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The Complete Guide to Bullet Journaling

Katya Bowd

Posted on June 21 2017

“Don’t put the cart before the horse.”

This familiar saying sums up many of my experiences when it comes to trying out new planners and organising systems. As a self-declared organisation junkie, I’m all for trying out new productivity apps and keeping up with the latest goal setting and organisation tips. However, so many of the last and greatest planners, organisers, binder systems, and apps are all geared toward one demographic: consistent users. 

Don’t get me wrong – the tools work. So why do we jump from tool to tool, system to system, trying to find something we can stick with and use consistently? I have a theory. What seems to be lacking is an appreciation for the different components of the tool or system, as well as an understanding of how each part works to make the user experience comprehensive and complete.

Imagine a teenager being given the keys to an old, standard car. She is so excited to drive it she doesn’t even hear the instructions being given to check the position of the mirrors, fasten the safety belt, put in the clutch, let it out slowly while giving it gas, etc. Without taking a moment to get centred and make necessary adjustments, she tries to pull out of the driveway, pops the clutch, hits the mailbox, and stalls the car. She didn’t understand and appreciate the importance and contribution of the various components of the car.

This is me trying out a new planner. I’m wildly enthusiastic in the beginning, jump right in before I know what I’m doing… then I crash and burn.

Enter the Bullet Journal. The Bullet Journal is like driver’s education for using organisation tools and planners. Breaking effective planning and organisation down to their fundamental components, this system does one thing: trains you to organise information that is actually useful for planning to boost your productivity.

But, wait. Isn’t that what any organisational process is supposed to do?

Yes. Yes, it is.

The trouble is that most of us are not able to distinguish between useful information and the “static.” Bullet Journaling trains us to employ a filter for what information is simply documented – and what information gets organised.

A sturdy, lightweight, moderately-sized journal that you love to look at and a pen that will stand up to frequent use are the only tools you will need for this process. You can always add bookmarks or tabs later, but the beauty of this system is that there is really nothing else required to make it work. If you want a fun craft idea for adults, try committing to Rapid Journaling with some friends. Pool your resources (scrapbooking supplies, fun stickers or coloured tape, etc.) and take some time to add some personal touches to the covers or commonly referenced pages.

Using the Bullet Journal is actually very straightforward and simple. The challenge of using it is much like learning any new skill – such as yoga or playing the piano. It takes time to become proficient, and in the beginning, it is best to move slowly and intentionally through each step. This is the hardest part of learning a new skill! It’s not the technique. It’s having the patience to master the technique.

So let’s get to the nuts and bolts. The four building blocks of a functional Bullet Journal give each part of it a way to contribute to the designed end.

  • Topics

  • Page numbers

  • Short sentences

  • Bullets

Each day, picking up where you left off the day before, new entries are given a bullet point. From there, signifiers are added to indicate something about information that deserves to be organised. Everything else is simply documented or migrated to the page on which it can be properly organised. That is what makes this process so helpful – it forces the user to slow down and intentionally assess the information. This is a phenomenal organisation tip. As you practice Rapid Journaling, become more aware of what information is cluttering your bandwidth based on what gets written down. Here’s what I mean.

Each page of your journal is given a topic in the top outer corner and a page number on the bottom before any entries are added. Why? Because the first spread of pages in your journal is left blank as an Index to your journal. Here, you will document titles that are worth revisiting and any page numbers or page ranges that pertain to each topic. Allow for one spread for the Index, and one more spread for a Future Log, to give you somewhere to migrate tasks that are coming up, but not immediately.

In your daily logs, under each topic, entries are added in short sentences with as much emphasis on objectives as possible. Each entry will be given a bullet point on the left if it is a task, an event, or a note. This is where it gets fun. Tasks are given a bullet point until they are done (then change the bullet to an X), migrated to another day (draw a right arrow over the bullet), or scheduled to happen on a specific day in the future. These non-immediate tasks have bullets that become left arrows and are rewritten into the Future Log. Events have a bullet circle instead of a bullet point, and notes are given a dash. Signify priority items with an asterisk, items requiring research with a little eye or question mark, etc. an exclamation point will help you find memorable quotes. All of these are easily scanned to the left of your entries.

Tasks that are left unchanged are what should give you pause. If something hasn’t been done (x), it’s not worth adding to tomorrow’s to-do list (>) AND it doesn’t have a specific time scheduled to be handled in the future (<), should it be on your to-do list at all? A Monthly Log at the beginning of each month allows any migrated tasks coming up to be written not only in your Future Log for reference but also for a sort of monthly task list for personal workflow optimisation.

It’s this kind of mental weeding out of all the little odds and ends that give the mind some freed up space for managing the tasks that often up procrastinated, such as car maintenance or DIY projects for your home.

This sounds arduous, but once you have practiced the process for a few weeks, it becomes a critical part of planning your week, your month, and even your year. “Someday” becomes a specific day. Dreams become actionable steps toward attainable goals. And the loads of data that you need to give a home suddenly live comfortably in the palm of your hand.

So what about apps and printables? Is there no place for them alongside this ingenious system? There is. Using this as a sort of training ground, it is possible to then make productive, consistent use of organisation and goal setting tools and apps. The Bullet Journal helps to break the cycle of compulsively piling items onto a digital to-do list that is never revisited. It fosters mindfulness and intentional living in an age of mobile, digital, forgettable “planning.” If you have had a history of compulsively starting new planners, calendars, and organisers, this can a way to reboot your organizational processes in a way that is refreshing, even therapeutic.

What has been your experience with Rapid Journaling? Tell us what you love or don’t love about it in the comments section!