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Published on September 4, 2019

How to Bullet Journal and Organize Your Life (A Step-By-Step Guide)

How to Bullet Journal and Organize Your Life (A Step-By-Step Guide)

Bullet journaling is a wonderful way to escape from the incessant digital inputs that have come to dominate our existence today. Everywhere we turn there is a screen — on the bus, on the train, at our desks and in store windows. No matter where we turn, there’s a screen full of information. It can feel overwhelming.

A well-organized bullet journal offers some relief. It can contain everything you need to keep you organized. The best thing about a bullet journal is you need no batteries, you do not have to decide between dark or light mode and aside from the cost of a simple notebook and a pen, it is very cheap to maintain. No annual subscriptions or apps to buy.

So, how to bullet journal? Here’s your step-by-step guide:

How to Set up a Bullet Journal?

The beauty of creating a bullet journal for yourself is you have complete freedom in how you set it up, organize it and what kind of notebook you use. The internet is full of ideas and suggestions on how to set one up, but the best journals are ones you create yourself, after all, we are all different and we all have different things we want to record.

I exercise a lot and like to keep a record of what exercise I did, how it felt and how hard I pushed myself. Others like to keep a daily list of two or three things they are grateful for or track their thoughts and feelings. What you record is entirely up to you.

Okay, so how do you go about creating your very own bullet journal?

The Items You Need

A sturdy notebook. Ideally, you should get yourself a hardback notebook. Your bullet journal is going to go with you everywhere and you are going to be stuffing it into your bag. It will need to be tough to stand up to everything you will throw at it.

You should also pay particular attention to the size. Remember, your journal should go with you everywhere you go, so it needs to be easily transportable. A5 size is the more common size and A5 sized notebooks will fit into almost any bag comfortably.

Another consideration is the kind of paper you will use. Blank, lined or squared? In the past, I have preferred squared paper because it helps keep the symbols for my daily to-do list in a clean vertical line (more on symbols later.) These days, I use lined paper.

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And of course, there is the kind of pen you use, a pen you love writing with. You want to love writing in your journal and that means the pen you use is important. I write with a fountain pen—there’s something wonderfully old-worldly about writing in fountain pen—but you may prefer a gel pen or a simple biro.

For the more creative of you, different color pens may also be a factor. The fantastic thing about a bullet journal is you can use whatever colors you want for the different parts of your journal. Blue or black for your daily to-dos, red for your objectives for the day.

My system is simple. I have a gorgeous green ink for writing in and I use a pencil for checking off tasks and adding additional notes to writing I want to add extra information to.

The Setup

Okay, now you have your tools. A sturdy notebook and a pen you love writing with. What to put into your bullet journal?

If you are completely new to bullet journaling, then the bullet journal website , created by Ryder Carroll—the creator of the bullet journal—will give you everything you need to get started.

However, the power of a bullet journal is you are in complete control. Unlike an app on your phone or computer, there are no constraints. You get to decide how to layout your journal, what information you keep in there and how you organize your lists and notes.

Below are the basics so you can get started quickly, but always be willing to try out different ways, you want to create a method that works for you and the best way to do that is to experiment with different layouts.

An Index

This is a content’s page where you keep a list of the page numbers for all your key information.

Imagine you have an idea for a new business while sitting in a coffee shop and you pull out your journal and write down the idea. In six weeks, it will be time-consuming to find that idea. To overcome this, you create an index at the front of your notebook and you can add the idea you had plus the page number so you can find it quickly when you need it.

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Give yourself enough space for your index. At least two pages, four is usually a safe number to make sure you have plenty of space to write everything down.

The Monthly Calendar

At the start of each month, write out the days of the month. You can add the days as well if you wish. For example, down the left-hand side of the page, you would write out:

  • 1-M,
  • 2-T,
  • 3-W
  • 4-T
  • 5-F

At the side of each day, you can add key appointments or events so you can easily see what’s happening and what happened.

The Monthly To-Do List

The next page is for the key tasks you want to complete that month. Think of this as a master monthly task list.

The advantage of having this list is it gives you an area where you can plan out your month and decide what objectives you want to accomplish. It also means you have a page that you can refer to regularly to see how you are doing against your plan for the month.

The Daily Page

This is where you can get very creative. Just Google “bullet journal” and go to the images page and you will see some incredibly creative journal entries.

The advice I would give here is to start simple. Do not go mad. Here are the basics of what you will need on your daily page:

  • Your to-do list for the day
  • Your events for the day
  • An area for your notes and ideas

Over and above these essentials, you can add anything you like. In my journal, I keep an area to document the exercise I did for the day, how I felt and whether I pushed myself or not. I also have my two objectives for the day right at the top right so I have a constant reminder of the two things I will complete that day.

You can add things like the weather, a gratitude log, a mood tracker or even how many days before your next holiday.

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One thing I like to keep in my journal is a list of everything I did that day. I do this so I can track how productive I have been over time.

It can be easy to forget what work you did daily. Most productivity systems and tools focus on work that needs doing and then once the work has been done, it either disappears (if you use a digital system) or, is never documented.

Your Goals

Officially, this is not a bullet journal item, but for me, I like to write out my annual goals in every journal I write. Obviously, over time, you will fill up your journal and you will need to buy a new one.

I go through around three journals per year and every time I start a new journal, I write out the goals I have for the year. These are kept at the front of the journal.

I also keep space at the back of the journal for future goal ideas and I transfer these to every new journal I start.

Writing out my goals every time I start a new journal allows me to review my goals and keeps them in the front of my mind, so I can stay focused on what I have decided is important to me.

How to Use Your Journal Daily

Okay, now you have your journal set up, the question is how do you use it on a day to day basis?

At the beginning of the day, you write the date at the top of the page and underneath write out the tasks you need to complete that day. Underneath your tasks, write down your appointments and key events for the day. Leave the left-hand page blank for your notes and ideas as you go through the day.

As you go through the day and complete your tasks, you use symbols to indicate what happened:

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  • A simple “X” would show a task is complete (or you could just draw a line through the task)
  • A “>” means the task has been forwarded to another day (if you wish you can add the date you forwarded the task to)
  • A “< “ would indicate you have decided to postpone the task until next month

Tasks you did not complete that day, can be moved forward to the next day.

That’s all you need to do. However, how you check off your tasks, what information you collect and what notes you write is entirely up to you. This is the power of the bullet journal. It is your journal and you can design it and record the information you want.

Slavishly following someone else’s system will not work for you in the long-term. You want to be thinking about what you want to record and keep. Of course, that will change over time but you must make this journal yours.

The Weekly and Monthly Master Task List

Every week, you should review your master task lists to see what tasks you can complete that week. Some people like to have a weekly master task list at the start of each week, and this can be a great idea if you have a lot of tasks to complete each week.

Again, that is really up to you. The important thing is you review these lists frequently and add the tasks into your daily lists as and when you can.

The Bottom Line

Creating a bullet journal is easy and there are a lot of resources online that will give you ideas about what you want to record and how to design your journal.

A bullet journal is a wonderful tool to keep you organized and focused on what is important to you in a way you want to record it. It gives you a rest from screens. When set up correctly, your journal will give you everything you need to stay organized and become more productive. It can and does help you to become more self-aware and mindful about who you are and who you want to be.

The great thing about a bullet journal is you get the freedom to create your method and design. You get to choose the kind of notebook and pen you use and you will over time build an incredible history of your life.

More About Journaling

Featured photo credit: Devin Edwards via unsplash.com

More by this author

Carl Pullein

Dedicated to helping people to achieve their maximum potential through better time management and productivity.

How Not to Feel Overwhelmed at Work & Take Control of Your Day What Is a Bullet Journal and What Are the Benefits? 10 Practical Ways Less Is More How to Stop Wasting Time and Be More Productive Why You Need to Set Future Goals (And How to Reach Them)

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Last Updated on July 13, 2020

How Not to Feel Overwhelmed at Work & Take Control of Your Day

How Not to Feel Overwhelmed at Work & Take Control of Your Day

Overwhelm is a pernicious state largely caused by the ever-increasing demands on our time and the distractions that exist all around us. It creeps up on us and can, in its extreme form, leave us feeling anxious, stressed and exhausted.

If you’re feeling overwhelmed at work, here are 6 strategies you can follow that will reduce the feeling of overwhelm; leaving you calmer, in control and a lot less stressed.

1. Write Everything down to Offload Your Mind

The first thing you can do when you begin to feel overwhelmed is to write everything down that is on your mind.

Often people just write down all the things they think they have to do. This does help, but a more effective way to reduce overwhelm is to also write down everything that’s on your mind.

For example, you may have had an argument with your colleague or a loved one. If it’s on your mind write it down. A good way to do this is to draw a line down the middle of the page and title one section “things to do” and the other “what’s on my mind”.

The act of writing all this down and getting it out of your head will begin the process of removing your feeling of overwhelm. Writing things down can really change your life.

2. Decide How Long It Will Take to Complete Your To-Dos

Once you have ‘emptied your head,’ go through your list and estimate how long it will take to complete each to-do.

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As you go through your list, you will find quite a few to-dos will only take you five or ten minutes. Others will take longer, often up to several hours.

Do not worry about that at this stage. Just focus on estimating how long you will need to complete each task to the best of your ability. Here’s How to Cultivate a More Meaningful To Do List.

3. Take Advantage of Parkinson’s Law

Now here’s a little trick I learned a long time ago. Parkinson’s Law states that work will fill the time you have available to complete it, and us humans are terrible at estimating how long something will take:((Odhable: Genesis of Parkinson’s Law))

    This is why many people are always late. They think it will only take them thirty minutes to drive across town when previous experience has taught them it usually takes forty-five minutes to do so because traffic is often bad but they stick to the belief it will only take thirty minutes. It’s more wishful thinking than good judgment.

    We can use Parkinson’s Law to our advantage. If you have estimated that to write five emails that desperately need a reply to be ninety minutes, then reduce it down to one hour. Likewise, if you have estimated it will take you three hours to prepare your upcoming presentation, reduce it down to two hours.

    Reducing the time you estimate something will take gives you two advantages. The first is you get your work done quicker, obviously. The second is you put yourself under a little time pressure and in doing so you reduce the likelihood you will be distracted or allow yourself to procrastinate.

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    When we overestimate how long something will take, subconsciously our brains know we have plenty of time and so it plays tricks on us and we end up checking reviews of the Apple Watch 4 or allow our colleagues to interrupt us with the latest office gossip.

    Applying a little time pressure prevents this from happening and we get more focused and more work done.

    4. Use the Power of Your Calendar

    Once you have your time estimates done, open up your calendar and schedule your to-dos. Go through your to-dos and schedule time on your calendar for doing those tasks. Group tasks up into similar tasks.

    For emails that need attention on your to-do list, schedule time on your calendar to deal with all your emails at once. Likewise, if you have a report to write or a presentation to prepare, add these to your calendar using your estimated time as a guide for how long each will take.

    Seeing these items on your calendar eases your mind because you know you have allocated time to get them done and you no longer feel you have no time. Grouping similar tasks together keeps you in a focused state longer and it’s amazing how much work you get done when you do this.

    5. Make Decisions

    For those things you wrote down that are on your mind but are not tasks, make a decision about what you will do with each one. These things are on your mind because you have not made a decision about them.

    If you have an issue with a colleague, a friend or a loved one, take a little time to think about what would be the best way to resolve the problem. More often than not just talking with the person involved will clear the air and resolve the problem.

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    If it is a more serious issue, then decide how best to deal with it. Talk to your boss, a colleague and get advice.

    Whatever you do, do not allow it to fester. Ignoring the problem will not make it go away. You need to make a decision to deal with it and the sooner you do so the sooner the problem will be resolved. (You can take a look at this guide on How To Make Good Decisions All The Time.)

    I remember long ago, when I was in my early twenties and had gone mad with my newly acquired credit cards. I discovered I didn’t have the money to pay my monthly bills. I worried about it for days, got stressed and really didn’t know what to do. Eventually, I told a good friend of mine of the problem. He suggested I called the credit card company to explain my problem. The next day, I plucked up the courage to call the company, explained my problem and the wonderful person the other end listened and then suggested I paid a smaller amount for a couple of months.

    This one phone call took no more than ten minutes to make, yet it solved my problem and took away a lot of the stress I was feeling at the time. I learned two very valuable lessons from that experience:

    The first, don’t go mad with newly acquired credit cards! And the second, there’s always a solution to every problem if you just talk to the right person.

    6. Take Some Form of Action

    Because overwhelm is something that creeps up on us, once we feel overwhelmed (and stressed as the two often go together), the key is to take some form of action.

    The act of writing everything down that is bothering you and causing you to feel overwhelmed is a great place to start. Being able to see what it is that is bothering you in a list form, no matter how long that list is, eases the mind. You have externalized it.

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    It also means rather than these worries floating around in a jumbled mess inside your head, they are now visible and you can make decisions easier about what to do about them. Often it could be asking a colleague for a little help, or it could be you see you need to allocate some focused time to get the work done. The important thing is you make a decision on what to do next.

    Overwhelm is not always caused by a feeling of having a lack of time or too much work, it can also be caused by avoiding a decision about what to do next.

    The Bottom Line

    Make a decision, even if it is to just talk to someone about what to do next. Making a decision about how you will resolve something on its own will reduce your feelings of overwhelm and start you down the path to a resolution one way or another.

    When you follow these strategies to can say goodbye to your overwhelm and gain much more control over your day.

    More Tips for Reducing Work Stress

    Featured photo credit: Andrei Lazarev via unsplash.com

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