Bullet Journaling 101

The first time I read about bullet journals, I wrote them off as being too complicated and fussy.  The second time I read about bullet journals … I still wrote them off as being too complicated and fussy.    A few months ago, when I was waxing poetic about my love for all things pens and paper and lists, a friend (her name is Sarah, and she’s awesome) said, “I think you’d really love bullet journaling.”

I’ve looked at that before;  it seemed too complicated.

It’s really not, she said.  It’s as simple or as complicated as you make it.  I really do think you’d like it.


Okay, FINE.  I’ll look it up one more time. 

GAME.  CHANGER.  This time it was love at first (third) sight.

So what the heck is it?  It’s part planner, part journal, and part to-do list.  For some people it’s also a sketchbook, and/or an art journal.  Ryder Carroll, the gentleman who created the system, describes it as something to help “track the past, organize the present, and plan for the future.”

The video below is from the official bullet journal website, and gives a good basic overview about setting one up.  But if you’re not sure, or you’re confused, or you want to see more…. keep reading for how I set up and use my own.  A Google and Pinterest search showed me that there is a whole world of bullet journal ideas and inspiration and adaptations out there, and that rabbit trail was what got me really excited about bullet journaling.

A few disclaimers before I go on though:

  • Most of the links to products are affiliate links, which just means that if you purchase from them, I’ll get a few pennies from the sale, at no extra cost to you.  But if you don’t want to give me any pennies, look them up on Amazon anyway, because I still recommend them, whether you give me your pennies or not.  🙂
  • A lot of what I’ve done here has been inspired by other bullet journal lovers/bloggers/website owners, especially Kara over at Boho Berry.  She’s awesome.
  • And finally, please, please DON’T COMPARE mine to yours to anyone else’s.  So many people feel like they need to compete, and/or make it look a certain way, but the whole point is that it’s totally customizable to you.  If you want simple and streamlined, awesome.  If you want to decorate it all up with colors and stickers and washi tape and sketches, awesome.  If you want it fancy but don’t have the time or inclination to do it by hand, awesome.  That’s where things like stencils and printables come in handy.  I belong to a few Facebook groups for inspiration, and there’s thread after thread filled with people worried they’re not doing it “right”. There is no right and wrong.  For real.  This is supposed to be fun.  At a minimum, it’s supposed to be functional.  If you hear nothing else, hear this:  Your bullet journal is WHATEVER YOU WANT AND NEED IT TO BE.

Supplies & Getting Started

All you need to get started with bullet journaling is a notebook of some sort, and a pen or pencil.  That’s it.

Some of us have turned ours into more of a… project… but you absolutely don’t have to.  A notebook and a writing utensil, and you’re good to go.

The notebook I use is the Leuchtturm 1917 in the A5 size. I love, love, love this notebook. It’s pretty and sturdy and the perfect size. All of its pages are lightly gridded, so it’s easy to make nice straight lines, and keep everything nice and neat.  Its pages are numbered too, which is incredibly helpful when setting up the index.


If your notebook isn’t numbered, you’ll want to number the pages before you get started, so that you’ll be able to find what you’re looking for later on.

Some other supplies that are not necessary, but might be nice to have

A selection of pens – I’m a bit of a pen hoarder collector, so I like to have a variety to match my mood/desired outcome.  My favorite everyday pen is the Sharpie fine tip, and I also love the Pitt Artist Pens, and the Micron Pigma pens.  They all write nice and black, don’t bleed to the other side of the page, and come in a range of tip sizes.  It’s nice to be able to get those super fine lines when I want them.  I also have a set of calligraphy markers that are fun for a little extra pizazz.

Markers and/or colored pencils – My favorite markers are the Staedtler Triplus Fineliners, and for colored pencils I like the Derwent Water Color Pencils.

A good ruler – Useful for both making straight lines and helping to plan out your pages.  I like this one because it’s clear, flexible, and sturdy.

A kneaded eraser – Yes, a regular eraser works just fine, but I’m so enamored with the kneaded one I use for drawing that I use it for everything.  And bonus, no shavings to brush away!

Correction tape – I tried to use regular white-out when I messed up, but it always felt lumpy, it was difficult to write over, and it took forever to dry.  Now I use Bic Wite-Out EZ Correction Tape, and it works much better for me.

Decorative things like washi tape, stickers, stencils, stamps – Go crazy, or skip it altogether.  I think a lot of us are somewhere in between.

The Initial Set-Up

I started setting my bullet journal up in December, in preparation for the beginning of the new year.  But the great thing is that you don’t have to start at the beginning of a new year!  Since it’s hand-made and prepared as you go, you can start a new one 365 days a year.

As mentioned above, if your pages aren’t numbered, you’ll want to start there.  Part of the genius of the bullet journal is that you put everything into a table of contents, so then you won’t be frantically flipping pages trying to find the list of books you wanted to read this year, or all your meal-planning ideas, or little Johnny’s soccer schedule.  Just check the index and you’re good to go.  Every time you add a new page to your journal, you’ll add it to your index:

The next thing I included was a key.  I don’t use all the same exact symbols as Ryder Carroll’s system, but I use many of them:

Next, I did a year-at-a-glance.  Not everyone includes this, but for me it doesn’t make sense not to be able to have an overview of the whole year, right up front.

Speaking of white-out, if you look closely, you can see that I messed up the numbering on the last full week of April, and had to white-out the whole row. Mistakes happen. 🙂

The next page I included was a Mood Tracker.  I track my mood anyway because of my bipolar (I have an app on my phone), but I loved the idea of seeing it in colors this way.  This was shamelessly copied/adapted from a whole bunch of examples I saw on Pinterest.   I’ve seen people do mood mandalas too, and those are super cool as well.  Again, this isn’t something everyone is going to want to do, but I love it.  Add what you love, forget about the rest.

The last thing I included, in terms of my initial set-up, was the Future Log.  I mostly use it for birthdays and events that I know about well in advance.  If you want a simpler version of what I made, you can simply divide each side into six boxes (or three, if you think you’ll need more space)

Using Your Bullet Journal

The whole point of using a bullet journal is to keep you organized.  I use mine to keep track of what I’ve got going on on a monthly and weekly basis, plus keep track of…. a whole bunch of other things:  daily habits I want to try to do on a regular basis, books I’ve read (or want to read), blog post ideas, hikes I’ve gone on, etc.  People use it to track their exercise habits or weight loss goals, to meal plan for the week or the month, places they want to visit, Netflix series they’d like to watch.  Etc. Anything you can think of can become a page in your bullet journal.

One thing that I had trouble wrapping my head around when I started was how to plan out the pages.  How much space did I leave for each month?  Did I want to do a monthly page, then a weekly page, AND a daily page (some people use all three)?  Did I want to have all my lists/collections together, and if so, how much space should I leave for them?  What if I want to add something later in a place that doesn’t make any logical sense?  Phew.  Exhausting.  (And it all brought me screaming back to my earlier opinion of “Too complicated.  Too fussy.”)

But t turned out that I was single-handedly making it too complicated.  I do that.  Often.  Yes, it took a bit of thinking/researching/looking around at other examples to figure out what I wanted to do, but once I did that I was ready to jump in.  And it wasn’t nearly as daunting as I’d been making it.

I do a monthly page, and then I do weekly pages (photos to follow).  The original system relies on daily pages, but I found that doing weekly pages still gave me enough room to write down all my tasks for each day, plus I was able to see and plan the whole week in one glance, a drawback I was having with the idea of doing daily pages.

I might do a page or two of weeklies in advance, but otherwise, I just build as I go.  When I think of some list or something that I want to add, I just do it on the next free page, and add it to the index.  It’s why we have the index in the first place!  No fuss, no muss.  If I know what I want to do with the next few pages, but don’t have time to do it at the moment, I just reserve them with sticky notes to mark their spot until I’m able to get to them.

Ryder Carroll’s system has you do your monthly log as a single list of dates down the side of the page, like this:

Then you’d just write whatever plans, appointments, etc you have on the corresponding date.  If you want simple, this is definitely the way to go.  I knew that I wanted something different for this (that would still serve the same function), so after a whole lot of looking around, playing with different ideas, and trying things out, I came up with this:

I’ve got traditional calendar boxes to write upcoming events and plans, space for a general to-do list for the month, and a habit tracker to fill out at the bottom.  I put washi tape on the edge of my monthly pages so they’re even easier to find and flip to.  This is what my month looks like when it is fresh and brand-new, and this is what it looks like when it’s been used and written all over:

Immediately after my monthly pages, I start my weekly pages, and those are really the heart and soul of the bullet journal (in terms of keeping me on task).  All my daily to-dos, appointments, and tasks are written on the appropriate day, and it makes it really easy to see – in black and white – what I’ve got going on.  Here are a couple of examples:

And finally, here are just a few of the “extra” pages I’ve done so far.  They’re sort of addictive, so I know I’ll be adding more and more as I go:

Bullet journals aren’t for everyone, to be sure, but if you’re someone like me who loves putting pen to paper, loves lists and organizing or writing or doodling or planning…… DO IT.   It keeps me more organized, it makes me more apt to do what I need to do, AND it allows me that meditative/creative time that I so badly need. Try it.  It’ll change your life.

And maybe (hopefully?) you won’t have to wait for your third exposure like I did.  🙂





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8 Responses to Bullet Journaling 101

  1. Kelly

    It’s beautiful, Jen! You’re so artistic!
    Thanks for all the great tips & ideas!

  2. Dude. This is awesome. I should post some pictures of mine sometime. I don’t currently have as many special things as I used to, because of total lack of time, but I love it! Besides being a Bullet Journal fan, I also love getting to see a peek into your life. I wish “Coffee Date with Heather and Joan” was a realistic regular thing 😉

  3. I’ve only started bullet journalling this year, and what I love about it is that if the format I’m using doesn’t quite fit, I can change it now, instead of waiting for next year. For example, I’m going to change my monthly page in March to incorporate your habit tracker – thank you for that!

    • jen

      YES! That is one of the best things about it for sure. I’m still tweaking the process, and I love that I’m not tied to anything, and can keep changing it up. And you’re welcome. 🙂

  4. I’ve heard about bullet journaling a number of times, and while on the outset I’d always get excited (I love writing, planning, lists, etc.), I inevitably immediately became stressed out and unable to start. I would always worry I would run out of room, or mess up, or something else that would mean it didn’t feel quite right and I’d need to start over (things that aren’t the way I wanted and planned or expected give me an incredible amount of anxiety). But for some reason, reading this post has helped me understand how I can create a bullet journal without it stressing me. So thank you so much and I am so so excited to actually start one.

    • jen

      I can relate to what you’ve said here very much. But I am SO glad that I decided to try it, and I’m SO happy that you are going to give it a try too! YAY! Enjoy 🙂