My first year with the bullet journal

I took the bullet journal plunge about a year ago. I loved it, immediately. My track record for staying with planning systems for the long haul isn’t too great, but more than a year later, I’m still loving it. (And I’m saying that after I survived the much-dreaded transition to a new journal, so I feel like that’s really saying something.)

Over the past year+, my bullet journal has proven to be simple, versatile, manageable, and extremely useful. Today I’m taking a look back at what I’ve learned, why it works for me, my favorite supplies, how I use it (and how I’ve tweaked it), and a few of my favorite tips and tricks.

Why a bullet journal?

I’m grateful for my digital planning resources (hello, Google Calendar) but there’s something about paper. The research says it’s good for your brain, my body knows it’s good for me to lay off my devices. Plus using a great pen is just plain fun.

(Bonus: it looks and feels way less rude to consult your journal during a coffee date than it does to whip out your phone.)

I use my bullet journal in conjunction with my digital tools, not instead of them, because it’s the best way I’ve found to get what’s swirling around in my head down on paper in a useable and actionable format.

How to use a bullet journal | Modern Mrs Darcy

Note: “journaling” here doesn’t mean “capturing your musings about life.” This isn’t the same thing as keeping a diary. And it’s called a “bullet journal” because of the little “bullets” that designate to-dos in the system. (I explain my own signifiers, which aren’t the official ones, in this post.)

I’ve found the system structured enough that it’s not overwhelming, but but flexible enough that it can do whatever I need it to do.

My favorite introduction to bullet journaling is this 3-minute video from creator Ryder Carroll.

How to get started

Bullet journaling itself is simple, but getting started was hard. I know I’m not alone—many people find the blank page of a fresh journal to be absolutely paralyzing.

I wasn’t able to get started until I realized that bullet journaling is one of those things you can only learn by doing. You’re not going to get it until you do it. Don’t get hung up on making it perfect, or getting it exactly right. You’ll figure it out as you go.

It also helped me to remember that my bullet journal is not a work of art. It’s a record of my life, and that means it’s going to be riddled with mistakes. I probably have something scratched out on every page of my journal, and that’s fine—in fact, knowing that I’ll probably mess it up takes the pressure off.

I never tear out any pages, even if they’re seriously messed up. I just scratch out my goof and move forward.

When you begin, start with the basics: the daily log. Maybe a monthly log, if you’d like. Possibly a future log (although confession: I don’t really use mine anymore). And then, after a week or two, try your first collection. You’ll know when you’re ready.

(This is still my favorite blog post on getting started with the bullet journal. And this post is about my own first week with the bullet journal.)

The right tools matter

When they’re getting started, some people like to practice in a throwaway notebook—the kind you can buy for twenty cents at back-to-school time—so they don’t mess up their “real” journal. If that works for you, great.

But I’m a pen and paper geek, and most of the fun of getting started was getting to use the good stuff. Of course I made mistakes along the way, because bullet journaling is something you can only learn by doing. And I’d rather learn with a nice pen in my hand.

To cut to the chase: I love and adore the Leuchtturm 1917. The dotted, not plain (blah), lined (restrictive), or squared (the pages are formatted differently from the dotted, and it’s too bad I’ve only recently learned how much I dislike this, because I’m only on page 25 of a squared one—but oh well, it’s still a Leuchtturm and that is mostly good enough). Choose a color that makes you happy, because you’re going to be seeing a lot of this little notebook.

Pens, pencils, highlighters: super important. Mostly pens, especially my beloved greys. Occasional pencils. And I’ve taken to highlighting with a dry highlighter sometimes.

I give the full rundown of my favorite supplies in my Bullet Journaling for Book Lovers class (included in the current bundle sale!), but these are a few favorites:

Uniball Signo 207
Pilot V5 RT
Pilot Juice (my go-to gel pen)
Gellyrolls (a household favorite, and also our go-to birthday gift)
Papermate Flairs (especially in these tropical colors)
Staedtler Fineliners (always and forever)
Stabilo 88s (started as a crush, and they’ve proven to be keepers)
Sakura Microns

What to put in your journal

I’ve learned that as far as my own journal goes, less is more, because “more” can make the whole system fall apart.

How to use a bullet journal | Modern Mrs Darcy

If there are a hundred notches between “bare minimum” and “super fancy”, I’m at about a four. Over the past year I’ve learned that if I make my bullet journal too complicated, I stop keeping up with it—and it doesn’t take much to make my journal feel over-complicated. (This is why it no longer holds a habit tracker, or one-sentence reviews of books, or a future log.)

People can and do include any number of wildly varied things in their journals, but these are my most important:

• daily log
• monthly log and to-dos
• weekly log, as needed (more on that in a sec)
• favorites: books, articles, podcasts, songs
• great quotes from what I’m reading or listening to
• movies and shows I want to watch, restaurants to try, places to visit
• what I’m learning (for these posts)
• what I’m reading/want to read/am excited to read when it comes out
• notes from meetings, conferences, classes—if I think I’ll want easy access later

The future log is a key piece of the bullet journal, but guess what? I don’t use one at the moment, for the reasons explained above. I’ll probably set one up as we start to get back-t0-school dates for next fall … but maybe not. For me, that’s not proven to be essential, because my digital calendar is terrific at this.

How to use a bullet journal | Modern Mrs Darcy

A word about books

At this time, I don’t keep a separate reading journal. So as a devoted reader, my reading life is all over my bullet journal.

I track what I’ve read, what I want to read, books I abandoned, bookstores I want to visit, and right now a hefty percentage of the pages of my journal are devoted to summer reading titles. (I keep summer reading notes in my bullet journal instead of another notebook because I almost always have my bullet journal with me, and it makes it so easy to stay on top of this huge project.)

I’m not sure if I’ll merge my bullet journal with my reading journal forever, but for now, it’s working for me.

(I explain my simple system for tracking my reading in my Bullet Journaling for Book Lovers class.)

Making it pretty (or not)

I care about my journal being neat, but I don’t really care about it being pretty. I love looking at all the gorgeous bullet journals on instagram, but let’s be honest—that’s more entertainment than inspiration.

Bullet journaling isn’t my hobby. It’s a tool that helps me plan my time, get stuff done, track the things that are important to me, and capture notes and memories. My own bullet journal is simple and streamlined, and nobody’s going to call any of my bullet journal pages “beautiful.” (Beautifully simple? Beautifully organized? Perhaps. But just plain beautiful? Never.)

The ONLY place I sometimes get a little fancy is with headings, like when I’m titling a collection, or starting a new month’s to-do list. I took a hand-lettering class this winter and learned how to do fake calligraphy with a pretty colored felt-tip pen. This 15-second video shows how. (Example above. Not my bullet journal, but a Rhodia I love and adore for brainstorming and notetaking. Related: can you guess who’s coming soon to a podcast near you?)

I bother with this because it makes me happy, and it’s weirdly soothing to pull out a colored pen and get busy. But my patience for beautiful lettering expires at the two-minute mark, and that’s obvious if you look at my journal!

Some days, I have good handwriting. Some days, less so. As long as I can read it, it’s fine.

If you want yours to be beautiful, and you’re artistically challenged, there’s help! A good brush pen covers a multitude of sins, as do pretty stickers and helpful stencils.

What do you do when your journal is full?

I was so worried about this. SO WORRIED. For me, a second blank bullet journal was almost as intimidating as my first.

Here’s what you do: take a deep breath, open that thing up, and pick up where you left off. IT WILL BE FINE.

I decided to wait until the end of a month to make the switch, though I don’t think this was essential. (I just left some blank pages at the end of my first journal to make that nice transition possible.)

I didn’t migrate any info over from my old journal—I decided to wait and see what I felt like I needed before I moved anything, and it turns out, there wasn’t much I needed. This surprised me. I still consult my old journal regularly (mostly to scan the “books I read” list) but I don’t feel like I need that old info in my current journal.

The things I ended up moving were mostly things I want to do: books to read, shows to watch, places to visit next time I’m in whatever city, etc.

A few favorite tips and tricks I picked up along the way

• I use post-it notes, nearly daily, for two-minute tasks like emails and phone calls that could clutter up my daily log. I don’t want these to distract me from the truly essential, important, and memorable. I jot these on a post-it, stick it next to the daily log, and trash the post-it when the list is complete.

• I think book darts are the bee’s knees, and while they weren’t made for bullet journaling, they sure are handy for it. (Heads up—we have custom MMD tins in the shop now!) I use these elegant little arrows to mark the pages I’m currently referencing all the time, for easy access. Right now, that’s my April monthly log, my regular reading log, and everything summer reading. When April is over and summer reading 2017 is a memory, I’ll pull out the darts and won’t be able to tell they were ever there.

The pen trick. This is genius, plus it saves you $6 from having to buy your own pen loop.

• Keep your memories. One of my very favorite things: to put little hearts indicating what we do on vacation, or who lost a tooth, or which out-of-town friends surprised us for dinner.

It’s okay to change it up. This week happens to be crazy, so I created a rare weekly layout. I don’t often do this, but this week when I needed it, I made it.

Happy journaling, and as always, happy reading!

How to use a bullet journal | Modern Mrs Darcy


Leave A Comment
  1. Nadege says:

    Wow, devoted follower here. I made a few attempts with bullet journaling and still find it and the many options definitely complicated and more time consuming. A regular journal is more pleasant and efficient for me, though I bet really artistic/creative folks may love journaling the bullet way. ?

  2. My bullet journal is a very basic, very flexible collection of lists, for the most part, the most notable being my monthly to dos and a meal schedule. I’m not super consistent in keeping up with an index or referring to it when I do (I’m more prone to hunt things down from memory).

    Works for me, coffee spills and all!

  3. Lisa Zahn says:

    Thank you for showing your simple journaling method! As a fellow INFP, Enneagram 9, and whatever else we have in common, I can relate to this so much. My bullet journal has to be simple and neat and with no worries about *pretty* or *crafty* in order to make it work for me and not be utterly overwhelming and rebellion-inducing. I don’t even use it every day, sometimes skipping weeks at a time, but then picking it back up when I need to organize a day or two out of my head and on the page.

    I just do a simple layout with the two-page opening able to fit in 6 days of a week (each page of my journal has 3 sections that are roughly divided by a squiggly line and the day’s date only). It works for me and there is NO guilt, no pressure, no striving for anything but a little order and keeping a neat list.

    I also keep a “books read” list near the back pages of my journal, but like you I’ve given up trying to write a one-line review. If I manage to list each book that’s enough for me.

  4. Terry says:

    Anne, I have to tell you how much I enjoy you! I’m just a book loving grandma living in Kansas City, but I do have a literature degree and LOVE to read. I belong to two book groups that both struggle with choosing anything but fluff, but I’m slowing bringing some of them around to the satisfaction of reading a challenging book. I started with just listening to your podcast, which I love – it has given me so many good reads, thank you! We have similar literary taste, which I so seldom find in anyone else (i.e. Stegner, Berry, Austen, Dickens? (do you like Dickens, I can’t remember). Plus your suggestions have pulled me a bit more into contemporary fiction which I tend to be skeptical about. I’ve since gotten started with a bullet journal and have loved going back to a journal since I gave up my “Day Planner” back in the 80’s! (yes, I’m that old). Anyway, you’re delightful – keep up the good work, and channel that creativity my way!

    • Leah Anderson says:

      A fellow reader in KC! I just started a book club with some co-workers and I’m hoping it’s devoid of fluff. Only time will tell! Glad to connect with other readers in my city!

  5. I want to try this! I am not a crafty person and have kind of ugly handwriting, but I shouldn’t let that hold me back from doing this. I do think I’d still have to use my paper planner in addition to the bullet journal as I’m often scheduling things far out! But for to do lists and such, the bullet journal would work great. I probably should have started one in January when we started planning our May wedding because there are sooooo many to dos/to do lists to keep track of!

  6. Sarah says:

    Conversely, my bullet(esque) journal is organized almost solely by weekly pages. I organize my to-dos for the week at the top (divided by sides into work and home) and then keep a running daily tab at the bottom. It works for me because I tend to think about each week as a unit, so running day-to-day leaves me feeling scattered. I don’t use a lot of collections, instead adding any book thoughts to my Goodreads at the end of the week.
    I do find the future log and a semester plan that I’ve written out very helpful. I also have one tracker for keeping up with which distant friends I’ve called or emailed each month (it’s an important goal of mine).

    • Kristin says:

      Sarah – I love your list about keeping up with friends. That has been a goal of mine this year, also. I will incorporate that into my bullet journaling.

      • Sarah says:

        It’s surprising how often I think: Oh I just spoke to them. When in reality it’s been close to a couple of months. It keeps me honest and helps me be mindful of connecting with people that are important to me.

  7. Kristin says:

    I started bullet journaling at the beginning of April, after hearing about it from your blog. It has helped me so much. My bullet journal is very basic – just a series of lists/ daily to-dos. It has really helped me get a lot of smaller tasks done that I would have forgotten about. It has also helped me tremendously with meal planning. My bullet journal is very basic and not pretty, but it is super helpful!

  8. AnnieO says:

    Thanks for the review and look into your bullet journal. I never heard of a bullet journal until a few months ago and was very excited to get started. You are entirely right that it’s something you learn to do as you go. I too don’t spend a lot of time making it pretty, but have torn out a couple of messed up pages. Since I’m still in my first few months of use, I haven’t completely established what works best. But I love making it my own ?

    • SONNIE GRIMES says:

      I had torn out a few pages too until someone mentioned covering the “bad” pages with adult coloring pages. I love doing that since I am not an art type person and do enjoy coloring when I feel the need. It’s all together now and since I also like a no frills bujo this fills my “pretty” craving but doesn’t overwhelm the bujo.

  9. Donna says:

    I really enjoyed this post, I’ve used a lot of your bullet journaling tips already and got a few new ones today (post-it notes and book darts will help prioritize). Plus I love pens, paper, etc so much that I even love just pictures of them! I haven’t met an avid reader yet that isn’t also an office supply geek-there has to be a connection there.

  10. Cheryl says:

    Yes! Thank you for introducing me to the bullet journal. I love mine. It is incredibly basic. I keep to-do lists, a monthly thing, and just a couple of other categories. It is NOT pretty but I love it. I also found the prettier I tried to make it, the less likely I was to actually use it. This month, since I seem to have a problem wrapping projects up, I made a list of every open project in my life. Just seeing the list right there, where I can’t lose it, makes me less anxious about it!

    I keep a running list of books I’ve read, books/podcasts to get to, and notes from various college visits with my kids (three in high school, one in middle). That’s really it. And it works so well. Thanks again!

  11. Sally Easterly says:

    I studied your bullet journalling advice, and even watched a short video on process. January first I faithfully and hopefully started my personal organizational calendar, with a journal selection devoted to a 2017 book challenge. The first two months saw me diligently adding short notes on appointments and tasks, but when March arrived, somehow my good habits narrowed down to books I was reading, those I wanted to read, and some old fashioned thoughts and musings…But I admire the bullet journal purists and enjoy your blog and especially the Podcasts on What To Read Next. Anne, I am grateful to you for enriching my life and Louisville is on my list of Cities To Visit Next.

  12. Beth says:

    I started Bullet Journaling last summer and found it worked very well for me. The best way for me to use it is as a task management tool rather than for brainstorming and other notes. The collections part of the BJ system and the monthly log just didn’t work for me. I process information by writing so my lists and notes generally fall into 3 categories:

    1. Tasks
    2. Notes I need to reference later
    3. Things I’m writing in order to process information but don’t need to reference ever again.

    The challenge for me is that nine times out of ten these categories should never, ever meet!

    The BJ system worked great until I started a new job in January. It took me a month or two but I finally came up with the BJ/Planner combo that works fairly well. I use a ruler to make a calendar on one page and a weekly task list on the opposite page. Every week I can customize based on what’s happening and I still use BJ signifiers for tasks and meetings. Hopefully it will keep working.

  13. Terri says:

    I started a bullet journal based on your blog recommendation and I’m also loving it. I love the flexibility and being able to experiment and put anything you want in it. I developed a Weekend Guide page that I love. It is a page with Fri-Sat-Sun boxes for the the month. I put calendar items on it but also ideas of things to do. If I hear about events going on, I’ll add this to the guide so it is a combination of committed things and ideas – either fun or projects. This way when the weekend comes, I have many ideas to pull from and we don’t waste the time. It also lets me balance the month. If we have a bunch of commitments one weekend, I can make sure the next weekend is more laid back so we aren’t always on the run. Or make sure I’m carving out time to do projects like getting mulch. I’ll circle the items we actually did so I have a record for each weekend.

  14. Dinah says:

    I just took your class — it was the first thing I did after buying the bundle! I picked up some new ideas for my bullet journal, even though I’ve had a bujo for over a year. Your info was inspiring! I’m curious about slide 43 — what are your notes from? A book? Thanks!

  15. Jenn says:

    I’ve also been bullet journaling for a year and feel like most everything you just said could have come straight from my lips! My journal isn’t a work of art, I’ve abandoned the future log and I conquered my fear of moving on to journal #2- so good to know I’m not alone on that one!? I also use a digital calendar in combo with my journal. I crack open my journal and calendar every morning along with my coffee and figure out what needs to happen that day and where I’m suppose to be. Works great for me!
    And I’ve been buying the expensive pen loops! Yay for the Pen Trick!!

  16. Jamie says:

    Would you consider writing a post about how you integrate your analog bullet journal with your digital calendar? I’ve looked for other resources online to explain that relationship and haven’t found much that has been helpful. I use my bullet journal for weekly planning and day to day stuff, as well as lists/collections, and find that the digital calendar works best for us mainly because of my husband’s work commitments (he is exclusively digital). How do you transfer from one to the other? How do you not ‘miss’ stuff? And how does it not seem like you’re doing the same thing twice?

    • Anne says:

      There’s not much of a system! I give my google calendar a scan at the beginning of every week and every morning and note any events taking place in my journal.

  17. Makala says:

    I just started my bullet journal this year and I absolutely love it . It helps me keep up with school , work , and appointments . I used to be terrible at dates but now I can remember anything as long as my journal is with me .

  18. Meghan says:

    I’m also about a 4 on the fanciness scale! As an *actual* book indexer, it drives me *bananas* that the table of contents is called an index, so I don’t use one!
    I use a traveler’s notebook. My cover holds 4 60-page notebook inserts — I use the first one for my weekly plan, shopping list/meal plans, any semi-longish-term tasks like event planning or garden planning, and miscellaneous lists. I use the second one for just my daily lists and very short-term lists, and have just started using a daily timeline for my daily to-do list (I use the dot grid notebooks, so one square=one hour, and I do a column of blocks for my planned tasks on the left, and a column of actual activity on the right. Each chunk of focused/deep work gets a filled-in square; other stuff gets a white square). The last two notebooks are collections and a spare blank one 🙂 Confession: I got addicted to the traveler’s notebook system, and have 3! One’s my planner, one is set up for writing/reading, one is a pocket-sized one I carry everywhere to keep track of stray thoughts.

  19. Diana says:

    I’m starting to get reallllllly tempted on this bullet journaling…mainly because I like to make lists. Lots of lists…I think I need to watch some youtube videos to see what it’s really about…

  20. The post it note tip for 2 minute tasks is amazing! I sometimes feel the need to write down every little thing that pops into my head because I fear I will forget, but then it can make my journal look insane! I will be using this. Also – book darts are my new jam and it’s all because of you! 🙂


  21. Katie says:

    I’ve been using a Bullet Journal since the start of this year and I LOVE it. I’ve always been a paper planner person. I’ve tried to use electronic calendars and apps, but I always gave up on them – it doesn’t give me any joy to type or input on a tiny screen the events/details. I’m a creative left-brain as well, so one of the things I’ve loved about my bullet journal versus the myriad of pre-made cute Target planners is how artistic I can get with it, and that I can change it up. I’m not stuck with a design theme for the whole year. I had a lot of fun in December picking my journal I would use (leuchtturm 1917 dotted as well), deciding on the pens, highlighters, and washi I wanted to start with, as well as watching YouTube videos and searching Instagram for inspiration.

    The start of my journal has lots of collections that I reference, but now it’s mostly used for weekly spreads. I need to be able to look ahead for at least a week. I can’t function on one day at a time. It takes a decent amount of time each week to draw out my pages and make it look pretty – but it’s soothing and enjoyable for me, so totally worth the time. I’m a working mom, so right now, this is my creative outlet.

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