How to Use a Bullet Journal to Improve Your Life

Photo of two bullet journals. How to Use a Bullet Journal to Improve Your Life
*

Is your life chaotic? If so, you are normal. Most people have a lot going on, needing to be many places and accomplish many tasks. The good news is, there are more tools today than ever to help you record, plan, schedule, and manage the chaos. The bad news is it can be hard to figure out which options are the best for you. I always say, the best tool is the one you trust and use. Today I’m going “old school” to talk about how to use a bullet journal to improve your life.

Before I discuss the specifics of a bullet journal, let me begin by saying that everyone needs three key tools to complete tasks:

  1. Calendarwhere do I need to show up? (in person, on screen, on the phone)
  2. A Task Listwhat do I need to do, and when?
  3. Materialswhat and where is the stuff I need to perform my tasks?

You can read more about these “three legs of the productivity stool” here. Bullet journals can meet a variety of needs but originated as a way to manage the first and second aspect of productivity – your calendar and task list.

I said I was going “old school” because bullet journals are an analog/paper tool. I acknowledge that many people today use digital tools for their calendar and to capture and schedule tasks. Apps such as Outlook, Todoist (for individuals) and Slack (for teams) can be a great options, as they are portable, shareable, and trackable. At the same time, many people enjoy the textural and tactile nature of paper. I am one of these people. There is just something about writing with my hands that draws me in and focuses my mind on whatever I am recording.

Have you ever heard of a bullet journal? The idea isn’t exactly new. It was created by Ryder Carroll a little more than ten years ago, and quickly took off as a hot trend. Also known as dot journaling, a bullet journal is basically a DIY journal into which you can off-load your brain. This is highly beneficial because trying to hold thoughts in our brains is mentally exhausting, leaving us feeling scattered and stressed.

I love this quote:

“Paper is to write things down that we need to remember. Our brains are used to think.”

Albert Einstein

On average, people have more than 500,000 thoughts a day. A bullet journal helps you filter and order these thoughts in a way that is simple and actionable. Relocating your tasks from your brain into a reliable tool then frees your brain to focus on whatever you are doing in the moment.

I will walk you through how to use a bullet journal. Bear in mind that one of the major advantages of a bullet journal is that there really is no wrong way to use one. Bullet journals can be “bare bones” or very elaborate. You can make and use one however you want. Many people find bullet journaling to be pleasurable, putting the “fun” in functional.

What You Need

The first step is to get a journal. The traditional bullet journal is about 5” x 8” and the pages have dots instead of lines (hence the nickname “dot journal”). The dots just help you line things up while being a bit more flexible than lines.  However, you can also use a journal that has lines, graph paper, or even blank pages. You can get one on Amazon for about $8. It’s good to get one that can lay flat, so it is easy to write in.

You also need a pen, and maybe a ruler if like things to be nice and tidy. You will see that some people get fancy with their bullet journals, using colored pencils, stickers, stencils, washi tape, and the like. But these are just options. You don’t have to use them, and you don’t need them to get started.

The Index

The first page of your journal is your index, which is basically a table of contents for what you have in the book. Since a table of contents tells you what topic is on which page, you will want to number the pages of your journal if they are not already numbered.

The index is sort of the “secret sauce” of a bullet journal because it means you can put anything you like in here. If you decide to add a new item (you’ll see some choices later), you just add it in to the index, and you’ll be able to easily find it whenever you want.

The Future Log

If you want, you can begin by putting a calendar on the first pages after your index. Many people do a month view or a year view. You can skip this step if you have a calendar elsewhere. Some people just like being able to see the “big picture” at a glance.  If you decide to put the calendar in, flip back now to your index and list this as the first thing in your journal, along with the page number on which your calendar appears.

*
*
The Monthly Log

Another option is to now draw out each month on a page. You put the title of the month at the top of the left page, and then number down the side, from 1-31 (or as is appropriate for each month). This is where you can put big events taking place during the month, such as a wedding, vacation, start/stop of school, birthdays, anniversaries, etc. Again, if you keep this information in another calendar, you may want to skip this step.

If you tend to think of projects by month, you may choose to capture them on a mouth view. This tends to work best for bigger projects you want to keep in mind during the month, as opposed to small tasks, which are best put into the Daily Log (read on). For example, maybe you are focused on a specific project in a given month, or perhaps you want to capture and remember the household tasks you do each month. Another option is to list any goals you have for the month, such as exercise 3x a week or call Mom on Sundays.

Here is a photo of how a simple monthly log might look.

*
*

Again, these are optional, and may already be in another calendar. If you decide to add monthly logs, go ahead, and put them into your index, along with the corresponding page numbers.

The Daily Log

The Daily log is what the bullet journal was originally designed for, a place to record and track all your tasks. This can be very simple or more elaborate, depending on your time and interest. The benefit of using a daily log is that tasks get assigned to a specific day, rather than simply being added to a giant list, or getting lost on tiny slips of paper.

In its simplest form, the daily log has the following:

  • The date
  • The list of tasks to be done on this date
  • A notation next to each task

There are a variety of notations that you can use. For instance, I use a blank box/circle next to each task, and then throughout the day I keep track of where I am on each task by putting a mark inside the box. More specifically…

Filled in= Completed.

Half-filled in = Waiting. This means that I took whatever action I could, but am now waiting on someone else in order to be able to complete the task (e.g., I sent an email and am waiting to hear back).

X = Cancelled. For whatever reason, I don’t have to do the task anymore.

/ = On hold. For instance, maybe I planned to run an errand, but now have a flat tire that may/may not get fixed in time for me to complete the task.

> = Rescheduled. I’m seeing that I’m not going to complete the task as I had hoped today, so I have rescheduled it (i.e. written it down again) on another day.

I like using this system because I know at a glance where I stand in my productivity at any given moment in the day. It might sound silly, but I find it satisfying and motivating to see the boxes fill up, especially the ones that get completely filled in. Also, by not crossing the tasks off completely (like this), I maintain a record of what I have accomplished to which I can refer back in the future if needed.

Other people use different notations next to their tasks, such as a notation that indicates what type of task it is:

. = Task

O = Event

– = Note (something I want to remember, e.g., bring gift to the party)

* = Top Priority task

Or

E= Errand

C= Call to Make

R = Something I need to Read

W= Something I need to Write

The options are endless, and the objective is to find a notation that works for you. You might even use a combination of notations, and/or decide to color-code your list. I often suggest, especially if your list is long, that you put a * next to the top three things you definitely need to get done on any given day.

When you are getting started, I suggest that you make a diagram or “key” that reminds you what your various symbols mean. Remember to record your key’s location in the index, so you can easily refer back when you need to.

Here are a few examples of what your daily log might look like:

*
*

And here are some examples of a key:

*
*

As you can see, you can make this as simple or as elaborate as you like. I tend to prefer using one page for each day. In fact, I recommend you go ahead and write the names of the days at the top of the pages going out a couple of months. This way, if you think of a task that you need to do six weeks from now, you can easily flip ahead, write it down, and then forget about it, knowing that your tool will remind you when the time comes.

 How much space you allocate per day for your daily log depends on how many tasks you tend to list. If getting things done is a challenge, I say write everything down. Checking items off a list can be a motivation booster. No task is too small if it is something you have to do.

Using the System

A bullet journal (or any task tool) needs to be used every day to be useful. Yes, every day, preferably multiple times throughout the day. These are the steps I recommend:

  1. Each morning, review your tasks for the day. Look at your calendar to help you think of anything you might need to add. Look at yesterday’s list and migrate any tasks that didn’t get completed.
  2. As you go through your day, note your progress (as you’ve designated in your key). Keep track all day long. Yes, this means you need to have your bullet journal with you.
  3. At the end of the day, scan your tasks and look at what is incomplete.
  4. Migrate incomplete tasks to another day. This may be tomorrow, or if tomorrow looks busy, select another day. At this moment it is helpful to have your calendar nearby, whether it is in the bullet journal or elsewhere. Be very mindful of what you already have planned for the day before adding another task in. If you can’t picture getting it done on paper, your odds of getting it done in real time are low.
Other Pages

Bullet journals can be used, as explained above, for tracking tasks. However, some people enjoy using them to track things other than tasks. If you already have a task-tracking tool in place, you might want to consider starting one for other purposes. For instance, many people use bullet journals to keep track of goals, collections, and events, such as:

  • Books to Read
  • Movies to Watch
  • Restaurant Recommendations
  • Wish lists
  • Gift Ideas

Many also like setting up pages for tracking progress on initiatives or habits, like:

  • Glasses of water consumed
  • Exercise
  • Gratitude
  • Reading logs
  • Tracking macros/dietary goals

Pages can also be set up for specific projects you are working on. For instance:

  • Wedding planning
  • Volunteer roles
  • Vacation planning
  • House projects

The possibilities are truly endless. Always remember when you set up a page to go back and put it into your index. Also, if you want to use your bullet journal for both tasks and other pages, start in the front of your journal with tasks and work from the back of the journal for others kind of pages.

Here are some examples of ‘other pages’ you may wish to consider:

*
https://vocal.media/motivation/journal-entry-3

*     *     *

Bullet journals are a fun and simple way to keep track of anything you want, and are a great option for people who, for whatever reason, prefer paper over digital systems.

Have you ever used a bullet journal? What did you track inside?

Seana's signature

18 thoughts on “How to Use a Bullet Journal to Improve Your Life”

  1. I’ve used a bullet journal since before the Pandemic. The Darien library offered a “how To” class and I was sold immediately. I use it in a fairly basic way but that’s the beauty of the method….it can be adapted to what a user prefers.

    1. Exactly! You can use it in any way you want. It is very versatile, which is why I love it! That’s so great that you have been using one for so long, Jan. Love it!

  2. Thank you for all the details for establishing a customized bullet journal. My clients who have used these love them, especially for their creative approach to calendaring. I love knowing more about setting these up.

  3. I’ve watched hundreds of videos and read numerous books and posts on bullet journaling, but I have to say that yours was one of the most accessible!

    That’s not to say that I have a future in bullet journaling; I still find it to be stress-provoking, most likely because so many examples are artistic, or at least reflect good penmanship. The minute a visually creative approach enters the conversation, I’m gasping for breath! 😉 I’m a huge fan of pen-on-paper, and I keep a paper calendar, but the bullet journal method is beyond the grasp of this perfectionist who cannot attain perfection. I keep my tasks for the day on a sticky note (“If it won’t fit on a Post-it!, it won’t fit in your life” is my watchword) and the completed daily note, after my weekly review, goes into my calendar for that day.

    I think you’re the first who has made the combined use of the index with “other pages” — not the daily log — more comprehensible. I can possibly see using the bullet journal, not for tasks (as my system works ideally for me) but capturing my non-task lists or habit tracking. That said, I’m still flummoxed by what you do when you get to the end of a page and need a new page to continue that concept. Having a list on pages 37, continued on page 49, and then on page 72 is still uncomfortable for me to wrap my head around. Thank you for clarifying this popular method!
    Julie Bestry recently posted…Cool, Sustainable Packing and Shipping Solutions for Earth DayMy Profile

    1. I think the “other pages” log might be one of the best ways to use a bullet journal. Plus, if you like not having to worry about internet connectedness or eye strain, and especially if you love being creative, these are a great option. I’ve always been impressed by the beautiful journals some people create! That said, the simple version is what it was originally created for, and I often start new productivity clients working with these. We can always digitally automate a system after good habits have been formed.

  4. Yes old school works for a lot of people, if it’s visual and can see it, they will remember it. Thank you for all the details you mentioned, we have different clients for sure that work differently to find a way to keep track of their daily and weekly tasks.
    Janet Schiesl recently posted…Create a Clutter-Free MorningMy Profile

    1. It’s all about knowing your options so you can figure out what works best for you. We have different priorities and preferences, so there isn’t one solution for everyone.

  5. This is a great review of how to use a Bullet Journal. I love all the pictures you included and list of the wide variety in the ways people can use it. I find that writing things down helps me to focus my attention and to be more specific with my intentions.

  6. I love the idea of a bullet journal, but haven’t quite figured out how I would use one. I use Todoist and Google Calendar, but maybe I could use a bullet journal to keep a daily log of activities, such as reading, cooking and photography, which I’m currently recording in the Grid Diary app but with minimal satisfaction.
    Janet Barclay recently posted…How much does it cost to maintain a website?My Profile

    1. I think they can be a nice alternative for projects that fall outside of the daily list, and reading and cooking are great examples. Once you get a journal going, anytime something occurs to you, you might add it in. I’ve been interested to see how people use them for goals, dreams, plans, etc. Thanks for giving me the idea to write this!

  7. What a great description you gave for using a bullet journal! I know they are popular and work for many, which is what matters.

    Years ago, I used non-digital methods for tracking my appointments and tasks. There weren’t any digital methods available. And also, I love paper and the feeling of pen to paper. It speaks to my art background.

    However, once digital options became available and usable, I made the switch. That’s not to say I don’t use and love paper—I do. However, my electronic “2Do” app works beautifully for calendar, task tracking, and list-making.

    For the journaling/paper desire, I keep two handwritten journals—one is my meditation journal, and the other is my personal journal. These satisfy my love of putting pen to paper and having distance from my screens.

    The bottom line is, whatever works, go with that.

    1. That’s exactly right, Linda. Whatever works, go with that. We are all have differing priorities and preferences. Also, age and stage can be a factor. Some people aren’t comfortable having everything on their phone, and in some school settings, its helpful to have a paper alternative (e.g., when devices are not allowed). With AI coming into the educational scene, I think we may see a return to paper. Anyway, I think it is just nice to be aware of options!

  8. I have heard about bullet journals, but I have my own system of having a running list of tasks that need to be done on a word document that each week I add to and delete finished tasks and then print that list off. Then the most vital tasks are put on my calendar, but the list is nearby if I have a skinny minute and want to knock something else off the list.
    I love your key and my incorporate that on my list.

  9. I’ve always been a little intimidated by bullet journals because I thought you HAD to do it a specific way with all the decorations, fancy writing, colored pencils, washi tape, etc. But, after reading your article, I realized I already keep a bullet journal! I have to write down my to-do list, which I love to add to and check off throughout the week. However, I like the idea of an index and keeping different sections. This might make it more fun and engaging and help me plan the future and remember lost tasks along the way. Great article and thanks for sharing!

    1. You don’t have to be an artist or love washi tape to use a bullet journal. What I love about these is that you can use them any way that you want!

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

CommentLuv badge

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.