In the last week or so, I’ve recommended the Bullet Journal system to several people. It’s something that I’ve found helpful in my own life for keeping track of things – such as around this time last year when I was both finishing up my thesis at Signum University and looking to buy a house (which I did and now live in).
Now, I should be up front and say that I am not 100% consistent in my use of my bullet journal. However, I have taken elements of it and applied them in different ways for work, volunteering, and my personal life. My personal life is where I have used it most regularly for tracking important projects, tasks, and events.
What surprised me is that a couple of people I’ve mentioned it to have pushed back on bullet journaling because they felt like it was too complicated. One friend in particular asked me if there were any templates or designs I recommended.
“Templates? Designs?!” I replied. “What are these words?”
As it turns out, there are apparently a lot of people out there who think that bullet journaling is all about creating pretty headers and complex models for capturing specific data. I mean, take a look at this:
Looking at the template above, no wonder people are scared to start bullet journaling! The problem is, that whole template simply isn’t a bullet journal: It’s a hot mess of distraction.
Bullet Journaling Is Just Making (and Organizing) Lists
The thing that isn’t stated explicitly in the bullet journal overview video is that bullet journaling is simply a way to organize lists. In fact, you could think of your “bujo” – as some people choose to call it – as simply a collection (or list) of lists. The only “required” (more on the scare quotes below) elements of the bullet journal are a handful of lists:
- Index – a list of lists in your bullet journal and the pages they are on
- Future Log – a list of months, each of which includes a list of important things for that month
- Monthly Log
- A list of every day of a month, each of which has a list of important things for that day
- A list of tasks/projects you want to complete during the month
- Daily Log – a running list of days, each of which contains a list of specific tasks for the day
That’s the crux of it. Some people might throw in a Weekly Log, which is an intermediate list between the Monthly Log and the Daily Log. Other people also add a Key, which is just a list of symbols used in your bullet journal, in case you forget them – though, ideally the number of symbols you use should be relatively short, and there shouldn’t be too many that you use infrequently.
Also, it’s worth noting that the “required” lists noted above aren’t actually required. If there’s something you find you really don’t use, then simply don’t use it. Your bullet journal is exactly that – yours! That said, I do recommend that new bullet journalists start with the recommended lists above to get a feel for how the system was originally designed.
The nice thing about bullet journaling is that beyond the standard lists noted above, you can create any other lists you want. Want to keep a list of books to read? Create a page for it and note it in the index. Meal ideas? Do the same. DIY or home improvement projects. Ditto. And so forth. You can literally create any kind of list you want. You can also add as much info to these lists as you want. For example, a Books To Read list might include:
- Book title
- Who suggested it
- Date Read
- Some kind of rating system (stars, numbers, etc.)
There’s nothing magical about these additional lists. They’re all just lists of things you want to do/accomplish, remember, or otherwise record. What you include in them and how you organize the lists are entirely up to you.
But You Forgot Trackers
No, I didn’t. A tracker is merely a list that tracks(!) your progress toward a goal. In many cases people build out trackers ahead of time, and then fill in their progress (or note their lack of progress) as time goes on. But it’s still essentially a list.
People build all kinds of trackers for various types of things – losing weight, saving money, remembering to floss, whatever. The information you collect with each individual tracker will vary, but there’s no underlying difference in what these trackers are meant to do, which is to achieve some objective…by making a list.
Anything Not a List Is Not Bullet Journaling
All the extra stuff that people think is bullet journaling – the fancy headers, the ruler-straight box lines, the decorative borders and eye-catching doodles – has literally nothing to do with bullet journaling. Gussie up your bujo as much as you want, but don’t confusing the gussying with doing something productive.
Now, I get it. Some people like to have nice things, and hey, I doodled in my high school notebooks (and elsewhere) as much as the next creative type. But if you’re spending time worrying about having a colorful page that you can share on your Instagram story, then you’re doing something different than bullet journaling. That’s not to say what you’re doing is bad or unworthy – how you spend your time is up to you. But I generally advise people to be honest to themselves, and pretending you’re bullet journaling when you aren’t is self-deception.
Even worse, people who show off their highly decorated bullet journals are actively scaring people away from what I believe is probably the most flexible and customizable productivity tool out there. Making a 40-minute video on how you bujazzled your bujo, when people could get situated with a truly effective bullet journal in half the time, is a disservice to your audience.
Start Bullet Journaling Now!
If you really want get the most out of bullet journaling, here’s how to start:
- Watch the overview video
- Read through the Getting Started Guide
- I promise it’s not very long, but it goes into a little more detail about the types of pages/lists than the overview video
- Set up your journal using the standard format and lists
You should be able to do all of the above in less than a half hour. Bullet journaling seriously has one of the lowest barriers to entry of any productivity tool I’ve ever seen.
Once your journal’s set up, you can start using it right away:
- Make a habit of reviewing tasks daily (or multiple times per day)
- Update tasks as appropriate (add, strike out, mark completed, etc.)
- Set up a monthly time to review and migrate tasks
That’s all you need to begin bullet journaling. Over time you can add more things – and if you want to make it pretty, by all means, go ahead and do so. But always keep in mind that the core concept of the bullet journal is to make lists. That’s it.
Everything else is fluff.