Beginner’s Guide to the Bullet Journal

It all came to a flash point back in October. Deadlines were filling my inbox, my  manuscript was quickly approaching its due date, and emotional meltdowns were cropping up on a seemingly hourly basis. I needed a better organization system and I needed it fast. So I started my Bullet Journal.

And I’ve never looked back.

What is a Bullet Journal?

Bullet Journaling is almost like a cult phenomenon. I first heard about it last year but I barely gave it a second thought. I was happy with my Google Calendar and didn’t see any reason to switch away. But then this fall rolled around and I was walloped with quickly-moving deadlines and various projects that needed attention every week {and some every day}. But every time I picked up my phone to glance at my calendar, I’d see a text or a missed phone call, and my productivity levels would plummet. Plus, there is something totally satisfying about taking a pen to paper. Clicking a box on a computer screen just doesn’t have the same sense of fulfillment that crossing out a checklist does!

Bullet Journal

But here’s the thing: when you first begin your Bullet Journal, it can seem overwhelming. There are dozens upon dozens of resources on the internet and almost every single one makes it seem more complicated than it needs to. In fact, I spent quite a bit of time on the main Bullet Journal website, trying to decode the mystical world of this analog system….and it confused the hell out of me. So I struck out on my own, ignoring the noise and blog posts that show you elaborately beautiful journal pages with complicated instructions on the correct symbols and placements of key phrases. And in the end, I found a Bullet Journal system that works for me. I’m here to share that with you. Let’s take a look!

This post does contain affiliate links, which means I make a small commission if you purchase the items. As always, I appreciate your support!

The Journal

The first thing you need to purchase is a journal and I’d highly recommend you spending the money on a decent one. I bought a black Rhodia dot grid journal and it’s perfect for me. It’s about 5.5 x 8 inches which means it’s small enough for me to carry in my purse or backpack but large enough that it doesn’t feel cumbersome. The pages are thick enough that you can’t see the ink through the back. Most important, however, is the dot grid pattern. I really prefer the dot grid since it still creates the tidy and straight lines, but you don’t have to worry about drawing over existing lines like you would with graph paper.

Added bonus: it’s crazy durable. I chuck this thing around my car, in my gym bag, and from office-to-home and back again, and it holds up.

The Pens

I really didn’t think pens mattered–until I purchased a cheap set that bled all over the pages of my new journal. Lesson learned!

The Staedtler brand was highly recommended and I finally bit the bullet {haha, get it?!} and purchased the 10-pack of Staedtler fineliner pens. They don’t bleed on the pages of my Rhodia journal and they have nice fine tips which is important for writing in small spaces. Plus, you get ten different colors which has called for me to go a little crazy with the rainbows from time to time……I’m learning to reel that in!

Index

You’ve got your pens, you’ve got your notebook. Now it’s time to set up your Index! The index is the guide for the entire book, so it’s important to set it up first thing. You know how books have Table of Contents at the beginning? That is exactly what the Index is.

For me, the Index is growing gradually. I started with my Future Log {more to come}, and then simply added my October calendar since that is when I began the entire Bullet Journal. But here is the beauty of the index: anytime I added to a category, I can just flip back to the Index and add the new page number. For example, I have a category in my Index called “Manuscript.” Anytime I outlined a chapter for my book or identified photos or really anything else pertaining to the book, I would add that page number to the Index. Then, when I needed to reference something, I could just flip to my Index to find the page number.

This may not seem like a big problem when you first begin your Bullet Journal, but as the length grows, you will find yourself flipping through pages upon pages trying to find where you tucked away your “Accounts Receivable” page. Having an Index is such a time saver and a great way to keep everything organized.

Pro tip: skip the 95-colors that I decided to use. It was fun at first but now I kinda wish I didn’t have to see the entire rainbow every time I glance at my Index! But, you live and you learn– and I know my Index on my NEXT journal won’t be quite so technicolor!

Page Numbers

After setting up your Index, I think it’s easiest to go through your journal and number the pages. I like to do that in bulk, numbering at least 50 at a time. Of course, it’s super easy: I just write the number and circle it in the lower corner of each page. This is helpful when you are trying to locate page numbers for your Index. It’s kind of hard to decipher a page number if you haven’t written them in yet!

Future Log

After setting up my Index and page numbers, I went through and created a year-long calendar. For many people, this may not be necessary. Maybe you don’t book things months in advance? Then you likely don’t need this. But Will and I tend to have our calendar filled six months out and it’s important that I can glance at a single future month and know whether that date is available.

So far, I haven’t done anything super fancy with this section. I simply split each page into three rectangles, each one assigned to a future month. Anytime an event crops up, I put it in my Future Log with the corresponding date. Then, when I set up my Monthly Calendars {more below}, I can just reference the applicable month.

The Bullets

The Bullet Journal gets its name from somewhere and I suspect this is the spot! Many of us naturally create checklists in our daily life so we’re going to do the same thing here in our Bullet Journal. But first, you have to decide on the bullet system that works best for you.

You see, if you go to the Bullet Journal website, they have quite a complicated list of suggested bullets that indicate you are journaling “properly.” I tried some of those for a hot minute but realized they didn’t make sense for my life. Instead, I settled on four that agreed with my style:

Each bullet represents a type of task. For example, if I use a regular bullet next to a task {•}, it means it is something I need to accomplish. Once I complete that task, I draw an X through the bullet dot. If I don’t get that task done that day and it needs to be moved, or migrated, to the next day, I use an arrow {>} symbol. Then, when I re-record that task on the next day, I will use the reverse arrow symbol {<} indicating that it was migrated. This helps me remember that it came from the previous day so there is a good chance I should tackle it first.

If I have an event on a particular day, I use an open triangle to indicate that in my task list. I have also seen some people use open circles but for whatever reason, the triangle stuck for me! For me, this can be work meetings, phone calls, coach-in-training sessions, whatever. Once the event is completed, I fill in the triangle to indicate it’s completion. If the date gets changed, I use the migration arrows just like I described above.

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Finally, if I have a task on my list that is super important and I want to make sure I remember that, I’ll usually float an exclamation point {!} in the margin next to the list. This is just another visual cue that helps me prioritize.

Content

The majority of my Bullet Journal is broken down into three categories: Weekly Logs, Monthly Calendars, and individual pages.

Individual Pages

I have various pages scattered throughout my journal, showcasing various lists and details I want to remember. For example, I created one page called “Blog Posts Ideas.” Anytime I think of a new post idea, I add it to the list before I forget. I also have an “Accounts Receivable” page for all of my freelance and blog invoices. I include the brand, the dollar amount, when I invoice them, and whether or not I’ve received payment. In particular, this page has been incredibly helpful in organizing my invoicing system. I actually used to do a lot of it by memory but that became challenging with vendors who pay 3-6 months out. I found myself forgetting that I was owed money {and sometimes a lot of money!} Don’t forget: anytime you create a page like this, add it to your Index! I’ve referenced my Index a zillion times because I can never remember what page my Accounts Receivable is on!

Weekly Logs

Currently, a Weekly Log is where most of the action happens in my Bullet Journal. And for me, it has been major trial-and-error to find a format and design that I like to look at while still being efficient and helpful. This is what I have settled on:

At the beginning of every week, I sit down and create this page. It takes about 10 minutes, but it’s organizationally helpful too. By the time I’ve written everything into my log, I have a good idea of what my week looks like! Personally, I like to include the To-Do list on the side also. This is for stuff that I know I need to get done this week {i.e. invoice a client} but doesn’t need to be done on a particular day. For example, I’ve been setting up OR Show appointments for January. It doesn’t matter when I get that done this week; it just needs to be done.

I’ve also decided to include a small Workout Log at the bottom corner. Usually this isn’t something I would track like this {or track at all!} but my fitness took a beating while writing my manuscript and I’ve been gradually rebuilding. It’s important to get my 5-6 workouts in every week, and recording them in my Bullet Journal has made me more accountable.

Does your Weekly Log have to look like this? Absolutely not. Mine has gone through many iterations. In fact, when I’m super busy, I have to further dissect my Weekly Log and create individual pages for a single day. I did this the entire month of October and it was helpful in accomplishing everything I needed to do. But now, my manuscript is turned in and our company has closed for the winter, so my task list is more manageable. As a result, I don’t need a daily list right now.

Monthly Calendar

I create a Monthly Calendar at the beginning of every month. Again, yours doesn’t have to look like this; find what works for you! On months that are looking busy, I’ll sometimes expand the calendar to include the entire page to account for multiple events in a single day. But currently, this format works great for me!

Does the setup take some time? Sure does. I spend about 30 minutes at the beginning of every month, going through my Future Log and making sure I’ve transferred everything important to my Monthly Calendar. After all, this calendar is what I then reference for my Weekly Logs. Just like the above, I prefer to have  “To-Do” list section along with my calendar. This helps me track tasks I need to accomplish that month but aren’t tied to a specific date.

Artistic Flair

If you google “Bullet Journal” online, you’re going to see some of the most beautiful pages you’ve ever imagined in a journal! In fact, check out this page on Pinterest. Do you see that artwork?!

That’s the thing with a Bullet Journal: if you immediately try to compare your journal to what others are doing, you’re going to fall flat. Some people thrive with art and can create complex and visually stunning pages without even trying. Others will be intimidated by that and discard the journal entirely if forced to get creative. I fall somewhere the middle. I originally thought I would go with a basic approach but soon found I enjoy creating these pages. Are they as fancy as some of those Pinterest pages? Absolutely not. Will I ever buy stamps or Washi tape to decorate my journal pages? Probably not. For me, that would be stressful because I’m just not that artistic. That said, I do enjoy putting a little flair on the pages as you can see from my arrows and whatnot. The only accessory I use for my journal is a small ruler like this one. I tuck it in my journal when I’m not using it, but it helps me create straight lines when creating the pages.

Bottom line: find what works for you. {And then reference Pinterest for some neat ideas on how to format your pages!}

Now go forth, my friends. Journal til your heart is content. And check back and let me know how it’s going!

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20 Comments

  • Reply Kate December 12, 2016 at 6:31 am

    I have been so curious about these, after seeing pictures floating around on Instagram. I carry a little Moleskine calendar, but it doesn’t quite capture all that I need it to. Will need to read more about this style..

    • Reply Heather December 31, 2016 at 10:54 am

      Love to hear what you think!

  • Reply Sarah C December 12, 2016 at 9:44 am

    I’ve been doing this for a few months now and as basic as it is, the most important thing this system has taught me is that it’s “OK” to integrate the to-do lists for my private and professional lives. I don’t know why before I thought they had to be separate, but it’s like a huge revelation to me that my work tasks can be on the same weekly page layout as the meals I’m planning, my workouts, and my home/family tasks. So I don’t do any fancy decorations or even the symbols (beyond dot and x, or a circle to be filled in when a workout is complete), but I feel like this system (or my really basic version of it) has changed my life for the better!

    • Reply Heather December 31, 2016 at 10:55 am

      Agreed. Once I let go of the notion that it had to be “beautiful,” it helped me enormously!

  • Reply Anne December 12, 2016 at 10:26 am

    OK I won’t lie I don’t think this system is best for me because I got overwhelmed and stopped reading halfway through LOL. However, I do like the concept of having a blank journal with suggestions for templates. I actually switched from a paper planner to my Google calendar earlier this year when grad school got crazy, but I still feel like I need a small notebook with weekly pages for to-do lists, like you said, so maybe I’ll look around for a smaller version I can make less complicated 😉

  • Reply Lynn December 13, 2016 at 9:36 am

    Sold. I have been overwhelmed with my freelance work, my kids’ schedules and volunteering for school events, and life in general. Come January, I’m turning over a new leaf! When you first started posting about bullet journals, I googled it and the whole thing looked so complicated. This streamlined version is perfect!

    • Reply Heather December 16, 2016 at 9:37 pm

      I think it’s one of those things you can make as complicated or intricate as you like, you know? Hope it helps!

  • Reply Amanda December 13, 2016 at 3:52 pm

    I’m getting married next year (if I can find a venue we can afford…) and this looks like a great way to keep everything organized! I’m pulling out my hair trying to track everything online and in notebooks everywhere. Thanks for sharing!

    • Reply Heather December 31, 2016 at 10:56 am

      Oh man, I WISH I was doing this when we got married– we had Google Docs every which way! If you’re looking for a wedding photographer, let me know– my husband and I shoot weddings/engagements a fair bit 🙂

  • Reply Caryn December 13, 2016 at 4:19 pm

    Thanks for the post! I think this is too much for me, BUT I searched far and wide for a calendar/ notes book and found one that has a set-up I love. It’s not quite as intricate as this and doesn’t give the freedom to do what you will with each page (which is a nice feature), but it does have some great organization. Going to use this post to amp my checklist up with the symbol system, and also make better use of the full December calendar with notes feature for monthly items I can check off. When we get together next I’d like to show you what I’m using and get your thoughts on how bullet journaling may keep it even more organized. Thanks for sharing and the way you laid the information out – very helpful!

  • Reply Kiley December 15, 2016 at 7:34 am

    The Index page is a genius idea!!! I have always kept a notebook throughout the year to write down work notes, to do lists, etc. and I always end up flipping through the pages over and over to try and find notes from earlier. This will be such a time saver!! Thank you! 🙂

    • Reply Heather December 16, 2016 at 9:36 pm

      SO HELPFUL, right?!

  • Reply Patrice La Vigne December 18, 2016 at 10:05 am

    Wow! This was such a great post. I am a compulsive list maker and am attached to my online calendar, but this is a really intriguing system. It still seems a little overwhelming, but you certainly helped break it down!! Much appreciated!

  • Reply Jessie @ Chasing Belle December 23, 2016 at 9:41 am

    I love journaling and have been keeping a daily planner for the past year to document my months, weeks, and days. I love the idea of bullet journaling, but it looks so intimidating with creating all the pages from scratch. I think I want to try it though!

    • Reply Heather December 31, 2016 at 10:57 am

      That’s really the part that sounds complex: you create the pages. But once you realize that gives you so many options to customize it to what YOU need, I swear it gets easier!

  • Reply Jesse January 2, 2017 at 12:18 pm

    Perfect post for the New Year. I was just thinking I need a way to get organized since my current system of random notes and lists isn’t really cutting it. I used my calendar app for awhile but I definitely prefer pen and paper. Going to buy myself a journal today. Thanks for the post!

  • Reply Angela January 2, 2017 at 6:02 pm

    I love this and can’t wait to start my own. Thanks for sharing 🙂

  • Reply Katie Featherstone January 5, 2017 at 4:34 am

    This appeals tome a lot. I’m so unorganised, but I love making things look pretty!

  • Reply Nancy January 9, 2017 at 7:58 pm

    I guess I’ve always somewhat bulleted journaled. Only saying that as I have always used an empty notebook to create a daily to-do list. These bulleted one’s lately seem a lot more organized than mine, and I actually might try to incorporate some of the signs (like a triangle for to-do’s, a dot for done, and so-on).

  • Reply shalla March 14, 2017 at 10:29 pm

    I am a girl who writes lists and re-writes lists once I have completed several items on the original list. This is GENIUS! I am going to start this now!

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