Yes, folks, that’s right. 2021 is the year I’m finally trying … bullet journaling.
As a self-proclaimed lover of to-do lists, it’s actually surprising I didn’t get into bullet journaling earlier. It’s the perfect intersection of my obsession with organization & planning and my constant search for a creative outlet.
I’m about two weeks into bullet journaling, so I thought I’d share some early thoughts.
What is bullet journaling?
The bullet journal is an organizational system developed by designer Ryder Carroll. The foundation of this system is rapid logging, which relies on symbols — usually, bullet points, open circles, and dashes — to represent tasks, events and notes, making it quick and efficient to organize one’s to-do lists and upcoming appointments.
Another big component of bullet journaling is the concept of migration. The idea here is that you won’t always get through your to-dos. So, migration is the process of going through your unresolved tasks and deciding if the to-do item:
- Should be rescheduled for the near future: maybe you didn’t get to something on your daily to-do list, so you want to tackle it the next day. In this case, you’d transform your task bullet into a right arrow and then make sure you include it in the following day’s to-do list.
- Should be rescheduled for some time farther in the future: maybe you decide a certain task isn’t really all that urgent and you want to “put it on the back burner”. In this case, you would transform the task bullet in a left arrow, indicating that it’s a to-do item you still want to accomplish but just a little farther down the road. Then, you can add it to your future log (more on that, later).
- Is no longer something you want to accomplish: you may decide that some tasks are no longer necessary. In this case, you would simply cross out the item on your list.
The system was created as a way to “declutter your mind”. By getting all your to-dos down on paper, you can more clearly plan, organize and concentrate on your tasks.
Interestingly, the original system of bullet journaling was designed to be pretty minimal. However, it has since evolved (due to users, rather than the original developer) to include a more artistic, heavily designed component.
How is a bullet journal organized?
While the structure of a bullet journal can depend on the needs of each individual owner, there are some main components that are recommended, if you’re just getting started:
The first few pages of the bullet journal should be reserved for what is called an index, though it’s more accurately a table of contents. As you fill up your bullet journal with various to-do lists and calendars, you will go back to your index to include the page numbers and titles for those new entries.
The idea is that if you need to go back and reference something, you can easily find it by looking up the item in your index and finding the page number. This also means that you should be numbering your pages, if you’re not working in a journal that already has page numbers printed.
After your index, it is recommended to dedicate two facing pages (known as a spread) to your future log. The future log is an opportunity to note down events and tasks that are coming up in future months (i.e. not the current month). You can decide how many months to include in this future log.
I started my bullet journal in January. I divided my future log spread into six boxes: February; March; April; May; June; and July-December. In a normal year, I would have plenty of events to fill in throughout the year (plays, vacations, weddings, etc.), but this year, I really just had birthdays and holidays.
When I get to June, I’ll probably create a new future log spread to break out July – December into their own boxes.
At the start of every month, you’ll have another spread for your monthly log. As its very basics, it’s recommended to include a calendar and a to-do list for that month.
In the original system, Carroll recommended dedicating the left hand page to the calendar by simply numbering the days in the month and then writing in any upcoming events or tasks for those days.
And then, the right hand side can be dedicated to the to-do list to write down any tasks you know you need/want to get done that month, even if you haven’t decided what day you are going to tackle them.
However, you can organize this monthly log in whatever way best suits your needs. I looked up different options on Pinterest and found a layout that I liked, which gave more real estate to the calendar and included separate boxes for events, tasks, goals and highlights.
Next are the daily logs, where you write down your tasks, events and any notes. Again, the recommended symbols to use are bullet points for tasks, open circles for events and dashes for notes. You can also nest symbols, if, for example, you have notes related to a task or tasks to get done in preparation for an event.
For example, say one day you have a doctor’s appointment in the morning; you need to go grocery shopping, talk a walk, and call your mom; and you noticed it’s going to rain in the afternoon. You may organize your daily log like this:
You can play around with how you organize your daily logs. The first week, I simply created a pretty minimal list each day, putting the next day’s list under that until I filled up the page and moved to the next page.
However, the following week, I created almost like a weekly log spread, with columns for each day, allowing me to prepopulate my lists for upcoming days in the week.
Sometimes it’s beneficial to organize tasks by theme/project rather than date. For example, say you were planning a vacation or party. It would be helpful to have all the tasks centralized in one place. And then, of course, you could subsequently copy those tasks over to your monthly or daily logs.
Collections can take up a whole page, just a portion of a page, or perhaps a whole spread.
For example, one of my big projects this year is creating a chore routine and schedule. I listed out all the various chores that need to get done around the apartment; decided on the appropriate frequency for each chore; and then determined the best schedule to get each chore done.
In my bullet journal, I dedicated a whole two-page spread to this project. I go back to this spread often to remind myself of my chore schedule.
What supplies do you need?
At the very minimum, you need some type of journal and a writing utensil. But, as I’ve mentioned, there is this whole design and art element that a lot of people include in their bullet journaling, which require some additional tools.
Here’s what I use on a regular basis:
- Markers and/or color pencils
And here is some guidance on selecting your materials:
If you’re going the minimal route, any type of journal will work. However, if you’re interested in creating boxes and grids, I would recommend getting a dot journal, which is what a lot of bullet journalers use. The dots act as great guide to keep your lines straight and your boxes a consistent size.
However, there are a lot of dot journals to choose from, and I made the mistake of thinking they are all the same. If you are going to be using felt tip pens and/or markers, opt for a journal with thick paper! I neglected to do that with the first journal I bought and both my pens and markers bled through.
I bought a new journal and ended up going with the 160 gsm thick page dotted notebook from Vivid Scribbles.
In this journal, there are already three pages for the index, the pages are numbered and the paper is thick. I haven’t had any bleed-through, but I do have a little bit of ghosting with my marker use (when you can see a hint of the color on the other side of the page).
If I’m drawing boxes or doing block lettering, I may start in pencil to test out the layout I like, using a ruler to keep my lines straight. But I will always trace in a felt-tip pen. And then I write my to-do lists in pen, as well.
I have a whole collection of fine-tip sharpies, but I find that those still bled through, even with the super thick paper. Therefore, I’ve opted for the Paper Mate felt tip pens.
I use markers a lot to add color and visual interest to my pages and spreads. I already had some simple washable markers by CraZArt. However, as I mentioned above, I do see some ghosting, so I may try out some alternate brands to try to decrease the amount of ghosting. I’ve read that water-based ink vs. alcohol-based work best to prevent bleeding and ghosting.
For now, if I’m doing a spread with a lot of color (such as the chores spread I created), I’ll opt for color pencils instead, as those don’t show through on the other pages.
My early thoughts
So, far I’m really enjoying bullet journaling! I’ve always liked working with to-do lists, particularly hand-written to-do lists. There is something about physically writing down and crossing off my tasks that help me better organize my thoughts.
To some, the whole art and design element of bullet journaling may sound counterintuitive — if bullet journaling is supposed to make you more efficient, why would you spend so much time designing your pages and spreads?
For me, not only are my heavily designed spreads a nice creative outlet, but I also find the process of doing them pretty meditative. However, I will admit that they do take a long time. So, I dedicate a lot of time to designing and creating pages or spreads that I’ll go back to often (such as my chores spread), and I keep my more ephemeral lists (e.g. daily logs) more minimal.
Also, psychologically, if I spend a lot of time on something, I’m more likely to commit to it. By dedicating so much time on that chores spread, I’m more likely to keep up with the routine (and so far I have!).
While I don’t think this system is for everyone, I can see bullet journaling being beneficial to anyone who is a visual learner, likes working with to-do lists and needs a creative outlet.