In my post about my fat dad pants, I mentioned that I use a bullet journal to track habits that are helping me use weight. Since then, several people have asked me how to get started with bullet journals, so I thought I’d share a guide.
What’s the difference between a normal journal and a bullet journal?
For most people, a normal journal is just a chronological list of entries where they record their day and their thoughts. If you ever kept a diary as a kid, you know the format.
A bullet journal, on the other hand, is more about lists and trackers than regular chronological entries. While you can certainly include a daily diary in your bullet journal, it’s not the focus. Rather than appending a new entry to the end of the journal every day, you may have content blocks set up that you return to over the course of a week, month, or even a year.
Bullet journaling first began as a system of managing a to-do list, using bullet points (thus the name) to separate tasks. A simple dot symbol denotes a task to be done. Once the task is complete, you transform the bullet from a dot to an X, to mark the task as done. Various other symbols can be used to mark a task as rescheduled, add notes, list events, and more. Here’s a guide to all the various symbols and their uses.
Of course, not everything is easily managed with a simple task list, so bullet journaling has evolved to include other types of content. You can think of modern bullet journaling as a cross between a daily planner and a scrapbook. We’ll talk about those other types of content in a bit. First, let’s get your bullet journal set up.
First you need a journal
When selecting a journal, you need to decide what type of pages you want. There are generally four types:
Sometimes called graph paper, a grid style journal has a grid of tiny boxes on every page. One advantage of a grid journal is that they can be used in both portrait (vertical) and landscape (horizontal) orientation, so you have a lot of freedom to design elements to your needs.
Different grid journals may have grids with different spacing size.
Dot grid journals are like grid journals, but each page is covered in evenly spaced dots instead of boxes. Think of it as boxes with the walls removed.
Dot grid journals are a little harder to find than other journals, and can be more expensive. A dot grid journal may also mean you have less options when it come to cover choices, if that’s important to you.
Lined journals are usually the easiest and cheapest journal to find.
They’re great if you want to include a lot of writing in your journal, but it can be somewhat hard to include elements that rely on a landscape-style page orientation.
Blank journals have completely blank pages.
They’re great for people who like to do a lot of drawing, but since they have no guide elements like grids or dots or lines, they can be a little harder to set up.
In the end, you want to choose the journal that appeals to you.
The journal I use
Personally, I use a dot grid journal. My favorite is a Rhodia Orange Webnotebook. Other popular brands include Moleskine and Leuchtturm1917. Don’t feel like you have to stick to a premium brand, however — I’ve known people who are perfectly happy with a cheap journal from Walmart.
Focus on paper quality
Try to pick a journal with high quality paper. You’ll be using your journal a lot, so you want paper that will hold up well, and will absorb ink without bleeding through or tearing.
You’ll also want to decide on a size for your bullet journal. A5 paper (5.5 inches x 8.5 inches) is probably the most common, but there are larger and smaller sizes available. A5 works for me, as it’s easy to carry in a bag or backpack, but still provides plenty of page space.
Whatever journal you pick, I’d suggest picking up two. Why? Your first journal is going to be about experimentation. Bullet journals are highly customizable. There are several different ways to design elements like habit trackers, and you’ll have to experiment to find what you like.
Use the first journal as a test environment for the various content blocks you want to include in your journal. You can also use it to test pens and to practice drawing various decorative elements like borders, icons, banners, and color schemes, if you choose to use them.
Then use the second journal as your main journal for day-to-day operations.
Next you need pens
On the minimalist end of things, you can totally get away with using any pens you like. Any old ballpoint will work, and you aren’t obligated to use multiple colors. However, for me, bullet journaling is a pleasant tactile experience. I love the smooth paper of my Rhodia and using nice pens with it is a pleasure.
Personally, I use a set of Triplus Fineliner pens by Staedtler. My set has 20 colors. I use the black pen for framing out my content blocks, and the other colors to fill it boxes on various trackers.
I’m also a fan of Pentel’s EnerGel pens for general writing. Finally, if you want to use a lot of decorative elements in your journal, you may want to pick up a stencil set. There are several available for bullet journaling — I’ve linked one below. You might also want to pick up a small six-inch ruler. It helps with keeping lines straight.
How I Use My Bullet Journal
I took a few days at the end of 2017 to set up my bullet journal. I prefer a yearly format, so my entire journal is organized around 2018 as a whole. Some people prefer using a monthly or even weekly format, or a mix of the three. Use what works for you.
Ideas for the Year
On the very first page of my journal, I jotted down a few ideas that I want to keep in mind for the year. “Life the life I want my children to emulate” is #1. I’m making a lot of big changes this year, and 90% of them are ones I’m doing because I want better things for my kids.
I also want to focus on fixing some unfaced problems from the last couple years — mounting debts, certifications I’ve failed to renew, emotional investments that need closure, and other holdover details that I need to sweep out of my closet to get on with my life.
Weight and Mood Tracker
The next page includes a weight tracker and a Year in Pixels mood tracker. The weight tracker is simply a series of 52 boxes — one for each week of the year. Every Tuesday, I weigh in, so I can see how my weight fluctuates over time while I’m making positive lifestyle changes to lose weight.
The Year in Pixels mood tracker is an idea I found from Pinterest. If you look around, you can find several varieties. Mine is a 12×31 grid for the entire year. Months with fewer than 31 days have a few days blacked out. At the end of each day, you color in that day’s block with the appropriate color from your emotional key. Each color refers to a different mental or emotional state.
For me, green means productivity. Blue means sad. Yellow means sick. Pink is joy. And so on. On days where I can’t decide, I usually split the block in half and use two colors.
After that, the next several pages contain my habit trackers. Since I’m using a yearly format, mine are pretty large — daily habits are a 12×31 grid. Weekly and monthly habits are just a series of boxes. On days when I successfully complete the habit, it gets colored in. Days where I fail to meet the goal get colored black. As you can see, I’ve been kinda crap about my meditation goal.
I also have some tracking meters set up for various savings goals. For these, I just color in the meter as I deposit funds towards the goal. I mark out goalposts every few blocks — in this case, ever four rows is $100, so I can easily mark the corresponding level on the meter.
Blogging Goals & Milestones
Not all of my pages are yearly. For blogging goals, I chose to go with a monthly format — it was just easier to track. I used several blocks to break larger goals into smaller amounts, and color them in each night as I hit new milestones. My goal for Twitter was 50 followers in January — you can see I blew past that and had to add more.
Notes & Ideas
Some of my pages are just for ideas. You can see a simple list of blog post ideas. The “101 Free Coloring Pages” post idea turned into my Ultimate Guide To Free Coloring Pages For Kids post. On the opposite page, I have a list of ideas for toys and other fun things to make for the girls. I keep a Pinterest board for DIY Toys For Kids and wanted to record some of my favorites.
Other things in my bullet journal
I haven’t shown you everything in my journal, of course — some stuff is private. Here’s a few other things I keep:
A list of important dates, such as family birthdays and anniversaries.
A list of ideas for gifts I want to buy people in my life.
A list of bloggers I’ve made connections with and want to keep track of.
A list of books I want to read, with tickboxes and a blank for dates for when I do read them.
Design sketches for various things I want to build, like a play kitchen for the girls.
An index. Each of my pages are numbered, and I’ve reserved a few pages at the back of the book to create an index, so I can easily find all of the pages where I’ve recorded blog post ideas, for example.
What’s Not In My Journal
It’s also worth mentioning the things I DON’T keep in my bullet journal.
A Daily Diary. I opted to not include a daily diary in my bullet journal. I’m bad at keeping them, and in a way, this blog serves much of the same function.
A To-Do List. While my bullet journal works better for me than most digital apps, one I can’t live without is Wunderlist. I use it to track my to-do list and grocery list, along with a few other action-oriented lists. My bullet journal is more for review and planning — my Wunderlist is for burning through my productivity goals.
Passwords. Some people include a page in their journal to track passwords to various accounts. Personally, that feels a little invasive to me. If my journal is ever lost or stolen, I don’t want someone to have access to all of my online presence.
It Doesn’t Have To Be Pretty
Some people go all out with the decorative elements. Pinterest has tons of beautiful examples of illustrations and layouts people have used in their bullet journal: intricate frames and borders for content blocks, beautiful scrollwork banners for section headers, stenciled icons, unique colorful art and watercolor paintings. Check out my Pinterest board on bullet journaling for ideas:
As you can see, my journal is an ugly mess. I have slightly shaky handwriting from an old hand injury, so straight lines are difficult for me, and I’ve always had chicken-scratch writing. I’m not great at symmetry and planning my pages in gorgeous well-organized designs. I don’t use a lot of fanciful elements, but that’s okay, because those details are less important to me than seeing my information in a clear, clean format.
Make It Yours
Whatever you decide to include in your bullet journal, the important thing is that you get to make it 100% your own. Create elements that work for you. Customize your journal however you like. Feel free to use stickers, stencils, stamps, washi tape, or paint. Use colored tabs or markers to specify different sections. Include a table of contents.
Add a pocket inside the cover:
Add a pen holder:
More About Bullet Journals
Here’s some other guides for your about bullet journaling: