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A Beginner's Guide to Bullet Journal


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Last update: 18/03/2021



Hey there Zen Organizers,

I guess that if you're reading this article, it's because:

  1. you've already heard of the Bullet Journal Method, but you haven't started using it yet;

  2. or you've never heard about it and are curious to discover more.

In both cases, I strongly recommend you go to the source to get the basics of this fantastic method: Ryder Carroll's website and/or his book. The website offers a good idea of the basics (and it's free). But I highly recommend reading his book because he provides so many more tips and reflection prompts to help you reach your goals.


I've also shared some of the resources that helped when I first started bullet journaling in this article!


What is the Bullet Journal method?


Let's start with explaining what this method is exactly!


The goal of the Bullet Journal method is to "track the past, order the present, design the future." And the promise that Carroll makes in his book is that "the Bullet Journal method will help you accomplish more by working on less. It helps you identify and focus on what is meaningful by stripping away what is meaningless" (Carroll, 2018, p.15).


I have been using this method for more than a year now, and I have to admit it has helped me reach my goals consistently ever since. That's why I strongly suggest you give it a try and see how it can help you live the life you truly want and deserve.


And the beauty of this method is that it is highly customizable. As Carroll says in his book, "The power of the Bullet Journal is that it becomes whatever you need it to be, no matter what season of life you're in" (2018, p.44).

I'm currently at my third BuJo (the abbreviation of Bullet Journal), and none of them looks the same. I have changed my setup as my needs changed. And that's what I love so much about this method!


I hope I have convinced you to get started! Now, to the practical information about the method.


Define your needs


The beauty of the Bullet Journal is that you can gather all your notes, thoughts, plans, goals, etc. in one notebook. Long gone are the days where you had sticky notes all over your desk, loose sheets with random scribbles on them, heaps of notebooks for different things, etc. You can gather everything in your Bullet Journal.


So the first step is to take a sheet of paper and write down what you want to put in your BuJo. You're probably going to use it as a planner to keep track of your appointments, tasks, deadlines, etc. Here are some questions to help you:


  • What do you want to use it for?

  • What do you need to keep track of?

  • Will you use it for both your personal and professional life?

  • Will you carry it with you almost everywhere, or will you leave it at home or work?

(If you use it for both your professional and personal life, you might have to be a bit more careful about putting personal information in it (ex. your period tracker or your weight tracker), and you might have to keep it more low profile in terms of decorations.)

  • How much time are you willing to spend on it every week?

  • Do you want a super artsy BuJo, or do you want a more functional one?


Basically, try to define why, how, where, and when you'll use your BuJo so it can fit your needs as much as possible.


Moreover, unlike a traditional planner, you can put so much more in your BuJo! Here are a few ideas of what you could put in it (these are called collections in the BuJo method):

  • period tracker

  • habit tracker

  • goal tracker

  • weight tracker

  • travel ideas

  • wishlist

  • gift ideas

  • budget tracker

  • etc.

The possibilities are endless. And it can become an overwhelming trap.

When you start your BuJo, I suggest you start simply. Only make collections that help you get organized in your daily life or that you're sure are useful for you. Don't waste your time and energy creating collections that aren't essential. You can always make them along the way if you feel the need to have them.


And most importantly, DON'T LOOK ON SOCIAL MEDIA! The BuJo has become very popular in the past years, and there are so many collection ideas out there. But you don't have to put them all in your BuJo.


I suggest you use social media only to find layout inspiration, not collection inspiration. First, define your needs and then look up layout ideas for these specific collections. Otherwise, you'll feel overwhelmed by the endless possibilities, and you risk abandoning this amazing tool right away.


Also, you'll probably make collections you're sure you'll need and then realize in the long run that you don't use them. And that's okay! For example, I used to put an expenses tracker in my first monthlies, although I already have a budget file on GDrive in which I keep track of my expenses. I barely used this collection because it's much more practical to use my phone for that. So I just stopped adding this collection to my monthlies. And there are so many other collections I made in my BuJos that I didn't use in the end. It's not a problem, your BuJo is always evolving, and that's the beauty of it!


So don't worry too much about collections. Focus on just a few that will truly add value to your life and wait to see if you effectively need the other ones. I like to keep a page in my BuJo for collection ideas. Whenever I think I might need to add a collection, I write it on that page, and I wait a few days/weeks to see if this need persists. If it does, then I create the collection.


Choose the material


Once you've defined the why, how, where, and when of your BuJo, it's time to choose the material you'll use.


Don't let yourself get impressed by all the magnificent Bullet Journals you can find on social media. A BuJo doesn't have to be a piece of art. On the contrary. The main goal of this tool is to get you organized. The decoration is only a secondary goal (if it is your goal at all). I have a very minimalist BuJo, and I don't spend a lot of time setting it up. I want it to simplify my life, not make it more difficult!


So all you need to get started is a notebook and a pen. That's it!


If you're not sure you'll stick with the method and don't feel like investing in a notebook, just take whatever notebook you have at home. The same goes for the pen.


However, if you want to get a new notebook, here are a few things to keep in mind when you choose it:

  • Do you want a soft or a rigid cover? It's is a personal preference. A hardcover will probably be more durable, but then it adds weight and bulk to the notebook.

  • Do you want it with or without spirals? It's is another personal preference. The spirals can be annoying when you write, but it allows you to open only one page at a time. Take this aspect into consideration when making your choice.

  • What format suits your needs best: A3, A4, A5? Do you want to take it everywhere with you? Will you leave it at home or the office? Do you need a lot of space to write?

  • How many pages do you need? Keep in mind that it's unlikely you'll use only one BuJo in a year. You'll probably use at least two. I would recommend getting a notebook with around 200 pages to begin.

  • Do you want numbered pages or not? Personal opinion: it's a hassle to number 200 pages. Buy a notebook with numbered pages.

  • What paper color do you prefer (white, beige, cream)? I personally don't care about this aspect but consider it if it's something that bothers you.

  • What paper weight do you need/want (90, 100, 120 g/m)? It will depend on the use you'll make of your BuJo. If you intend to make a very artsy BuJo and watercolor in it, for example, then aim for thicker pages (ex. 200g/m). I think 90 g/m is too thin, and you'll probably experience ghosting (you'll see what you wrote on the other side of the page). My notebook is 100 g/m, and I have very little ghosting. However, ghosting will also depend on the pen you use, so make some tests.

  • Do you want blank, lined, squared, or dotted pages? Most Bullet Journal users choose the dotted pages because they allow you to draw lines easily, in any direction, without being too visible. But you can choose whatever suits you best.

  • Do you want bookmarks, pockets, an elastic to close it, etc.? These are all details, but they can make your BuJo more practical to use. I like to have two bookmarks (one for the monthly log and one for my daily log), and I appreciate having a pocket.

  • Do you want a notebook with some sections already incorporated (ex.: index, year at a glance, phone book, etc.)? I like to have 12 calendars at the beginning of my notebook to make my future log. This way, I don't have to trace them myself, so it saves me a lot of time.

It might seem a lot to consider, but it all depends on your preferences and the use you'll make of your BuJo. But overall, simply think about what will be more practical for you and what will make you want to use your BuJo. And don't worry, you can always change the notebook when you finish the first one and have a better idea of what suits you well and what doesn't. You'll understand what characteristics you want as you use it.

To help you with your choice, I've prepared a list of some of the most popular brands in the Bullet Journal community:

  • Archer & Olive

  • Quo Vadis

  • Moleskine

  • Rhodia

  • Leuchtturm

  • Stationary Island

  • Scribbles That Matter

  • Lemone

  • Dingbats

I use the notebook of Italian brand Legami Milano called My Notebook - Dotted.


The structure of the Bullet Journal


Here's where we get into the nitty-gritty details of the method and structure of the Bullet Journal. As mentioned above, I highly recommend going to the official website or reading the book to get a detailed explanation of the method from its source, Ryder Carroll.

I don't recommend only looking for inspiration online, on Pinterest or Instagram, because most people don't follow the initial structure, which is totally fine when you understand the concept and have adapted it to your needs. But when you're starting, I think it's better to implement the structure as developed by Carroll. Otherwise, your risk abandoning the concept because you miss crucial parts of the method.


Once you understand the method and have been able to see what works well and what doesn't for you, then you can deviate from it and make it your own.

So here are the core collections you should have in your BuJo:

  • Key

It's usually the first page of a Bullet Journal. This is where you group the bullets and symbols you'll use to differentiate the types of information you'll log in to your BuJo. Carroll uses a bullet for tasks, a circle for events, and a dash for notes.


Throughout the day or at the end of it, you can change the status of your tasks and events. Once a task or an event is complete, you can put an x on it. If you migrate the task or event to the next day or another collection, you can put a forward arrow on it. I suggest you check the website or the book for more information on migration. If the task or event is due in the coming months, then you can put a backward arrow on it and write it down in your Future Log. If the task or event is not useful, then strike it.


You can also add signifiers to your bullets to give them more context. Carroll uses an asterisk to indicate an entry is a priority and an exclamation point to mark an idea. But you can create your own signifiers.


Finally, you can also have a color code. For example, if you are working on different projects, you could assign a color to each project. Or if you have children and/or animals, you can have a specific color for each. This way, when you look at your collections, you have a better idea about what or whom the entries are.

  • Index

The index allows you to keep track of the content of your BuJo. You should index all your collections, except for your dailies or weeklies. Otherwise, your index will become way too long.


There are two main ways to go for your index: you can either write down every single collection or group your collections under themes (ex. monthlies, goals, health, money, etc.).

Since you build your index as you go through your notebook, leave 3-4 blank pages for your index (you probably need less than that if you group your collections by theme).

  • Future Log

It is the first of the three main modules of the BuJo (the other two are the monthly and the daily log). The Future Log is where you write everything that will or has to happen in the future. It can be events, appointments, holidays, tasks, deadlines, bills to pays, etc.

You always start your future log with the following month (ex. we are in December, so your Future Log should begin in January). You'll write your appointments, tasks, and everything else for the current month in your Monthly Log.


There are many different layouts you can use for your future log. You can put three, four, and even six months on a single page (dividing it with columns and lines). Or your notebook might have 12 blank calendars integrated (mine is like this, and it's what I like most about it!).

Calendar pages used as Future Log
Future Log

Anyway, make sure you leave enough space to write all the information you want to put on it. If at some point you realize you need more space, you can create a new Future Log in the middle of your notebook. That's the beauty of the BuJo: you can always adapt it to your needs!

  • Monthly Log

The Monthly Log is where you get an overview of the current month. It usually comprises two pages. The left page is dedicated to events and appointments, and the right one to your master to-do list of the month. The real benefit of this big to-do list is to empty your brain of all the tasks you want to get done and which keep popping up in your brain. You know, they're usually the very annoying but necessary tasks like comparing insurance plans and prices before the upcoming renewal of your current one.


Don't hesitate to use this to-do list as a brain dump. It's not a problem if you don't get everything done this month. The goal is to free some memory space in your brain and have everything written somewhere, so you don't forget to do the important tasks. At the end of the current month, you should take a few minutes to assess the tasks on this list that didn't get done. For each one, decide whether to migrate them to the next month or eliminate them if they don't bring any value to your life.


I use the layout suggested by Carroll for the calendar part of the Monthly Log. But for the to-do list, I'm currently using the Alastair Method. This method consists of listing all your tasks, but the advantage is that you can assign the specific week you intend to complete that task. I've also added a date column if I plan on doing a task on a specific day. I prefer this method to the simple list because I tend to procrastinate on tasks if I don't set a deadline to get them done.

Calendar page on the left and to-do list on the right
Monthly Log

But as mentioned above, the beauty of the BuJo is that you can adapt it and change it based on your needs. So you can try a layout this month and change it up next month if something doesn't work! I've been using this layout for the past six months. But before that, I had changed it several times over my first six months of using my BuJo.


So try different layouts, and find what works best for you at the moment!

  • Daily Log

In my opinion, this is the most useful and life-changing module of the Bullet Journal. But unfortunately, it is the least shown and shared on social media. If you've looked for BuJos online, you've probably only seen weeklies, which is a layout where the days of the week have a set space. Most people use this type of layout because it's similar to the structure of a typical planner, and it provides a view of their week.


I started by using weeklies as well. But some days, I lacked space to write everything I wanted to write, and others, I had little to write and therefore left a lot of blank space. I tried many, many different layouts of weeklies, but I wasn't satisfied. So much so that I didn't use my BuJo for almost two months. That's when I decided to read Carroll's book because I felt like I wasn't understanding and using the method correctly.


That's when I had a revelation: I wasn't using the full power of the method because I wasn't using dailies! The benefit of dailies is that you don't have a set space that limits you. You can write two lines or 30. Heck, you can even use one, two, three pages one day if you feel the need to write this much! Dailies allow you to completely unburden your mind of any thought, idea, task, information, etc., that you receive throughout the day. It's crucial not to refrain from writing everything and anything in your dailies, without a filter.

You'll filter the information at night when you do your PM reflection.


  • Goal Collection(s)

In my opinion, the most useful aspect of the Bullet Journal is to help us work on our goals. So I suggest you create collections for all your goals. You can have a brainstorm page for each one and a collection where you dissect your goals into smaller steps and tasks. If you have a major goal that encompasses many steps, then create a collection for each step in which you divide them into small actionable tasks.


Example of a division of a goal in smaller tasks
Goal Spread

Also, if you need help to set your goals, you can download this free workbook that will help you set goals efficiently in five easy steps:

Button to download workbook

  • Other collections

Once you have these pillar elements in your BuJo, you can also add collections to keep track of different things like habits, goals, health parameters, expenses, etc. You can also create collections for your goals and projects to brainstorm, break them down into smaller tasks, keep important information all in one place, etc. You can also have collections that gather similar information, like gift ideas, books you want to read, meal ideas, etc.


As mentioned above, be aware not to create too many collections when you first start. Only create the ones that will truly help you in your daily life. And don't look too much for collection ideas on the Internet. Only look for layout ideas of collections you want to put in your BuJo.


The beauty of this tool is that you can create a collection on any available page. You don't have to necessarily group them, for example at the beginning or at the end of your BuJo. You only have to add your new collections to your index to find them more easily.


Here are the collections I have in my current Bullet Journal:




How to integrate your Bullet Journal into your daily life


As you can see, the Bullet Journal is meant to be used throughout the day to write down anything that occupies space in your mind. You should try to always have it close to you to jot down all your thoughts.


But two other moments are important to make the most of your BuJo: the morning and the evening.

  • Evening reflection

In the evening, you should go over your entries of the day and update all your tasks. Put an x on them if you completed them, and cancel them if they aren't important and if they don't bring value to your life.


For the incomplete tasks, decide if you plan on doing them tomorrow, then migrate them to tomorrow's daily. If the task requires a dedicated collection because it's more of a project or a goal, create a one and migrate all the relevant tasks there. For example, if you have to plan a trip, you should create a separate collection because it will require many tasks to complete this big project (ex. book the accommodation and flights, determine the itinerary, define the budget, etc.).


You can also migrate your incomplete tasks to your Monthly or Future Log if you don't plan on doing them the following day, or if these are tasks that need to be scheduled in the future.


The evening is also a great moment to reflect on your tasks, assess your progress on your projects and goals, and check in with yourself. I have a list of questions I like to ask myself during this moment to reflect on my life. Of course, I don't ask myself every question every day because that would be a bit intense 😅 I usually choose one or two questions to reflect on.


List of questions to reflect on the day
PM Reflection Question Ideas

Once I'm done going over my entries, updating the status of my tasks, and reflecting on my life, I plan the following day. As mentioned, I migrate the tasks I didn't get done on that day but want to tackle the following day. Then, I look at my Monthly Log to check if I have any appointments or events. Finally, I look at my master to-do list and check if there are tasks I need to tackle that day or that I could tackle. Last but not least, I decide which tasks will be my priority for the following day. I try to set a maximum of three priority tasks.

  • Morning reflection

The morning reflection is shorter and less intense than the evening reflection. It consists mostly of going over the tasks I assigned the night before. And I add anything important that came into my mind either in my dreams or since I woke up. Then, I get to it and try to tackle whatever task I have to tackle first.


To make sure you use your Bullet Journal, I suggest you keep it very visible to encourage you to use it, especially in the first days. For example, put it by your bed at night to use it right away when you wake up. Leave it next to you while you work during the day. Put it again next to your bed at night if you like to do your evening reflection in bed. The more you'll see it, the more you'll be tempted to use it. So make it visible!


And, of course, incorporate it as much as possible into your morning and evening routine.

 

These are the basics to get you started with Bullet Journal. However, I strongly recommend you read the book to grasp the flow between the different parts better. It'll also help you understand how to migrate tasks from a module to another, use rapid logging to boost the efficiency of your entries, thread between a notebook and another, etc.


This article is only an introduction to the Bullet Journal method, and I didn't want to overwhelm you too much. You can find an article on resources to help you start your BuJo here, one on the Evening Reflection here, and another one on the migration to a new notebook here!


If you need some help getting started or have questions, please don't hesitate to send me a message on Instagram or Facebook!


As always, I wish you a zenly organized week (hopefully thanks to your Bullet Journal!),


Sarah



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