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How to Get Started With Bullet Journaling

Conquer tasks big and small with a creative method of note-taking

spinner image Bullet journaling concept art

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. That might help explain the rise of a kind of note-taking called “bullet journaling” — an analog 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.

Developed by the digital product designer Ryder Carroll, bullet journaling has exploded in popularity as a powerful tool for organization and self-reflection. Unlike traditional planners, which come with preportioned layouts for the month or days of the week, Carroll's system is all about customizing the notebook of your choice to create a personal 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.

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Any notebook with blank pages or ones with grids — a sketchbook, your trusty Filofax or the official Bullet Journal from German brand Leuchtturm1917 — can be used. Carroll says that while super-artistic designs (the kind that feature vibrant color schemes and expert calligraphy) tend to attract attention on social media, the method is designed to be a flexible “foundation” for whatever style people prefer, whether minimal or artistic.

Kim Alvarez, who founded the popular bullet-journaling blog Tiny Ray of Sunshine in 2014, would put herself “straight down the middle” of the spectrum between a simple and embellished style. She initially started bullet-journaling to stay on top of home and school obligations. “It's a great way to organize and keep track of your life, no matter what stage of life you're in,” she says.

To get started, all you need is a notebook, pen and patience as you learn the “BuJo” basics:

Know the notation

First, upgrade your to-do list with an updated set of bullet points. Carroll's three main symbols are a bullet point (•) for tasks, an open bullet (°) for events and a dash (—) for notes.

Create your calendars

Then come the building blocks of your journal, called “logs.” The four core types are:

  • An index. Like a table of contents, this 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.
  • A future log. 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.)
  • A monthly log. Carroll's system visualizes the month as a two-page spread, with the days of the month (plus any noteworthy events and tasks) listed on one side and a list of monthly priorities on the other.
  • 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).
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spinner image Example of Bullet Journaling featuring an August calendar and a to-do list

Migrate, reflect, repeat

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.

Alvarez says the two most common add-ons she sees are gratitude logs and habit trackers, which are detailed grids (like a ledger or hand-drawn spreadsheet) that help you keep track of things like your meals, chores and other daily goals.

Kendra Dosenbach, founder of the Santa Cruz, California, craft workshop studio All Hands, has been teaching bullet-journaling workshops since January. She says the majority of attendees are in their 40s and 50s; many are looking for a new hobby or creative outlet. One of her tips for success? Find a journal that you're excited to reach for (hers, for example, has an orange linen cover) and a pen you'll want to write with.

"There's something meditative and therapeutic about writing things by hand,” she says. “It slows you down.” (Research backs that perception up: Studies show that writing by hand can have a beneficial effect on brain health.)

Part of that slow-down process also happens as you use your journal over time. Dosenbach and Alvarez both 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.”

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