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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ACLU By ACLUSponsored

Over the past four years, we grew accustomed to a regular barrage of blatant, segregationist-style racism from the White House. Donald Trump tweeted that “the Squad," four Democratic Congresswomen who are Black, Latinx, and South Asian, should “go back" to the “corrupt" countries they came from; that same year, he called Elizabeth Warren “Pocahontas," mocking her belief that she might be descended from Native American ancestors.

But as outrageous as the racist comments Trump regularly spewed were, the racially unjust governmental actions his administration took and, in the case of COVID-19, didn't take, impacted millions more — especially Black and Brown people.

To begin to heal and move toward real racial justice, we must address not only the harms of the past four years, but also the harms tracing back to this country's origins. Racism has played an active role in the creation of our systems of education, health care, ownership, and employment, and virtually every other facet of life since this nation's founding.

Our history has shown us that it's not enough to take racist policies off the books if we are going to achieve true justice. Those past policies have structured our society and created deeply-rooted patterns and practices that can only be disrupted and reformed with new policies of similar strength and efficacy. In short, a systemic problem requires a systemic solution. To combat systemic racism, we must pursue systemic equality.

What is Systemic Racism?

A system is a collection of elements that are organized for a common purpose. Racism in America is a system that combines economic, political, and social components. That system specifically disempowers and disenfranchises Black people, while maintaining and expanding implicit and explicit advantages for white people, leading to better opportunities in jobs, education, and housing, and discrimination in the criminal legal system. For example, the country's voting systems empower white voters at the expense of voters of color, resulting in an unequal system of governance in which those communities have little voice and representation, even in policies that directly impact them.

Systemic Equality is a Systemic Solution

In the years ahead, the ACLU will pursue administrative and legislative campaigns targeting the Biden-Harris administration and Congress. We will leverage legal advocacy to dismantle systemic barriers, and will work with our affiliates to change policies nearer to the communities most harmed by these legacies. The goal is to build a nation where every person can achieve their highest potential, unhampered by structural and institutional racism.

To begin, in 2021, we believe the Biden administration and Congress should take the following crucial steps to advance systemic equality:

Voting Rights

The administration must issue an executive order creating a Justice Department lead staff position on voting rights violations in every U.S. Attorney office. We are seeing a flood of unlawful restrictions on voting across the country, and at every level of state and local government. This nationwide problem requires nationwide investigatory and enforcement resources. Even if it requires new training and approval protocols, a new voting rights enforcement program with the participation of all 93 U.S. Attorney offices is the best way to help ensure nationwide enforcement of voting rights laws.

These assistant U.S. attorneys should begin by ensuring that every American in the custody of the Bureau of Prisons who is eligible to vote can vote, and monitor the Census and redistricting process to fight the dilution of voting power in communities of color.

We are also calling on Congress to pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act to finally create a fair and equal national voting system, the cause for which John Lewis devoted his life.

Student Debt

Black borrowers pay more than other students for the same degrees, and graduate with an average of $7,400 more in debt than their white peers. In the years following graduation, the debt gap more than triples. Nearly half of Black borrowers will default within 12 years. In other words, for Black Americans, the American dream costs more. Last week, Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, along with House Reps. Ayanna Pressley, Maxine Waters, and others, called on President Biden to cancel up to $50,000 in federal student loan debt per borrower.

We couldn't agree more. By forgiving $50,000 of student debt, President Biden can unleash pent up economic potential in Black communities, while relieving them of a burden that forestalls so many hopes and dreams. Black women in particular will benefit from this executive action, as they are proportionately the most indebted group of all Americans.

Postal Banking

In both low and high income majority-Black communities, traditional bank branches are 50 percent more likely to close than in white communities. The result is that nearly 50 percent of Black Americans are unbanked or underbanked, and many pay more than $2,000 in fees associated with subprime financial institutions. Over their lifetime, those fees can add up to as much as two years of annual income for the average Black family.

The U.S. Postal Service can and should meet this crisis by providing competitive, low-cost financial services to help advance economic equality. We call on President Biden to appoint new members to the Postal Board of Governors so that the Post Office can do the work of providing essential services to every American.

Fair Housing

Across the country, millions of people are living in communities of concentrated poverty, including 26 percent of all Black children. The Biden administration should again implement the 2015 Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing rule, which required localities that receive federal funds for housing to investigate and address barriers to fair housing and patterns or practices that promote bias. In 1980, the average Black person lived in a neighborhood that was 62 percent Black and 31 percent white. By 2010, the average Black person's neighborhood was 48 percent Black and 34 percent white. Reinstating the Obama-era Fair Housing Rule will combat this ongoing segregation and set us on a path to true integration.

Congress should also pass the American Housing and Economic Mobility Act, or a similar measure, to finally redress the legacy of redlining and break down the walls of segregation once and for all.

Broadband Access

To realize broadband's potential to benefit our democracy and connect us to one another, all people in the United States must have equal access and broadband must be made affordable for the most vulnerable. Yet today, 15 percent of American households with school-age children do not have subscriptions to any form of broadband, including one-quarter of Black households (an additional 23 percent of African Americans are “smartphone-only" internet users, meaning they lack traditional home broadband service but do own a smartphone, which is insufficient to attend class, do homework, or apply for a job). The Biden administration, Federal Communications Commission, and Congress must develop and implement plans to increase funding for broadband to expand universal access.

Enhanced, Refundable Child Tax Credits

The United States faces a crisis of child poverty. Seventeen percent of all American children are impoverished — a rate higher than not just peer nations like Canada and the U.K., but Mexico and Russia as well. Currently, more than 50 percent of Black and Latinx children in the U.S. do not qualify for the full benefit, compared to 23 percent of white children, and nearly one in five Black children do not receive any credit at all.

To combat this crisis, President Biden and Congress should enhance the child tax credit and make it fully refundable. If we enhance the child tax credit, we can cut child poverty by 40 percent and instantly lift over 50 percent of Black children out of poverty.


We cannot repair harms that we have not fully diagnosed. We must commit to a thorough examination of the impact of the legacy of chattel slavery on racial inequality today. In 2021, Congress must pass H.R. 40, which would establish a commission to study reparations and make recommendations for Black Americans.

The Long View

For the past century, the ACLU has fought for racial justice in legislatures and in courts, including through several landmark Supreme Court cases. While the court has not always ruled in favor of racial justice, incremental wins throughout history have helped to chip away at different forms of racism such as school segregation ( Brown v. Board), racial bias in the criminal legal system (Powell v. Alabama, i.e. the Scottsboro Boys), and marriage inequality (Loving v. Virginia). While these landmark victories initiated necessary reforms, they were only a starting point.

Systemic racism continues to pervade the lives of Black people through voter suppression, lack of financial services, housing discrimination, and other areas. More than anything, doing this work has taught the ACLU that we must fight on every front in order to overcome our country's legacies of racism. That is what our Systemic Equality agenda is all about.

In the weeks ahead, we will both expand on our views of why these campaigns are crucial to systemic equality and signal the path this country must take. We will also dive into our work to build organizing, advocacy, and legal power in the South — a region with a unique history of racial oppression and violence alongside a rich history of antiracist organizing and advocacy. We are committed to four principles throughout this campaign: reconciliation, access, prosperity, and empowerment. We hope that our actions can meet our ambition to, as Dr. King said, lead this nation to live out the true meaning of its creed.

What you can do:
Take the pledge: Systemic Equality Agenda
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