How To Start A Bullet Journal (& Finally Get Your Life Together)

Bullet journaling has become my productivity saving grace.


For as long as I've attempted to be a productive human being, I've searched for the perfect planner. It's safe to say that I've tried them all at this point. From customized options with $50+ price points to the more cost-effective brands. I've had notebooks embossed with my initials, because personalization was supposed to inspire productivity, or so they told me. And when that didn't work, I took the more direct option and grabbed a book that bluntly told me to get ish done right on the cover.

At the end of the day, those planners all ended up in some nook or cranny of my office or apartment, half-used and soon-to-be forgotten. There was nothing wrong with the books themselves. All planners, as long as they have some of the basic functionality (i.e: a place to write and store your life's happenings) are perfect as they are. The thing we're really searching for, the one missing piece to finding that perfect, productivity-encouraging system, is really more about a lifestyle match than it is the books themselves.

In a lot of ways, the search for the perfect planner resembles the hunt for the right partner. Someone could be a great person and have tons of amazing qualities, and still not be what you're looking for. I'd found tons of great planners, but none of them were exactly what I needed, when I needed them. It wasn't them, it was definitely me.

I'm a natural-born planner. Nothing makes me happier than the satisfaction of crossing something off of a list. Nothing soothes me more than taking all of the jumbled thoughts in my head and getting them down on paper. Lists are how I make sense of the world around me. Writing things down has always made them seem real. And yet, finding a tool that could meet me where I was seemed impossible. Until, I found the bullet journaling system.

Created by Ryder Carroll and described as the analog method for a digital age (if you're wondering what my love language is, it's this), bullet journaling has become my productivity saving grace.

How To Start A Bullet Journal

The Basics Of Starting A Bullet Journal

Writer Amber Burns/xoNecole

All you need to become a bullet journalist, as they're affectionately called online, is a notebook and a pen. That's it. Any notebook of your choosing will work just fine as long as it's something you can carry around with you (you're about to dump your life into it, you'll want it on-hand) and durable enough to withstand being carried around. Most bullet journalists opt for a dot grid notebook as it allows for some guidance without sacrificing flexibility. The pen should be one you can write with comfortably.

If you search "bullet journal" on Pinterest, Youtube, or Instagram, you'll be overwhelmed with stunning notebooks, artistic spreads, and perfect handwriting. I'm here to let you know that none of those things are required to bullet journal! Again, just a pen and a notebook. That's what we're working with.

Once you have those items, your bullet journal can become what you need, when you need it. There are some basic, core "collections," (a term that simply refers to any entry in your bullet journal), but the possibilities are endless.

Setting Up Your Bullet Journal: Your Key

Amber Burns/xoNecole

The more you use it, the more your journal will become exactly what you need. But when you're first getting started, there are a few core collections you should set up right away. The first being your key.

A key does exactly what it sounds like: defines what each symbol, or bullet, in your bullet journal means. In my notebook, solid dot indicates an incomplete task, a dot with an 'X' through it means it's complete. An asterisk indicates a note or random thought and an open circle is an event. Having these clearly defined symbols makes it easy to dump everything on a list and be able to quickly glance at what needs to be done or where you need to be on a given day.

The Set Up: Your Index

Amber Burns/xoNecole

The next collection you'll set up is your index. An index is essentially a table of contents for your bullet journal. This is where you'll log any new entry into your notebook and will stop you from ever wondering where you wrote down that great idea, shopping list, or phone number. Some notebooks come with a premade index ready to go at the front of the notebook but you can easily create one yourself if it doesn't. Label the top of the page index, then title an area to write the page topic and page number.

Setting Up Your Bullet Journal: Future Log

Amber Burns/xoNecole

After the index, most journalists use a spread called a future log. A future log does exactly what it sounds like: helps you log and plan future events and tasks. There a million ways you could set this up, but here's an easy approach: split a page in your notebook into three even sections.

Each section should contain one month of the year. You can write out a mini calendar to reference each day of that month. Now, repeat this page so that you have each month of the year written down. Once it's all set up, you can start plugging future events. Birthdays you know you want to remember, vacations, appointments, etc. When you sit down to plan out each month, you'll flip back to your future log and migrate any task you have listed under the current month onto your monthly calendar.

The index and future log are truly the only year-round collections you need in your journal. Of course, you can get creative and add other collections based on your goals or focus for the year. For example, if you're hoping to read more books, make a collection to track the books you want to read. If you're working towards a specific money saving goal, create a collection where you track how much you're spending versus how much you're saving. If you're trying to go vegan, split a page into four equal parts and label them breakfast, lunch, dinner and snack. Then write down meal ideas for each category that you can refer to when grocery shopping. The possibilities are truly endless.

Now that you're all set up with those core collections, it's time to start planning your months and weeks. This is where all of those productive puzzle pieces really start to fit together. Like anything with bullet journaling, there are a million ways to set up a month, but here's a simple, straightforward way to get started.

Turn to a fresh page and write the current month at the top. Then, write all of the days of the week down the page with the letter of the day of the week next to it. This page is now a vertical calendar, where you can write appointments, tasks, important dates, etc. Turn back to your future log and add any important dates from there onto this calendar. If you're using your bullet journal for both work and personal life, write the days of the month down the middle of the page instead, creating two columns. Now, use one column for work and one for personal.

Amber Burns/xoNecole

The next blank page will be a future log. Unlike the future log we made at the beginning of the notebook, this one is specially for the current month. Here, you can throw in all of those random tasks you know you should get to each month, but that don't have specific deadlines for, like cancelling a membership or buying a birthday gift. As you plan your weeks and days, you'll flip back to this page and start scheduling them out.

Just like your yearly set up, you can add whatever relevant collections in your monthly set up that you want. A spending tracker, reading tracker, meal planner, or even a daily gratitude log.

Habit Tracker For Your Bullet Journal

Amber Burns/xoNecole

One spread that's especially popular is a habit tracker. These are great for tracking the habits that you're either hoping to establish or ones you want to kick. Just make another vertical calendar and then a list the habits you're tracking down the side of the page. After every day, put an "X" on the day that you successfully completed that habit.

Even more important than logging tasks or thoughts in your bullet journal is using it daily to reflect, track, and plan. Set aside a few minutes at the end of the day to review how it really went. Are there tasks you didn't do that you should migrate to the next day's list? Or maybe they can be migrated back to your future log? The more time you spend with your journal, the more you'll realize how much more in tune you're becoming with yourself and your own habits.

Want more stories like this? Sign up for our newsletter here and check out the related reads below:

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