How-To: Bullet Journal Basics

I’m taking a slight deviation from my normal writing-centric blog posts today because I want to tell you about something that changed my life: my bullet journal.

Bullet Journals are all the rage right now and I can see you rolling your eyes and thinking ‘whatever, it’s just a fancy diary, don’t get so overdramatic about it.’ But it’s so much more than that, and it’s definitely worth all the hype.

The journal/diary/to-do list mash-up has made me so much more organised in every aspect of my life, including my writing and blogging and I really don’t know how I coped before I discovered it. I’m a massive fan of lists in general, I find that they make everything so much easier. And we all know that being able to cross something off a list is so satisfying. So it was inevitable that the bullet journal concept would appeal to me, and I hope I can make it appeal to you as well.

So how does it work? I hear you ask. Well, it all started with a man called Ryder Carroll who came up with the original idea. He used a system of pages and collections to create an organisational journal. At first glance, it seems ridiculously complicated, but don’t let that put you off. It’s so simple once you get started.

1. The Basic Layout

First of all, you have your Index:

This does exactly what is says on the tin. It’s basically a table of contents that you update as you go along. You number each page and add it to the Index as you use it. It’s a Godsend to help you find a specific collection (more on those later) when you’re in a rush.

Next, you have the Future Log:

This is like a yearly calendar (or 6 months for me since that’s how much I can fit on 2 pages, and that’s about as long as I get out of one notebook). It’s for keeping track of the long-term stuff you need to do, key dates, events, goals, things of that nature. Again, it doesn’t have to be all filled out straight away. You can add to it as time goes on and things come up.

Now you have your Monthly Log:

This is your monthly calendar where you keep track of what you have to do during the month and any events and such like, that you’ve got coming up. I also put a little monthly-to-do-box of things I know I have to do as the month goes on, but I’m not sure exactly when I’ll do them. They’ll get added into the daily log as I go along. Speaking of which:

The last of the basic log pages is the Daily Log:

This is a daily list of to-dos, events, thoughts, observations, etc. You basically use it as a daily to-do list. But you can also add in things during the day, so if you have a sudden idea for a story, or find a book you want to read, make a note of them in your daily log.

It’s easy to differentiate between ideas, to-do items and everything else that goes into your logs because with your bullet journal comes a set of symbols called a Key. These are the basic ones:

A simple bullet point denotes a ‘to-do’ item. When you’ve completed the item you cross it out so it becomes ‘done’. If you haven’t managed to get something done during your day, then you put a little arrow (like a ‘greater than’ symbol) through the bullet point to show that it’s been migrated to another day during the week. An arrow in the other direction (like a ‘less than’ symbol) is used when you don’t know exactly when the item will be done, so it needs to be rescheduled. A circle indicates an event such a birthday or an appointment. And lastly, a dash indicates a note (such as that writing idea or book).

It sounds much more complicated that it actually is, I swear, once you get started it’s so easy and so addictive.

There’s no specific way to lay out these pages, these are just the ways I’ve found best to do them. But Instagram and Pinterest are awash with fantastic ideas for layouts for all of these pages.

But don’t be put off by any if this. Some people take the artistic aspect of the bullet journal very seriously, which I am always in awe of. But you don’t need any of that to have a good bullet journal. I’m not very artistically endowed so my pages are pretty basic. I got a pack of cheap coloured pens from The Works and sometimes draw some little doodles if I can manage. But you can make it as basic or as detailed as you like.

2. Collections

So, back to those little ideas and observations that I mentioned earlier. You sometimes find that you have more than one similar thought or idea over a number of days, such as a lot of books you want to read, or book/blog writing ideas. It becomes a bit of a nuisance to go back to each day to see what the note was, so it’s easier to create a Collection for the topic.

This is basically just a separate page to keep track of similar notes, for example, I have a page of books I want to read:

You just add the Collection’s page number into your Index so it’s easy to find when you want to go back to it, rather than slogging through each day to find the separate notes.

There are loads of Collection ideas and you’ll find the ones that suit you most as you go along and see what you makes notes of most regularly. Some of the ones I use include health tips I’ve taken from magazines and skin and make-up products I want to try. I also keep track of any story ideas and blog post ideas that come to mind while I’m away from my laptop.

3. Habit Tracking

Keeping track of habits has become a large part of the bullet journal process. Again, there are so many layout ideas for this, and it really comes down to finding what works best for you, but here are the ways I’ve tracked certain things in the past.

I started with a separate page for my habit tracker that looked like this (as you can see there were a lot of things I didn’t do as often as I should):

Then I switched it to be part of my daily log as I found that I didn’t need to track as many of the things as I had on the separate page. I had a column on the side of the page that tracked what I wanted:

This has become even smaller again so now I just have a line at the end of each day where I track my water intake (each box indicates 500ml) and the amount of green tea I’m drinking (I aim for 3 cups a day)

Everyone has different things they need to track. One of my friends, for example, has to keep track of her glucose intake and blood sugar levels, and she came up with this layout to do so (calling it Sweet N Low, which is just the best thing ever!)

Like the Collection pages, you will come to find things that you want to track as your journal goes on, so there’s no need to worry about doing it all at the beginning

4. How My Bullet Journal Helps My Writing

Okay, so let’s get down to the good stuff. Using a bullet journal has helped my writing in a few different ways, but it mostly conmes down to one thing: organisation.

Knowing what I have to do, and when I have to do it by makes me much more likely to get it done. I’ve always been one of those people who leaves things until the last minute and then only does the basic job because I don’t have enough time to do it properly. Every college essay I have ever done was done the day before it was due. I’ve tried different kinds of diaries and planners in the past, but I’ve never been able to stick with one for more than a month or so. For some reason. the bullet journal is the only one that’s stuck. I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that you have total control over what goes into your bullet journal, you’re not constrained by the way a diary is laid out, you can have it exactly as you want it.

As well as the organisational aspect of it, I have found that certain Collections have been a great help to my writing. I have a list of blog post ideas, which means when it comes time to writing a post, I don’t have to go searching through different scraps of paper, or saved memos on my phone to find where I wrote that great idea I had last week.

It’s the same for story ideas. I have a page specifically for these as they come into my head, and as an idea develops, I can create its own page for all the parts of it that I want to remember before I start writing.

I also have a few random collections that come in handy every now and again. I keep a list of names I like the sound of because I always find it difficult to come up with names for my characters. I have a page for phrases that I hear that I might want to get into a story at some point. And I have a ‘Word of the Day’ page to try to up my vocabulary and get myself using words that wouldn’t necessarily come into my head straight away.

The last useful aspect of the bullet journal that I want to talk about is the ‘journal’ part of it. A friend introduced me to Morning Pages (the same friend who has the Sweet N Low layout above, she’s an invaluable mine of good ideas). If you haven’t heard of these, they came from a book by Julia Cameron, called The Artist’s Way. They’re not necessarily a part of the bullet journal process, but that’s one of the best things about it, you can add in things to suit you.

The basic idea of the Morning Pages is that you spend every morning, before you do anything else, writing three pages. You don’t have to write anything in particular, just whatever comes into your head, as long as you don’t stop before you’ve filled three pages. It acts as a sort of brain dump so you’re free to go about your day with a clear head.

Now I will admit, I don’t do this every day, I don’t have time every morning. But when I do, it does make me much more relaxed during the day. It’s also a good idea to get used to the concept of free-writing. Writing without your inner editor forces you to keep going even if you don’t know what to write, which makes the inevitable writer’s block easier to overcome. Even if you don’t write anything worth reading, you’re writing something, and that’s always better than a blank page.

For me, my bullet journal is handy because it means I have everything I need in one notebook that I always have on me. I know exactly what needs to be done on any specific day, and if I don’t manage to get something done, I can easily reschedule it for another day. I hope I’ve managed to convince someone else to start one, or if not, I hope I haven’t bored you too much by gushing about it.

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