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.
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.
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.
• 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.
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.
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.
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!