About a year ago exactly, I saw a mention on social media about something called a bullet journal. This was a sufficiently intriguing phrase that I googled it (as I google whenever when I don’t know what something is — as should you!) and found a tsunami of links and information about this Hip New Lifestyle trend that was sweeping instagram and was guaranteed to Change Your Life. Now, I’m the last person to jump on board a Hip New Lifestyle trend — the self help section was my very least favorite section of the bookstore, followed closely by its cousin the business advice section. But I gotta say, this spoke to me. I read up on it. And I pretty much started my own bullet journal that same week.
In a nutshell, a bullet journal is an adaptable, self-guided planner and organizer and whatever else you need it to be. That’s kind of what I love about it — you start with blank pages and then do whatever you need to make it work. This article (which also links to the original Bullet Journal site) made it all make sense and got me started.
I’d tried other planners — Day Runner, calendar systems, etc. — with pre-printed pages and notebooks and rigid structures, and they never worked. They didn’t fit with what I needed to do. (It should come as no surprise that my life has never really looked the way that the makers of planning systems think a life looks like.) Entire sections of my planners would remain blank, or I’d start dutifully using various sections the way they were meant to be used and then stop when it became clear that it was just making more work for myself without helping me. There were never pages for what I needed, and the pre-existing pages never seemed to fit. I don’t need a day-to-day calendar with all the hours marked out, not when most of my days are “6 hours of sitting at the computer trying to make stuff up.” Not to mention the expense of buying all those proprietary pre-printed sheets designed for a proprietary-sized notebook.
So I turned to the post-it note method of organizing and planning, which is utterly terrible. Imagine a desk covered in post-it notes, with various other notes tucked into folders, and yet more notes pinned to a bulletin board. I’d joke about needing to-do lists to organize my to-do lists, and spend time just about every week trying to consolidate my to-do lists.
The bullet journal is a way to organize to-do lists. And least that’s how it works for me. Now, instead of writing things on post-it notes and scattering them all over, I have a book that I have customized to my own needs. When I need to write something down, there’s likely a place for me to write it in my bullet journal. Books I want to read? That has a page. Release date for a short story coming out in six months? Deadline for an anthology I just agreed to write for? That’s got a spot. Stuff I need to do this week? This month? Boom. There’s a page of book promotion items. Another page for trip prep items. Travel, deadlines, release dates, and just about everything else are all compiled in one space instead of me having to consult three different pages to sort my life out.
What I really love about the journal is the way it flows calendars. This is the bit I did take directly from the bullet journal format: The future log, which gives a thumbnail look at the whole year. Each month then migrates to a page which gives a month-at-a-glance summary (especially useful for travel, as it blocks out entire trips), along with a monthly task list (i.e. things I need to do this month but not necessarily on a particular day). This in turn flows into weekly to-dos (things that do need to be done on specific days). If I don’t get something done it roles forward. If I keep rolling forward the same task then I need to think about how much I really need to do this task.
Also, whenever you need to write something, it just goes on the next page. Go on vacation for two weeks and don’t need your usual to-do lists? You just skip it and won’t have any wasted space in your book. You use what you need, and nothing extra is left over. Brilliant!
I could probably do a better job of utilizing this tool. Tens of thousands of websites give examples of templates and methods for tracking daily habits, managing housework, long-term goals, and so on. A lot of people use the journals for actual journaling — what happened day-to-day, gratitude lists, memories, etc. It’s a planner as envisioned by scrapbookers.
I’ve talked before about how over the last few years the goal-setting method that carried me through almost two decades of life and success started to break down. I’d accomplished just about everything on even my long-term list. “Just keep doing what you’re doing but better” isn’t a good way to formulate a plan that will actually allow me to accomplish anything new. And what new things did I want to accomplish anyway? I’d been moving toward keeping something like a rolling list of goals and dreams that I could consult and prioritize at just about any time.
Turns out, a bullet journal is pretty brilliant for something like that. There’s a page for future travel. There’s a page for “things I want to get better at” (like music, Spanish, and birdwatching). A list of craft projects, which I can add to whenever I want, instead of writing it down on a post-it. Sometimes I don’t really have a plan, but even writing a thing down makes it concrete and reminds me to think about it.
I’ve heard lots of people say they’re intimidate by the whole concept of a bullet journal because they google it and are inundated with images of colorful, perfect layouts and beautifully calligraphed pages. Who has time for that? I don’t. I use colored pens to make headers and things but that’s about it.
Remember: no one ever has to see your bullet journal. It’s not getting graded. Posting on instagram isn’t a requirement. It’s for you and nobody else. Use it how you want. No one is the boss of you.
Ugly bullet journals unite!