Maybe you’ve thought about starting a bullet journal before, but don’t know where to start. Or maybe you’ve wanted to give bullet journaling a try, but you’re intimidated by all the beautiful bullet journal pages on Pinterest. If you’re afraid to start a bullet journal because you fear you don’t have the time (or artistic skills) to make it work, there’s hope:
You don’t have to be an artistic genius to start a bullet journal. Nor do you need to devote days every week to sketching pretty pictures in kaleidoscopic colors.
In fact, while making your bullet journal “pretty” can be fun, it’s not required. The most important thing about bullet journaling is that it is FAST, FUNCTIONAL, and it WORKS FOR YOU.
With that in mind, here is a step-by-step guide for beginners on how to start a bullet journal – the easy way.
(Don’t know what a bullet journal is or why they’re one of the best parenting tools I’ve discovered? Then check out my other posts on bullet journaling first.)
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How to Start a Bullet Journal (The Easy Way)
1. Get over your mental blocks
This was the most important thing I had to do before I started my first bullet journal. I didn’t really know much about BuJo (as it’s sometimes called for short) at the time, but I knew I did NOT have the time or energy to make all those mesmerizing spreads that so many bullet journalers love to post on social media.
Once I told myself that my bullet journal was going to be purely functional, and NOT beautiful, I felt a weight lifted.
If you’ve thought about trying BuJo, but all that artwork intimidates you, DON’T let it! That was the complete opposite of what Ryder Carroll, the founder of the bullet journal, intended. Look at his Getting Started pages for a useful reality check.
Also, don’t forget that you can start a bullet journal any day of the year. I only learned about BuJo in mid-January of last year, and didn’t set up my first notebook until the month was almost over! So if the fact that the year is already underway is the only thing holding you back, don’t let it!
2. Gather your supplies
A. The Must-Haves
There are only two supplies you truly need to start a bullet journal:
- A notebook.
- A pen.
That’s it. While many BuJo lovers are addicted to their expansive collections of gel pens and washi tape, these are NOT essential. Oodles of fun, yes. Money- and time-sucking, yes. But not essential.
You can use any notebook or notepad for bullet journaling, but many bullet journalers like dot-grid format notebooks, because it’s easy to make columns and charts. And a 5″x8″ format fits nicely into a purse, tote bag, or backpack, so you can easily bring it with you everywhere. (The fact that it’s small enough to fit in my purse, and I can use it even when I’m offline or somewhere phones aren’t allowed, is reason #1 why I’m a BuJo convert.)
When I began my first bullet journal, I wasn’t sure if I would stick with it, so I bought a single 96-page dot-grid notebook. Halfway through the year, I bought another similar one, and taped the two together.
New year, new Bullet Journal book. So now that it’s a new year, I have a single 192-page notebook, with an expander pocket in the back for holding receipts and stuff. (It even has a pen loop!)
B. Optional add-ons
As noted above, a lot of bullet journalers love gel pens in a rainbow of colors. These are fun for drawing gorgeous pictures and amazing embellishments in your bullet journal. But they are NOT required.
These things CAN make bullet journaling easier; they’re the tools used in many fancy BuJo layouts on Pinterest. But they are truly optional.
I don’t use any of these things. Instead, my must-have “optional” tools for bullet journaling are correction tape and a short (8-inch) ruler. It’s easy to mis-number a calendar, for example (hence the correction tape). And while some people like Xing a box to indicate that a task is complete, I prefer coloring in the box. A short ruler makes this easier to do neatly; ditto for drawing straight lines to divide sections.
I confess that I’m also a huge fan of color-coding. So while my Bullet Journal isn’t full of marks from gel pens, I do have a collection of colored ballpoint pens, with which I note (for example) the habits I track each month. My pens and correction tape all fit in a small zippered pencil case that’s easy to toss into my purse, along with my bullet journal.
3. Start with breaking in and page numbering
When you open your new notebook for the first time, “breaking it in” (see this post for how-to and why) is a good idea. This will help to keep the pages intact as you work your way through it, so they don’t fall out of the notebook.
Next – before you forget – write your name and phone number inside the front cover, just in case you misplace your bullet journal.
After that, number the pages. Be careful NOT to miss any as you go; if you do, that’s what the correction tape is for. To save time, you only have to number every other page (usually the odd pages, in the lower right hand corner). But if this will drive you nuts, go ahead and number them all. Or number the even-sided (left) page whenever you open to it and start writing on it. Whatever works for you.
(Note: If completing this step will drive you bonkers, you can buy notebooks with pre-numbered pages that are designed for bullet journaling.)
4. Set up your notebook’s basic structure
Once you’ve got your supplies and prepped your notebook, all you need to start a bullet journal is five basic sections. Nearly all bullet journalers include some form of these sections, or “modules,” in their bullet journal:
- A Key, which is where you list the marks and symbols you’ll use to track things, or any color-coding you’ll use throughout the book.
- An Index (table of contents), where you list what is on each page of your bullet journal as you fill it in.
- A Future Log, where you can keep track of things far in advance (like dates for that trip to Disney or upcoming conference). You can do this with a series of notes, divided into sections by month (or spread over several pages). Or you can do this through one or more year-at-a-glance overviews (more on these below).
- A Monthly Log, where you plan and track accomplishments and to-do’s, one month at a time.
- A Daily Log, where you plan out your day-to-day activities. Most people organize these into two-page spreads (one week spread over two facing pages), but this is optional.
I’m including pictures of my own bullet journal in this section just for reference; how you format your modules is up to you. I’ve noticed that my Bullet Journal is about a thousand times less pretty and “artistic” than most of the pictures I see online. So if you think these pages are ugly – or too cluttered for you – no biggie. I’m including them to illustrate a) what works for me, and b) that you CAN have a bullet journal that’s light on artwork and heavy on lists/reminders.
A. The Key
There are some basic sets of symbols you can use, but these vary from one bullet journaler to the next. For example, compare the symbol examples from BuJo founder Ryder Carroll’s get-started guide to the symbols I use. (I find filling in that little square much more satisfying and visually rewarding than just making an “X”.)
Likewise, you can set up your key in different ways: symbols, colors, or both. My 2018 key looks different than the worksheet I got at my very first bullet-journal workshop. The symbols I’ve ended up using are different from Ryder Carroll’s, but they are what I prefer.
Some people like to use their key for a color-coding guide. Others like to use highlighters to color-code page edges, and make a note of these colors in the key. I don’t include any color-coding in my key, because I use it for different things throughout different parts of the book.
B. The Index
Pages 2-5 of your bullet journal are for indexing your year as you go. This is actually more like a table of contents than an index per se. As you fill in pages in your bullet journal, keep track of what appears on each page in your index, so you can easily find it later.
Rather than log every page/spread separately as you go, I find it helpful to group similar types of pages together. For example, last year’s Bullet Journal contained five packing lists for different trips scattered throughout. It also had several different pages of expense tracking related to these trips, for tax purposes. But I grouped all these pages under just two index headings, which made things easier to find.
C. Future Logs
Future Logs can be as simple or elaborate as you want. What matters is making them functional for you; gorgeous artwork is totally optional. As is following Ryder Carroll’s original list format.
I actually have several Future Logs in my bullet journal. A Ryder-Carroll-style list appears at the end of my bullet journals. I use that list-format Future Log to record upcoming dates for the following year.
At the front of my Bullet Journal, I include several year-long calendars:
- Two of them are actual Future Logs: one for important dates and events, one for blog scheduling.
The third is not a Future Log per se (though it looks like the others), but a place to record things as they happen. Specifically, it’s where I track my exercise, my riding miles on my two bicycles, and professional and volunteer mileage for tax purposes.
In addition, I have sections in my Bullet Journal where I keep track of several month’s worth of important dates, goals, and to-do reminders:
- One of these looks like a normal calendar covering several months. This seasonal future log is where I coordinate, for example, summer family trips around swim lessons and camp.
- The other is organized by weeks, and is for sketching out and coordinating each quarter’s blog posts, by week.
D. Monthly Logs
Next it’s time for your first Monthly Log. Like other parts of the Bullet Journal, experiment until you find what works best for you.
My earliest monthly logs resembled Ryder Carroll’s original system. On the left-hand page, I made two vertical columns near the left-hand side, for the dates and week-days of the month. To the left of these, I tracked habits with colored dots. The rest of each daily line was for noting important dates, upcoming reminders, and quick memory notes. The facing page listed that month’s to-do’s.
By late last year, though, I realized the “visual thinker” in me would prefer a calendar-style Monthly Log. So even though it takes longer to create, I started drawing out a regular calendar each month, with squares big enough for notes.
I also changed how I listed monthly tasks, inspired by a webinar from Learn-Do-Become’s April and Eric Perry:
- Underneath my calendar, I now brainstorm big projects for the month, knowing I won’t be able to accomplish them all.
- Next I choose 7-8 monthly “focus” projects, and organize my to-do lists around the steps for each project.
- I also have a more formal “habit tracker” running across the bottom of each Monthly Log spread.
If this sounds like too much work, or looking at my monthly logs overwhelms you, that’s okay! You’ll need to experiment with different systems until you figure out what works best for you. And if you can focus on the big picture tasks without the gratification of checking off every little step, you rock. (I, for one, need that check-it-off-as-I-go thrill.)
E. Daily/Weekly Logs
Your final step to start a bullet journal is creating daily logs, where you list each day’s events, appointments, deadlines, and other to-do’s. Many people organize a week’s worth of daily logs across two facing pages, and add in a weekly to-do list, but this is totally up to you. Some people also include habit trackers on each daily/weekly log. I tried this, but found monthly trackers easier to maintain.
My daily/weekly logs are slightly more elaborate than Ryder Carroll’s, but not much. His are simple lists, one day after the other, without drawing grids on the page ahead of time to divide things up. I find it helpful to divvy up next week’s spread each Sunday night into boxes for each day.
But I don’t have time (or patience) to make fancy illustrated weekly spreads, as many people like to do. If you can pull that off, go for it. But if you’re not, don’t let that stop you from giving bullet journaling a try. It’s harder to overcome those mental hurdles I noted above, and start a bullet journal, than it is to keep one going.
Now that you know how to start a bullet journal, all that’s left is keeping it up. This is a step called
Maintaining your to-do lists and progress toward goals should take a few minutes before bed each night, and maybe 15-30 minutes at the end of each week. You can mark things that you finish as “complete” throughout the day. But each night before you turn in, spend a few minutes going over what you accomplished and what tasks you didn’t get to Then, “migrate” the incomplete tasks to the next day, or the next week, as appropriate.
Migrating is actually a key step in the bullet journal process. If you find yourself migrating a task day after day, week after week, it’s worth asking how crucial it is. Obviously it’s not a high priority if you aren’t getting it done; so is it even worth doing? As Ryder Carroll puts it, migration is “weed killer for to-do lists,” and helps you clarify what’s really worth your time and energy.
So that’s it! Now you’re ready to start a bullet journal – and, if you’re like me, transform your life as a parent. Good luck, and I wish you as much success with bullet journaling as I’ve had!
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