With our busy lives, it feels harder and harder to plan our life effectively — to keep track of everything we currently have to do, and to plan the things we want to do in the future.
You may have invested in a paper or digital planner to keep track of everything, or a journal to note down your thoughts and ideas. You may have Post It notes on your desk or attached to your fridge or used an online project management tool such as Asana or Trello.
The thing is, we know what we want to do and resolve to do it but then life gets in the way and our initial excitement and commitment falls down.
In this article, I will help you focus on what matters despite the constant changes in life by knowing how to bullet journal.
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How starting to journal changed my life
Now, I love using a planner and a journal and making notes of all my thoughts, ideas, goals and dreams. I’ve written about the power of taking notes and how to make it a habit.
Actually writing things down gives me a lot more focus and clarity. It increases self-awareness and allows me to truly reflect on everything that’s happening both internally and externally.
It has become an important habit in my life. I have found I’m more grateful because I capture what matters, remember things more clearly and have become quite creative in how I lay out the most important things.
The habit of updating my journal daily has become the catalyst for creating a successful life and kick starting my morning routine.
I start with exercise, whether that’s yoga or a run, then wind down by writing in my journal, capturing my thoughts or simply laying out my plans for the day.
Have you noticed in your own life how introducing one new positive habit can change other things in your life, for the better?
For me, that is journaling, and it has changed me on the inside as well as made me far more organised and productive. I am far more creative and organised because of my journaling.
Why does it seem difficult to take up journaling?
Journaling takes commitment. For many people, they have tried journaling several times and it hasn’t worked for them.
They may do it for a week and then get bored and try something else.
One of the problems people experience is that they’re trying to use too many tools to manage and plan their life.
You may be using a calendar to lay out your appointments, important dates and sometimes your daily tasks.
In addition, you may use a daily, weekly or monthly planner to lay out your goals, action plans and work and personal tasks. This may be through a digital app or paper planner.
You may have a vision board to map out your dreams, goals and aspirations.
You may also use Post It notes to remember important things that could be put up at both work and in your home.
With information captured on a variety of different devices sometimes, it can be difficult to really organize your life effectively.
To-Do lists can get lost and Post It notes can easily get thrown in the bin.
Discovering the bullet journal
Recently, I started looking for something that could capture everything in one place. My research led me to the bullet journal.
If you search Instagram or Pinterest or put in a google search for bullet journal you will be met with an abundance of neatly designed notebook pages designed to map out and organise your life or creatively designed ‘spreads’ full of colour coded notes and pictures that capture everything from life goals to inspirational quotes to your ‘Year At A Glance.’
What I’ve learned is that bullet journals can be an amazing productivity tool and life manager if you make it your own and learn to use it in a way that fits into your life.
Why bullet journal is good for you
Essentially, it is just a simple notebook that allows you to include a huge variety of current and future planning techniques.
According to Founder Ryder Carroll it is a system to help you “Track the past, organize the present and plan for the future.”
“The Bullet Journal is a customisable and forgiving organisational system. It can be your to-do list, sketchbook, notebook, and diary, but most likely, it will be all of the above. It will teach you to do more with less.” – Ryder Carroll
The bullet journal is great for people who:
- Want to get more organised
- Like pen and paper to-do lists, planners and journals
- Have lots of thoughts and tasks floating around but not written down
- Love goal setting and tracking results and habits
- Love planners
- Are struggling to keep up with the habits of journaling or updating their planners
- Want to plan their life more effectively
- Want a place of self-expression and self-awareness
The notebook you choose for your bullet journal can be simple, with blank, lined or a dot grid pages.
You can use it to create yearly, quarterly, monthly, weekly or daily calendars and to-do lists.
It can be used as a diary, vision board, brainstorming notepad or whatever you choose to use it for.
You can build out pages to create collections of the things that are important to you – inspiring quotes, bucket list, life goals, books to read, self-expression, personal and career wins as well as a place to express gratitude.
It is also a place you can use to keep track of everything that’s happening with you right now as well as goals for the future.
The key thing about the bullet journal is that it is a place to make your own – to capture what matters in a way that fits the way your brain and creative side works.
How to set up your bullet journal
Here’s a simple guide for setting up your bullet journal:
Lay out your index
This should ideally be on Page 2 of your bullet journal. This is where all of your plans and collections get organised and refer back to the specific page number.
For example, September may be on Page 6. Only Index the things that are important to you and that you want to refer back to.
I will have an Index that Includes plans per month, big goals, weekly schedules, gratitude log, inspiring quotes etc.
I show the start and end page number for each item, but adapt it to what works for you.
It’s suggested that you keep a key at the front or back of your bullet journal to track what all the symbols mean.
There is far more information on symbols to use in your bullet journal in the video I link to below.
The future log
This is essentially how you lay out priorities, events and appointment for the months ahead.
This can be 12 months ahead or 6 months ahead. I personally prefer to go 6 months ahead and have this across two pages, 3 months on each page.
I will usually have 8-10 items per month listed here.
The monthly log keeps track of all your current priorities, events and appointments across the month.
The aim here is simplicity and to write succinct notes. Some people will write the date and day down the left hand side of the page for every day in the month.
Others will create boxes for each day to fill in and complete. Once you decide on which works for you, add in the actual event, task or project.
The aim here is to start the next month at the end of the existing month, rather than at the start of the month. As the month unfolds you can update and add to it.
You can fill your day with all of the tasks, events, appointments and other notes, listed under the day’s date.
For many, this is where the bullet journal is exciting as you can use the method of rapid logging and use the symbols (from the key).
Once a task is complete, it gets crossed off with a simple x.
17 Tips to start using bullet journal
Now we’ve touched on a brief overview of how the bullet journal works, let’s just into 17 tips that you can use to get up and running with your own bullet journal today.
1. Define your purpose
Be crystal clear on your objective for using the bullet journal. The core aim of the journal is to increase productivity but is that your main reason for using it?
Is it to bring together all of your notes, ideas and to-do’s in one place? Do you want to bring together your personal and business goals in one place and track your progress? Do you want to be more mindful about your day? Do better at remembering things?
If you know what is motivating, you then you have a better chance of really making it work for you.
2. Start at the source
The video below is from bullet journal founder Ryder Carroll runs through the conventions of how the bullet journal works. Spend a bit of time watching the video to know more about it:
You can also visit the Bullet Journal website as they do a great job of breaking everything down.
3. Keep it simple to start with
You can buy a simple notebook or invest in something like a Moleskin or Leuchtturm 1917 A5 Dotted Notebook.
Many people start with a simple pen or pencil to get going, while others invest a little bit upfront and buy things like artist pens, midliners and fineliner pens and washi tape.
Now you have your notebook, the next step is to number each of the individual pages.
Whatever feels comfortable at the beginning, go with.
4. Join a bullet journal group or community
When you’re just getting started, it’s a great idea to find a friend, family member or colleague to start the journey with you.
You can learn together, help each other out, hold each other accountable to keep going and inspire each other.
There are also some great Bullet Journal groups to join to where you can seek out help and inspiration.
5. Customize to your needs
Be clear why you are using the bullet journal and customize it to suit the outcomes you’re looking for.
You can divide up months, weeks and days exactly how you want them based on your objectives.
If you have specific things you want to keep in one place e.g. a vision board or bucket list, you can carve out space for that.
If you want to track specific habits such as how many hours you’re sleeping per night or when you’re exercising you can track that as well.
You can spend as much or as little as you want on the planner. You can keep it simple or be a bit more creative and use coloured gel pens, highlighters or washi tape to suit your style.
When you’re starting out you can keep it really simple with a basic notebook and pen or pencil.
6. Create spreads that are important to you
There are specific things – Index, Keys, Future Logs, Monthlies, Weeklies, Dailies, Collections etc. that will make up a lot of the pages of your bullet journal.
However, the key is to create something that fits around what is most important to you.
If you have a head full of ideas and you need somewhere to get them down on paper create an ‘Ideas’ page or have that page sit next to your daily page.
7. Review quarterly
When I coach private clients, we always set 90 day goals and then review performance on an ongoing basis.
One of the keys here is that the goal stays but the path to achieving the goal can be fluid.
The same is true of your bullet journal. Sit down every quarter and review what’s working – what things do you love to do and what things aren’t going so well.
Think about how you can expand the great and remove the bad to keep momentum and fascination with your bullet journal growing.
8. Plan in advance
As with everything planning in advance will save you time in the long run and will reduce the chance of overwhelm, especially when you are starting out.
Plan your weekly or daily spreads in advance (I personally do my weekly on Sunday night). You will then have a clear picture of your upcoming week but still have time to add things in during the week.
9. Set up your layouts
There are two main layouts that almost everyone will use.
These are the monthly spreads, which give you a clear overview of the month ahead. This is very calendar style with each day in big blocks next to each other. You may, as you progress, choose to doodle and colour theme these months.
The next one is the weekly spread, where you lay out your week, typically on two pages and complete as you would a diary.
You may be more comfortable with horizontal layouts but it can be fun to experiment with vertical listing of each day of the month.
The key thing is what you are recording. It’s not style over substance.
10. Try new things (And stop what doesn’t work)
You may start out using the traditional Ryder Carroll method or follow a method being used by one of your friends at the beginning.
The key here is to find your own style, one that works for you. If things aren’t clicking, then stop and find something that does.
This may become a mix of traditional planning mixed with more creative collections and trackers.
Some people enjoy listing out the days of the month 1-31 down the side of a page whilst others prefer something different.
Find the best organisation and planning system to suit you.
11. Start with one collection
The bullet journal, at its core, is a productivity system so it’s essential to begin future planning and life management with monthly spreads, weekly spreads, habit trackers and dailies.
It is also a place to house your big ideas, a place for self-discovery and self-awareness and a home to your dreams and goals.
A collection is simply a gathering together of things that are important to you under a simple heading.
This could be a bucket list of places to visit, a gratitude log, a list of books to read or podcasts to listen to, inspirational quotes, exercise regime, goals and dreams.
Start with one. Have fun with it and go from there.
12. Create a habit tracker
Having a habit tracker forces you to be honest with yourself and can inspire you to reach specific goals you may have.
Many bullet journallers credit tracking with helping to improve their mental and physical wellbeing.
You can track whatever is important to you right now. So, on a spread, list out all the habits you want to track on the left hand side.
This could be related to sleep, exercise, running, blogging, meditation, journaling, whatever you want.
At the top list all of the days in the month 1-31. Then for each individual day, against each habit, colour in whether you ‘completed’ that habit.
At the end of the month you can see how you are tracking against the habits you wanted to improve. If you have missed a few against say getting 8 hours of sleep per night, look at ways that can improve next month.
13. Create a habit
To ensure that the excitement of starting your bullet journal doesn’t wear off after a week or so, commit to working on jour journal for a specific amount of time every day.
If tasks that you’ve entered haven’t been marked as complete or your collections aren’t updated regularly you’ll get bored quickly.
It’s also important to set your weekly pages up in advance so you are ahead of the curve.
If you develop a daily habit and enjoy the experience of updating your bullet journal, you will develop your own personal rhythm that will help you organise your time more effectively.
14. Don’t compare
Instagram and Pinterest are full of amazing images of other people’s journals so it’s important to remember that your journal is unique to you.
You will develop your own style along the way so don’t compare yourself to others. Motivation may drop and you may begin to ‘copy’ the style of others.
The important thing to refer back to is why you wanted a bullet journal in the first place. If the aim is to be able to plan more effectively, be more organized and productive, then that’s all that matters if it works for you.
Seeing other planners and procrastinating will stop you from simply just getting started.
15. Don’t overdo it
Start small and build from there. Ease into using your bullet journal and get to know what works for you.
Overloading yourself at the beginning with lots of collections, daily trackers and fully illustrated vision boards may lead you to abandon the bullet journal completely.
16. Give it time (And don’t be a perfectionist)
If you’re not used to using a planner or a journal, give yourself a good month to really get into it.
Don’t stress about your artistic abilities. It should be functional over beautiful every time.
If you’re worried about making mistakes at the beginning, you can simply use a pencil or an erasable pen.
17. Include fun stuff as well
To keep motivated and inspired, use the bullet journal holistically to cover both work and home life.
Include things like memories, motivations, goals, exercise, gratitude and dreams will balance out the daily, weekly and monthly work plans.
One of the great things about the bullet journal is that it should encompass your whole life and give you important events and achievements to look back on.
Featured photo credit: Unsplash via unsplash.com