Do you want to become a pen and paper master while increasing your productivity to heights you never could have imagined?
If the answer to that question is “yes,” then a bullet journal could be just the thing you need to supercharge your life. I’m not going to claim that it’s a tool you can count on to change your life within a day or two. The only thing I can make that claim about is some sort of robot that spoon feeds you ice cream on demand. Now that’s a life-changing future I want to live in.
What a bullet journal can do is what Ryder Carroll, the creator of the bullet journal method, puts forth on his site and book:
- Track the past
- Order the present
- Design the future
It’s an analog method of organization that can become whatever someone wants it to be. There are some core tenets, sections, and symbols that can apply to every bullet journal, but mostly your journal is what you make of it. Want to make elaborate drawings on every page? I’ve seen that done super well. Want to go with a bare-bones task list of your daily, monthly, and annual goals? That works, too.
In a digital first world, a bullet journal can be a great way to bring back a bit of analog productivity into your life. This is especially true if you’re going through a digital detox. We all need to be able to plan and organize our lives; limiting the time you spend on your devices doesn’t have to mean losing your strong sense of productivity.
And those of you out there who love nothing more than picking your favorite pen out of your extensive collection, well then, a bullet journal is perfect for you. Let’s talk about them.
The benefits of a bullet journal
In the same way you can use digital task managers, calendars, and other data trackers, a bullet journal can help you organize your day. The only difference with an analog method is all the work and effort of preparing each page of your journal falls on you. You can’t rely on a computer and an app to take care of those repetitive duties for you.
I don’t want you to get discouraged by the sound of all that work, though. If the thought of doing all that preparation every day/week/month feels daunting to you, then don’t worry about turning your bullet journal into an art project. Save that for the people who want to do it. You can go with a more vanilla journal instead.
What may help someone get over that preparation hump is to start considering the work that goes into bullet journaling as a form of meditation. Consider this: you’ve gone through your day, ticked off all your tasks, and are ready to start thinking about what you need to do tomorrow. You crack open your bullet journal, take a whiff of its fragrant pages, and the world melts away from you.
Now it’s just you, your pen, and the paper.
You draw out your dividing lines, sketch out your bullet journal symbols, and write out tomorrow’s to-dos. Your page is filling up. A plan and goals for tomorrow are forming. Your upcoming day has now become a path in front of you that’s just waiting to be walked down.
You reach the bottom of the page, take a deep breath, and slowly come back to the world. You feel refreshed, productive, and happy to have accomplished something in such peace.
Talk about a beautiful way to accomplish the task of bullet journaling. You got to be the productive master you are while spending some quality time with yourself on a single task.
That’s about as good as it gets.
How to use a bullet journal
While it’s important to know that there aren’t any hard and fast rules about exactly how a person must bullet journal, there are some common ideas that you can implement in your own. Or you can adapt them as you see fit. I suggest starting out with what Mr. Carroll has created and then modifying only what you need to make your bullet journal work for you.
Let’s keep things relatively simple for our bullet journals for now. As I’ve suggested, we can complicate things in the future as we see fit.
There are four main sections to our bullet journal:
- The Index
- The Future Log
- The Monthly Log
- The Daily Log
Let’s go over them individually.
This section is essentially just a table of contents for our journal. This is where we’re going to put the locations of all our subsequent sections, both the ones in the list above and any that we might dream up for ourselves in the future. It lives at the very front of our journal.
We’re going to list every section that lives in our journal, along with its accompanying page number. To keep everything organized for ourselves, remember to add a number to every page we create. We’re trying to be as productive as possible; let’s not drive ourselves crazy with poor organization.
The Future Log
This section is where our monthly goals and tasks are going to live. Set aside at least a few pages in your journal for this section—we’re going to want to want to include all twelve months in the Future Log.
Count out the lines in your journal and divide that number by three (or you can measure out the page if you’re using unlined paper). We’re going to separate each page into three boxes and add a month to each section.
Think of the Future Log as a home for your most important tasks that need advanced planning, like doctor’s appointments or traveling. List out your biggest tasks when you make them and be sure to include the date they’re going to take place.
The Monthly Log
This section consists of two parts, so make sure to set out a couple pages for each month. The left facing page is your “calendar page” and the right one is your “task page.”
For the calendar page, write the month at the top. Below that, create a vertical column of numbers for each day of the month and the first letter of the day of the week next to its corresponding number. This is a reference page you can use to plan out your month in advance. This isn’t going to be an extensive reflection of your schedule, so keep things short and sweet here.
For the task page, write out a list of things you need to accomplish before the month is finished. Ask yourself, what’s important? What do you want to take off your shoulders? What obligations do you need to attend to, both at work and at home?
The Daily Log
This last section is a more focused list of events you have and tasks you need to accomplish each day. At the top of the page, write out the date and then start listing items. These can be things like “buy vegetables for dinner” and “meeting at 10:00.”
Your Daily Log is the dumping ground for your brain. You shouldn’t be expected to remember every single dang thing you have to do every single dang day. That’s an impossible task. Instead, record the items you need accomplish on these pages and then mark them off as you finish them.
Make sure to not get ahead of yourself with your Daily Log. This isn’t meant to be done in advance. Do your daily logs at the end of each day, that way you don’t take up more space than is needed on these pages.
A collection of bullet journal symbols
Your bullet journal isn’t just a place for a huge, unfiltered list of ideas and responsibilities. Something like that would look more like the ramblings of a mad person.
And we’re not crazy people. Not when it comes to journaling, at least.
Symbols are going to give the lists and tasks we create some actual meaning. They’re going to turn everything we write into actionable items. When we give ourselves a task to accomplish in one of our logs, we want to be able to signify if we did it or need to reschedule it. Luckily, there’s a symbol for just about everything.
• Tasks: things you have to do.
- Notes: things you don’t want to forget.
◦ Events: noteworthy moments in time.
Each of these symbols should be used throughout your journal pages. They give context to your lists and ideas, separating them into easily recognizable categories.
• - Task incomplete
x - Task complete
> - Task migrated to a future day or collection
< - Task moved to the Future Log
• - Task is no longer relevant
The angled brackets are reserved for the tasks that haven’t been accomplished in your day and need to be rescheduled either for tomorrow or a date further in the future. Instead of just leaving those overdue tasks where they are, move them to where they should be.
◦ Doctor's appointment
◦ May 13: Sean's birthday
◦ Last day of classes
Events are simply a recording of the things that happened to us throughout our days. These aren’t meant to have extensive notes about what happened during that day or how you felt about them. Just log them onto the paper for future planning or remembering what you’ve done in the past.
- Linda doesn’t like strawberry frosting
- Sep 23: school is closed
- Try a striped dress for Liz’s wedding
Notes are used for ideas, thoughts, and observations that you don’t want to forget. These don’t have to be actionable entries. They could just be items that you need to remember or want to reference in the future.
They can also work especially well if you want to use your bullet journal for note taking in school or work.
* Priority: items that need to be paid extra care and attention. Make sure not to overdo the priority symbol. Remember, if everything is important, then nothing is.
! Inspiration: things that you want to remember, are jazzed about, or otherwise want to remember and use in the future.
A bullet journal is a great way to bring clarity, focus, and order to your life and your days. If you’re feeling stressed about trying to make your life more organized and less hectic, then an active bullet journal can be just the thing you need.
The best part about one is that it can adapt for any person and any use case. You could be just looking for a way to stay on top of your tasks and events, but maybe you also want to track your habits, your tv/movie watching, or your exercise and diet.
Whatever the case may be, you can probably benefit from a bullet journal. Just make sure to be patient with this process. It’ll require a portion of your time every day to be effective. A great way to make your bullet journal something to look forward to is by investing in a great notebook and a pen you absolutely love. Maybe it’s even a snazzy fountain pen!
A bullet journal doesn’t have to be for everybody, especially people who love living digital lives, but it can be for you.
Get to journaling, cats.