Get Started with the Bullet Journal

Friends, it’s been a while but with every new year comes a lot of people intent to start bullet journaling and wondering how to get started. Since I’ve been teaching planning classes, I’ve pulled together some thoughts I share with class participants about planning and bullet journaling all in a page.

I have a bunch of other musings about the ways we use our bullet journals all over the blog. A lot of blogs out there talk about the what and the art and the layouts. I do that sometimes. Mostly I like to think about what happens BEFORE you even put pen to paper.

What is a bullet journal?

First I have to say that the bullet journal is a system, not a thing. It is a way to organize your thoughts, plans, hopes, past – which can happen in any kind of notebook. A lot of people assume it’s called a bullet journal because of the dot notebooks. Although it’s the most popular style you’ve seen for bullet journaling on Instagram, that is not the reason.

The original system was created by Ryder Carroll (and if you haven’t watched the original video, get outta here and do that!). At that point the world was full of pre-structured printed planners and they did not work for Ryder, who has ADHD. So, he created his own system. There are many people who become self-aware enough to create their own system – people do it everyday for a variety of things – but this system must have come at the perfect time and gained the momentum to be viral.

In sharing this very different system, Ryder kicked open the door of possibility for others to take ownership over their own ways of thinking, dreaming, planning, and more in new formats. Traditional planners were great for very Type A and linear-thinking people. Franklin Covey, Day Timer, FiloFax, even the beautiful Erin Condren all follow a formula and structure that works for some, but definitely not all. Personally I always felt like if I did not stick with a planner and keep organized it was something wrong with me, rather than the system. The bullet journal has come to represent people having the freedom to do things in such different styles and formats, which I think is an amazing thing.


How do you get started? How does the bullet journal work?

Look at your bookshelf. You see that notebook or journal you saw at the store and thought, “This is it! I’ll start writing in this every day, I’ll finally get organized!” That one? Yeah, you should start your bullet journal in that. The pen that’s on your kitchen table or in your bag? Yeah, give it a go.

Too often people do what we usually do and spend a ton of money on something before we build the habit. My friend Anthony of Break the Twitch calls this aspirational spending, where we invest in the supplies first thinking that’s what will create the habit. It does not quite work. (Wait, you mean I won’t be a super disciplined athlete if I buy those yoga pants and matching sneakers??? Damn.)

So first, go cheap just to see if it will work for you. (A great affordable first option is the $5 Artist Loft notebook from Michael’s).  You will hate the first layout you create. It’s basically law! We get nervous to write in the beautiful blank pages, we eventually try something, and we immediately know something we should’ve done instead. The failure and experimentation will be a CRUCIAL piece of this process. Eventually, you will be able to see what you like and don’t. For example, I am a gel pen girl all the way and seldom ever write with felt tip pens. I will never use a Moleskine or lined notebook – it just won’t happen! I have learned this over time, and you will too.

Check out some of my favorite notebooks: Rhodia Goalbook, Leuchtturm 1917

The nuts and bolts of the bullet journal can be found explicitly explained everywhere, so I’ll just point you to this video breakdown here. I explain Ryder’s way of doing things and then introduce some basic modifications to give you an idea of how you can expand from the basics.

bullet journal layout experiment

Figuring out what works for you

Every time I teach a planning class, I tell people up front that I will rarely be able to provide answers, but I will ask you a lot of important questions. No one else holds the answers to how the bullet journal can best help you but you! It’s a powerful (and terrifying) feeling to know that most of the answers lie within you already.

So how do you find Planner Peace in your bullet journal? How do you even know what to start with? Here are a few things I think about when crafting a layout, and it turns out I’ve learned a lot of this already from my past experience as a planner user!

What do you need this notebook to do? This is why each person’s bullet journal will be SO different, because we need it to serve different purposes. For some it’s for school to stay on track with assignments, for others it’s a high-powered job with dozens of projects, for others it’s a creative outlet, and others still a way to keep their family moving. Taking stock of what is important for you to manage and what you’re aspiring to do will help you figure out what you need in your layouts.

How do you see time? Everyone has a preference for how they visualize time. First, what unit of time makes sense for you? Do you need the year? Do you rely on the month, or perhaps the week? Daily? I like being able to see months as a grid because I am a visual person. That means I have successfully used Ryder’s original list-month zero times. Knowing this, I can confidently jettison the idea that I’ll ever use a list-format for my monthly (whereas I have a good friend who SWEARS by it).

bullet journal weekly stickers

I also swear by the weekly because it creates manageable arcs of time for me to plan for. However I have figured out I really love having two different kinds of layouts: the work week and the weekend. These are two distinct modes in my mind so it makes sense to give them different spreads.

The other question then becomes about whether you see time vertically or horizontally. My brain short-circuits when I try to use a horizontal planner. Time just does not flow that way for me! So I swear by vertical. It reminds of the way a list naturally flows, and mimics the way a Google Calendar looks. It makes that easy on my brain, which makes the layout easy to use.

Do not fight your brain’s natural tendencies – plan for them to make them your strengths. Make note of these and incorporate it into your next bullet journal layout.

Do you need to keep track of time or tasks? I use a Google Calendar really heavily, and it makes the most sense to track my schedule that way since it is synced with my coworkers and to my phone. Thus, I need my bullet journal to keep track of tasks.

This means I will skip the time ladder and just focus on spaces to make my lists.

bullet journal horizontal weekly layout

Do you need sections in your bullet journal? Sometimes when I tell people about how lists can be mixed in with the dailies and weeklies, I see their brains twitch because they are so accustomed to having separate sections for each of these things. They prefer to have their dailies and weeklies in one chunk, while their important lists are in another chunk, and notes in another. Others do not mind having it all mixed together. If you know this about yourself, you may want to look for other formats that are conducive to your natural preferences. All together, use a notebook. If you want separation you may want to get something disc-bound or ring-bound, or perhaps investigate a traveler’s notebook system.

Other sections may be within your layouts themselves. This is where it is important for you to identify what is important for you to track. If you care a lot about meal planning, you’ll carve out space for that in your daily log. If you want to journal and free-write, you’ll leave space for that. In the past I’ve created sections for my blog and calligraphy work, project-specific lists, exercise, meals, money tracking, and other habits. Your priorities determine your sections.

bullet journal layout mistake

But I’m not artistic….and other lies we tell ourselves

I need these to stop. So many things get in the way of us doing things. You are only seeing the bullet journal spreads people are posting. Even though I preach up and down the street about having messy bullet journals, they don’t always show up on my feed. People are incentivized to only post their prettiest spreads, and in a competition to get more “likes” these journals have started to become fucking art portfolios. This is NOT what a bullet journal is and if it was, I quit!

You have to remember what the purpose of the journal is – it is to make your life easier, a little more creative, a little more manageable. Not some kind of proof that artistic skill equals value as a human.

I leave you with this: It does not have to be perfect, it just has to be you.



One thought on “Get Started with the Bullet Journal

  1. Yes yes yes. I love my bullet journal and it looks very little like the original. Or all the artistic ones on the web. Actually my summer one looks like Ryder’s – because I’m a professor and summer is simplier for me. I do three bullet ternal see year. One for each semester. My summer one follows the original pattern. And my fall and spring ones are super complicated with Dutch doors and take me about 12 hours to assemble. But it’s worth it for me. I have a hard time with time and schedules so the 12 hours that it takes me to put together my permit bullet journal actually segments my schedule and the semester structure in my head. For someone else this would be way too much work but it works for me. On my very first page I right across the top make a mistake to remind myself that my bullet journal doesn’t have to be perfect. And when I make a mistake mess up a spread etc. I find some cool quote or meme online print it out and tape it on top of my mistake. One of the reasons I love a bullet journal


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