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How to Bullet Journal in 7 Easy Steps

A beginner’s guide to updating your to-do list

spinner image an open notebook with a pen on top on a blue background

Between digital calendars and email reminders, keeping track of your to-do list in the internet era can quickly turn into a task of its own. ​​

Enter “bullet journaling,” an analog note-taking system designed to help you get through the day (and plan for the months ahead) using nothing more than a notebook and the pen of your choice.​

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​​​​Developed by the digital product designer Ryder Carroll, bullet journaling has exploded in popularity as a powerful tool for organization and self-reflection. The system prompted a flurry of how-to guides (including Carroll’s best-selling guide, The Bullet Journal Method), media coverage and millions of #bulletjournal social media posts. ​

​Unlike traditional planners, which come with fixed layouts for the month or days of the week, Carroll’s system is all about customizing the notebook of your choice to create a flexible, personalized guidebook: Think an all-in-one calendar, to-do list and free space to record your thoughts or track everything from the week’s groceries to your travel bucket list. ​

​Here’s a step-by-step guide to getting started.

spinner image a black and green notebook with two pens on a blue background
Chona Kasinger

​​1. Stock up on supplies.

​​​To start mastering the “BuJo” basics, all you need is a notebook, pen and patience. Any notebook with blank or gridded pages — a sketchbook, your trusty Filofax or the specially designed Bullet Journal from German brand Leuchtturm1917 — can be used.

​​While super artistic page designs (the kind that feature vibrant color schemes and expert calligraphy) tend to attract attention on social media, Carroll says the method is designed to be a flexible “foundation” for whatever style people prefer, whether minimal or artistic.​

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spinner image an open notebook showing an example  of notations
Chona Kasinger

​2. Learn the notation.

​​Before you start jotting things down, get familiar with an updated set of bullet points for easy task management. Carroll’s three main symbols are a bullet point (•) for tasks, an open bullet (°) for events and a dash (—) for notes. You’ll use these symbols for the building blocks of your journal, called “logs” — more on those below.​

​Tracking tasks by hand serves a deeper purpose too. “Handwriting things is essential,” says Arizona-based illustrator and designer Dylan Mierzwinski, who took up bullet journaling in 2022 and has since taught thousands of students in her online course, “Bullet Journaling: Life Management for Creatives.” “When we write things by hand, it really helps commit them to memory.” (Research backs up that perception: Studies show that writing by hand can have a beneficial effect on brain health.)​

spinner image an open notebook with the word index written on it
Chona Kasinger

3. Create an index.

​The index is like a table of contents that lives at the front of your journal. Number the pages of your notebook before using it (or choose a notebook with numbered pages), then update the index as you work through the notebook. You’ll seamlessly create an inventory of what you’ve written down and where to find it.​

spinner image an open notebook indicating how to create future and monthly logs
Chona Kasinger

4. Create future and monthly logs.

​Like a classic year-at-a-glance calendar, use the pages after your index to note important dates and plans for the year ahead. (One common layout, popularized in the book Dot Journaling — A Practical Guide, by Rachel Wilkerson Miller, divvies up the year on two facing pages, with six months per page.)​

​For an overview of monthly highlights, you can also create a monthly log before or after your daily logs for each month (for more on daily logs, skip to the next step). Carroll’s system visualizes the month as a two-page spread, with the days of the month — plus any noteworthy events and tasks — noted on one side and a list of monthly priorities on the other. ​

spinner image an open notebook showing an example of a daily log
Chona Kasinger

5. Create a daily log.

​Each day, jot down tasks, events and notes as they come up. You might use a page per day or fit several days onto one page. As you go along, mark the day’s tasks to reflect your progress. Carroll also has a set of symbols for that (for example, an “X” for a task that is complete, or an arrow symbol for a task you’re moving to the following day or month).​

​Some users, including Mierzwinski, also create a weekly log for an added layer of organization. As with all logs, the format is flexible. Mierzwinski’s layout includes the days of the week (plus corresponding tasks and chores) on one side of a two-page spread, with room for jotting notes on the opposite page. ​

spinner image an open notebook indicating an example of how to customize pages
Chona Kasinger

6. Customize your spreads.

​For many, personalizing the rest of your pages is where the fun really begins. Beyond the four basic logs above, you can keep track of, well, anything — a reading list, an exercise routine or progress toward a financial goal.​

​Kim Alvarez, who founded the popular journaling and creativity website Tiny Ray of Sunshine in 2014, says the two most common add-ons she sees are gratitude logs and habit trackers, which are detailed grids (like a ledger or a hand-drawn spreadsheet) that help you keep track of things such as meals, chores and other daily goals.

​​As for adorning your spreads? There’s no hard-and-fast rule. Some people choose to doodle and decorate, others keep things streamlined. Alvarez says she would put herself “straight down the middle” of the spectrum between a simple and embellished style.​

spinner image an open notebook showing an example of how to migrate, reflect, repeat.
Chona Kasinger

7. Migrate, reflect, repeat.

​Because bullet journaling is a flexible system, feel free to adapt your setup as new needs arise. Mierzwinski, for example, has developed a two-notebook system: A smaller notebook contains her daily to-do list, and a larger one contains spreads for longer-range planning and a section called “Capture,” in which she jots down special memories and tidbits, such as a memorable recipe or song.​

​Another plus? Both Mierzwinski and Alvarez note that one of the main benefits of bullet journaling, beyond staying organized on a daily basis, is the way that looking back through an old notebook can help you reflect on how you’ve been spending your time.​

​​That reflection is intentional. It’s the goal of another aspect of Carroll’s system, called “migration” — the process of periodically taking stock of the tasks you haven’t finished, and either rescheduling them or deciding not to pursue them. Those choices, Carroll says, can have a big impact over time.​

​In other words, he says, “The question isn’t ‘how am I going to get this done?’ but ‘why am I working on this?’ When you start thinking that way, things change.”​

Editor's note: This article was originally published on August 15, 2019. It has been updated to reflect new information

Sarah Elizabeth Adler is a writer based in Washington, D.C. She has written about science, art and culture for outlets including, where she was previously a staff writer, The Atlantic and California magazine.

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