Truth be told — it’s a work in progress, but I finally discovered a system that works: my bullet journal.
How Bullet Journaling Entered My Life:
Late last year, my friend Sue decided that she was going to take up bullet journaling (“bujo” for short) to get organized in the new year. She asked me if I had heard of bujo, and I said I had, but I hadn’t considered it as a hobby because, well, I’m learning to watercolor, I have two kids, two parrots, and Mr. Fussypants, my OCD significant other. And I already feel out of control every day of my life. I already know I don’t have time to journal, I thought, but I listened.
Sue explained that bullet journaling is a way of planning for future occurrences, keeping track of things that matter, and making a record of what happens when. For example, I could create a page dedicated to keeping record of all the birthdays in each month. Or I could create weekly spreads to keep notes and to-do lists and track good habits. On the same weekly spread, I could record the important aspects of each day in lieu of writing a whole journal page at the end of the day, which is what I always thought journaling was supposed to be.
Sue had bought a few books on the topic — The Bullet Journal Method by Ryder Carroll, who is credited with beginning the bujo movement and Dot Journaling by Rachel Wilkerson Miller. I borrowed them and made some copies of the pages. Sue also pointed me in the right direction to learn how to begin with the help of Pinterest and several YouTube and Skillshare teachers.
I’m that person who buys a planner in October to begin using the first of the year. But none of the planners I buy are ever really right for me, and about 60% of the planner goes unused. It’s such a waste. Furthermore, I probably spent five hours every year trying to find the planner that was right for me, visiting Staples and shopping online at Amazon, shuffling through digital pages to completely understand the content of each.
Very quickly, I realized that the value of bullet journaling could be summed up in one word: customization. Using a bujo, I could literally create my own planner filled with vital space for my own checklists, habit trackers, goal planning, cleaning schedules, lists of birthdays, overdue tasks, and anything else I decided to add. It took me no time at all to embrace the idea of putting everything I needed into one pretty little bujo. One book to bind them, one book to rule them all.
I went to Michaels Arts & Crafts to find a journal, but I didn’t see anything pretty. They had plenty of store brand dot journals, but I needed something colorful. Then I sauntered over to A.C. Moore, where they had just added a new section dedicated to bullet journaling. I got a beautiful blue dot journal for myself with paisley flowers all over it and one of my many mantras: Be positive. With my 50% off coupon, I got it for a cool $3.50. There’s nothing I like better than a good deal.
There I was, empty bullet journal in hand, with my arsenal of brightly colored pens, a ruler, and some washi tape. I opened the first page and stared at it. I couldn’t wait to start, but I didn’t know where to begin.
I had watched Sue’s recommended YouTube videos on bullet journaling for beginners, so I went back to them. I also found a few classes on Skillshare on the topic. For me, the most important “first step” was to list out what I wanted to include in my bullet journal. I got out a plain notepad and wrote down some ideas:
- A pen and ink sample page (to see if pen bleeds through paper, etc.)
- A habit tracker, to track how good I was doing on my everyday goals
- A cleaning checklist for our ridiculous house
- A monthly birthday chart to keep everybody’s birthdays straight (I always try to send a card to relatives and friends)
- A page to track when I cleaned the parrots’ cages and got them groomed
- An annual calendar where I could add in events and appointments far off into the future
- Business expenses page
- “Rainy day” task page
- “Things I want to learn” page
- My custody days and holidays with the kids
Another recommended “first step” was to number the pages in your journal if they weren’t already numbered. So I sat down with my lap desk while I watched TV with Mr. Fussypants and I numbered each page, one by one. It took me an hour.
A day later, when my hand recovered from all that numbering, I pulled out all of my good pens and laid them across our kitchen table. I opened to the last page in my bullet journal and held my breath as I wrote in black ink: INK TEST. I highlighted the words in a horrific mustard yellow because it was one of those markers with a cap that’s one color and then you start using it and find out it’s not that color after all. I was most worried about a pen bleeding through, and after the test, I found that I loved the PaperMate InkJoy 0.7 and the Faber-Castell Pitt Artist Pen the most.
Next, I did a Table of Contents page at the front of the book, which I never used again. Some people live by these, but not me. (I learned that bookmarks and tabs were much easier to use.) I’m adding this photo just for you to see. The most useful thing on it is the quote from Nelson Mandela which also hangs on my office wall: I never lose. I either win or learn.
After that, I added a page to track birthdays of family and friends. (I added the nice row of flags at the bottom after I misjudged the number of rows I needed to do the months.) Just last year, I had added all of the birthdays of relatives and friends to my Google calendar, so this was an easy place to begin.
Next, I added another spread to the opposite page that was just for me: an “I want to learn to…” page. I’m constantly finding things that interest me that I really want to learn to do — watercolors, the banjo — etc., and I wanted to put them down on a page so I didn’t forget them. I really messed up the lettering on the title, but this is where a glue runner and washi tape came in handy.
After that, I did a “Plan Ahead for 2019” spread, which was equally hideous and also features patches of tape and paper at the header because I wasn’t too confident in my lettering. I stopped using it about halfway through the month of February, but it was an exercise in assembling a few different calendars (school, custody, holiday, vacations) in the same place.
Next, I did my December 2018 spread. I set aside my stupid OCD and resigned myself to beginning this project for the last month of the year rather than the first. After all, our December was sizing up to be crazy, and I needed to keep track of everything. Again, I messed up my header’s lettering by overthinking it, but I used a bit of brown paper to make it look intentional.
I did a few more monthly spreads after this one, but I wasn’t that crazy about them, so I glued those pages together and decided to use weekly spreads instead. (Table of contents, be damned.) It was just too hard to journal in those tiny spaces. More on that to follow.
You know how you always have things you say you’ll get around to when you have time? Well, this is one of the most useful spreads I’ve come up with. It’s simple and creative and fun. And I am proud to say I have already done three of these things on the list.
After that, I created another spread dedicated to ideas for bullet journal pages. I put this in the back of my journal, next to the ink test page. It’s not the prettiest page, but it gets the job done.
And then I achieved the flow that only those who have creative tendencies can truly understand. And I did page after page after page. (Hold on to your butts.)
A bird cage cleaning and clipping log:
A movie recommendations page (my coworker Jeanne is always saying, “Have you ever seen…”):
A spread dedicated to the books I would have loved to finish before they were due back to the library:
A mood and migraine tracker, which was a little bit too labor intensive to maintain, and I abandoned it halfway into December. These pages are now glued together, a thick reminder of my own proclivity for overachievement. But a solid idea, nonetheless.
A spread dedicated to weight loss:
A simple spending log, which I [too quickly] filled up and helped me curb my spending in 2019:
A master chore list:
A blog post tracker for the year:
A simple catch all page for ideas:
A revised future planning spread for the first six months of 2019 which includes the weekends I have my kids and all of their upcoming school events:
And weekly spreads, which work better when I actually want to record what I did each day:
And there it is — my perfect weekly spread. (It only took me nine weeks to perfect it — you should have seen Weeks 1–8.) It’s so pretty I included another example as well.
How Bullet Journaling Helped Me
Until now, I’ve been one hot mess. And I knew it. I was tired of feeling out of control. I was sick of finding out about my kids’ school concerts and activities five minutes before I had to be there. I hated forgetting the birthdays of my family and friends. I wanted to journal, but I had no time to write page after page of freehand ideas. I wanted to paint, but I had no time to paint. I wanted to learn new things, but I was always getting distracted.
At the beginning of the year, I wanted to begin yoga three times a week. With my anxiety, it’s important for me to be able to find ways to self-soothe when I’m in hyper stressful situations. (This is not something I do well.) And I’m also overweight. When I talked to Mr. Fussypants about it, he said, “When are you going to fit yoga into your schedule? It’s already crammed!” So I sat down with him and drew out my weekly schedule in my bullet journal to find time to do it. It took some shuffling and I do have to wake up earlier, but the housework gets done, and I found three time slots per week to do yoga.
Since I began my bullet journal in November, I’ve created two additional bullet journals of sorts: one for housekeeping and the other for work. And it doesn’t take much time to maintain them because I dedicate a few hours on Sunday afternoons (at home) and Monday mornings (at work) to get my ducks in a row. And guess what? My productivity at home and at work has increased by leaps and bounds.
How to Begin
It doesn’t take much of an up-front investment. You’ll need couple of pens, a ruler, some washi tape, correction tape (this is vitally important), a bullet journal or graph journal, and some glue. (I use the Tombow or Elmer’s glue runners, which are better than anything liquid when you’re dealing with paper.) Michaels, A.C. Moore, and Jo-Ann’s all have these materials, and all of them have coupons. Use them.
Like my friend Sue, you could always pick up the books I mentioned at the top of this post, but for a quicker start, I’d recommend the following YouTube :
- Here’s an overview of the original bullet journal method created by Ryder Carroll.
- Seventeen — I like Noelle the best — check out this video on getting started.
- Amanda Rach Lee, who does beautiful, creative, and sometimes intimidatingly perfect planners.
Pinterest also has some fantastic photos of spreads that people have done and posted for others to imitate. Go to https://www.pinterest.com/ and search “bullet journal” or “bujo” and see what comes up. Pinterest is like the internet’s equivalent of an idea board, where you can collect images that inspire you and can help you develop your own future style. It’s a great starting point.
And of course, no blog post of mine would be complete without a plug for your local library, which has tons of books on planning and time management. You’re sure to find plenty of free resources there.
I wish you well on your #bujo journey. If you decide to pursue this passion and interest, I’m sure it will change your life. It changed mine.
Esther Hofknecht Curtis, MSM-HCA, is an independent writer living in Dover, Delaware. Follow her on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/TheArdentReader19977/.