How to Bullet Journal: The Absolute Ultimate Guide
The January air smells like organization. You can't fight it, so let's lean into it with lazy genius attitude.
I want to tell you about the Bullet Journal. You might have seen the video or been on the website. You might even be using the method yourself, but I want to share my take on the ins and outs, pitfalls and beauties of the best way to organize your life I've ever found. I wish this post had existed when I first started, so here's to you having better luck with the learning curve than I did.
The Bullet Journal is like a potato.
It seems boring and bland and easily replaced by flashier starches like couscous and black forbidden rice, but the potato is special not for what it is but it what it can become. Tell couscous to turn into a French fry, and we'll talk. Until then, the potato is king simply because it can be whatever you want it to be.
That's what makes the Bullet Journal so special. The market is saturated with every planner you could dream up, but somehow not one - no matter how fancy - perfectly serves your needs. It's just couscous trying to turn into a French fry. But the Bullet Journal is different. It starts with a blank journal and a pen which is deceptively simple and almost boring, but it's also the lazy genius organizer you've been waiting for.
The Bullet Journal is better than your online system.
Almost definitely. Here's why.
Our brains approach analog methods differently than digital ones. Toddlers navigate iPads better than their degree-toting older relatives, so all the smart people have become increasingly interested in what damage (if any) this is doing to the brain.
I'm not here to tell you to stop you or your kids from using screens; that would be ridiculous and mean hallelujah TV. But there is something different about going analog. Have you ever edited a term paper or manuscript on your computer? You always end up printing the whole thing and flipping pages with pen in hand because for some reason it works better. Studies show this is why:
"Whether they realize it or not, many people approach computers and tablets with a state of mind less conducive to learning than the one they bring to paper."
The Reading Brain in the Digital Age: the Science of Paper vs. Screens from Scientific American
Our brains behave differently when we go analog, and that's why the Bullet Journal is a great system. It engages your brain and encourages more thorough thought processes. Plus you get to buy an awesome pen.
Still, even though the act of writing is romantic and gratifying, it does take longer. Which seems dumb and anti-genius, so why do it? Because the Bullet Journal, by design, helps you decide what matters and what doesn't. If it's not important enough to write down any number of times, it's not important enough to keep in your life. Simple but extremely effective.
Your Bullet Journal will not replace your smartphone. I might die without immediate access to podcasts, but phones can't contain everything, not in one visual place anyway. And you can't save the information on your phone in the same way you can within a book spine. Once a Bullet Journal is full, it lives on your shelf with what will eventually become a lifetime of others, and you'll have the best bird's eye view of your life that no technology can match.
The Bullet Journal can be set up in the next five minutes.
If you're hesitant to buy a new journal before you know if you'll use it (valid decision by the way), grab an old steno notebook or one of the dozens of barely-used journals on your shelf. (I'm the president of Journal Hoarders of America, so I do not judge.) Now let's take a few minutes to do a quick set-up so you can see everything in action.
The Backbone Pages of the Bullet Journal
The Index Page
Open to the first spread of blank pages. This is your Index page. If the Bullet Journal is a potato, the Index is fat. You can use whatever kind of fat you want - olive oil, bacon, butter - but it's hard to grasp the beauty of the simple boiled potato without a little liquid cholesterol. Fat makes potatoes sing, i.e. your Index makes your Bullet Journal a magical device no matter what form you use. It oftentakes a little time to realize that, but don't skip or ignore the Index.
One of the best qualities of the Bullet Journal is that nothing has to be written consecutively. In fact, it serves its purpose best when you simply write any new information on the next blank page. There's no saving pages or having empty sections (like in other planners), so there's no waste. You simply find things via the Index.
It doesn't have to be fancy; it's what you'd expect - a list of page descriptions and their corresponding page numbers so you can find what you need when you need it. You'll fill it up over time, but for now, simply title that first page "Index," write the appropriate page numbers at the bottom (presumably 1 and 2), and add those pages to your actual Index.
The Future Log
The Bullet Journal takes a focused look at one month at a time which is great for the month but tricky when recording things that will happen down the road. That's why the Future Log is so fly.
The versions of set-up are infinite, but trial and error have taught me to keep my Bullet Journal as mind-numbingly simple as possible. If an appointment or lunch date or food truck festival is coming my way, I simply write a box, the date, and the event. Done. We'll talk more about the execution later, so just write "Future Log" at the top of the page, number the page, and add it to your Index. You'll want it near the front of your Bullet Journal, so best to do it now.
The Monthly Log
I love that you don't have to start your Bullet Journal in January for it to be effective. Simply begin where you are. If you're reading this in May, your first Monthly Log will be May.
Write the month at the top of the next blank page, and write the days of the month down the side. It's also helpful to write the first letter of the corresponding day of the week so you know when the actual date falls. You can do this on the left or right of the number; the creator of the Bullet Journal puts his on the right, and I put mine on the left. You choose.
Now take your current calendar system (your phone, your cute Target planner, etc.) and transfer this month's appointments and events into your Monthly Log. Keep it simple, and limit your words. Brevity is a great habit to get into.
If you feel like this Bullet Journal thing might just be your jam, go ahead and flip through the rest of your old calendar and add any upcoming dates to your Future Log. Might as well while the book is open and your pen is poised.
The Monthly Task List
The original way people set up their month is to have the calendar page you just made on the left and a giant task list on the right. Frankly, I don't live a life that needs a monthly task list, at least most of the time. In December, it was different. There were gifts to purchase and wrap, desserts to make for gatherings, kids' Christmas parties that needed red plates, i.e. it was natural for me to list out any number of things I needed to get done that month. But for me, most months aren't like that. The beautiful thing? Make each month what you need it to be. If you sometimes need a monthly task list, make one. If not, skip it. Isn't the freedom awesome?
The Daily Log
Here's where I stumbled during my first months with my Bullet Journal. I approached the daily log purely in task mode. I'd write down that day's date and then list out what I wanted to get accomplished. It was very robotic and had no soul. Plus, we all know how we feel at the end of the day when tasks don't get marked off - crappy. Then there would be some days (like lazy weekends) when I didn't feel the need to write down any tasks at all. The result was inconsistent interaction with my Bullet Journal, relegating it to being an elaborate to-do list I could've just written on a napkin.
Then the light bulb went off, and the Daily Log changed. It's a log. The actual definition of log is "an official record of events during the voyage of a ship or aircraft." No, life isn't a boat, but it's totally a voyage. We move through life, change, make memories, forget most of them, and wonder why we feel so listless on a regular basis.
The Daily Log is the knife and fork to your Bullet Journal potato. It's the tool you use to take out the important bits of your day and give them permanence. Those bits will be practical, like tasks and appointments, but also personal, like things you want to remember, books you finished reading, conversations you had with an old friend.
Once I treated my Daily Log like a log, the process came alive, and I opened my Bullet Journal every day. The best thing though? It's not like those personal logs need to be long. In fact, it's better if they're not. When you're writing entries for the day, write them as they come to mind. You might write "go to post office" and immediately follow it with "Sam rode his bike for the first time." It all gets logged in unbiased order, just as our brains naturally bend. My brain doesn't automatically categorize things within itself; that's why we make lists! That's why we crave order. Our brains are amazing, but we have to sift through the information and find out what matters. The Daily Log lets those thoughts out in a stream of consciousness way without feeling jumbled and crazy.
How are you feeling so far? Intrigued I hope? If you are, let's keep going.
The Bullet Journal doesn't have to dress for the Oscars.
I encourage you to not look for other examples of Bullet Journaling, not just yet. Why? Because there are people who doll their pages up beautifully with washi tape, calligraphy, stamps, intricate doodles, and everything else that makes your heart beat fast at the craft store. They're color-coordinated with tabs and labels, and there are so many pages to choose from, it's like a scary organizational buffet.
Those journals are beautiful without question. But remember when I said trial and error taught me to keep my Bullet Journal simple? That's because I went through three - yeah, THREE - different journals because I kept getting frustrated and starting over. I couldn't keep up with all the beauty I wanted to see on every page. My handwriting is boring, the only thing I can doodle is a wobbly spiral, and while I do have an impressive collection of washi tape, it just took too long to make every page pretty. I was dressing my journal for the Oscars when I live a Modern Family reruns life.
Elaborate Bullet Journals are appealing, but they're full of red flags. Here are three.
Signifiers are symbols for your entries. They allow you to quickly glance at any page of your Bullet Journal and find what you're looking for. Since you'll get in the habit of essentially brain dumping onto the page, giving those entries visual categorization is super helpful.
Here's the problem. If you do an image search of "bullet journal signifiers," you'll have a nervous breakdown. There are SO. MANY. People create the signifiers they want and need, so there are no limits and no rules. It's beautiful but overwhelming. My advice? Limit your signifiers to as few as possible.
I use five main signifiers and an occasional sixth.
- A box is for tasks and things I need to do; when the task is done, I fill in the box.
- A triangle is for appointments and places to go; when it's done, I fill in the triangle.
- A dot is for things to remember or log. It could be anything from the name of that ultrasound tech who made me laugh to the book I just finished.
- A heart is for memories and things that mean something I don't want to forget.
- A star goes next to a box or dot for things that need an extra visual clue, i.e. urgent, important things.
- Finally, I put the letters LL next to things I've jotted down that would be good for the monthly Lazy Links newsletter where I list all my favorite things for the month. When it's time to write that email, I simply scan the Daily Logs for that month and look for the LL's.
Some people use different signifiers for emails, phone calls, things to research, ideas to flesh out, etc., but I could never remember what signifier I made for each purpose. Even when I made a special signifier bookmark to keep in my Bullet Journal as a reference, I never took the time to actually draw a lightbulb when I had an idea. It stressed me out and cramped my hand. Too much work, not enough lazy genius.
Keep. signifiers. simple.
Collections are topical pages in your Bullet Journal, i.e. anything that's not a log. In the past, I've had collection pages for books to read, shows to watch, recipes to try, favorite restaurants, party plans, cleaning lists, meal plans, blog post ideas, words I love, and that's just scratching the surface. I would open a new Bullet Journal and make a collection for everything I could think of. Most of it I didn't need to think hard about; it was already in my head.
The delight of having a Bullet Journal is not having to keep stuff in your head that wants to get out, but there are certain things you know without having to write them down. Like, you guys, in one of my Bullet Journals, I made a list of all our friends. Our friends. What purpose does that serve? I think I reasoned that it would be a good visual reminder of who we could invite over for dinner when the mood struck, but are you serious? A written list of friends?!
I took collections too far. It's easy to do.
As you get started with your own Bullet Journal, I encourage you to not make many, if any, collections until you're a couple of weeks in. I've been using this method for almost two years, and in my current journal, I have three collections. Just three. And one I just added a few days ago. I keep a list of books I want to read (the only collection I'll allow you at the start because obviously you need this), important website details to quickly reference (fonts, colors, blog post tags, etc.), and I recently added a list of drugstore makeup products to try and log if they worked or not. The result? My breathing stays steady as I flip through my Bullet Journal. No yoga or stress exercises required.
Collections will make themselves obvious to you. You'll know when you need one. When you spend a few days flipping among several different pages to get the information you need, you'll think, "This would work a lot better if everything was on one page." Boom. You just discovered a collection.
Don't create collections simply to fill pages. Let them happen naturally.
Part of me wants my Bullet Journal to look like it belongs on a line of Martha Stewart packaging. For awhile, I forced it to. I bordered each page with a different color of washi tape. I'd try and make adorable block letters to title every page. I'd assign different colored pens to different categories. I'd practice doodling just so my journal could look doodle-cute.
Do you want to guess how long I kept that up? Exactly.
Some of you are super artistic and can make the word January resemble a snow flurry in the amount of time it takes me to find a pen. I'm not telling you to not make pretty letters. But whatever you choose, here's the trick: how you add entries has to be just as easy to execute on a Saturday evening when you're cozy on the couch surrounded by all your supplies as it is on a Monday at 4pm when someone poops on the floor just as your in-laws are walking in unannounced. (Not that that's ever happened to any of us.)
Yes, it's fun to flip through your Bullet Journal and see beautiful designs and calming colors, but if that only happens every 15 pages while the others look like a ransom note, you'll get frustrated. At least I did.
All you need to embellish your Bullet Journal is whatever comes easiest. Be okay with a black pen and nothing else.
You will never learn all there is to know about the Bullet Journal.
And that's okay. Sometimes being aware of every possibility is crippling instead of inviting. Still, there are a few more strategies and tips that might be helpful as you get started.
Migration is your filtering system. It's how you decide what to keep, what to discard, and what strategies to revamp.
At the end of every month when you're setting up the next, you'll migrate stuff. You'll flip through the previous month (and even further back if things are still floating), look at undone tasks and events, i.e. empty squares and triangles, as well as read through your notes. It's best to get in the habit of closing up every month once it's come to an end, kind of like packing up Christmas decorations. If you leave a random undone task floating in December but don't move it to January, it'll keep floating for all eternity.
To migrate a task, make a visual cue. Draw an arrow through the empty box, triangle or dot to indicate that it's been relocated to a more appropriate spot in your Bullet Journal. But that means you actually need to rewrite it somewhere else, whether that's in the next month or on a collection page. Either way, try and reconcile every entry.
If you come upon an undone task and you don't feel like writing it again, chances are it's not important enough to keep in your life. That's the failsafe built into the Bullet Journal; if it's not worth writing, it's not worth doing. If that's the case, cross it out. Again, give yourself visual cues so you're not rereading the same entries over and over again. That's when signifiers become your friend; they tell you what's still open at the quickest glance.
P.S. If you find yourself migrating the same thing for several months, it might be time to reevaluate that thing.
Threading is an awesome page numbering trick. Let's say you have similar information spread across several nonconsecutive pages. You can certainly look at your Index to see what pages you need, for example "12-14, 22, 35." It's a lot of flipping but not impossible. But once threading comes into play, it's simpler. Just write the next relevant page number next to the current one. So if you're on page 14, you can look at the bottom of that page, see the number 22, and know that's the next relevant page to flip to. Page 22 will have 35 at the bottom of it, and the cycle continues. It's not necessary all the time, but it's helpful when things are spread out.
P.S. If you find yourself with info spread across a million pages, it might be time for a collection. Once you migrate all the information, don't forget to draw arrows through the boxes and dots that now have a new home.
Variations on the Calendar
We all have different brains that see the world in different ways. Some of you see words as colors, others see the months in a circle, and I see just about everything as linear as it can be. That means we all need different perspectives on our calendars. I like for my Monthly Log to be a list of dates rather a traditional calendar with squares; I tried both and totally prefer the list. But I still like to see the year at a glance, especially when holidays and birthdays fall. So in the front of my Bullet Journal is a simple calendar with just that - holidays and birthdays.
I did make it a little extra pretty, but since this page only has to be created once and I had the time, I embellished more than I usually do.
If you need a yearly look, create one. If you need your month to be boxes, do it.
Set up your calendars the best way your brain sees time.
The Bullet Journal is the Meryl Streep of organization; it can take on any role you need it to. But it doesn't have to.
Everything can go in your Bullet Journal, but not everything has to. The trick is to take it slow.
When you begin a Bullet Journal, practice with the most basic signifiers and stick to log pages only. Most of the hacks out there are for folks who have found their Bullet Journal rhythm and have a lot of pages to show for it. But move too soon and it's like being asked to choose your first car when you're six and just learning to ride your bike. Give yourself time to figure out what matters to you. Then you can create mini systems within the larger method to work best for what you need.
Here are two examples of what doesn't go in my Bullet Journal.
Grocery Lists and Meal Plans
I tried meal planning in my Bullet Journal, but it wasn't intuitive for me. I have a dry erase board in my kitchen that is the easiest spot to write down what we just ran out of and what we'll probably have for dinner that week. It's more natural for how I think and move in my kitchen, and that's totally fine.
I'm a verbal processor, and when I don't have anyone to process something with, I write. I scribble. I draw lots of arrows that lead nowhere and hope that a sane idea eventually surfaces. Those kinds of pages drove me MAD when I saw them in my Bullet Journal, and at least 95% of the time, the words on those pages were never needed again. My brain just needed to process before it was able to file away a concrete idea; the process wasn't relevant anymore.
Yes, I value the processes of life, but I know myself well enough to know which ones don't need to be remembered. So I have a separate "processing" notebook. If I'm fleshing out a blog post, for example, I'll brainstorm and map it out in my processing notebook instead of my Bullet Journal. The important information will eventually be right here on this very website, so I don't need to store the unorganized version. It's like SAT scratch paper; you only need it until you find the answer.
If a new idea or a memorable discovery comes out of my processing, I'll write it in my daily log and give it the appropriate signifier. For example, let's say I'm brainstorming a new blog post series about the lazy genius way to throw a party. I'll probably have a few ideas of the kinds of parties to throw and actually want to throw one myself! So I'll write in my daily log "throw a milk and cookies party for my girlfriends." Then it's back to my "scratch paper" to find more answers.
The point is you can use your Bullet Journal however you want. Yes, it can hold everything and does for many people. But if that makes your life harder, the journal is not serving its purpose. Get in the practice of utilizing it for as much as you can, but don't feel badly if things change. Because they will.
That's a lot of stuff. Need to see it practically?
Here's how I use my Bullet Journal.
At the end of every month, I set aside a few minutes to set up the next. I write the name of the month, list the dates and days, scan my Future Log and insert relevant events and appointments, and after looking at the overview of my month, decide if I also need to set up a Monthly Task List or simply go with what each day or week calls for. This is also when I migrate relevant entries from the previous month.
In my Index, you won't see individual entries for each day. You'll simply see "January" with the relevant page numbers next to it. If I create a collection in the middle of the month, then the Index entry might read "January: 9-12, 15." Anytime I need to access something that happened in January or just feel curious about it, I know it all resides on pages 9 thru 12 and again on 15. (This would be a great spot to use threading.)
So now that my month is set up and the page is added to my Index, the only thing remaining is to participate each day in my Daily Log. Sometimes I write out any tasks and reminders the night before. Sometimes I don't write anything at all until the end of the day. And, yes, sometimes full days get skipped. There are no rules; I try and engage with it at least once a day, but I grant myself tremendous grace if I don't. My Bullet Journal rhythm changes drastically depending on what's happening in my life, and yours will, too. Lean into it. Hold it to a very lazy genius standard.
The Bullet Journal might change your life; you just have to give it a try.
I feel like I should serve you a glass of wine at the end of all this information. I realize it's a lot. But I wish there had been an article or post out there for me that sifted through all the Bullet Journal noise. I hope this serves that purpose for you.
P.S. It won't be noise once you find your rhythm. Then it'll be a choir of voices doing things the ways that work best for them, and you'll simply join in.
Ready to try? Here are my tools. If you use these links, I get a few pennies from your purchase which helps keep The Lazy Genius Collective alive and well. Thanks for the support, friends!
My Favorite Journal: Leuchtturn 1917 Notebook, A5 Dotted
Pros: sturdy, small enough to put in my purse but big enough to feel like an actual notebook, built-in Index page, already numbered pages, two bookmarks, thick paper, and dots instead of squares or lines that act as the perfect guide for whatever I need
Cons: The emerald was sold out when I bought mine, but I do love the black, aka NO CONS I LOVE THIS THING.
My Favorite Pen: Pilot Precise V5 Retractable Rolling Ball Pen, Extra Fine Point
Pros: smooth, doesn't bleed, thin enough for writing small numbers without feeling like the tip is going to break, deep black color, not expensive
Cons: I don't use this pen for everything. I have a few other favorites, too, because ohmygosh pens are everything. If a V5 isn't nearby when I need to make an entry in my Bullet Journal, I'll grab my Bic Atlantis Exact. It's not as thick and luxurious as the rolling ball pen, but it writes fast, clear, and tiny. It's a great plan B when I need it or for folks who press down hard when they write. For my processing notebook, I use a Uniball Impact 207. My girl Emily turned me onto this pen, and it's like butter. It's too thick for a Bullet Journal, at least for me, but for frantic note taking and brainstorming? It's king. Finally, when I want to add a subtle dose of color to my Bullet Journal entries, I use Sharpie fine point colored pens. They don't bleed, the colors are visible but not garish, and they write precisely.
Pen Summary: The V5 is Meryl Streep, the Atlantis is Natalie Portman, the 207 is JLo, and the Sharpie pen is Zooey Deschanel. Amen.
And now I leave you with the three words to set your trajectory on this Bullet Journal voyage:
It is possible to have everything in one place using one simple method and simultaneously note the soul that flows through your days. It's my favorite lazy genius way to organize my life, and I hope you love it as much as I do.
Congratulations! You have officially graduated from Bullet Journal University! Ready to get started? And if you have any questions at all, ask them. Whether you read this months and months after it's published, I'll still see your comment as will other readers. Let's help each other out however we can. Go team!