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Whether COVID-19 has freed up A LOT of time in your life, or whether you find yourself scrambling to bring order to your new WFH schedule, we feel confident saying there’s never been a better time to start bullet journaling.

The bullet journal is a cultish notebook-organization system that promises to wrangle the chaos of your interior and exterior life, helping you fulfill personal and professional goals along the way.

It’s designed to fulfill practical needs — like making grocery and supply lists and remembering to stay in touch with loved ones — while at the same time providing a platform for musings and literally anything else you want to keep track of.

But how exactly is it that a singular notebook system can confidently claim to bring you tranquility, despite years of therapy only getting so far?

These are the questions we embarked on answering. Read on for your bullet journal starter guide.

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Illustrations by Diego Sabogal

In a word: everything.

BuJo creator Ryder Carroll calls the system “a mindfulness practice disguised as a productivity system.” Some people may be turned off by the word “mindfulness,” but you’d be remiss to dismiss BuJo as woo-woo nonsense.

With sections to log your daily to-do’s, monthly highlights, personal notes, long-term goals, and more, a BuJo is essentially a streamlined system that helps you be more efficient with your tasks.

Think of it like taking all those notebooks you have stuffed into your end table and putting them between a set of pages. It’s the journal way of decluttering our minds.

Do you just want to be on top of your everyday tasks or need help tracking your finances? Do you want to quit a habit and need some accountability? A BuJo can help with all that.

Put simply, writing down your thoughts, feelings, and anxieties frees up mental space to help you concentrate better. This allows you to be more present and live without that nagging feeling that you’re forgetting something.

Getting started with your first journal can feel overwhelming but the great thing is you can start any time of the year (and at any point in your #Goals journey).

Mindset

If you think you lack the skills, patience, or time to make journaling work, then the first thing you need to do is let go of perfectionism. It doesn’t matter how your journal looks; it’s about how it makes you feel.

Sure putting creative energy into our bullet journal may make the process more enjoyable, and help motivate us to stick with the practice. But if sloppy is your style — embrace it!

At the end of the day, journaling should be about function over form.

The notebook

When choosing your first journal, you’ll want a notebook small enough to carry around easily and sturdy enough to travel well. Journals come in lined, dotted, grid, or blank pages, so can be tailored to personal preference.

There’s an “official” bullet journal notebook, complete with an instructional guide and pre-numbered pages but other brands popular in the BuJo community include Leuchtturm1917 and Scribbles That Matter notebooks.

The pen

Pens and markers are also important — you want ones you’re comfortable using every day that won’t smudge or bleed through the pages.

Some people love color coded systems, using Sharpie Art and Paper Mate Flair felt-tip pens, while others prefer to keep their notebooks color-free with black fineliners.

Mastering the language of the bullet journal is foundational to building and benefiting from the bullet journal system. Here are the key terms include:

Spreads: A group of pages — generally two facing pages — that are all about a related topic, where you can get an overview of the whole subject quickly.

Rapid logging: Create shorthand (make it snappy or use keywords) language for full sentences for quick note taking. Adopting this shorthand ensures peak efficiency and organization.

Trackers: You can literally track anything in a bullet journal (mood, sleep, hobbies, food, exercise, water consumption — the list is endless).

Collections: BuJo is a modular framework. Each module, or Collection, serves to organize related information. You can mix and match, customize, or create your own collections to best suit your needs.

Think of BuJo like a Lego set: it’s comprised of modular blocks called collections. As mentioned above, the fundamental collections to the bullet journal are: the index, future log, monthlies, and dailies.

In this short how-to video Ryder Carroll tells you a little about the process, and sets up a sample bullet journal so you can see for yourself how the basic framework comes together.

If you’re hesitant to deface a new journal, grab an old notebook and take a few minutes to do a quick setup so you can see everything in action.

Index

This is the table of contents for your bullet journal. Simply label the first spread in your journal as “Index.” As you set up the rest of your journal — numbering the pages before you start! — add the names and page numbers of your entries into your index to make everything easier to find.

Future log

The future log appears on the next blank spread in your notebook. In this section you write down important deadlines, events, and goals you’d like to make happen in the upcoming months.

You can map out your future log as far in advance as you’d like, but our example shows a 6-month time frame. Once you’re done, number these pages and add them to your index.

Monthly log/monthlies

Your monthly log is a view of your month at a glance. To create one, go to the next available spread. On the left page, write the month at the top and list the number of days in that month down the side. Next to the dates, write the first letter of the day that each falls on.

Label the right page “Task List,” and use this page to map out a general overview of what you’d like to accomplish that month.

Some examples of monthly tasks include, filing taxes, registering your car, buying a bridesmaid dress, etc. Next, number these pages and add them to your index.

Daily log/dailies

Your daily log is the nitty gritty of the bullet journal. Set up your daily spread by writing the day’s date at the top of the left page, as you would any journal.

Using rapid logging, start listing tasks, events, and notes (find a more detailed explanation of these terms below). You can do this continuously throughout the day, in the morning, or the night before — it all depends on how you like to live your life!

Don’t forget to add it to your index.

Custom collections

Your other collections are interchangeable, reusable, and customizable. These are typically set up at the back of your notebook since they don’t tend to change very often. You can (and should) create a set of custom collections based on what you’re interested in.

You might set up a Collection for any of the following activities:

  • books you want to read
  • movies you want to watch
  • things you’re grateful for
  • self-care ideas

Every time you create a Collection, remember to add page numbers and add it to your index.

The key

Crucial to the BuJo system is a set of symbols. While you’re totally free to customize your own set of symbols, we’re going to talk about the ones Carroll uses.

Each symbol performs a unique function in your journal. As you log — whether it be in your future, daily, or monthly log — add a marker alongside to delineate what type of entry it is.

For example, a task gets a bullet, an event gets a hollow circle, a note gets a straight line, and important things get a star — called a signifier — next to their mark. Once you complete a task, cross out the bullet with an X.

Migration is the process of moving entries to different collections in your journal. It’s delineated by either a left or right arrow.

Migration is an essential component to the BuJo system but it’s also a common place people get confused. So we broke it down even further in the next section.

The BuJo system really starts to make sense at the end of your first month. According to Carroll, this is when you start using mirgration. Let’s walk through a hypothetical scenario.

At the end of February, you’ll need to create a new Monthly log for March. So, let’s say you do that, filling out all the events and tasks you have in your head that need to happen in March. But you also need to close out February.

To do that, go through February’s entire Daily log. Complete tasks that are completed (marking with an X), cross out entries that are no longer needed, and migrate entries that still need to be done either to March or into your Future log.

For example, in the animation above, “Buy gift for Phil” still needs to happen, and soon. So, it gets a right arrow: “>” and the task is rewritten in your new Monthly log for March.

“Get dress fitted” also still needs to happen, but it’s not urgent (it doesn’t need to happen in March). So it gets a left arrow: “<” and is moved into your Future log. The idea here is to put that task in a month where you can see you’ll have time for it. This is central to Carroll’s strategy.

The idea is to weigh the urgency of a task, thereby being thoughtful about how you prioritize your time. If you realize something isn’t urgent, you can look at your year laid out ahead of you (your Future log) and add it to a month that doesn’t have a lot going on. In theory, this allows you the spread your workload evenly throughout the months.

We should mention that you also migrate entries from your Future log into your Monthly log. So every time you make a new Monthly log, check in on your Future log to see if there are applicable items.

Relish the satisfaction as you cross completed items off your logs. Watch as the story of your life unfolds on the pages and feel the relief that all of those to-do lists and tasks are now out of your head and written down.

Well, if you want all that’s mentioned above, then you must use it daily (no excuses!). After all, no productivity method works unless you put effort into it.

If you need support or inspiration, you could join the 89k strong Bullet Journal Beginners Facebook Group. Or go to the Bullet Journal website as a great resource for tips, if and when you get stuck.

You can also follow #BulletJournal on Instagram for pretty inspiration layouts, which is undeniably dubbed “productivity porn.”

But remember the awesome thing about the bullet journal is that you can keep it simple or make it as complex as you like. If you find yourself not liking something in your notebook or you mess up a spread, simply turn the page and move on!

Life’s too short to worry about a messy notebook page.

Catherine Renton is a freelance broadcast, online, and print journalist from the UK. When she’s not writing about sobriety, mental health, and wellness, she’s tweeting @rentswrites.