How To Start A Bullet Journal (The Easy Way!)

Want to start a bullet journal, but not sure how? This step-by-step beginner's guide to starting a bullet journal will help you overcome your mental blocks and get going!

The Bullet Journal Quick-Start Guide, Step-By-Step for Beginners:

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. And I’ve even included a ✅free printable quick-start guide that you can refer back to later!

(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.)

RELATED POST: The Ultimate Bullet Journal Gift List

RELATED POST: How Bullet Journaling Has Made Me A Better Parent

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:

  1. A notebook.
  2. 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.

My two 2017 notebooks, taped together and covered with clear contact paper.

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.)

Compare prices on dot-grid notebooks anything under $20 for a hardcover notebook is a great price!

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!)

 

UPDATE: Beginning in 2019, I finally splurged on the notebook most Bullet Journalers prefer, a hardcover 1917 Leuchtturm dotted 250-page notebook. This is by far the best notebook I’ve tried, and worth the cost. They usually run around $20, so if you can find one for less than that, grab it.
Check prices on the notebook most Bullet Journalers prefer.

 

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.

Nor is washi tape, though there are plenty of clever things you can do with it (as the examples in this post illustrate). Nor, for that matter, are bullet journaling stickers or stencils.

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.

This year’s newest hack: While recycling 2017 wall calendars, I cut out the miniature 2018 calendar from the back of one, and taped it opposite the Key for quick reference.

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.

My index so far for this year.

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.

This simple list format is how BuJo founder Ryder Carroll does his Future logs. For me, this format works best in jotting reminders for next year’s journal.

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.

My Future Log, ready to fill out.

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.
This is my Mileage Log. Notice the color-coding key that’s specific to this spread.
  • 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:

I use the opposite page for quarterly goals and 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.

 

I coordinate post ideas by week on quarterly blog planners, with goals/deadlines on the facing page.
  • 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.

Want a quick-start guide to refer back to as you get things up and running over the next few months? Then download ✅this FREE one-page quick-start reference sheet to keep you on track, so you don’t have to keep referring back to this post!

Now that you know how to start a bullet journal, all that’s left is keeping it up. This is a step called

5. Maintenance

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!

For when you’re ready to take your BuJo experience to the next level: I just got myself an awesome birthday present: the ultimate BuJo cover. It is handmade by artisans in Turkey, and has space to hold your Leuchtturm 1917 notebook (or iPad mini), smart phone (or a gazillion pens, like I did), and credit card (or correction tape, in my case). SO lovely, SO portable, beautifully made and packaged, and worth every penny!

If you enjoyed this post on how to start a bullet journal (the easy way!), why not share it with others by pinning this image?

 

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93 thoughts on “How To Start A Bullet Journal (The Easy Way!)”

  1. This is a great guide for starting a bullet journal. I’ve always been fascinated as I’m someone that NEEDS organization but it always seemed a bit intimidating and almost like a big project in itself to take on. I love that your approach takes the pressure off. It doesn’t need to be perfect from the get go, just functional.

  2. I enjoyed reading your post, I love keeping journals, I like the idea of numbering the pages. Thanks for sharing your fantastic ideas with us 🙂

  3. This is AMAZING! I have always been a big fan of journaling, but I never understood the idea of a bullet journal until now. I am going to start this with my new journal. Thank you for the awesome pictures and directions.

  4. This is an awesome guide for beginners! I love how you created the key and can totally make it your own. I’ve been nervous to start using a bullet journal, but now maybe I need to try!

    1. It is definitely a get-over-your-hangups-about-the-pretty-art, just-dive-in-both-feet-first type of system. I especially love that EVERYTHING can go in there. Literally EVERYTHING- prep notes for a big spring program I’m running at church, Troop Cookie Mama booth notes, notes from online courses I’m taking, the girls’ Bday party lists, tax prep checklists/spending notes, blog post ideas/title brainstorms/outlines – EVERYTHING. And it is ALWAYS right there with me, at my fingertips. Even when I am in carpool line or the power is out or whatever. 🙂

  5. Wow, you are SO organized! I have always wanted to try this for tracking things, but I have felt so overwhelmed by all the blank pages. Where to start?!?! Thanks for breaking it down, it does seem more do-able after reading your post.

    1. I am *NOW* so organized, thanks to this totally doable system! Before, not so much 🙂 – hence why I LOVE LOVE LOVE it!!!

  6. Fascinating.I had no idea there was a name for jotting down lists of to-dos in a journal. I did have such a thing when my twins were younger. Now my smartphone reigns supreme.

  7. So a few months ago I bought a bunch of bullet journal stuff and still haven’t gotten around to starting it. I guess I feel a bit intimidated? This post is very encouraging and helpful!

    1. I’m so glad you found it useful! Once you can get beyond that intimidation, it is SO handy to have everything in one place!

    1. See, that’s one of the things I LOVE about Bullet Journaling – it really is more about list-making with bullet points rather than traditional “journaling.” And even better, having all those lists in a single place so none of them get lost, and so you can have access to both your daily to-do’s AND your long-term goals/progress on them, all at once, wherever you go! 🙂

  8. Bullet journals stress me out. I feel like you have to have a visual mind in order to use them and my mind just doesn’t work that way. But I so wish it did because I’m jealous of those that use bullet journals!

    1. So what do you use instead, audio messages? Yes, a lot of BJs are super-intimidating because they are very artistic. Mine is NOT artistic. I just don’t have the time. Once I figured out that it didn’t have to be fancy, then they stopped stressing me out, too.

  9. I am planner obsessed. I’ve always wanted to take it to the next level with an awesome and customized bullet journal but I’m way too OCD. One crooked line and I feel like I have to scrap the whole thing.

  10. I have a planner that I use but I am completely intimidated by bullet journaling. It’s good to know that it can be simplified in this way, though I have to admit I am still a bit intimidated. It would most likely help me be more organized with my tasks though.

    1. It’s critical to let go of the pinterest-pretty mindset. If and when you can do that, THEN this can be so useful. Once I overcame that mental hurdle, THEN I started bullet journaling – and I have never looked back!

  11. Pingback: New Year's Resolution No. 1: Let's Get Organized - Mommy Needs Cookies

  12. That’s amazing. It does seem overwhelming to me because it seems there’s so much “required,” but I love how you broke this down simply. 🙂 Thanks for sharing at #heartandsoullinkup

  13. This is a great resource for people starting out. When I started I did not have a clue what to do I just grabbed a notebook and pen. My bullet journal is functional for me, it might not look as pretty as others but it helps me

    1. Haha, sounds like we’re on the same page, Nicki! My BuJo is as NON-pretty as they come, but I agree – it works for me, and that’s all that matters! 🙂

  14. I’ve actually really gotten into bullet journaling recently! I love It’s because I love to be organized and this way I get to be creative about it

    1. I totally agree with you, Liz! (even if my creativity with it is limited to all the snowflake doodles I’ve been making lately to track how many days the girls’ school time gets cut short by winter weather…)

  15. Thanks so much for the easy info on Bujo. To be honest, my thought of what it was before you explained it was totally different lol! So, Im glad that I read your steps and now totally understand how it works.

    1. *Thanks,* Kelsey! I owed it to several friends who were all excited to try it after I started raving about it last year, but who kept getting intimidated by the art whenever they looked online for a quick-start how-to guide. So I’m glad you agree on its usefulness! 🙂

  16. This is seriously amazing, as I honestly had never heard of a bullet journal before. This looks like a great way to organize and write things down. I am going to have to try this out! Thank you for sharing this.

  17. This brings black bullet journaling to its basics, and that’s brilliant! All the pretty layouts and perfectly artistic grids put me off bullet journaling because I don’t have the inclination to prettify what should be a functional calendar/planning system. I’d rather spend that time playing in my art journal! But looking at your pages, I’m tempted to give it a try!

    1. Haha, maybe we should start a bringing-the-basics-back-to-BuJo movement! 🙂 Seriously, though, I’m glad you enjoyed the post – thanks! 🙂

  18. I took the plunge about 6 months ago to start my bullet journal. I was overwhelmed by all the arty stuff and hundreds of ideas. So I just started off very basic and simple, just like what you mention here in your post. I don’t draw pictures because I’m seriously crap at art! But I love my gel pens for writing. I’m learning as I go along what works best for me and what doesn’t. So my advice is to just go with what you are happy with and take it one step at a time. I love my bullet journal now. My next one will have the little squares though!

    1. Yeah, I just get SO overwhelmed by the art – so am glad you’ve found another way to put those cool pens to work! 🙂

  19. I have actually never seen a journal like this before. When I thought of a bullet journal, I literally thought it was just stuff written with bullet points at the beginning LOL. This is pretty cool.

    1. Well, that’s sort of the idea. If you look at the founder’s examples, his really are even closer to bullet-point lists than my rather long/detailed lists are. But I’m going to try an experiment when I go on vacation next month, and see if making bullet-style lists in my BuJo on vacation (instead of long written journal entries) will give me more time to enjoy vacation! 🙂

  20. Oh my gosh, you make this look so much easier than I thought it was! I admit I was a little intimidated before about the whole bullet journaling thing, but this makes sense. I love how you set things up and I feel like this style would work well for me too!

    1. It is soooo tempting (for me, at least) to get a massive inferiority complex over how pretty most people’s are. And there is absolutely nothing wrong with making it as beautiful as you want! I just know that except for a few snowflake doodles here and there, I don’t have the time to get all pretty – and I’ve made peace with that 🙂

  21. Wow, this post has increased my knowledge today. we are only 18 days in the new year and I still have time to buy a bullet journal. Thanks for sharing.

  22. Great post! I am still a fan of putting things down on paper. When I try to save stuff in my phone, I feel like it never gets accomplished! Love this idea.

    1. You’re not the first person to notice this – I totally agree, writing things down = I remember them. Otherwise, not so much, and they get lost!

  23. This is a really cool way to journal and plan things at the same time! It’s a personalized planner tailored to your needs. I will have to try this.

    Thanks for joining #WanderingWednesday at Confessions of Parenting!

    1. Aww, you’re welcome sweet friend! yes, the fact that it’s a totally customizable planner is what makes it work so well for me – right now I’ve got post outlines/notes/titles, today’s and this month’s to-do lists, AND my packing lists for all three upcoming trips in the same little notebook! 🙂

  24. I really love this idea! I had someone mention it to me a while ago but I never really looked into it, so after seeing your post I ran to Pinterest and now I’m hooked! Now I need to go to Marshall’s to get a cute journal haha

  25. Wow – thank you so much for breaking this down. I recently had a friend tell me I needed to try this, and I had no idea what it was! Totally up my alley and something I think would help me thrive and accomplish things.

    XO,

    Elise @ Belle Meets World blog

    1. So glad you liked it, Elise! It’s a total power tool for any parent IMHO, but I’m especially impressed at how it also gives me room to organize blogging stuff, jot down post ideas and outlines, etc. WITHOUT having to carry a separate planner/notebook with me everywhere I go! 🙂

  26. what a great way to stay organized and on top of things!! I need to invest in one of these. I love your tips and they will be very helpful when I start mine. Thanks for sharing this!

  27. This is really helpful. I keep thinking I may try a bullet journal and you may have convinced me to give it a go! Thank you.

  28. Wow this is so helpful! Bullet journals always seem like an easy task in theory but every time I attempt it I get frustrated. Excited to use these tips this time!

    1. Aww, so glad you like them, Taylor! This post is long overdue – some of my friends have been clamoring for a “how to” guide since I published my first BuJo posts last year. Good luck, and I wish you success at last! 🙂

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