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If You Gave Up on the Bullet Journal, Maybe You Did It Wrong

The Bullet Journal is a life changing method of decluttering your mind and doing more with your time. If you don't agree, maybe you did it wrong.

New year, new me, amiright? Unlike the slew of daylight savings statistic articles that annoy the crap out of me, a seasonal article that I do love seeing are the planner related ones this time of year. There’s something about the new year and productivity that gets me in the mood for the upcoming year. The workout ones on the other hand, I totally ignore, and that could be a topic for another article.

If you’ve been floating around in the stationery/productivity space, you’ve probably already heard of Bullet Journaling, or BuJo as the cool kids call it (and no I am not cool nor brave enough to say that out loud in real life… if you dare to, apparently it’s pronounced “boo-joe,” like a scary cup of coffee). Developed by designer Ryder Carroll, it’s a method that promises to help you be more mindful and intentional about the “two most valuable resources in life: our time and our energy,” as summarized in Carroll’s book outlining the process The Bullet Journal Method (affiliate link). I mean, with a subtitle like “Track the Past, Order the Present, Design the Future,” it’s hard to ignore. What started as a little website where Carroll uploaded some tutorials, has taken on a cult following. In fact, it has been said to change lives. Pretty bold statement for a method that only requires a notebook.

But yes, I totally agree with these wild claims.

And before you do a little U-turn out of here saying “No Lisa, I’ve been there, done that, tried it and gave up on it in 3 days,” stick around. I am here to ask of you, on BuJo’s behalf, to give it another chance, because maybe you just did it wrong. The internet has a way of making you believe there’s a certain way you have to do it, and I’m here to prove to you that this method is so flexible that you can adapt it to work for you and still reap the benefits of decluttering your mind.

Two kids later and trying to run my own business, my brain is so fried that unless I write it down I will forget what I was thinking about yesterday, and my Bullet Journal has been my saving grace to truly sift through the noise that is my brain.

A little backstory on what makes me the self-proclaimed queen of planners to make such endorsements. Well, ever since taking a planner class in middle school for a summer school program (has there been a nerdier sentence written anywhere?) I have been obsessed with planners, and really all thing stationery for the past 20-plus years. I even had a stationery company for a bit, and have tried countless planners and planning methods. I had even made my own planner, drawing lines and everything, because I was not ready to compromise on what I wanted. Pretty intense, right? If I was the Taylor Swift of planners, I could’ve made about 5 albums worth of heartbreak songs on how they were each so close to being perfect but not quite.

In fact, the Bullet Journal was in the list of my past conquests too, which is around Red album time if we’re talking in Taylor Swift eras. But guess what, it’s back and it’s even better than the first round, for both Taylor and Bullet Journals.

The reason why Bullet Journals didn’t really do it for me the first go-around might sound a lot like your reasons. I was overwhelmed by the spreads I saw on Pinterest, there were too many rules for me to remember, and the idea of numbering each page turned me off so much that I would rather settle for a less-than-ideal layout because at least it was already printed on there. But now that I’ve grown up since when we last met, I have successfully simplified my methods and boiled it down to the essence of what makes Bullet Journals so amazing, and I am pretty confident that I have found The One.

Two kids later and trying to run my own business, my brain is so fried that unless I write it down I will forget what I was thinking about yesterday, and my Bullet Journal has been my saving grace to truly sift through the noise that is my brain. I am able to work harder, smarter, and more efficiently because I’m not wasting my brain power on trying to untangle the neuropathways that have my toddler’s sleep schedule, my baby’s doctor’s appointments, and client emails with various connectors and relationships. So if this hadn’t worked for you in the past, let me walk through my set up, and how to circumvent some of the mistakes I’ve made in the past.

The notebook

The quintessential BuJo format is the hardbound, softcover dot grid notebook as made popular by the super trendy Moleskine (affiliate link) and Leuchtturm1917 (affiliate link) of the world. The latter even has a special Bullet Journal edition, so it’s easy to feel like if you don’t use this format, you’re not really doing it right.

But the thing is, I love my spiral notebooks. I need to be able to rip a page out if I want, and to lay it out flat or folded over to only see one side. Similarly, maybe you’ve heard the fuss about the dot grid but would prefer lined, or even unlined. The key to a long-lasting Bullet Journal is to pick something that feels best for you, whether it’s the format or page weight or what have you.

My personal favorite is the grid notebook by Appointed Co. It’s a company founded by an Asian-American woman, and the products are all made in the US. The paper is just so deliciously smooth with the right weight to curb feathering or bleeding, and it comes in ruled, grid, and unlined. It’s a weird detail but I also love that the left side of the page is blank, because I personally HATE writing on the left side and often leave it blank anyway, feeling guilty. This gets rid of that, and instead I put a little card or sticker if I feel so inclined but more often than not it’s left blank anyway.

The set up

Now let’s walk through some of my actual pages.

1. Future Log

I use my future log like a love child between a perpetual calendar and the original intended purpose of logging future stuff that don’t have pages yet—I just list out all the dates that I know are important like birthdays, in memoriam dates, and upcoming plans. If there are loose plans in that general month I list that off to the side without a date. When I’m ready to start a new month I first come to this page so I can migrate the information to the corresponding month.

Also on this page is my rolling 5-year plan, which is something I started doing when my son was born and I love it—for me, I have the ages of my family and some event that’s coming up, like my son starting preschool, or some multi-year service expiring. I will admit it’s a little depressing to see how close I am to 40 or that my baby is going to be gulp, 9 YEARS OLD in just a few years, but it keeps my long term glasses on to look out for things coming down the pipeline.

2. Goals/Quarterly Plan

I list out my goals for the year, pick a word of the year, and then divvy up the tasks/themes to achieve those goals into the quarters. This has made it easier for me to reference back month to month to see where I am tracking on the goals. Speaking of which, an index page marker is a tool I love for this. I use these tab post its on pages that I know I will be referencing back to. For me I put a tab on this goals page as well as the month page for that month, since those are the two places I quickly want to glance to on a day to day.

3. Monthly Page

This is how my monthly page starts.

I list out all the dates and days of the week, plugging in dates I have from my future log.

Then to the right I put in tactical business goals for the week based off of my quarterly goals, which will inform what tasks to list on a weekly basis. And the rest of the page is pretty open to allow room for what I might need month to month.

For example, my husband and I have a monthly money meeting so I have an agenda for this month’s meeting and will be using that bottom portion to write notes. I also like to come back after the month is over to reflect and write a review of the month, which I might do under the goals or if I don’t have room, on the blank left page, or even on a post-it to get extra real estate.

Post-its are an amazing tool with any planner system, but especially a BuJo. For this month, I have a rolling task that happens every 6 weeks that I write on a post it and this gets migrated onto the day log when I get there, then to the future log when that task is done, and then back again to the next month when that month’s spread is ready.

4. Daily Rapid Log

No weekly spread for me, I just go right into my day to day. You’ll notice another use for a post-it is my key, which lists the signifiers that I use on my daily logs—and it is pretty simple. I intentionally use a smaller post it so that I keep it minimal, rather than dedicate a whole page to it like the traditional method recommends. Sure, you could have as many signifiers as you want, but for me personally 5 is more than plenty, with 2 additional that I mark with a highlighter to make it stand out. I also write a star in red for something that I want to remember, but this is pretty intuitive for me so I don’t need to list it on the key.

But anyway, back to the rapid logging. This is the meat and potatoes of BuJo, the place I hang out daily. Every day I list out what I need to get done that day, thoughts I have, notes on something, and organize it using my keys. Any task that does not get done that day stays on the page, and I don’t migrate it until the day takes me to a new page.

Yeah another use for a post-it is a list of tasks that are specific to a project that I want to set aside. For my case, I’m on a monthly retainer for a media company and have their tasks separate from my own just so I have a running list of what I’ve done as well as to make it stand out. Same as any other post-it, this gets moved around until it’s filled and then I start a new post-it.

5. Left Side of the Page

I mentioned how I like to keep the left side of my pages blank because I fold over my notebook. While it’s blank most of the time, I do sometimes use it as a spot to organize any notes that I took so I can reference it easier. This forces me to read through my chicken scratch, glean insight, and organize my thoughts. It also makes it super easy to find since it’s the only thing on the page.

And that’s it! Super simple, right? No illustrations, hand lettering, or fancy art supplies needed.

Hey hey hey, wait a second, you might say.

What about spreads, index, and collections?

Ok, this may sound sacrilegious but just hear me out when I say: you don’t need to use any of these to Bullet Journal “properly,” if there is such a thing. If you don’t need it, just don’t.

I was there too, seeing all those Pinterest pins on the beautiful weekly and monthly spreads and collections. But the thing is, I realized that I don’t look to my planner to flex my creative muscles. In fact, I don’t draw or hand letter at all in my BuJo and I make people pay me for my artwork. So it is totally fine to do a writings-only simple BuJo. In fact, I’d argue that it’s the secret to keeping it up long-term.

Same thing with the index and collections. I personally don’t have a need for an ongoing list of something that I will be going back to, nor have the urge to track something. Most of the notes that I write are for current projects and I reference them right away so having it on the left side of the page suffices for that, or I just migrate a summary into the next month if needed and have no need to look back on its earlier iterations.

Okay, I lied a little. I do have one collection in the back of the journal, only because it’s something I know I needed its own space for. But I really urge you, if you are going to start Bullet Journal for the first time, intentionally start without a collection. That way, you will know when it is inconvenient to NOT have a collection for something and create it at the back of the notebook when it reveals itself to be needed. Use a tab sticker here too for referencing.

For me personally, I have been working on making my closet more sustainable, edited, and thoughtful. So I track my shopping budget and closet edits by setting aside 10 pages at the end of the notebook.

What else?

Just as important as what goes into my Bullet Journal, is what doesn’t go in it. You may have noticed that I don’t really manage my meetings or events on the Bullet Journal, but rather just list it as an event note for that day. The actual time and details are in my Google Calendar because I need a device to alert me about the meeting for me to remember it. If a Bullet Journal didn’t work for you in the past for this same reason, it is totally okay to have a digital calendar manage your day while you have your Bullet Journal manage your mind, because that’s what it truly is for me—a physical manifestation of my brain. No other planner format gives me the kind of flexibility I need to untangle this mess, and that’s why I believe it’s been life changing.

Or at least, that’s what I wrote in my Bullet Journal, to write in this article. So it must be true.

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January 2022
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