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Got pain? This bullet journal pro can help with that.

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Illustrator: Wenzdai

This is BuJoy, a series exploring tips and tricks for using bullet journals to manage — and maybe even improve — your health, wellness, and overall life. If you have questions or ideas for future pieces, please email Ash Fisher or DM her on Instagram. Ash is thrilled to be spreading the BuJoy with this series.

For several years now, I’ve been a bullet journal aficionado. It’s an invaluable resource for tracking just about anything: appointments, ideas, books to read, and symptoms.

Oh, did I say symptoms? I sure did.

When you have a chronic illness, it can be overwhelming to manage all your symptoms, appointments, and meds. A bullet journal is an ingenious solution for managing your important info all in one place.

Ah, good question! A bullet journal — also known as a BuJo, for short — is a customizable planner. You start with a blank dot grid notebook and personalize it from there.

The official Bullet Journal website gives a helpful explanation of how to make the BuJo your own.

The one main rule to remember is: There are no rules.

Seriously! The beauty of the BuJo is you can make it work however you want. So peruse their website, try it out, and as you go, you’ll learn what works for you and what doesn’t.

I’m going to show you some basic spreads I use to track and manage my life with Ehlers-Danlos syndrome (EDS).

These tips are all adaptable for any condition or even general wellness.

Symptoms list

This is an easy, low effort way to dip your toe into the BuJo world.

A symptoms list is especially helpful if you’re still seeking a diagnosis, or you’re juggling multiple issues (as you may know, many folks with chronic illnesses actually have more than one).

Several conditions have similar sets of symptoms. Keeping track of your particular body woes can help your doctor figure out exactly what’s going on.

Even if you already have a diagnosis (or diagnoses), listing your symptoms can help you remember what to bring up at doctor’s appointments. It’s also a helpful way to keep track of what’s getting better — or what’s getting worse.

To start, open to a blank page. I recommend dedicating two pages to this one, so you have plenty of room to add to it as your symptoms come and go.

Make a list of every symptom you can think of. What’s going on with your body that’s making your life difficult?

Nausea? Joint pain? Dizziness? Write it down.

Now, read through your list and mark which symptoms are giving you the most trouble. You can add a star or highlight the worst ones.

Maybe your hip pain is manageable, but your nausea makes it impossible to work or drive most days. You can always add more symptoms as they come up, or cross out symptoms that disappear (and I hope many of your symptoms do!).

Another option is to group your symptoms into different categories.

Some ideas include:

  • daily symptoms
  • occasional symptoms
  • rare symptoms
  • debilitating symptoms
  • annoying-but-not-that-bad symptoms
  • physical symptoms
  • mental health symptoms

Once you’ve identified the most frequent or debilitating symptoms, move on to the next section.

Daily symptom tracker

Now for the fun part! Well, fun if you’re a nerd like me who’s obsessed with lists and pretty colors.

Remember your narrowed-down list of the worst symptoms from step one? Time to take action on them!

For this spread, I recommend tracking your most common daily symptoms — the ones that most affect your daily functioning, or the ones you think you have a good shot at improving or eliminating.

Label the top of the page with something like “Daily Symptom Tracker.” Use pretty pens if that’s your jam! You’ll be making a daily tracker that you’ll use for a whole month. For the example pictured, I chose September.

Create a daily symptom tracker

  1. Leaving yourself at least 3 to 4 rows of space on top, label the days of the month (1–31) in a row on the left side.
  2. Use a ruler to draw a straight line to the right of these numbers, then a perpendicular line that runs across the top of your tracker.
  3. Enter your symptoms in rows across the top of the tracker. One row is a symptom, the next row is the severity level.
  4. To make it easier to read, either use different colors for each symptom, or use your ruler to draw lines to separate the symptoms. Pro tip: Using different colored pens is less work.
  5. For the severity columns, assign different colors to different levels such as “low,” “medium,” and “high.” I chose green, orange, and pink. You can choose whatever you want. Symbols or a number scale work just fine, too.
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Once your tracker is ready, set a reminder to fill it out at the end of each day or the next morning. Reflect on your symptoms each day.

If you didn’t experience a particular symptom one day, mark down an “X” or color in the boxes in a neutral color. I use black for this. Use a check mark for the symptoms you did experience. Then fill in the corresponding “level” box with the color that matches your severity.

After doing this for a month, you’ll have a bunch of data. You can then use this data to identify patterns in your illness and pain.

The beauty of this tracker — and all trackers — is it’s completely adjustable.

Maybe your nausea is worse than you thought, and you need to prioritize treating it. Or maybe your back pain isn’t as bad as it used to be and you can omit it from your next month’s tracker.

Physical therapy and exercise tracker

Ah, physical therapy (PT). It’s one of the most effective methods for managing my EDS pain, and yet it’s one of the most difficult to stick to.

Doing PT and regularly exercising are crucial for managing my chronic pain. But, of course, it can be really hard to motivate myself to exercise regularly.

This simple tracker is a great way to both motivate yourself and have a log of how much you’re actually doing.

Don’t shoot for the moon here. If you haven’t worked out in years, you’re not going to suddenly start doing it every day. For my example, I picked 3 days of PT and 2 days of exercise.

Create an exercise tracker

  1. Start by labeling the page like you did above.
  2. Then set a reasonable goal. Record your goal underneath the title of your tracker.
  3. Make a list of each week of the month.
  4. Draw a blank bubble for each day you want to do PT or exercise.
  5. When you do your PT or exercise for the day, color in the corresponding bubble.
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After a month, look back and reflect on this tracker. Did it help? Did you meet your goals? If not, the goal may have been beyond your current abilities. If you did accomplish your goal, you might be ready to increase it a bit the next month.

You can also cross-reference your daily symptom tracker with your PT and exercise tracker. You might find patterns.

For instance, maybe you didn’t work out at all the second week of September, which was also the week your dizziness and pain were at their worst.

Make it pretty

BuJos can be simple and utilitarian. Or they can be flashy and colorful (I prefer flashy and colorful).

I highly recommend spending a few bucks on washi tape and colorful gel pens (I like Sakura Gelly Roll pens).

Mistakes are gonna happen

Don’t obsess over smears, wobbly lines, or anything else that doesn’t look right to you. You can always redo it by starting over on a new page or covering up with correction fluid.

But you don’t need to redo it.

Remember, the BuJo is for your benefit and your benefit only. You’re not being judged or graded, so don’t worry if it doesn’t look as pretty as the BuJo spreads you might have seen on Instagram.

You’re brand new to this! You’ll get better as you go.

And at the end of the day, this is a tool for helping your chronic illness — it doesn’t matter if it never looks “Instagram-able.”

Try your hand at hand lettering

If you do want your BuJo to look pretty (or you’re itching to learn a new skill), consider learning hand lettering.

I bought this hand lettering workbook a few years ago, and I can’t recommend it more. It’s accessible to all kinds of creative levels, and it breaks down the skills into easy-to-digest lessons that build as they go.

There are also online classes you can try.

Organize with Post-its

Post-its may be your friend. I use tons in my BuJo life.

They can be helpful for easily transferring weekly or daily to-do lists between pages, or for making quick bookmarks to easily flip directly to your most important trackers.

They may not be as pretty as washi tape or gel pens, but they’re a practical way to access your trackers quickly.

So, dear reader, that’s how bullet journals work, in a (very wordy) nutshell.

If this feels overwhelming to you, don’t fret. The beauty of using a BuJo is it’s for your eyes only. You can make it as complicated or as not-so-complicated as you wish.

I’ll see you next time with more ideas for maximizing your BuJo potential. Until then, be well, and treat yourself to some pretty washi tape or gel pens. You deserve it.

Ash Fisher is a writer and comedian living with hypermobile Ehlers-Danlos syndrome. When she’s not having a wobbly-baby-deer day, she’s hiking with her corgi, Vincent. She lives in Oakland, California. Learn more about her on her website.