the month you’ll migrate incomplete bullets to the next month (unless they’re no longer relevant).

Sound overwhelming? Maybe, and you’re guaranteed to feel that way if you look at the Bullet Journal website. Now here’s the important part: I don’t do half of that. That was the technical definition of the BuJo system. Here’s my definition:

bullet journaling is taking a blank notebook and turning it into a planner that works for you. it’s giving yourself permission to approach your life as a scientific experiment in scheduling and self-care. the key is to use it daily and incorporate visual elements to make time and tasks tangible.

There is no right or wrong way to do this.

Some people use colored pens, washi tape, stickers or stencils, drawings, icons, whatever. But it doesn’t have to be pretty. If you look up example spreads online, they’ll all be works of art, because no one posts ugly photos on Instagram.

I’m an artist, but my BuJo is utilitarian; just stylized heading handwriting and colored pens for habit tracking. “Visual elements”, for me, usually just means boxing things in or using separator lines. Functionality is what’s most important, and so is sticking with it. If you plan on painting a watercolor landscape for the background of every new month good luck keeping that up during the holidays.

what’s so great about bullet journaling?

“Having a total and seamless system of organization in place gives you tremendous power because it allows your mind to let go of lower-level thinking and graduate to intuitive focusing, undistracted by matters that haven’t been dealt with appropriately. But your physical organization system must be better than your mental one in order for that to happen.”   – David Allen

From the official BuJo website:Tasks, Events, and Notes will help you quickly capture your thoughts as they bubble up throughout the day. Don’t worry about logging them in any particular order. The important thing is to get them out of your head, and onto the page.

There are studies showing how it’s better to take notes by writing on paper. Combine that with the fact most of us are knowledge workers and/or spending too much time on screens and too little using our hands, and it’s easy to see how the act of physically drawing out a calendar can be pretty cathartic. Something I recommend to people overwhelmed with all the tasks they have to do is to get a giant sheet of paper and just write down everything they can think of to get it out of their head. Bullet journaling is a daily version of that, in manageable, actionable chunks.

stickers on cover of leuchtterm 1917 bullet journal 2020

how i bullet journal: supplies

I use a Leuchtterm 1917, which is one of the ever-popular BuJo notebooks. I wish the pages were thicker but it works for me. I use Micron pens in 0.25 because my handwriting is infinitesimally small and I love Micron pens. A tiny ruler to keep in the back pocket is a must, as is a pen loop that keeps the Micron attached at all times (note: I reuse this every year with superglue). The only other item I use is a set of Staedtler Triplus Fineliner pens.

how i bullet journal: layouts

The system that works is the system you’ll use, so it’s important not to overdo it.

Over the years I’ve tested different spreads, like listing books I’m reading with ratings (nope – that’s what GoodReads is for). Or spreads for meal planning (nope – I’ve got an app for that too). So other than eliminating unnecessary Collections like those, my actual page layouts haven’t changed much, if at all.

  • Index
    I write stuff here, but I can’t say I actually use this much. When you spend a lot of time with a notebook you know where things are. It’s there for referencing when you need to pull out last year’s notebook.
  • Focus Areas
    At the beginning of every year I go through a planning workbook with my husband (Plan Your Year, by the excellent Shawn Blanc. I highly recommend this). It’s more of a broad overview of the year, with the most important elements being to choose 2 focus areas, then use that knowledge to inform a system for making progress in those areas. I put those 2 areas on the first page of my BuJo so they can be front of mind.
  • Manifesto
    I have the equivalent of a life mission statement/mantra kind of thing that I do every morning (when I make time – I’m not THAT disciplined). That’s the page right after my Focus Areas.
  • Future Log (2020 Events & Projects)
    I copy all the known events and projects from the Plan Your Year workbook above onto this page. If something new comes up I put it here, and this page gets referenced when I’m creating a new monthly spread.
  • Collection: Art
    If I’m working on any art projects I’ll often sketch out layouts or muse over materials on that day’s page. I’ll then add that page number to this collection so I can find all my art sketches later.
  • Monthly Title Page
    My monthly title page is where I drill down into those 2 focus areas mentioned above, and what they look like for this specific month. I choose a Main Goal, the System for accomplishing it, a Most Important Task for the month, and then define what Success looks like (these areas are taken directly from the monthly worksheets for Plan Your Year). Underneath that I’ll list any Projects or Events that need to happen for that month. If you’re curious how much time this whole “drawing your own planner” thing takes up, the bulk of it is at the beginning of each month. However, it’s not so much drawing as putting serious thought into the system for accomplishing your goals, and we all should be doing that on a regular basis.
  • Monthly Spread
    Yes, I have to draw a new one of these every month. It’s not a big deal (remember the ruler). I have a certain way of marking the days my husband is working so I can see his schedule at a glance. I use color bars to indicate other things. I write in appointments like you’d expect, although this is more to get a feel for the month. If there’s a question between this calendar being correct vs. iCal, it’s always going to be iCal.

    • I have a box for Weekly Goals, meaning things that need to happen once a week. I’ll fill in the box if the task was completed. An example would be one non-routine cleaning project – I try to hit one every week, like reorganize the avalanche that happened in the pantry, that kind of thing.
    • Relationships: where I write out monthly (or weekly) dates with my husband or friends. For those close friends who’ve wondered how I remember to schedule things on a regular basis – this is how. If I’m not bullet journaling these areas suffer (see last quarter of 2019). People are specific people I need to connect with that month (these get migrated to the next month if necessary). The Books list is nothing more than a basic checklist. I try to read a book a week, so it’s an easy way to see how many books I’m completing per month.
  • Habit Tracker
    This is pretty standard as far as habit trackers go. It’s motivational tetris. Every night I review the day and color in the boxes for the habit areas that were completed. At the end of the month it’s easy to see consistency (or lack thereof). I have the same key habits in here most of the time. I might add a new one here and there but it’s usually always the same.
  • Journaling (Daily Log… sort of)
    I’ve been writing since I was a kid, so I actually do journal in my bullet journal. Not the bullet list task list thing, but I’ll write out a super quick summary of the day, flesh out any insights I had, things that bothered me, etc. Minor venting, if need be.In the past, if I’m really on top of things, I’ll write in the next day’s header, then rapid log the tasks and appointments that need to happen like all the explanations you see on the official website. It’s been a while since I’ve done that though, mostly because I use Fantastical on my phone for small tasks. My BuJo is not something I carry around or reference throughout the day, but my phone is, which makes it better for actual task reminders.

when i bullet journal

At the end of the day, when the kid is in bed, I’ll go to my studio and bullet journal for the last 15 minutes of the day. That’s when I fill in the habit list, meditate if I haven’t been able to make time for it earlier, and journal about the day.

Unfortunately, this multi-year habit has gone completely by the wayside over the last 3-4 months. 2019 was hell and the last quarter was so busy I quit caring, which is when it’s most important to maintain self-care habits. And bullet journaling IS self-care. My project management system might remind me to finalize a website before a review the following day, but it does not show me, at a glance, if I’m making progress on truly meaningful areas of my life that aren’t reflected in my work.

I’m looking forward to getting back in the habit for 2020, because it truly is therapeutic.

how to get started

The important thing is to just start and don’t get hung up on perfection. Use the notebook you have, with the pens you have, and start to get a feel for what works for you. The following year you can buy special supplies because you’ll have a better idea of what you like (and if it’s worth continuing).

I started bullet journaling in the fall of 2015 with my existing journal. I was pretty loose with it – testing spreads and seeing if I wanted to commit the following year. Which I did. But I found my  idea for a weekly spread wasn’t as efficient as planning out a month at a time, so I switched to the monthly spread, which I’ve stuck with ever since. That’s the value of the method – permission to experiment and iterate as life inevitably changes.

Ask yourself:

  • Do I prefer to plan things a week out or a month out?
  • Do I plan on rapid logging or journaling daily?
  • Do I have an existing planning system or reminder app I can incorporate?
  • Can I set aside 10 minutes every day for review? When? (try to be consistent about time and place).
  • Are there specific habits or projects I’d like to track? (google BuJo spread ideas to get a feel for what’s possible, then pick and choose a few ideas that work for you. Try not to take on to much at once and be realistic about how much time you have).
  • Approach bullet journaling as an experiment.

resources

I’m not a crafty person, and I prefer to read science books, esoteric essays and productivity articles. So I’m not familiar with many resources outside of the obvious ones, listed below. Bullet journaling is a big enough thing now you should be able to find more info on Google. I despise Pinterest, but I know it’s swarming with sample layouts if you’re looking for inspiration.

 

Feel free to leave questions or comments if there’s anything I didn’t cover that you’re curious about.