The bullet journal: a simple, adaptable system that helps you to manage your time and your to-do list.
Sounds nice and friendly, right? And yet, when you google how to actually engage in bullet journaling, you are immediately presented with approximately 16 kaskillion pictures of elaborate, color-coded notebooks that look as if they were designed by Rembrandt. You’re also bombarded with a lot of unnerving terminology – “future log,” “collections,” “signifiers,” etc. A few minutes of skimming pages like these can easily throw you off the whole idea of creating a bullet journal.
Author’s Note: I’m not knocking people who take the time and effort to make artistic-looking bullet journals; so there’s no need to send me angry letters written in breathtaking calligraphy and framed in washi tape. However, I think it’s important that people feel free to make ugly bullet journals. The bullet journal system really is a fantastic productivity tool, but some people can use it more effectively when they don’t set out to make it look nice.
So, without further ado, here’s The Ugly Bullet Journal Method (patent pending). Oh, and just so you know, the abbreviation of “bullet journal” is “BuJo.” Sounds ridiculous, but it saves wear and tear on the vocal apparatus.
Step 1: The notebook.
You can turn any notebook into a bullet journal. It doesn’t have to be anything fancy or expensive. That being said, some notebooks have design features that make bullet journaling easier. The best one is the Leuchtturm1917. You don’t have to bother learning how to proununce that, but if you’re interested, it’s LOY-schss-ttt-oyyym-NYNE-tien-seh-vahn-TIENN. The useful thing about this one, from a BuJo perspective, is that it’s got a ready-made index and numbered pages. These things are important elements of the BuJo system, so it’s more convenient to not have to make them from scratch. The Leuchtturm comes in lined and dotted editions. Dotted is better if you want to sketch or do other creative stuff in your journal, but lined works just as well.
You’ve got two choices of vendors for the Leuchtturm – Amazon and BulletJournal.com. If you buy from the official BuJo website, you get a black or green notebook with “Bullet Journal” embossed across the front and with a guide to the BuJo method printed inside. This model also has three bookmark ribbons, unlike the regular Leuchtturm, which only has two. This version costs $25.
The extra bookmark, however, is the only really thing the “official” notebook has going for it. I’ve deviated from the original method extensively, so I don’t need the guide, and neither will you if you use my method. Also, the store on bulletjournal.com seems to run out of notebooks pretty often – as of today, they’re out of stock again. Amazon, meanwhile, offers a more standard Leuchtturm for $20, in a variety of colors. Like I said, if you don’t want to shell out that kind of money for a notebook, it’s not essential. But the features of the Leuchtturm do make things easier.
For this post, I’m using photos from my Bullet Journal (one of the officially-branded Leuchtturms) and from a Moleskine cahier notebook. Moleskine cahiers are really too small for bullet journaling, but I’m using one as a prop because if I show pictures of everything in my Leuchtturm, you’ll see spoilers for the Beaumont and Beasley series. Trust me, you don’t want that. 🙂
Step 2: The key.
The key is a list of “signifiers” – which are the little symbols you’ll use in your bullet journal to mark tasks.
In the photo, you’ll see the signifiers from the official method plus two more I added myself. These symbols are really just a dot with lines drawn through it in different ways. When you create a task for your to-do list in the BuJo, you draw a dot and write the task name next to it. Then, later on, you draw lines through that dot to turn it into another symbol depending on whether the task is completed, postponed, canceled, etc.
If you draw an “X” through the dot, that means the task is completed.
If you turn it into a forward-pointing arrow (>) the task is “migrated” (postponed until tomorrow).
If you cross out the task, it’s canceled.
And those are really all the symbols you need for bullet journaling. Of course, there are others in the photo, but the only one of those I really use is the “note” symbol. If you draw a line instead of a dot, that signifies a note-to-self rather than a task that needs to be done. Some people draw a circle for events, but I usually just do dots and think of them as tasks (what else can you call a dentist appointment, after all?). You can draw an asterisk next to the bullets tasks that are high-priority if you find it helpful. “Explore” (an eye next to the bullet) is for things you want to research further later on, and “inspiration” can be used to designate new ideas. None of these are really essential, however.
You can invent additional signifiers of your own if you want, but I’d advise against having a lot of them. It can make the whole BuJo system get very tiresome very quickly if you’re trying to keep track of an entire alphabet of symbols. It’s better to stick with the most basic ones.
TL;DR: Use a dot in front of tasks, then turn it into an X if you finished the task or into a > if you postponed it.
Step 2: The index.
If you have a Leuchtturm notebook, this is done for you already. If you’re using a notebook without a built-in index, just leave yourself four or five blank pages at the beginning of the book so you have enough space to make an index from scratch.
The index works the same way indexes have been working ever since they were invented several million years ago, with one small modification. You’re not always going to know how many pages you’ll need for a given item in your journal, obviously. So when you run out of room, you just continue it further on in the notebook and add an appropriate page reference in the index. Note my entry for “January 2017 Daily”, for example. I reserved pages 6 and 7 for this team, but ran out of space. So I just continued it on page 37 and added that page to the index entry.
The index may seem excessive when you first start a bullet journal. After all, how hard is it to just flip through the notebook until you find what you need? But I can testify that the journal gets filled with a wide variety of things very quickly, and it’s handy to be able to find a given page without having to hunt for it.
Also, note that my handwriting is atrocious. This is the Ugly Bullet Journal Method, remember.
Step 3: The future log.
I’ve seen people use the future log in a variety of different ways. I tend to think of it as a “big picture” view of projects I plan to complete over the coming year. I put long-term goals in it for each month, which I’ll break down into smaller pieces as I move on to the monthly and daily lists in my journal.
Some people add a lot of stuff to their future logs all at once. I don’t, because my life is somewhat unpredictable and I don’t like having to cross out a bunch of stuff because something unexpected threw off my schedule. It’s up to you how much you want to put into this ahead of time. Just think of it as the “top level” of your bullet journal. This is where you make your big plans for the future.
I recommend reserving about six pages for your future log. You cold break it up into multiple pieces using the indexing method I discussed earlier. However, with this particular item it’s more convenient to have everything in one place, if possible, as it’s a kind of road map for the rest of your bullet journal.
Step 4: The monthly log.
This is the area in which I deviate the most from the original BuJo method. Most bullet journalers draw a complete calendar page for their monthly log, with a grid of days. I’ve never found this to be particularly helpful. I tend to plan out my month week by week instead of day by day. Plus, drawing the grid over and over again takes a lot of time and effort. So, what I do is just put down the four weeks in each month and list my weekly goals under each one. My “weeks,” however, are not perfect 7-day periods – you can see that I’ve included the last few days of January as part of Week 4.
This is the next level down from your future log, where things are more specific. For example, in the future log I put down “Publish Beaumont and Beasley Book 1,” while in the monthly log I’ve got the smaller components of that task, like editing the draft 50,000 times.
Step 5: The daily log.
The daily log is the lowest level of your bullet journal, where all your day-to-day tasks go. It’s also where you’ll be making the most use of all those x’s and >’s. Each morning, you should make a list of your tasks (drawing from the long-term goals in your future and monthly logs), and then review them at the end of the day to see which ones you completed and which ones you had to migrate (put off until tomorrow.
When it comes to bullet journaling, the daily log is where the magic happens. (Not literal magic, unfortunately, but one can’t have everything.) These pages are what help you keep track of everything you need to do on a given day.
You may ask, “Why can’t I just use a to-do list app on my phone or tablet to keep track of my stuff? Why go to all this bother?” It’s a sensible question. Here’s my take on it – when I use one of those apps, it’s a lot easier for me to let things slide. It’s a psychological thing. When I can delete an unfulfilled to-do list, making it seem like it never happened, I don’t have as much motivation to get my work done. When my daily planner is an icon on my iPad screen, one that I can easily ignore, I tend to forget it’s there. Programmed reminders and notifications end up becoming annoyances that I turn off. But when I have a physical notebook sitting on my desk, something that can’t be erased, deleted, or switched off, I’m more inspired to use it. It gives me a sense of completion to check off items in pen on a piece of paper, and it encourages me to get on top of things when I have to keep rewriting migrated items day after day.
Granted, not everyone may agree with me on this. If electronic mediums of task-planning work better for you, that’s great. But I think the psychological factors involved in bullet journaling are helpful for a lot of people who otherwise have trouble keeping up with their work.
Step 6: Collections.
Simply put, collections are anything you put in your journal besides logs. They can be brainstorming notes, plot outlines, sketches, exercise plans, and so on. Just stick ’em in and mark down their page numbers in the index.
And that’s it! Sorry this got lengthy, but I’m hoping it made the bullet journaling process a little less scary for those of you who want to give it a try. If you have any questions, or if you’ve got your own ways of streamlining the BuJo method, I’d love to hear them! Feel free to share in the comments.