What is a Bullet Journal?
Perhaps you heard the words “bullet journal” and became intrigued. Perhaps your friend showed you their bullet journal and it’s got you curious for more. Or perhaps you stumbled here and you have no idea what on earth this thing is and you’re starting from square one. Good news! You’re in the right place. I’m going to walk you through exactly what a bullet journal is, where it came from, and what it can do for you.
Firstly, let’s cover the most obvious question – what is a bullet journal? I should mention that while I have found lots of joy in the bullet journal, I did not create it and I don’t own it. The bullet journal is a planner system devised by Ryder Carrol, and I would highly suggest you watch his video here to get a basic understanding of his vision of the bullet journal system. As he lays it out, it is a blank journal that houses a combination of certain elements, such as an index, monthlies, dailies, collections, and a future log (don’t worry, we will cover each of these below). Basically, this is a planner system that allows you to plan for the future, track the past, and keep your sanity in the present.
While any blank journal can become a bullet journal, not every planner in a blank journal is a bullet journal. There are lots of different planning systems that can occur in a blank notebook, but the bullet journal consists of this recipe (plus some extra stuff if you want to spice it up – more on that later). For example, my new watercolor planner is not a bullet journal because it lacks several of the elements of the bullet journal system and adds a heaping dose of art. So if you’re working with a system with the ingredients listed in Ryder’s bullet journal explanation, then you’ve got yourself a bullet journal.
Supplies You Need to Get Started
What do you need to start a bullet journal? The good news is that you can start a bullet journal in pretty much any empty (or even half empty) notebook that you have lying around. And you can use any pen as well. If you want to use a fancier pen, then go for it. If you want to use a cheap pen that you accidentally stole from the bank counter, then that’s fantastic. Really, that’s all you need. A journal and a pen. You’re golden.
However, I have found that I am much more likely to use my bullet journal every day when I get some joy from the materials I’m using. That means that a nicer journal and some bright, funky pens are also a great way to get started and enjoy the process a bit more. Because who said this can’t be fun, anyway? I would highly suggest that you find yourself a few materials that make you feel good and that bring you joy to use.
My Basic Bullet Journal Must-Have List
This is essentially a list of things that I would pack up to bring with me on a trip. They are my favorites and the essential members of my bullet journal grab bag. I have and use a lot more than what’s listed right here, so feel free to check out the My Supplies page to see other materials I like! The only essentials I’m not adding here are my watercolor supplies. You may know that I’m crazy for watercolors, so they appear in nearly all of my bullet journal spreads. But I’m really wanting to cover the basics in this bullet journal cheat sheet, so I’m excluding my watercolor obsession. If you want to know more about watercolors, though, head to this post to see my recommended supplies for beginners!
This hardcover journal comes in blank, lined, squared, or dot grid paper. For bullet journaling, I always choose the dot grid first or the squared second. I never get lined paper for bullet journaling! This journal comes with a pocket, two bookmarks, pre-numbered pages, and a pre-built index. Plus there is a huge variety of colors, so you can always find something for your taste! I have bought this journal again and again, and I will always recommend it to newbies because it is worth every single penny.
These are a great set of pens for your standard black lines. The pack comes in a variety of sizes so you can find the perfect pen for your project, and it even comes with a few brush pens as well! If you’re curious about brush lettering, this set of pens is a great way for you to dip your toes without jumping in.
I waited forever to buy these because I thought they would just be standard highlighters. They are anything but standard. The pens are dual tip, creamy to write with, and provide some unique and stunning colors. Since I’ve gotten these, I’ve been finding every excuse to use them because they are just too amazing. If you’re a student or you take frequent notes, I can’t stress enough how much you’ll love these.
If you’re looking for something cheap but sturdy, these are your pens. You can find them just about everywhere, and they come in a bunch of colors. If you lose one, it’s not the end of the world! They’re cheap, but not lacking in quality. I don’t use them as much as I used to since I have nicer pens and I’m a bit of a pen hoarder, but they are an excellent choice for bullet journal newbies.
I don’t want to over saturate this list with brush pens, but I use them a ton. These are pretty fine tip brush pens, meaning they can write in smaller spaces like a journal with ease. I use them for brush lettering, but I probably use them more for drawing lines and boxes freehand in my journal. I love these pens and take them with me everywhere!
While I prefer to draw most of my lines by hand, I always keep my ruler with me because I still need to measure things constantly! This is a super helpful tool that I reach for again and again, and the cork back really does make a difference.
The Bullet Journal Cheat Sheet for Getting Set Up
So you have your journal and pen at the ready. What’s the next step? How do you begin? Let’s walk through each of the basic functions of the bullet journal and go through how to set it up. It might seem like a lot, but stay with me. It’s a ton easier once you’ve got these basic elements set up, and they really don’t take as much time as you’d think to get it all started.
The first thing you’re going to want to do with your bullet journal is set up the index. This is one of the super functional elements of the bullet journal that set it apart. With an index, there’s no more flipping around searching for that one note you wrote down a while back. Instead, you can head to the index and see exactly what page it is on for maximum efficiency!
If you have a Leuchtturm1917, then the index is already right there waiting for you and the pages are already numbered. If you have another type of journal, you’ll need to add your own index and number your own pages. Just label the first three pages as “Index”. Turn to the next blank page after your index and begin numbering the pages starting at one. You can sit down and number the pages all at once or simply number as you go – whichever you’d prefer. As you add spreads and other information to your bullet journal, you’ll be able to write down what spread is on what page.
You can keep your index super simple if you want. Or, if you want to take your index to the next level, you can color code it or sort it by category. However you like it, the index is an essential part of the bullet journal system.
One of the weaknesses of the bullet journal is that you can’t plan ahead quite as easily as you can with pre-printed planners or your phone’s calendar app. If you haven’t drawn it all out yet, there’s nowhere to put it… right? Well, the future log is the easy answer. Basically, this is just a page where you can write down any future appointments or dates for a month you haven’t set up yet. That way you can easily reference it to see if there’s a dentist appointment coming up or a deadline sneaking up on you.
This is a great spread to help kick off your bullet journal. When you’re getting ready to set up your future log, you’re going to want to decide how far into the future you want to go. Usually, it breaks down into three months, six months, or twelve months. I’ve personally never seen a future log go beyond that, but feel free to push further ahead! It’s totally up to you. I tend to go for the three or six month option because I have few hard set dates and appointments to look out for.
Once you’ve decided how many months you want to prepare for, simply divide your page into equal sections for each month. If we’re doing six months ahead, divide two pages in a spread (I’m referring to the two pages adjacent each other in an open journal when I talk about a spread) into six sections with three on each page. Then simply label each section with the months coming up. If you want to see how I set it up with three pages, head to this post with details. As you get an appointment or note you want to remember as you get closer to that future month, flip to your future log and jot it down. That way you won’t lose important information for the near future!
The monthly spread is quite simply a place to keep your month at a glance. While Ryder keeps a very clean, minimalist list for his monthlies, that is by no means the only way to set up your month. I, for example, hate the list because it doesn’t look like a month to me! It takes more time for me to figure out where each day is in the month because the set up is so alien to me. Instead, I opt for a more traditional calendar set up. It’s much easier for me to read quickly because I have been reading calendars for my whole life. Page Flutter has a great post with examples of different ways to set up your monthly to your taste.
There are lots of things you can add to your monthly layout, but for now, let’s focus on the basics. You just need the calendar or list or whatever you decide to use. Everything beyond that is gravy. In Ryder’s video, he also lists out goals for the month, which is a great thing to add. I don’t personally think it’s necessary because I never really looked at it. It just didn’t help me plan, so I eliminated it a long time ago. In the end, it comes down to your preferences and what helps you plan best. If you want to see how I set up a monthly layout, then you can find that right here.
Weeklies aren’t discussed in the original bullet journal system, but they’re a natural step between monthlies and dailies, so I thought I’d mention them here. Basically, weeklies have the exact function of monthlies, but only using a week at a time. You can plan out the next seven days in detail, covering your schedule, appointments, deadlines, goals, and other information you want to add. It’s sometimes used in place of dailies, and sometimes it’s used in place of monthlies. Occasionally, I see people using monthlies, weeklies, and dailies. To me, that’s overkill, but if it works for you, then more power to you. There’s no planner police here!
There are a million fun ways to set up weeklies, but here are five of my favorite!
Dailies are the workhorse of the bullet journal. This is where all the work really gets done, at least for me. Essentially, the daily is a to-do list on steroids. You write down all the things you need to get done today, all the appointments you need to remember, and any notes you need to keep. You can add other information, such as how much water you drank, what food you ate, how many miles you ran, etc. It’s a totally customizable for your needs.
One of the benefits of the bullet journal is that your dailies aren’t capped to a certain size.If you have a crazy hectic day, you aren’t going to run out of room because you have the whole page to play with if you need it. You can even spill over onto the next page! Pre-printed planners don’t allow that luxury. You get a few lines, and if you exceed that space, then you’re out of luck.
Most people start off with horizontal dailies, but I’d like to propose vertical dailies. I tried vertical dailies for the first time thinking I’d hate them, but I ended up switching to this new format and ditching horizontal entirely. You can learn more about the pros and cons of each set up here.
Bullet Journal Collections
Collections are essentially a catch-all for everything else you’d add to a bullet journal that doesn’t fit one of the previously mentioned categories. Typically, though, it consists of lists. There are a ton of collections and lists you can add, and we’ll dive into a few of my favorites later in this bullet journal cheat sheet. But if you have a specific project you want to work on, a brainstorming session you want to explore, or a list you want to purge from your mind, then you’ll want to put those in a collection.
To set up a collection, turn to the next blank page or spread available in your bullet journal. Then add a header to the page to explain what the collection is about and add the information you want to write down. When you’re done, remember to add it to your index!
A Quick Collections Tip
Some people don’t particularly like keeping their collections right alongside their monthlies and dailies, so they search for ways to keep collections away from those regular plans. There are two suggestions I have for that. One is to keep a separate Collections Journal, which you can learn more about here. The other is to start your collections on the last page of your bullet journal, working your way backwards as you add more. Keep doing dailies and other normal plans in the front, working your way back. Eventually, you will meet in the middle with your planning and your collections, and you can begin a new journal. Either solution is a good way to deal with the issue of keeping collections alongside your plans.
Beyond the Basics
Okay, so we’ve covered all the basics in this bullet journal cheat sheet. Awesome! There’s a lot of good stuff there to get you started with your bullet journal and get your new system humming along efficiently. But there are a lot more opportunities to explore and have fun with those blank pages. There are certain things that you can add to your bullet journal in the form of collections, logs, or trackers that can kick productivity and fun up another level. These aren’t exclusive to the bullet journal, but they are easy to borrow and add to your bullet journal to suit your fancy. Here are some of my favorites!
I’m not being dramatic when I say that the habit tracker changed my life. As someone who has always struggled with building positive habits and shedding bad habits, this has been exactly the ticket for making a change in my life.
A habit tracker is a place where you write down the habits you want to build or get rid of, and there is a space for every day of the month. Every night, you sit down and color in a box to indicate if that habit was present that day. For example, if I’m tracking my exercise habit, I can fill in the box if I exercised today. If I didn’t exercise, the box remains empty. After weeks and months, you can watch a pattern emerge and see exactly how often that habit is present in your life. Once you see that information, it becomes 10x easier to make changes because you don’t have to guess anymore! Here is a post getting into more detail on tracking habits, along with some suggestions of what to track.
Though this is certainly not an original component of the bullet journal, I’d highly recommend you give a habit tracker a try at least for a few months to see if it helps you as much as it has helped me. I’d be willing to bet you’ll love it.
While the bullet journal ends up becoming quite the time capsule without any help, I like to keep a page each month to jot down any notable events to look back on. This might not seem like that exciting of an idea, but trust me, we forget a lot more than we realize. There are little things that bring us joy each month, and so often they fade from memory because they were not big life-changing events. Or we might remember them, but not remember what year or month it took place.
For example, almost a year ago I was sitting at my desk working when I saw a squirrel dragging a piece of pizza around in the parking lot across the street. Did it change my life? No. But I thought it was utterly hilarious, so I wrote it on my memories page. Some six months later, I was flipping through that bullet journal searching for something when I found the squirrel memory. In that amount of time, I had already forgotten it! I’m so glad I wrote it down so I can laugh about that damn squirrel for years to come. A memories page is a gift to your future self, and it costs so little energy and time. Why not do it?
I’m sure at some point you’ve heard that you should start keeping a gratitude journal. It’s one of those pieces of advice that we hear again and again, right alongside “drink more water” and “start meditating”. But one of the reasons it’s so hard to start is because keeping a whole journal just for gratitude is so out of the way. With the bullet journal, however, it’s perfectly convenient because you already have a journal that you use every day. It’s easy to count your blessings with the help of a gratitude log.
Every night, I sit down and think up one or two things that I feel thankful for every day. They can be big or small, simple or complex. On tougher days, I find myself thankful that it’s nearly bedtime or thankful for the lovely weather. On good days, I am thankful for a happy memory or a good mood. Over time, you begin to spot things you are thankful for throughout your day, forcing you to see the silver lining and generally altering your mood to be more positive. It’s one of my favorite things in this whole bullet journal cheat sheet.
Gratitude logs are great for being positive in the face of your circumstances, but an affirmation log is perfect for being more positive about yourself. It’s easy to think negative things about yourself, to beat yourself up, to think you aren’t good enough. You are your own worst critic. But saying affirmations is a way to fight back and to treat yourself more kindly. An affirmation is simply a positive thing you say to yourself. It might sound silly, but it really works. When you tell yourself again and again that you can’t do it, you are only reinforcing negative beliefs. When you begin to say that you can do it over and over again to yourself, you begin to make a subtle shift in your attitude and beliefs. Keeping an affirmation log in your bullet journal is a great way to remind yourself to do it every day and get the full benefit of affirmations!
One issue that I’ve run into time and time again in my life is figuring out what I’m going to eat for dinner tonight. I know I’m not alone on that front. Meal planning is one of those things that I always mean to get around to, but I often forget and am left to call in pizza or microwave some instant ramen. That’s where the bullet journal shines. You can easily meal plan in your bullet journal and get a great idea of what you will eat throughout the week. This makes grocery shopping much easier and it takes away lots of the last-second guesswork in the evenings. Check out this post to see how to create a meal plan that fits your needs!
Master Grocery List
My life got so much easier when it occurred to me that I didn’t have to write my grocery list every single time I took a shopping trip. I realized that I could write down a list of my commonly bought items so I could stop taking extra trips throughout the week to pick up forgotten items. And the best part? I could keep it in one handy place – my bullet journal! I ended up creating my neatly categorized Master Grocery List as a permanent fixture in my bullet journal. This list has made grocery trips much smoother and less annoying, and heaven knows how much time it has saved me over the years! It’s one of the most functional and handy spreads I’ve ever created.
Do you have a Pinterest board full of recipes you’ve saved but never looked at again? Me too! I found myself in a recipe rut a while back, where my husband and I were cooking the same handful of recipes over and over, leading to food fatigue. I decided to find a solution and came up with the Recipe Bank! This system of cleverly placed Post It Notes allows me to keep a bank of tried and true recipes alongside recipes I want to try.
With the Post It Notes, I am able to stack a ton of recipes in a limited space and keep things flexible. If we try a new recipe and love it, I can peel up the sticky note and put it on the “Old Favorites” side. Or if we try a recipe and we hate it, I can simply pull the recipe out and throw it away. It’s much easier than writing it all down in pen and having to keep updated pages later down the line. This is a crazy efficient system, and it works perfectly alongside my Master Grocery List! Check out how to set up a Recipe Bank here.
Goals and Rewards
For the longest time, I relied on other people to set consequences and rewards for my goals. Teachers, parents, bosses… all of them created quite the incentive to get things done. But once I graduated, moved out, and started working for myself, there was no one else to hold me accountable. I had a terrible time setting goals for a while, but then I discovered this powerful method.
Instead of trying to beat myself to working with the proverbial stick, I realized that I could use the carrot instead with incentives. Basically, I can now set a goal and decide a small reward for myself if I achieve that goal. These little rewards are quite powerful and really do the trick with getting my butt in gear. See how to set it up for yourself in a way that helps you reach your goals!
Money planning isn’t exactly the most fun to do, but it is incredibly important. A little bit of money management goes a long way. I especially enjoy thinking about money when it comes to things I really want in life, like a dream vacation. Why on earth would I wait to start saving for something that awesome? Check out one fun spread to help you visualize the process of saving money for your dream destination. Or if you just want to get started with the basics of financial planning, head to this post and see how you can save yourself money each month with proper financial planning.
Minimal or Artsy? My Bullet Journal Philosophy
If you’ve been poking around the bullet journal community, then you know that one particular argument crops up again and again – whether or not it’s okay to get artsy in your bullet journal. I have a full post detailing my thoughts on the matter, but I’ll break it down for you here. If anyone tells you that your personal bullet journal style is too minimalist, too fancy, too artsy, too rough, too ANYTHING, then they are absolutely wrong. There is no right or wrong when it comes to style.
Do you want to throw down watercolors? Go for it. Do you want everything to be black ink on white paper with nice straight edges? You do you. Is your handwriting chicken scratch? If you don’t mind, no one else should, either. Because at the end of the day, your bullet journal is yours. You don’t need to run it past anyone else or get anyone’s approval. My bullet journal philosophy is that you should do what makes you happy. Doodling and brush lettering might not seem like it’s helping you plan, but that’s exactly what kept me engaged and interested in using my bullet journal every day. So for me, the artsy side is a necessary part of the process if I want the system to work for me. But that’s not the case for everyone, as is evidenced by my husband’s bullet journal.
So don’t let anyone bully you or tell you that you’re doing it wrong. Your journal, your pens, your rules. Period.
Nervous About Getting Started?
You might be excited to get started. That’s great! But fair warning – you might experience a heavy dose of First Page Fear. This is where you open your journal to the first page and suddenly get struck with a fear of ruining your journal. This stems from perfectionism, which is a toxic attitude that will cripple your bullet journal journey before it begins. Read here for my advice on tackling perfectionism and pushing past those fears. And while you’re at it, check out these suggestions for the first page to help you get past it. Just remember that your bullet journal isn’t helping you if you aren’t using it. Keep moving forward and don’t hold back.
What to do When You Reach the End
If you start with a half used notebook or you’re just a fast worker, you’ll run out of pages in your bullet journal before too long. So what do you do when you get to that point? Many bullet journalists have been stumped by this issue because they are unsure what to migrate to the new journal. It’s one of those subjective things that comes down to a judgment call, but I have a post that can help. I’ve moved journals multiple times, and it’s not as hard as it seems once you begin working on the bullet journal move.
Advice From a Seasoned Bullet Journalist
Before I go, I want to impart a little bit of wisdom for anyone who has come this far in this giant bullet journal cheat sheet. I’ve been using the bullet journal for around four years now, and I run a blog full time with the bullet journal being a pretty large part of the subject matter. I have learned a few things along the way that I wish I knew when I started the bullet journal all those years ago.
Don’t Overdo It
Ever had it where you fall in love with a song, listen to it on repeat for days, then find yourself tired of the song and sorta hating it? You’re going to be tempted to do that with the bullet journal. If you’re starting the bullet journal for the first time, you will likely want to try all the things. My advice to you is to hold your horses and try to keep yourself from sprinting into every spread, collection, and tracker you can think of. You might get yourself overwhelmed to the point of just scrapping the whole thing and giving up.
Instead, go slow. Start with the basics and work with them for a while, getting used to the process of keeping up with your dailies. You can add a few collections here and there, but nothing recurring (aka nothing that requires commitment). As you get more comfortable with the bullet journal, try integrating new things slowly. You probably don’t want to add more than one tracker or log per month. Just take your time and don’t go crazy with adding new stuff and you should be fine.
Give it Time
You might expect the bullet journal to work overnight. It won’t. I actually used a bullet journal for over a year before I really felt like I hit my stride. You won’t see big changes right away, or even after a few weeks. This is where patience comes in. You need to give it time to work and integrate into your life. You need to give yourself time to adapt and develop new habits. Don’t ditch the bullet journal because it didn’t solve all your woes in a snap.
When you’re just starting out, it is extremely tempting to compare your fledgling bullet journal with a more developed bullet journal. This is a great way to feel self-conscious about your work and kill your planning in the cradle. Instagram, Pinterest, and Facebook are all great resources for inspiration – not to mention the plethora of blogs that cover bullet journal topics! It’s wonderful to borrow ideas from other folks in the bullet journal community, but don’t beat yourself up because your work doesn’t look just like that lovely stylized picture on Insta. We all started at square one. Even me! Here’s a throwback to my very first bullet journal, which looks absolutely nothing like my current style. If you want to develop your style and your bullet journal’s functionality, then the best thing you can do is practice. That brings me to my final piece of advice…
Experiment and Practice
The only way you are going to find the best bullet journal for you is to practice, practice, practice. I know that probably isn’t what you want to hear, but it’s true! You aren’t going to get any better by imagining all the cool things you can write in your pages – you’ll get better by trying.
Layouts aren’t going to get more efficient if you stick to the same thing forever – they will evolve when you experiment and try new stuff. I’m not saying that you have to constantly rotate out layouts and spreads, but don’t be afraid to change a few elements here or there. There have been several times where I was hesitant to try something new only to find that I loved the change and kept it around for months. So play around and don’t be shy about mixing it up! Just keep turning the page and keep working at it.
Now it’s Your Time to Shine
The bullet journal is a beautiful multi-faceted thing, and there’s no way that I could possibly cover everything right here. But I do hope this post serves as a jumping point for you to start your bullet journal with confidence and joy. The best thing that ever happened to me was realizing that productivity and fun could work together to create something truly spectacular. My life hasn’t been the same since!
Now it’s time for you to grab your journal, pick up a pen, and dive in. What are you waiting for?
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