Beginner’s Guide to The Bullet Journal

Today, I did something I’ve been meaning to do all summer – I started a bullet journal. This journaling system is pretty much a cult phenomenon in some communities. Think of it as the sleeper hit of diaries. What it is, at its root, is “to do” list in a very specific format, developed by Ryder Carroll, who’s made his ideas available for free over at his website. And let me tell you, it’s extensive. The bullet journal is billed as “the analog system for the digital age,” and to some extent, that’s the appeal. As much fun as my productivity apps are, there’s something innately satisfying about taking a pen to paper, or the physical action of drawing an “x” through a bullet point to mark it as done. The bullet journal website has a huge number of complex “extensions” and “modules” to the basic bullet journal formula in its library, but for beginners like me (and, presumably, you!) a simple approach might be best at first.

Beginner’s Guide to The Bullet Journal

The bullet journal is the perfect system to keep you focused and organized year-round.

The Journal

Obviously, to start bullet journaling, you’ll need a journal in which to bullet, like so:

Finding the right notebook is the first step in setting up a bullet journal.

I might name this journal Rudy. We’ll see.

If you’re stressing over notebook choice, I have an entire post on finding the perfect bullet journal notebook. I picked this one up at Walmart for less that $2. For me, it’s perfect – its size makes it portable, the durable vinyl cover and elastic band protect the pages, and the ribbon bookmark will make accessing certain pages a breeze. I have very specific criteria for notebook purchases, too. The notebook must willingly stay open on its own, the pages must be thick enough to turn easily, and, most importantly, the paper must be white. Cream or yellowish paper is somehow deeply annoying to me.

Some people find that simple ruled pages don’t suit them, so a graph-paper or even dotted journal might be worth looking at. I’ve found notebooks at Target that have all the months and the numbers 1-31 printed at the top, to make dating pages easier. Spiral bound notebooks work just as well as journal bound ones. What I’m getting at is that this journal needs to fit you and your needs, so don’t be afraid to be picky about it. Check here for a list of popular brands! I think the one universal criteria, though, should be durability. Ideally, your bullet journal will be around for a while. The creator has been keeping a journal a year for over twenty years, and can look back on any year at his leisure, and that sounds incredible to me.

The Index

From what I understand, this is apparently the most important part of any bullet journal. Since the whole point of the journal is to keep you organized, a well-structured index will save your life. After all, you’re hoping for a stress free semester. In addition to containing a legend of all the bullets you use and their meanings, it’ll give you a way to navigate whatever you choose to put in your journal with ease. The most common use for bullet journals is for daily to-do lists, and you can keep track of what pages hold what months easily from your index. But the beauty of the system is that it’s flexible enough to do so much more. From monthly overviews to food diaries to ongoing projects, the bullets can be modified to fit all of your needs. So far, I’m just focusing on my day-to-day tasks and monthly overviews for planning, so my index looks like this:

The index is the heart and soul of any bullet journal.

Notice how I left a little space, in case I decide to add more of anything.

The bullets each represent a kind of note. A bullet (•) denotes a task I need to do. I can modify the symbol by putting an X through it, to show it’s been completed, arrowing left (<) to indicate that I’ve scheduled it, or arrowing right (>) to carry it over to the next list. An open circle (O) denotes an event to remember. A dash (—) is any important note from the day. These three types of symbols (and their variations) are the bread and butter of bullet journaling. Also listed are the margin marks, which can go to the left of a bullet, circle, or dash to draw extra attention to it. I only have two in my Index so far, with room to grow. But a star marks a task, note, or event as important, and an exclamation mark can signal ideas. I figure the latter will adorn a lot of notes containing blog post ideas. Below that, I’ve started a sort of table of contents, for where I can find each type of list in my bullet journal. Which brings us to…

The Content

The whole point of a bullet journal is to fill it up with lists that need your attention. The Bullet Journal website advises that you should keep your bullets brief and factual, rather than burdened with emotions. But hey, it’s you journal and your life, so do you. My only two “lists” at the moment are an overview of June, and today’s to-do list. I love the idea of the monthly overview, as it gives you a space to mark down any commitments as they come up. These monthly overviews will be perfect for using with a syllabus. Since I started this journal pretty well into June, my overview looks like this:

Keeping a monthly overview in your bullet journal helps make scheduling easier.

Starting late in the month meant a LOT of wasted space. Next month will be better.

As you can see, it’s pretty bare bones. (I’ve since updated my monthly (and yearly!) spreads – check it out!) But if I have to schedule something, it can go right in the journal for easy reference when I draw up that day’s list. The daily lists are really why I started this journal. I might feel comfortable lying about checking off a task on one of my favorite productivity apps, but there’s something about an actual written record that keeps me honest. For example, here’s June 25th’s entry:

Bullet journals streamline and consolidate to-do lists.

The ribbon bookmark will give me easy access to my daily page.

I took my pictures after I wrote my post, so the post is X-ed off. I had already visited Target, and made sure my organization had a space at my university’s Quad Day. I also marked down an event – I applied to Target today. Later, I thought to add in an email I needed to send, the bath I needed to give my dog, the blog pictures I needed to take, and the conference call I needed to work out. Still haven’t sent that email, so it’s still a bullet. Rain postponed my dog’s bath, so it’s carrying over to tomorrow. Obviously, I hadn’t taken the pictures for my post quite yet. And I emailed about the conference call, so that’s now settled on my end.

Now, I always use productivity apps that give me some sort of reward (though usually not a real one) for checking things off my list. And marking things I hadn’t finished as “done” would be tempting, in the face of that reward. And worse, those tasks would probably disappear, making it more likely that I would forget to do them altogether. But with the bullet journal, I have a permanent record of what I’ve done and what I haven’t, and it’ll be easy to go back and look at the kind of tasks I postpone, so I know what I need to work on. I’m really excited to see how this system works out for me.

There’s just one problem.

My cat has claimed the journal as her own:

Make no mistake, the single paw touch is a powerful statement of ownership.

She might seem nonchalant, but make no mistake, the single paw touch is a powerful statement of ownership.

Aside from that, though, everything’s looking great! If any of you are considering bullet journaling, let me know! I’d love to keep in touch with you and see if it works out. And if this does end up helping me, you can expect a few more posts on getting the most out of your bullet journal. If you want to stay updated, you can subscribe to this site using the box in my sidebar. If you subscribe, you’ll get an email about each new post from Living Between the Lines, and we can stay in touch!

  • cats have their own agendas – except yours stole one to get one LOL. btw, i think i have that same tablecloth. small world.

  • Oh man, it definitely helped for me in that respect! It’s a lot easier to keep track of things this way, so hopefully it’ll work for you, too!

  • Cortney Philbrick

    This is such a good idea! Never heard of it, thank you for explaining what this is. I think I may need one of these with how hectic my schedule is!

  • Happy to help, Tije! Best of luck!

  • Tije

    This bullet journal really get my attention, and i’m about to start my own bullet journal and your guide quite help me, thanks !

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  • Keeping up an index is definitely a challenge – especially when you throw a random page in the mix. But hey, it’s worth it!

  • I love the bullet journal format. My weakness is indexing appropriately. Thanks for all of the reminders.

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  • I’m glad it’s working out for you, Elena! Best of luck!

  • Elena Astolfi

    I just started a bullet journal. I find it really useful. Thanks for your tips.

  • I totally get that! I procrastinated so long because I was afraid it wouldn’t be perfect. But once you get past that, it’s a really great tool. Best of luck! Let me know how it goes!

  • I’m about to start a bullet journal, and I’m (irrationally) a little nervous. Thanks for showing your process – it looks doable!

  • I have to be honest, having my whole life organized in one flexible place (instead of across planners and apps) has done wonders for my productivity and accountability – hopefully it can help you, too! And there were definitely some letters in there that shouldn’t have been – nice catch!

  • Louise

    Hi, You used the word “fined” early on, but shouldn’t it be “found” maybe??? Have been out of school ions and wondered if something changed along in my absence…tons have that I’ve already came upon. Love the “idea” of a BuJo. Just think something might organzine my life at long last. Wouldn’t that be “loverly”????? Thanks so much. Enjoy a wonderful Sunday tomorrow, Louise

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  • This might be the longest, most thoughtful blog comment I’ve ever gotten – thank you so much! Also, thank you for introducing me to the shortening “BuJo” – I constantly want to call mine a BJ, and can’t for obvious reasons.

    The lack of blank pages is, I think, the best part for me, since I tend to get a lot of those in a traditional planner, and there’s nothing worse than those blank pages, they feel like they’re judging you.

    I hadn’t looked into the YouTube scene but now I’m a little obsessed, so I’m not sure whether to thank you for that or not!

    Thank you so much for your kind words!

  • Bad Girl Bex

    A BuJo is especially good, because you can start it at any time of the year (you don’t need to wait until a specific time of year to roll around like you do with a regular Jan-Dec, or a July-June academic year planner.) You can also take a break from using it anytime your schedule slows down. Or if you just forget to use it for a bit. Because the pages aren’t pre-assigned to any particular dates, you won’t have those glaringly blank pages staring back at you with disapproval (who doesn’t hate unused blank pages in their planner?) because you just pick up where you left off, whenever you’re ready to go back to it and start using it again. I love that versatility.

    There are lots of great videos about Bullet Journaling on YouTube, where you can learn all kinds of tips, tricks, hacks and suggestions. Some to do with the type of journal you can use (Travellers Notebooks/Midori/Fauxdori are all very popular) and others that focus on design and how to decorate your journal and create add-ons, for those who want to expand upon the idea and unleash their creative side.

    It’s such an easy system to integrate into your life. Very easy to get the hang of, very satisfying when you actually physically mark an item off as done and very useful with its inbuilt system of carrying incomplete tasks forward to the next day

    so you don’t lose any important ones.

    I definitely recommend that anyone wanting to give this a go, first check out the short but very easy to follow video how-to by Ryder Carrol, the guy who first codified the system.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GfRf43JTqY4

    Once you’ve watched that (it’s less than 3 mins) you’ll see loads of other examples of other people showing off their own BuJo’s in the suggestions panel on the right, so you can snoop on other people’s journals to your heart’s content, learn how to make the system work for you and hopefully become more organised in the long run.

    Lovely post, I hope many others decide to take up the Bullet Journal system, because it really is the most flexible, personalisable system out there.

    Much love

    Bex

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  • I hope it works out for you! You’re so welcome!

  • Morgan

    This is really awesome! I had never heard of bullet journals until your post but I’ve already been doing something similar with a notebook. I’m excited to use your more organized method. Thanks a bunch!

  • Right? It’s perfectly tailored to do whatever you want it to. So you don’t have to buy an expensive planner or take all that time to find the perfect one! Thanks, Joy!

  • Joy

    what a simple and smart way to journal!
    now i don’t have to buy one of those fancy expensive ones 🙂
    great blogpost!

    http://www.threecupsofjoy.wordpress.com