Over seven years ago, I started my first bullet journal.
I’ve always been a list maker, notebook hoarder, and a little (okay plenty) obsessed with my favorite pens. But my lists were all over the place and a number of half-filled notebooks lined my office shelves.
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I distinctly remember opening my Instagram app one day and spotting a hand drawn weekly layout, similar to one you’d find in a traditionally designed planner.
Except, this was just a simple notebook, NOT a planner.
Later, I found out this notebook was called a bullet journal. Or “bujo” for short.
Immediately, I wanted to learn everything about this customized, yet functional planning system. Because the truth was, I could never find a planner that fit my needs. The layouts just didn’t work with my brain. Plus, some of them are so expensive! $70 for a planner? Really?
What is a Bullet Journal?
The Bullet Journal method was invented by Ryder Carroll in 2013. It is unique because it puts the power of using what planning system works for you into your own hands. You decide what and how you organize your personal (or even your business!) life by tailoring a blank notebook to fit your unique lifestyle or planning needs.
That means you don’t have to sift through all the things you don’t want or need in a planner and can focus just on what you will actually use!
Because the layout is so customizable, you can easily switch things up if something doesn’t end up working for you long term. There so many helpful tutorials for bullet journal beginners to help you get some ideas of what you’d like to try, and you can find a lot of fun inspiration for bullet journal spreads across blogs and social media to really give you a grasp on the full potential of bullet journalling.
All you need to get started is a blank notebook (here’s how to find the best one!) and a favorite pen. Then you can track whatever you want to track—from meal planning to budgeting to your day-to-day tasks—making it as complicated or as simple as you like.
Bullet journals are broken down into a few categories—A ‘key’, ‘daily log’, ‘monthly log’, ‘future log’, and an ‘index’. We’ll be going more in depth into each of these as we discuss the bullet journal setup!
Is Bullet Journaling Worth it… or a Waste of Time?
Sometimes, individual bullet journal pages look like a professional art piece. But you have to remember that you are literally customizing a planner from scratch. I first thought this hobby had the potential to be more of a time-waster than a time-saver.
It honestly depends on how much time you spend on your bullet journal.
If you enjoy drawing new layouts, doodling, hand lettering, and adding multiple stickers and layers of washi tape to your pages, then yes, you’ll spend some time setting up your bullet journal. But the people who do this are generally individuals who like expressing themselves through this creative outlet.
Bullet journaling is their hobby and a way to take care of their mental health.
But you can also keep a minimalistic bullet journal with very few colorful pens, stickers, or drawn-out designs. There are no rules!
In fact, the way I bullet journal now looks vastly different than what I did in my first handful of notebooks. Instead of drawing an involved weekly layout where I needed a ruler, highlighter, and lots of colored pencils, I rely solely on daily lists and do the majority of my project and task planning in Notion!
Overall, your bullet journal should work exactly as you need it to, which means you don’t have to waste time squeezing yourself into planner boxes that don’t work.
And if you don’t like to draw, you don’t have to! You can easily create a pre-made bullet journal inside a ring or discbound notebook by using planner inserts. The Brainbook Printable Library provides over 250 designs to choose from and you can easily switch pages out when you want to try something new!
Supplies You’ll Need
The Main Elements of a Bullet Journal
If you’re wondering how to start a bullet journal, you need to understand a few terms first.
Every bullet journal needs a good key. This is your own “personal code” of sorts that allows you to spend less time manually writing out lengthy words or tasks that you repeat often by using a symbol or color instead.
It’s an essential part of rapid logging, which is a shortcut to creating bullet point lists by eliminating the need to write out everything. You can see at a glance what is going on in your day.
They key is usually put near the beginning of the Bullet Journal to make it easy to refer to. And as with everything else, this is entirely customizable to fit exactly what you need.
If you only need one or two keys, or if you need a dozen, you get to decide what is relevant and what will help you when you create your lists each week. You can use colors, symbols or even stickers to set up your key, but it’s good to pick something that’s easy for you to replicate over time!
The Index page is the organizing glue that holds your entire bullet journal together. Kind of like a table of contents. You can either use a notebook with pre-numbered pages (like the Leuchtturm1917) or number the pages yourself. Then you just write down the topic of each page in the Index along with the corresponding page numbers of that topic.
When you need to locate a specific note or collection and you’re 50+ pages in, all you have to do is flip back to the Index to find it!
Even if you don’t keep a bullet journal long term, you’ll find yourself using the index method for any notebook from now on. It’s so useful!
3. Future Log
Because you create each page as you need it in your Bullet Journal, you don’t have the ability to flip months in advance to add in upcoming important dates or things you need to remember say, six months from now because those pages aren’t even created yet.
The solution to this in bullet journaling is the Future log. This is a page in the front of your journal with the entire calendar year. When you set an appointment or make a plan for a future date, you’ll simply flip to this page and write the important date at the bottom. This is the spot you’ll refer to each month as you are setting up that monthly layout so that you can include those in your schedule.
Using the future log in this way doesn’t really work for me. I prefer Google Calendar to time block and to keep track of important dates. A digital app is much easier to refer to when I am setting up my monthly and daily pages.
If you decide you want to use the traditional future log in your bullet journal, you can either handwrite your calendar or use an adorable monthly calendars sticker!
4. Monthly Log
At the end of each month, you’ll want to set up your next monthly log.
Open your bullet journal so you have two blank pages, and start that month’s calendar on the left page, leaving the right page as space to record your monthly tasks or monthly goals. You’ll be able to refer to your future plans page (or an online calendar, if you use that.) to fill in any important appointments or deadlines and can easily see at a glance what is coming up in your month.
The traditional monthly log is a linear method. To do this, you’ll list the days of the month down the left side of the page, creating line breaks to separate the weeks. This is just one way of setting up your monthly log, though.
Some people prefer to use a traditional calendar style page, where each day has it’s own box to write in. If you aren’t sure which one you’ll like better, experiment with both ways and see which one works best for you. This is definitely the beauty of bullet journaling. You aren’t stuck for a whole year if something doesn’t work!
5. Daily Log
If the index is your bullet journal’s table of contents, your Daily Log is the main star. This is where you record your appointments and daily to-do lists alongside any movies or shows you watched, memories you want to record, the weather, meal plan, etc. Basically whatever you need to remember each day (or record for later!) goes on your Daily Log using the rapid logging method.
Because you don’t set up the next day’s list until you’re finished with the current one, you have as much room as you need to take notes and jot down reminders. This eliminates the need for extra sticky notes and papers. But I also love that if I have a really busy day, I can use a whole page, or a partial page with a lighter schedule.
And unlike a pre-dated planner, I can skip a day without leaving any blank boxes or pages! I just start another day on the next available page.
If you don’t complete all your important tasks on any give day, you can easily migrate that task to the next day with a small arrow.
Collections are themed pages that you set up for a specific topic—like a list of books you want to read or movies you want to see. You can reference these pages on a long-term or short-term basis and add to them over time. Collections are a great way to store all those random lists!
Some people like to store their collections in the back of their notebook so they live together and add slowly work forward. Others just use the next available page and rely on the index to find what they need. Either way works!
Here are some ideas of what to include in your collection pages:
- Cleaning schedule
- Brain dump pages
- Gratitude log
- Mood tracker
- Workout tracker
- Habit trackers
- Shopping lists
- Favorite recipes list
- Long-term goals
- Online order tracker
- Bucket list
- and more!
Here’s a massive list of 101 bullet journal collection ideas (or you can click on the image below to grab the printable freebie!)
But generally, you should think about what you normally track or would like to track on a regular basis. Some of these items you can dedicate to their own collection pages, or you can incorporate them into your monthly, weekly, or daily layout.
Speaking of a weekly spread…
7. (Optional) Weekly Log
The weekly log is actually not part of the original system, although most bullet journalists can’t live without them! These pages (usually on a two-page layout) give you an overview of your entire week with space to add your appointments, events, and tasks, along with a weekly meal plan or small habit tracker.
If you have enough room to fit everything you need on a weekly log, you may choose not to incorporate a daily log at all.
However, if you prefer a weekly overview AND a more detailed look at your day, you may want to use both! It’s really a personal choice.
It’s hard to know what an entire bullet journal looks like when you only see bits and pieces through photos. If you would like a more in-depth view of how my bullet journal is set up, you can watch my flip-through video. (This was my second journal!)
How to Start a Bullet Journal (Best Practices!)
Maybe you love the thought of bullet journaling, but feel a little overwhelmed with where to start. You are not alone!
- The first few weeks felt a little clumsy. I wasn’t sure exactly what I was doing.
- Two months in, I started getting the hang of it and throughly enjoyed planning my days.
- Four months later, I finished my first bullet journal and purchased my second and third and fourth notebook (I think I’m up 9 or 10 right now!?) knowing that I wanted to do a few things differently next time around.
Here’s my best tips to help you dive into your bullet journal with confidence.
1. Purchase a Cheap Notebook (at First)
The best way to try bullet journaling is without a huge initial investment. I paid less than $7 for my first bullet journal—an EcoQua Spiralbound Grid Notebook (it costs more now thanks to inflation 🤪)—just to make sure I stuck with it.
And if I didn’t, I didn’t lose much money!
If you fall in love with the bullet journal method, you can be a little more choosey for your second journal. The Essentials Grid-Lined Notebook was my next journal and I loved that it was still affordable with slightly higher paper quality.
If you want to go ALL IN, here are the higher quality notebooks I recommend!
- Scribbles That Matter
- Archer & Olive
- Hemlock & Oak (use code KBSAVE10 to save 10% off your order!)
People typically choose a dot grid notebook because it’s easier to draw straight lines, but you can also use a graph, blank, or lined notebook. It’s completely up to you.
2. Understand this is Your Learning Notebook
As much as you don’t want to make “mistakes”, you need to try different layouts before finding what works best for you. Don’t worry if you don’t nail your perfect setup on the first try!
Part of what makes bullet journaling fun and unique is the ability to tweak your layouts every time you turn the page. So don’t let your fear of the blank page keep you from trying something new.
You have to start somewhere… and who knows? You might really fall in love with bullet journaling!
3. Create an Idea Folder
If you ever get stuck, you can always look for inspiration on Instagram or Pinterest and save the layouts you like. I like to create a specific Instagram folder for each type of layout (daily pages, weekly pages, collections, etc) or you can screenshot the images on your phone and save them to a dedicated album.
Use these ideas as inspiration, not as the Bible. One person’s set up might work great for you! But it also might not. Consider what you love about this layout, then customize it to support your unique life season.
These are my favorite bullet journaling Instagram accounts:
4. Start Minimally
Your bullet journal doesn’t even half of the pages you see online. Start with a simple setup that you can maintain consistently and add more later.
Here’s how I suggest you set up your first bullet journal.
- Number your pages if you didn’t buy a notebook with page numbers
- Set up your Index page
- Set up your Future Log or skip this layout and use a digital calendar instead
- Create a Monthly Log for the current month
- Set up a Weekly Log for the current week or skip the Weekly and just set up a Daily Log
- Choose 1-2 collection/list pages to add next.
Starting is always the hardest part. Once you get going, you’ll know what you want to change/add as you go.
5. Sketch Your Layouts in Pencil
For more complicated layouts where you’re not sure how to fit everything on the page (at least evenly!), I recommend sketching in pencil first. That way, you know that you have enough space for what you need and can easily redraw if necessary. Later, you can go back over your sketch with a pen.
6. Flag Your Most Referenced Pages
The Index keeps everything organized, but there are some pages you might want to reference every day, multiple times a day—like a morning routine page or current project. I suggest using sticky tabs so you can flip to them fast.
The last thing you want to do is waste time searching for a specific page!
The Most Difficult Part of Bullet Journaling (But You’ll Get Through it!)
There’s a LOT of information on the internet about bullet journaling and you might be feeling really overwhelmed right now. This probably isn’t the first post you’ve read!
It’s much easier to get started if you’re not piecing information together.
I actually wrote a comprehensive step-by-step guide that shows you how to make bullet journaling work for your style and schedule without a lot of effort. It’s called, Brainbook: Bullet Journaling Your Way to a More Organized Life.
This guide is a total of 116 jam-packed pages, including setup checklists, beginner tutorials, and advanced tips and tricks. I don’t just show you how to set up your journal, I should you how to set your journal up for success, and maintain it going forward in a way that’s easy to understand and relevant to your life.
Bullet journaling has significantly changed my planning life for the better. My approach to it has morphed through the years, but I still adore the system!
The beauty is in the flexibility—you can adapt and change your bullet journal into whatever you need it to be. This the only planning system that allows you to evolve as you life season does and pivot quickly! You don’t even need to wait until the new year to start a notebook. So if you’re frustrated with your current system, you can quickly and easily jump into something new.
One more note: you don’t even need to track everything in your bullet journal if you don’t want to. Some people love that they can use ONE notebook to organize their entire life. And you can if you want to! But others, like myself, prefer to use a stack of productivity tools that integrate together.
Remember, I use Google Calendar instead of a future log!
I can’t wait to help you get started with your own bullet journal, so let me know in the comments if you have any questions about what I’ve covered here and I’ll try to answer them as best I can!
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