The Ugly Bullet Journal Method (Updated 2019 Edition)

A very long time ago, when I was a mere author hatchling, I wrote a blog post on “How to Make an Ugly Bullet Journal.” Or something like that. I'm not going to go back and find the post to check the title, nor am I going to link to it. Instead, I want to start from scratch and do a fresh take on on the bullet journal method…or rather, my modified version of the method.

I'm going to assume that you've probably seen pictures of bullet journals on sites like Pinterest. Beautiful, artistic journals full of calligraphy and drawings and perfectly-straight lines and washi tape (whatever that is).

And your reaction was, most likely, something along the lines of “Nope.”

Granted, perhaps you are one of the people who makes bullet journals that look like they were stolen from Rembrandt. If so, I respect you as a person and take my hat off to you. Seriously. I actually went to the effort just now of walking across my studio, putting on my hat, and taking it off, just to show how much I respect you.

Sadly, I neglected to make a video of the hat-doffing ceremony, so you'll have to take my word for it.

All that said, I am going to go out on a limb here and assume that most of you don't have time to create journals destined for the Smithsonian Institute. When people mention washi tape to you, you break into fits of hysterical laughter, while motioning vaguely to the unfinished manuscripts, unfinished chores, unfinished spouse, and unfinished children who perpetually require your attention. You don't have time to create still-life portraits of all this unfinished-ness, you've got to FINISH it, dadgummit. (Pardon my French.)

Here's the thing, though–if you peel away all the stickers and glitter to discover the raw, beating heart of the bullet journal method, you may find it a highly useful tool to add to your bag of productivity tricks. What I'm going to do in this post is rip out that heart, leaving behind an aesthetically pleasing but ultimately superfluous corpse.

It's time to make bullet journals ugly again.

First off, what is bullet journaling?

There are a ton of different approaches to keeping a bullet journal. You can read about the “classic” method on the official Bullet Journal website. However, I'm going to be giving you my version here, which is heavily simplified from the original.

Here are the tools you'll need:

  • 1 notebook
  • 1 pen

Yes, it's that simple. Any old notebook will do, as will any old pen. I personally use a Leuchtturm1917 notebook, only because it has a table of contents I can use to keep track of the various entries I make, but this particular brand isn't essential by any means. Just grab some El Cheapo notebook from your nearest convenience store, and you can get down to business.

You don't even have to pay for the notebook if you don't want to. I can testify that those convenience stores have very lax security.

(I'm kidding. Stop dialing the police.)

So, you've got your notebook and pen; now what?

This is where the official bullet journal method gets complicated, and mine does not. You'll notice words like “Future Log,” “Collections,” “Signifiers,” “Migration,” and so on. Ignore all of that. No disrespect intended to the inventors of the bullet journal method, but we're going to strip this down to the absolute bare minimum.

To demonstrate the Ugly Bullet Journal Method, here is a sample page I've created in my own bullet journal, featuring things I have no intention of doing on a day that does not exist on the calendar. Note the titular “bullets” (as in bullet points):

Now, let's suppose that I go ahead and declare myself Emperor of Latvia. That means I've taken care of one of my bullets, and can draw an X over it:

But suppose I fail to recover from Avengers: Endgame and decide to postpone that until some later decade. That means I will want to bump that bullet forward and add it to a future date. So, I'll turn that dot into an arrow:

That's it. Dots, x's, and arrows. That's all you need to know.

You may be asking yourself “What good does this practice actually do?” After all, it's not like I'm actually planning out my days in advance. I'm just making lists day by day and checking things off, or postponing them as necessary. How does this help my productivity?

Well, I do use my bullet journal to plan ahead to a limited extent. When the month begins, I make a short list of the big goals I'd like to accomplish before it ends. And I use the journal to keep track of other things as well–for example, lists of stories I want to write, or books I want to read. I put them down as bullets, just like my daily tasks. (This is where the Leuchtturm1917 notebook, or any notebook with page numbers, comes in handy, as you can write down random things in any order and then keep track of them via a table of contents.)

However, I must admit that planning things down to the last detail far in advance generally doesn't work out well for me. My schedule is extremely unpredictable, as the readers awaiting my next fiction release are well aware. I do have deadlines, but I try to keep them vague and big-picture instead of micromanaging exactly what I want to have finished months ahead of the due date. So it's actually better for me to keep track of things on a more daily basis, or weekly at the most.

Using a bullet journal isn't really about long-term planning for me. It's about tracking my productivity in a simple and rewarding way. I'm not a big fan of to-do apps on my phone. I prefer to use a physical pen and paper. It's a far more effective means for me to make sure I haven't forgotten anything; much better than having it floating around in the digital cloud somewhere. And there's something very rewarding about actually putting pen to paper and checking off an item on the list, rather than simply tapping a phone screen.

Have you ever used a bullet journal? If so, what strategies do you employ to make the process easier or more efficient? Comment with your answer below, or with any questions you may have about my process.

NOTE: I have not seen Endgame yet and won't until next Thursday, so no spoilers!

Comments (12)

I’m a fan of lists but in the past I’d never really heard of bullet journals and I’ve never been any good at consistent journaling. But last year I realized I needed a better way to track my to-dos and calendar so this year I got myself a hybrid planner/journal – it has 36 calendar pages in the front and then dozens of lined/dotted/grid pages. I’m logging scheduled events on the calendar (so I remember the days when say, my daughter gets off school early and would really prefer not to be left there until 3 😉 ) and then tracking daily/weekly goals in the back.

Your ./x/> idea is amazing though! I’ve always just drawn lines through finished tasks but it gets messy.

That sounds like a great system! I wouldn’t mind having some calendar pages laid out in advance; the official BuJo method advocates drawing them yourself, but if I did that, it would look a bit TOO ugly. XD

The paragraph on the unfinished everything IS 110% my life.

LOL, I know what you mean. XD

I don’t call it a bullet point journal, but I make a bullet point “To do” list every night in the notes on my phone. However, I erase tasks as they are completed. That’s my where I receive my daily gratification :-).

It does feel good to check those things off, doesn’t it? 😀

I’ve been using a bullet journal for the past three years, and I love it because I can change monthly, weekly or daily formats any time I want, depending on what’s going on in my life. I wish I could do the brush lettering and artwork, but that’s not my thing. I do like color coding to help me find notes from week to week. I use washi tape on the edge of pages to mark the beginning of a new month. I sometimes use it to add color to an otherwise drab page. My handwriting is not so neat. You can find my handiwork on Instagram under @sloppyrosie_planning.

That sounds like a great method! And I like the minimalist aesthetic I see on your Instagram.

Brilliant!! I confess to have been all caught up in the artsy, aesthetically pleasing side of bullet journaling, and two hours later I have cool font, a cramped hand, and no more energy to actually do any scheduling or bullets or write up tasks. I like how this post just brings the heart of bullet journaling to the front and center. Great reminder of what bullet journaling was really all originally about!!
I do hope you can eventually recover from Avengers: Endgame and that it won’t actually take a decade. Though I can understand why that would seem unattainable.

Thank you! I’m really glad you found this helpful. Granted, I would love to be efficient enough in my artistic talent to make beautiful-looking journals at the drop of a hat, while still maintaining my productivity…but I don’t think that’s going to happen anytime soon. XD
LOL, I hope so too…two days left before I see it. Starving myself of 90% of social media and internet activities to avoid spoilers has been an interesting experience thus far; possibly deserving of a blog post in itself.

I heard of the bullet journal method. I saw pictures on social media popping up. I took a look onto the system. I doodled and scribbled for a very short time. Took just some left sheets of paper. Just to see, how it might feel. That was almost 2 years ago. And no, I never will bullet journal. I don’t use to-do lists, so no surprise that the system will never suit my needs. I rather schedule timeframes right away, for the things I have to take action. Done is done.

I love designing, printing and bookbinding my own notebooks. It doesn’t regard much. Looking into stores or onto social media would be ending in wasting my time. I use a self -invented table-based system. It needs very little space and can handle a lot of data. So 30 sheets of paper last me a whole year. My system takes nature’s life cycle into account and many other things too. I can’t help it, I love science to the moon and back.

I think for 2020 my little friend will get a companion, a field notebook. :)))

Sounds very cool, Anja! Thanks for commenting!

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