Look up #bulletjournal on the social media platform of your choice, and you can feast your eyes on a sea of neatly inked notebook pages designed to track everything from daily to-do lists to inspirational quotes. Go ahead, roll your eyes. But bullet journals are an amazing productivity tool, if you can learn to adapt them to your life. No coloured pens required.
Illustration by Sam Woolley.
What Is a Bullet Journal?
A bullet journal is just a notebook that accommodates a huge variety of planning schemes. You can create calendars and to-do lists, and you can also use it as a diary, a brainstorming notepad, and more. If you’ve ever bought a planner, but didn’t love the design of the pre-printed pages, the bullet journal is your opportunity to make a planner that fits the way your brain works.
The video that launched the bullet journal craze describes a set of conventions that many, but not all, bullet journalers stick to. You create an index to help you find things, a few pages that help you plan the year, and a two-page spread for important dates and tasks for each month. (Many bullet journalers also do a spread for each week.) Then, you write down each day’s plans and events in the form of bulleted lists — hence the name.
As described in that video, most of a bullet journal is just a calendar. The beauty of this hand-written calendar, though, is that you create it as you go, so you always have space for everything else you want to write. Future events go on a long term calendar that comes earlier in the book than today’s page, so every page from today to the end of the book is blank.
Why the Bullet Journal Works So Well
Here’s how that flexibility pays off. I wrote down my daily list of tasks this morning, and as I was working today, I flipped to the next blank page to brainstorm some ideas for this post. Later in the day, I used the blank page after that to start a checklist for a multi-part project that’s due later this month. Back when I used pre-printed planners, like the PlannerPad, I would have had to grab a second notebook, or a spare sheet of paper, to keep track of these things. The bullet journal approach keeps all my thoughts in one place.
The index ties everything together, so you can easily find those notes later. Just leave the first few pages of the notebook blank, and add topics and page numbers for anything you might want to find again. Yes, this may mean hand-numbering the pages, but that’s not a hassle. It only takes a minute to page through the bottom right corner of the notebook and write the odd numbers.
Adaptability is another perk to the system: each day doesn’t have to be the same. I plot out my day hour-by-hour if I have a lot of events and appointments that day, but if I just have a few things to get done, I’ll go back to a short bullet list instead.
Take What Works For You, and Forget the Rest
Bullet journalers have expanded this system in hundreds of ways. One popular add-on is a habit tracker, a grid where you can see how often this month you have meditated, or exercised, or flossed. You can also graph your progress toward saving money, make a list of books you want to read, or dedicate a page here and there to doodles.
For some people, making the journal beautiful is a hobby. These are the folks who post on Instagram that they’re relaxing with their journal and some coloured pens for a little “me time” at the end of the day.
That’s not me. It doesn’t have to be you, either. I use a single, black pen. I don’t take more than about two minutes to set up my page for the day. I sometimes skip a day and don’t feel any guilt about it. And when I asked around, tons of bullet journalers told me that their books are “ugly” or “messy”. Sometimes that means that they’re trying to fill them with pretty art, and judging themselves harshly if they don’t like how it turns out. But many, like me, just have pages of scribbles. What matters is that the scribbles are where we need them, when we need them.
I don’t use the yearly calendar from the official instructions. I also forgot to make monthly pages for July and August. But thanks to my daily pages, and the lists and brain dumps I’ve scattered throughout the book, I know exactly what I need to work on today, what’s lingering from last week, and what article ideas I came up with over the last few months that I haven’t written yet.
Change the system enough, and some doubters say you aren’t really bullet journaling. If you collect thoughts and memories, maybe it’s really a journal or a commonplace book. If you don’t use the original video’s bullet system, maybe it’s just a DIY planner without a catchy name.
In the spirit of adaptability, I’m going to decree that it doesn’t matter what you call it — you should use the word that helps you the most. If you think of your book as a bullet journal, you’ll look for ideas among bullet journal blogs and communities. Right now, those are a happening place to find inspiration that works for me, so it’s the word I use. On the other hand, if you google “DIY planner”, the ideas that come up are a little bit different: more binders and printables, for example. Use any terms that help you find (and, optionally, share) the ideas you like.
You Don’t Have to Go Full Analogue
If you like keeping track of events and tasks in your phone, there’s no need to stop. In that case, you may wonder what the point of a physical notebook is. In fact, there are tons of reasons why I still swear by a paper journal.
First, a paper notebook minimizes distractions. If I pick up my phone to add a note, most of the time I’ll look at my notifications bar, check my email, see if anybody is saying anything interesting on Twitter, look around for pokémon, and then wonder why it was I picked up my phone. If I just need to write down a thought or task, I can do it without distraction in the notebook I keep open on my desk.
Handwriting also has its advantages: for example, we may remember things better when we write them rather than type them. It’s also easier to find things sometimes by flipping through recent pages, rather than scrolling endlessly through digital documents. Everyone will have their own preferences here, but I find that I work better, even on the computer, when I have pen and paper at hand.
Electronic and paper systems actually complement each other really well. You can write notes in your journal about tasks to do when you’re at a computer (“add swimming lessons to calendar”) and you can set reminders on your phone to ping you when it’s time to look over your notes and create the next day’s task list.
You can also use a system like Evernote to back up your paper journal notes or share them. This is the idea behind the Evernote Moleskine, but you can also just use the app to snap pictures of any old notebook.
You Don’t Need Fancy Supplies
Guess who got cute embellishments and cactus erasers for super cheap at Target?! Ugh, I freaking love that store and their one spot where they have super cute stuff for under $5! ??? Also a sneaky peak of my #quoted challenge! I'm trying to write in cursive… I think my handwriting will forever be obnoxious and just bad… – – – #handwriting #bulletjournal #bujo #target #stationery #stationerylover #super #cute #love #cacti #cactus
Bullet journalers have favourite supplies, which do come in handy but are absolutely not necessary. Here’s what they are, and some alternatives that don’t require you to blow your paycheck at the craft store:
- Moleskine and Leuchtturm 1917 notebooks are great for everyday use because they have durable covers and are easy to carry in a bag (thanks to their rubber band and back pocket for loose items). They also get points for being available in graph or dot grid paper, which lets you easily draw boxes and vertical lines. Both of these are $US20+ ($26)+ notebooks, though. If you’re a notebook connoisseur, they’re worth it, but you could also just buy a hardcover composition book with graph paper for around $US5 ($7).
- Fancy pens, like my Lamy fountain pen, are nice if you’re into that sort of thing. But any old pen will do. Just make sure that it plays nice with your notebook’s paper: if it bleeds through, or leaves deep imprints, the back of the page may become unusable.
- Coloured pens are handy for colour coding items in your journal (work versus personal, for example), but then you have to carry a box of pens around. You can bullet journal just fine with a single colour of pen. If you’re still itching for rainbow-coloured habit trackers, try using a different coloured pen each day. If Monday is red, for example, you only have to carry your black and your red pen.
- Washi tape, a type of decorative paper tape, can make your pages pretty. Adding washi tape to the edge of a page also makes it easy to find when you’re flipping through. But you could just as easily mark the page edges with pen or with paper clips or post-it flags — or just dog-ear the page, which doesn’t require any special equipment at all.
A bullet journal doesn’t have to be an art project to be a functional system. That said, it’s totally ok if pretty things motivate you. You’ll want to find your sweet spot, where you don’t feel guilted to decorate, but you still find your planner a handy and happy place to collect your thoughts. And if that means that it’s ugly, enjoy: it works, and it’s all yours.