3 questions to ask yourself when starting a bullet journal

One of my friends asked me on Instagram the other day if I had any resources for how to begin keeping a bullet journal. There’s a ton of resources out there, but many of them focus on the details—notebooks, pens, cool spreads to make. I don’t think she was asking about that, though. The real underlying question I heard was “how do I start a bullet journal that is useful, that I will keep up with, and that will actually help me in my day to day life?”

I’ve been bullet journaling regularly for four years (yes, all these photos are of my own journals), and I can say with certainty that the only right way to bullet journal is the way that works for you. If your journal is a task you have to do each week, it’s not serving you, you’re serving it. A perfect bullet journal is unobtrusive, there when you need it, easy to keep up to date but forgiving if you let it go for a while, and ultimately, helping you live the life you want.

So I wanted to share how I got started, some resources, and most of all, some questions to ask yourself.

october 2016, nov-dec 2018, january 2019
Three questions to ask yourself if you want to get started bullet journaling:

What purpose do I want my journal to serve?

What kinds of information do I want to keep in my journal?

What inspires me, and what will I actually do?

At it’s heart, the bullet journal is about tasks, using a system called "rapid logging" — check out the video at bulletjournal.com — which sounds elaborate, but it's fairly straightforward.

A dot・denotes a task; an open circle ○ denotes an event; a — for a thought or note. Tasks are then marked with their status: as complete ✕, crossed out if irrelevant, migrated ﹥ to a future day, or migrated back﹤ to a monthly/future log.

For a good overview, I'd suggest Melody's article Bullet Journaling for Beginners and Impatient Unartistic People, or Kim of Tiny Ray of Sunshine's great Thorough Guide to the Bullet Journal System.

daily pages with tasks, migrated tasks, and events

One of the best things about the bullet journal setup is that it’s completely customizable. You can use it to track or log just about anything. Funnily enough, as I was writing this post, one of my coworkers came over and I found out he is a long-time bullet journaler as well. We talked about the differences between our setups—he's an avid indexer and I'm not; he has a separate journal for personal and work, whereas I combine mine.

The reason I love bullet journaling over traditional planners is because it can change as my life changes. If one week is hectic and I need more space, it's there. If I need room to doodle or write notes, it's there. If I want to change up how I do days, or weeks, or go back to an über-simple list of tasks, I can. As my focuses change, I can include it in my journal: capsule wardrobe planning or outfit logs, travel lists, meal plans, work notes, you name it, it can go.

a partially filled out outfit log

For some, making each week as they go can seem daunting, especially if your idea of a bullet journal weekly spread is elaborate, pre-planned, and involves cute stickers. It doesn't have to be, though; a weekly page could be as minimal as the week, and a list of tasks. It's there when I need it, as complex as I need it to be. I like that much better than pre-dated planners, where there's never enough room per day and I feel guilty for skipping days!

Even the official bulletjournal.com page says, "Don’t set up Daily Logs way ahead of time. Create them as you go or the night before. You never know how much space you may need any given day."

What purpose do you want your journal to serve for you?

A bullet journal can be useful for all kinds of logging, so before you actually put pen to paper, make a list of what you want your journal to do for you.

Ask yourself these kinds of questions:

  • What would make a bullet journal useful to me?
  • What kinds of planning do I already do (digital calendar, apps, sticky notes)?
  • Where do I feel unorganized, uninspired, or stressed?
  • What is my job/day like? How often will I be able to access my journal?

For example, I work a desk job in tech. Every week and day my team meets and briefly describes what we’re working on. I may have 4-5 smaller tasks every day, interspersed with longer-running projects that I need to work on a bit every week. Each quarter, we plan out goals, so I have to reference those often. I also have non-work related tasks, like errands, grocery lists, or events with friends, and I want to keep track of those, too. Because I’m at my desk, I can access my journal constantly.

a very long list of work-related tasks from a 2017 journal. not good for the gram, but saving my butt day to day.

When I first started bullet journaling, my primary use case was a way to keep my daily tasks available — and out of my head.

I regularly laid awake at night in bed thinking about all the things I needed to do.

I have never been successful at digital planning; putting a task in a to do list feels like sending it into a black hole, never to be seen again. I knew from my school days that writing something down helped cement it for me, though, so I knew the analogue method of bullet journaling would be more powerful.

What kinds of information do you want to have in your bullet journal?

There are a ton of inspirational bullet journal blogs out there, but before you start looking, think hard about your real life and real needs.

What kinds of information would make your journal useful? You could:

  • keep track of daily and weekly tasks
  • do yearly, quarterly, and/or monthly goal-setting and planning
  • week to week planning like meals, outfits, events
  • track habits and routines
  • doodle, draw, or art journal
  • keep a diary of daily events, gratitude logging
  • personal reflection and writing
  • collections and inspiration
  • meeting notes and thoughts

This incredible list from Tiny Ray of Sunshine has over 100 different bullet journal ideas. As you look through them, remember that just because someone else is tracking their daily habits, or doing watercolor art journaling, or planning their entire week out on one page, doesn’t mean you have to. The way you set up your journal should reflect your actual needs.

Do you need unlimited space, or does a defined, pre-organized spread work for you? If your week mainly consists of meetings or events, maybe you can block out your whole week in pre-sized blocks. If you’re like me, though, some days and weeks are jam-packed, and others, I barely have anything in my journal at all.

a super free-form daily log, with each day getting as much space as it needs, and some misc notes

Do you have a regular weekly schedule, or are all your days different? Maybe your job is constantly on the go, so an easy, free-space daily task log and a weekly single page to focus and review would work for you. Or maybe you really like blocking out your time in advance, and have the same events each week, so you could plan and block out your week in a calendar-esque view.

a more defined, pre-laid-out spread

Maybe you want to bullet journal as a way to focus your week or day, and doodle, draw, or art journal. Maybe you work a busy on-your-feet job and don’t have any tasks to plan, but you want to keep track of family or home life, or personal goals, or books to read.

a very early capsule wardrobe spread

Don't forget that you can always change it up. Try out the basic bullet journal setup first; then experiment. If the experiments feel too daunting, go back to basics! Let it work for you.

What inspires you... and what will you actually do?

A bullet journal is literally just a blank journal with a system, so you can do anything you want in it. That's why most of the #bulletjournal photos you see are elaborate, over-the-top, artsy layouts. If you're like I was, you're looking at those going, but I can't draw! or, that seems so complicated.

Of course, when we start deciding we’re going to “get organized,” we want to do it all at once. Be honest with yourself about what will be the most valuable. I too started with a bunch of collections, lists, trying to draw and doodle and use stickers. Yes, I read the admonishments on bulletjournal.com to keep it simple, yet I still tried to make my journal “pretty” like I saw on Instagram. But pretty didn't have much to do with "get these tasks on paper so I can sleep at night!"

As Kendra writes at Lazy Genius Collective, “I encourage you to not look for other examples of Bullet Journaling, not just yet. Why? Because there are people who doll their pages up beautifully with washi tape, calligraphy, stamps, intricate doodles, and everything else that makes your heart beat fast at the craft store. They're color-coordinated with tabs and labels, and there are so many pages to choose from, it's like a scary organizational buffet.”

Here’s the thing, though — just like full-time style bloggers, most organization/planner/bullet journal bloggers are doing this for a job. The photos of perfectly organized, decorated, clean and empty looking bullet journals are the ones that get the most love, and thus make money. I’m not disparaging this at all, but reminding you that the reason you’re bullet journaling is to improve your life in some way, not for the ‘gram. (Unless you are. Then go for it!)

I didn’t keep up with those stickers, or script handwriting, or complicated layouts. In fact, after a few months of trying, I totally gave up—not only on “pretty”, but on my bullet journal completely. Then I was back where I started, laying awake at night thinking about all the tasks I had to do.

I started back up with a super simple layout: the events of the week, and a big blank full page for tasks and reminders. Each day got a header with the day and date, and I stuck with the circle for events and dot/x for tasks. I did that for two years... and it worked. Oh, I tweaked, and sometimes I food logged, or outfit logged, or habit tracked, or whatever. My weekly and daily pages stayed the same, and they’re just about the same now.

my daily pages haven't changed that much since 2016!

So keep in mind as you look for inspiration: will I actually do this, every day or every week? Do I care if my journal is colorful, or black and white? Do I care about stickers, or drawing, or lettering? The answer might be yes—but be honest either way.

Getting started

Once you have a good idea of what you want to do with your bullet journal, make a list of the pages or spreads you want. This could be as simple as the bullet journal basics:  a monthly event and task log, and daily logs. Maybe it includes some more complex pages, like your theme for the year, goals and intentions, meal plans, project or travel planning, financial trackers, or something else that speaks to you.

Next, you have to—gasp–make your first mark in your fresh new journal. Sometimes this is the worst part! I like to go to the very last page and doodle a bit, just to get it out of my system. For more complicated pages, I'll block out the sections in pencil before I write in pen.

an intentions spread, as a reference and goal-setting sheet, vs daily tasks

I'd recommend starting simple, and see what works for you. Are you using it every day? Once a week? Are you planning, or task logging, or diary journaling? Whatever you're doing, if it isn't working, change it up!

Now you can put pen to paper, and make it work for you. Are you starting a bullet journal this year?