For many people, getting organized is one of those items that remains on the top of their priority pile but never actually gets ticked off.
If you’re one of those individuals, chances are, you’ve churned through dozens of notebooks, journals, planners, and apps in the hope of locking down that one organizational system that works for you.
But the outcome is more than likely always the same: you try to make yourself fit the system instead of making the system fit you.
If this sounds familiar, you might want to give bullet journaling a try. This organizational craze, which has saturated the news and social media for a while now, is like a planner, to-do list, diary, and sketchbook all in one.
It’s also a trend that shows no signs of slowing down.
Look up #bulletjournal or #bujo on your social media platform du jour, and you’ll find over 2 million posts on Instagram, not to mention endless scrolls of Pinterest pins and YouTube videos on the subject.
Bullet journaling is also helping to drive up stationary sales: there’s been an almost 20 percent increase in both notebook and writing instrument sales compared to last year, according to data from The NPD Group, a global information company.
So, what exactly is bullet journaling, and what’s the best way to get started? To answer all these questions, and more, we’ve compiled the ultimate bullet journal starter guide.
What are bullet journals?
The bullet journal, created by Ryder Carroll, a New York–based digital product designer, is a notebook-based organizational system that you can use to “track the past, organize the present, and plan for the future.”
Unlike a planner with its preprinted pages, bullet journaling involves taking a blank notebook and creating your own, ever-evolving system with which to keep all aspects of your life organized under one roof — work, side hustles, health, the works.
Once set up, the process of maintaining your bullet journal is “an adaptable practice meant to be self-curated as you determine what works best for you,” according to the official website.
What can you use them for?
The short answer: Everything.
Depending on your career and lifestyle, your bullet journal might include a variety of organizing schemes to keep your day-to-day life running smoothly as well as planning strategies to make your future goals — professional or otherwise — a reality.
The beauty of bullet journaling is that you can make every page suit your current needs. And then, as your priorities change — say you’ve started a new job or want to revamp your eating habits — you can transform your bullet journal right along with you, says Shelby Abrahamsen, bullet journal expert and owner of the website LittleCoffeeFox.
Among other things, you can use your bullet journal to:
- Advance your career. Keep track of your deadlines, meetings, and long-term projects so that nothing slips through the cracks. Record new ideas and jot down loose ends that need to be tied. Create charts of how you spend your time so that you can gradually make your work days more efficient.
- Organize your finances. Track and improve your finances by creating a monthly budget, logging your daily spending, and setting savings goals.
- Boost your health. Improve your eating and sleeping habits by tracking them and charting your progress. Map out your meals and fitness routine. Create a habit tracker and hold yourself accountable for the health goals that you want to accomplish.
- Maintain your home. Use calendars, charts, and to-do lists to stay on top of things like housework, repairs, decorating, and even remodeling.
- Preserve your memories. Plan trips and get-togethers by creating packing lists and itineraries, and then document the fun, post-vacay pics, souvenirs, and diary entries.
How bullet journals can help with mental health
Although the specific mental health benefits of bullet journaling have yet to be studied, the practice may offer plenty of perks, such as minimizing distractions.
“We’re bombarded by stimuli from electronic media, which can be very overstimulating for people,” says Jessy Warner-Cohen, PhD, assistant professor in the departments of psychiatry and medicine at the Zucker School of Medicine at Hofstra/Northwell in New York.
“Bullet journaling takes away those distractions and can help you focus on what you want to accomplish,” adds Warner-Cohen.
Because bullet journaling is more of a multimedia experience that can involve writing, organizing, drawing, and painting, this may also make it more emotionally enriching than a straight-up diary, sketchbook, or planner.
A recent review published in the journal Behavioral Sciences found that creative arts interventions, like drawing, may help to prevent or reduce stress.
Another study suggests that expressive writing can promote self-distancing, which can improve how you handle your feelings, like anxiety, and the physical reactions that follow.
Plus, you can specifically use your bullet journal to set and follow through on mental health goals.
“Therapy for depression often includes something called ‘behavioral activation,’” says Warner-Cohen. “When someone’s depressed they tend to not want to do anything, so part of the therapeutic process can include ‘homework’ to get a person back into being more active,” Warner-Cohen explains.
The assignment between therapy sessions may be to take a 10-minute walk every day, for example, and bullet journaling can help you plan out and reach this goal in a rewarding way.
Bullet journal styles and trends
Bullet journaling is all about self-expression. You can use calligraphy and stencils, add sketches and doodles, even decorate with stickers and stamps — or, you can keep it simple with clean lines and bold, colorful lettering.
While every bullet journal — and the person who created it — is unique, “journalers” tend to fall into similar stylistic categories. These include:
- Minimal. A lot of white space, gorgeous handwriting, with the occasional pop of color
- Artistic. Breathtaking artwork and sketches that look like they were manufactured
- Quirky. Cheery doodles, cute fonts, vibrant colors, and personality for days
- Crafty. Washi tape, stickers, stamps, snapshots — like a bullet journal and scrapbook all in one
How to start a bullet journal
Sure, there’s a lot of fancy lingo attached to bullet journaling, but don’t let talk of “modules,” “signifiers,” and “rapid logging” freak you out.
Start small, be consistent, and let your practice evolve naturally over time, says Sheena, bullet journal expert and writer and artist behind the blog Sheena of the Journal. “Improving your life is a step-by-step process — and crash diets are never a good idea,” she adds.
To start your bullet journal, practice
This how-to video is where it all began. Ryder Carroll not only goes through what you need to know about the process, but sets up a sample bullet journal so you can see for yourself how the basic framework comes together.
The trick is to take the techniques he describes for a spin, and then modify them to suit you. In time, your personal bullet journaling style will take shape.
Read the starter guide
The starter guide on the official Bullet Journal website offers a deep dive into the entire system, from start to finish.
As you comb through the guide, you might already sense that there are parts of the system that will serve you well, while others might need to be modified. Take note of potential tweaks and keep them on standby for when it’s time to set up your journal.
Pick out your tools
To start, all you need is a notebook, pen, and ruler. While many bullet journalers have their go-to picks — Leuchtturm1917 and Scribbles That Matter notebooks, Sharpie Art and Paper Mate Flair felt-tip pens, clear and stainless steel rulers by Westcott, for example — bullet journaling doesn’t require fancy-pants stationary. What matters is scoping out the tools that you feel will work best for you.
Set up your bullet journal
It’s hard to believe, but setting up a bullet journal only takes about five minutes. The following four modules (sections) serve as your framework:
- Index. This is the table of contents for your bullet journal. Simply label the first few pages as “Index.” As you set up the rest of your journal — numbering the pages as you go along — you can add the names of your entries into your index to make everything easier to find.
- Future log. The future log appears on the next blank spread (two side-by-side pages) in your notebook. It’s in this section that you write down important deadlines, events, and goals you’d like to make happen in the upcoming months. Divide these pages into thirds, and you’ve got six blocks to represent the next six months. You can map out your future log as far in advance as you’d like. Once you’re done, number these pages and add them to your index.
- Monthly log/task list. To create your monthly log, 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. Next, number these pages and add them to your index.
- Daily log (or “dailies”). On your next spread, write the day’s date and start listing the tasks you’d like to accomplish, keeping each entry short and sweet (known as “rapid logging”). Carroll recommends using specific symbols, or “signifiers,” to label each entry—dots for tasks, dashes for notes, circles for events, and stars for important to-dos. Again, number your dailies as you go and add them to your index.
Voilà! You’re officially a bullet journaler.
Where to find bullet journal inspiration
Once you have the basics down, it’s time to take your bullet journal to the next level. The following resources will provide you with oodles of inspiration.
- Sheena of the Journal. This blog contains tons of how-to articles and hundreds of real-life examples of bullet journal pages that can help improve your life, as well as free printables you can use as a jumping off point.
- LittleCoffeeFox. LittleCoffeeFox is the ultimate haven for both bullet journalers and organizational junkies. You’ll learn not only how to adapt a bullet journal to fit your unique lifestyle, but also tricks of the trade, such as supply recommendations, that have been curated from years of trial and error.
- Boho Berry. A creative space for bullet journalers of every skill level, Boho Berry offers an endless array of advice and tutorials. This includes an über-informative YouTube channel and a subscription box for hardcore journalers.
- @bulletjournal. Carroll’s Insta account features shots of his own journaling process, as well as breathtaking layouts from other bullet journal enthusiasts.
- @my.life.in.a.bullet. For a dose of drool-worthy artwork and colorful layouts, this bujo account can’t be beat.
- @plansthatblossom. This is the ultimate feed to follow for nonstop inspiration when you’re ready to amp up your doodle game.
- @plannersimplicity. If minimalism is your jam, then feast your eyes on this feed. It’s filled with ideas for clean, precise layouts.
- The Bullet Journal Method. The guide to bullet journaling from the creator himself, Carroll’s book will teach you how to use bullet journaling to weed out distractions and focus on what’s actually important to you, both professionally and personally.
- Beyond Bullets: Creative Journaling Ideas to Customize Your Personal Productivity System. Once you’ve mastered the basic bullet journaling system and it’s time to start making it your own, getting started can be overwhelming. This book by fellow journaler Megan Rutell is packed with the guidance, templates, and designs to help you create the exact planner you’ve always wanted.
- Lettering and Modern Calligraphy: A Beginner’s Guide. If those fancy bullet journal headers on Instagram have you swooning, this workbook will help you kick-start your own lettering journey.
- Bullet Journal Junkies. When you need of a dose of inspiration — or want to share your bujo tricks with others — this Facebook group is filled with super-supportive bullet journal enthusiasts.
- #BulletJournalChallenge. This Facebook group posts a theme-based challenge every month to help you get more acclimated to your bullet journal and get as much out of the practice as possible.
Where to buy bullet journal supplies
- The Bullet Journal Store. Here you can buy the official Bullet Journal notebook. It contains an eight-page guide, an index, a custom key page, and prenumbered pages so that you can get right down to business.
- Amazon. Amazon has an incredible selection of affordable bullet journal supplies. From notebooks and gel pens to washi tape and stencils, you’ll find everything you need in one place.
- J B Welly. This snazzy web store specializes in high-quality notebooks and pens and features many popular bullet journaling products, including the official Bullet Journal.
- Michaels. If you’d like to do some experimenting before fully committing to a fancy bullet journal, Michaels sells affordable dot-grid notebooks that are perfect for beginners. They also sell super-fun accessories like stamps, stencils, washi tape, and even glitter.
- Jet Pens. Jet Pens is a stationary and art supply store that sells a wide variety of notebooks, brush pens, and calligraphy supplies, among (many) other things.
- Goulet Pens. If calligraphy’s your thing, The Goulet Pen Company is where it’s at. They also carry a wide selection of stationary supplies, including bullet journal notebooks.
Bullet journaling is a fully customizable organizational system that can help you keep all aspects of your life on track—career, finances, health, home, and more.
The practice may also help you manage your mental health, offering a sense of order and control during super-stressful times. All you need to get started is a notebook, pen, and ruler.
Although the bullet journal method looks complicated on the surface, it only takes five minutes to set up the basic foundation. Happy journaling!
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Krissy Brady is so out of shape, it’s like she has the innards of an 80-year-old — so naturally, she became a women’s health and wellness writer. (No, but seriously.) Her latest shenanigans can be found at writtenbykrissy.com.