The Ultimate Beginner’s Guide To Starting A Bullet Journal

If you’re new to the bullet journal, you may be overwhelmed by the complicated-looking, colorful spreads you see all over Instagram.

Don’t let them intimidate you and put you off starting your own bullet journal. It is actual very easy to get started. In fact – the bullet journal method is nothing more than a simple notebook and pen.

bullet journal on wooden desk next to laptop

3 Big Benefits Of Bullet Journaling

Bullet journaling is a great way to track what you’re doing throughout the day. It’s also a wonderful record keeper. You can look back and see how far you’ve come in any given week and month. If you’re considering giving bullet journaling a try, I hope these big benefits will have you grabbing a pen and notebook to get started.

It’s Easy And Customizable

You don’t need to go out and buy a big planning system or download a fancy app to your smartphone. Instead, all it takes is a notebook and a pen or pencil. Chances are you have an old notebook lying around. Grab it and give it a try.

Setting up a basic bullet journal is actually super simple. Just set up your key, index and monthly spread and you’re good to go.

Because it is such a simple system, it’s easy to customize it for your needs. If you need ideas, head on over to YouTube or follow a few bullet journal enthusiasts on social media. You’ll get plenty of ideas to help you customize your bullet journal for your needs.

Because it’s an analog system (just pen and paper), your bullet journal will work anytime anywhere, no power or Wi-Fi required.

woman writing in journal

It Helps You Stay Organized

Once you get in the habit of recording and checking off anything important, your bullet journal will help you stay organized in all areas of your life. Keep track of work tasks, dentist appointments, and your grocery list in one convenient place. The key and index make it easy to keep track of everything.

Since it’s nothing more than a notebook and pen, you can carry it around with you everywhere. Throw it in your purse, keep it next to you on your desk, and review your day before you head to bed at night. Once you get in the habit of using your journal throughout the day, it will become second nature to carry it around with you, the way you keep your phone on you.

 

It Frees Up Brain Space

By far the biggest benefit to using a bullet journal is that it frees up a lot of brain space. You’ll be pleasantly surprised how much of a difference this will make. Most of us don’t realize how many appointments, tasks, and random pieces of information we keep track of.

Writing them down allows you to use those brain cells for more creative and productive endeavors. You may even find that you sleep better because you’re no longer worried about forgetting an important task or appointment the next day.

3 Ways To Start Your Bullet Journal

Ok – you’re ready to give bullet journaling a try.

Before you start your first bullet journal, you need to decide on the type of journal you want to use. In this post, I’ll give you a quick overview over the three main styles of bullet journals in use. This should make your decision easier. Most importantly just start, get your feet wet and if needed switch to a different type of journal until you find the one that’s right for you.

A Plain Notebook

The easiest way to get started is with any notebook that you have lying around. Of course you can also pick up an inexpensive one at the store. If you just want to give this a try, it doesn’t matter if it’s ruled, lined, or has blank pages. Any type of notebook will work.

The advantage is that it’s easy and inexpensive to find something to play around with. The disadvantage is that inexpensive notebooks tend to fall apart after a lot of use, aren’t very customizable, and you have number the pages yourself. That being said, I recommend this is where you start. Give it a try and see if bullet journaling will work for you. If so, you can move on to one of the other types of notebooks.

A Moleskin or Leuchtturm Notebook

When you’re ready to upgrade to a journal you’ll enjoy writing in and are proud to display, consider spending a few dollars on a Moleskin or Leuchtturm notebook. You’ll end up with a nice sturdy book that you can carry around with you or keep by your desk.

In addition to making your bullet journaling a nicer experience, a quality notebook has some added benefits. The paper will be nicer to write on, it usually has quite a few pages, so you may be able to fit an entire year’s worth of notes and journaling in one notebook.

Bullet journaling requires you to use numbered pages in your journal for indexing. There are a few editions available that include numbered pages including the Leuchtturm 1970 journal.

A Travel Journal or Midori

A third option is a travel journal or midori. This consists of a piece of leather used as a cover and a series of replaceable inserts held in place by elastic bands. The big advantage of using a Midori style journal for your bullet journaling is that it’s highly customizable. Instead of using an index and having your collections or lists randomly spread throughout your journal, you can keep a dedicated insert for collections.

If you’re missing a more traditional calendar layout for your monthly pages, you can use a more traditional monthly and weekly calendar in your bullet journal.

Last but not least, by having the essential parts of your bullet journal (monthly spreads, daily sections, and collections) separated, you can replace only the parts you need to replace. That means when your daily journaling notebook is full, you simply start a new one, and there’s no need to go back and copy over any essential collections in a new journal. You keep your collections until you’re ready to replace it and start a new journal for those.

No matter what format you chose, I hope you give bullet journaling a try.

bullet journal with yellow highlighter

Getting Your Bullet Journal Started

Your bullet journal consists of three different parts.

The first part includes the index and key. They will occupy the first two pages of your journal and help you stay on track with what’s where and how the journal works.

The second part consists of a monthly log or calendar, and then running daily entries. More on how these work in a minute.

The last part of a bullet journal is something called collections or lists. They are just that, lists of related things you want to keep track of. For example, you may have a list of books you want to read, or a list of clients you need to contact this month, or a habit (such as exercise) that you want to develop.

The Bullet Journal Key

The key (pun most definitely intended) to the bullet journal are a series of shorthand keys that are used to mark different entries.

The first page of your bullet journal will include your key. This will record the shorthand you use for your bullet entries.

Here’s the traditional codes used. (You can later on add to it, or modify it as needed, but to start with follow the original bullet journal key):

ᐧ (Dot) Task

X Completed Task

> Migrated Task

⃝ Appointment

⬤ Completed Appointment

⟴ Migrated Appointment

– Notes

The Index

Your next two to four pages will be set aside for indexing. This will allow you to quickly find any collection, or get to a particular month. Your collections and logs are listed in the index, along with the corresponding page number. Title each page as an index page and move on to the next section.

The Future Log

With the original bullet journal setup this is a two page spread that records the coming 6 months. Many bullet journalers find it helpful to use a more traditional yearly calendar instead. This is a great place to record birthdays, anniversaries, or block out vacation time. Add or note the page number and record your future log in your index.

grid paper with hand lettering

Monthly Logs

Start each month with a monthly log. Here you’ll record appointments and due dates. You can use a grid layout, or use one line for each day of the month. While this isn’t where you’ll track most of your tasks, the monthly log will come in handy for those times when you have a dentist appointment or your friend’s birthday party.

Daily Logs

The daily log is where you’ll spend most of your time in the journal. Start a new section each day and record anything important for the day. Make your list of tasks and cross them off as you get them finished. Make notes of anything important you need to remember throughout the day as well as appointments as they pop up.

Everything gets logged in the daily log for speed and ease. From there you can move it as needed to the monthly or future log, or migrate it to a different day.

Migrating Tasks

At the end of your day, or first thing the next morning it’s time to review your tasks and cross out and migrate anything that isn’t checked off. For example, if you didn’t get around to doing laundry today, draw an arrow through it and add the task to today’s daily task list.

If you noted an appointment that came up yesterday, move it to your monthly list and draw an arrow through it in yesterday’s list. If something no longer applies then cross it out. Your goal is to deal with each entry from your daily list by completing it, migrating it, or crossing it out.

In the evening before bed is a good time to migrate your tasks. You can combine it with a daily review and gratitude practice.

Collections

The final part of the puzzle is collections. These are basically thematical lists you make that aren’t date related. A perfect example is a list of books you want to read. Start your new collection on the next blank page. Title it and start jotting down the books you want to read.

Make a note of the page you’re on and add this collection to your index page. Now when you want to add a new book title to this list, or reference it to see what you want to read, you can easily find it via the index.

A popular adaptation of collections is to track habits you want to build – such as exercising, or meditation. Many women are also using a tracker to track their monthly cycle.

two bullet journals with a cup of coffee

Make Your Bullet Journal Work For You

One of the best ideas behind the bullet journal is that it’s so deceptively simple, with only a few rules or guidelines to follow to make it work. This gives you a lot of flexibility when it comes to making your bullet journal work for you.

Take It For A Test Drive

Yes you can read all about using a bullet journal and watch a ton of YouTube videos to get ideas. But you won’t get a feel for what will work for you until you start to give it a try. Start with an inexpensive notebook and just try it out. Follow the basic bullet journal layout with an index, a key and a monthly spread.

Track your daily tasks and see how it feels. Add in a few lists or collections and get a feel for what type of information is useful and what isn’t. Try trackers and various other “hacks” you come across and determine what works for you.

Start Small and Don’t Track Too Much

When you first start out bullet journaling, you may be tempted to write down and track every single thing. You have lots and lots of ideas for collections. The enthusiasm is wonderful, and while it’s perfectly fine to try a bunch of different stuff, you may over-commit and start tracking too much.

You don’t want your bullet journal to become a dreaded chore. It’s a tool. Start small and figure out what works and what’s sustainable for you to write down and track. Always keep in mind that this is supposed to be helpful, not add to your workload.

Don’t Be Afraid To Rip Things Out And Start Over

If you find that something isn’t working for you, don’t be afraid to rip it out. Did you think the weekly reading collection was a good idea, but now it is a dreaded task? Rip out that page. And if your overall layout for your bullet journal isn’t working for you, don’t be afraid to toss it and start over.

This is exactly why you start out with a small and inexpensive notebook. Grab another one and start over. You’ll find the setup and system that’s right for you.

Tweak It And Change It Until It Works For You

Expect some testing and tweaking, and changing stuff around until you come up with something that works well for you. We all lead different lives and our brains work differently. Our bullet journals should reflect that. Keep working on it until you come up with a system that feels natural.

You’ll know it when you get there. The end goal is to have a bullet journal setup that makes your live easier and helps you stay organized without feeling that writing in it is a chore.