How To Start A Bullet Journal (& Finally Get Your Life Together)
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
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
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
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.
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
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:
What Happened When I Challenged Myself To Journal More
6 Apps That Will Make The Rest Of Your 2019 Productive AF
The Mistakes Of My 20s Equipped Me For My 30s
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Amber Burns is a writer, producer and vlogger who creates content for women looking to live balanced, organized, and fulfilled lives. You'll likely find her with a book in one hand and a latte in the other. You can follow and engage with her on social @byamberburns and connect with her online at www.byamberburns.com.
Amber Riley Is In Her Element
Amber Riley has the type of laugh that sticks with you long after the raspy, rhythmic sounds have ceased. It punctuates her sentences sometimes, whether she’s giving a chuckle to denote the serious nature of something she just said or throwing her head back in rip-roarious laughter after a joke. She laughs as if she understands the fragility of each minute. She chooses laughter often with the understanding that future joy is not guaranteed.
Credit: Ally Green
The sound of her laughter is rivaled only by her singing voice, an emblem of the past and the future resilience of Black women stretched over a few octaves. On Fox’s Glee, her character Mercedes Jones was portrayed, perhaps unfairly, as the vocal duel to Rachel Berry (Lea Michele), offering rough, full-throated belts behind her co-star’s smooth, pristine vocals. Riley’s always been more than the singer who could deliver a finishing note, though.
Portraying Effie White, she displayed the dynamic emotions of a song such as “And I'm Telling You I'm Not Going” in Dreamgirls on London’s West End without buckling under the historic weight of her predecessors. With her instrument, John Mayer’s “Gravity” became a religious experience, a belted hymnal full of growls and churchy riffs. In her voice, Nicole Scherzinger once said she heard “the power of God.”
Credit: Ally Green
Riley’s voice has been a staple throughout pop culture for nearly 15 years now. Her tone has become so distinguishable that most viewers of Fox’s The Masked Singer recognized the multihyphenate even before it was revealed that she was Harp, the competition-winning, gold-masked figure with an actual harp strapped to her back.
Still, it wasn’t until recently that Riley began to feel like she’d found her voice. This sounds unbelievable. But she’s not referring to the one she uses on stage. She’s referencing the voice that speaks to who she is at her core. “Therapy kind of gave me the training to speak my mind,” the 37-year-old says. “It’s not something we’re taught, especially as Black women. I got so comfortable in [doing so], and I really want other people, especially Black women, to get more comfortable in that space.”
“Therapy kind of gave me the training to speak my mind. It’s not something we’re taught, especially as Black women."
If you ask Riley’s manager, Myisha Brooks, she’ll tell you the foundation of who the multihyphenate is hasn’t changed much since she was a kid growing up in Compton. “She is who she is from when I met her back when she was singing in the front of the church to back when she landed major roles in film and TV,” Brooks says. Time has allowed Riley to grow more comfortable, giving fans a more intimate glimpse into her life, including her mental health journey and the ins and outs of show business.
The actress/singer has been in therapy since 2019, although she suffered from depression and anxiety way before that. In a recent interview with Jason Lee, she recalls having suicidal ideation as a kid. By the time she started seeing a psychologist and taking antidepressants in her thirties, her body had become jittery, a physical reminder of the trauma stacked high inside her. “I was shaking in [my therapist’s] office,” she tells xoNecole. “My fight or flight was on such a high level. I was constantly in survival mode. My heart was beating fast all the time. All I did was sweat.”
There wasn’t just childhood trauma to account for. After auditioning for American Idol and being turned away by producers, Riley began working for Ikea and nearly missed her Glee audition because her car broke down on the highway while en route. Thankfully, Riley had been cast to play Mercedes Jones. American Idol had temporarily convinced her she wasn’t cut out for the entertainment industry, but this was validation that she was right where she belonged. Glee launched in 2009 with the promise of becoming Riley’s big break.
In some ways, it was. The show introduced Riley to millions of fans and catapulted her into major Hollywood circles. But in other ways, it became a reminder of the types of roles Black women, especially those who are plus-sized, are relegated to. Behind the scenes, Riley says she fought for her character "to have a voice" but eventually realized her efforts were useless. "It finally got to a point where I was like, this is not my moment. I'm not who they're choosing, and this is just going to have to be a job for me for now," she says. "And, that's okay because it pays my bills, I still get to be on television, I'm doing more than any other Black plus-sized women that I'm seeing right now on screen."
The actress can recognize now that she was navigating issues associated with trauma and low self-esteem at the time. She now knows that she's long had anxiety and depression and can recognize the ways in which she was triggered by how the cult-like following of the show conflicted with her individual, isolated experiences behind the scenes. But she was in her early '20s back then. She didn't yet have the language or the tools to process how she was feeling.
Riley says she eventually sought out medical intervention. "When you're in Hollywood, and you go to a doctor, they give you pills," she says, sharing a part of her story that she'd never revealed publicly before now. "[I was] on medication and developing a habit of medicating to numb, not understanding I was developing an addiction to something that's not fixing my problem. If anything, it's making it worse."
“[I was] on medication and developing a habit of medicating to numb, not understanding I was developing an addiction to something that’s not fixing my problem. If anything it’s making it worse.”
Credit: Ally Green
At one point, while in her dressing room on set, she rested her arm on a curling iron without realizing it. It wasn't until her makeup artist alerted her that she even realized her skin was burning. Once she noticed, she says she was "so zonked out on pills" that she barely reacted. Speaking today, she holds up her arm and motions towards a scar that remains from the incident. She sought help for her reliance on the pills, but it would still be years before she finally attended therapy.
This stress was only compounded by the trauma of growing up in poverty and the realities of being a "contract worker." "Imagine going from literally one week having to borrow a car to get to set to the next week being on a private jet to New York City," she says. After Glee ended, so did the rides on private planes. The fury of opportunities she expected to follow her appearance on the show failed to materialize. She wasn't even 30 yet, and she was already forced to consider if she'd hit her career peak.
. . .
We’re only four minutes into our Zoom call before Riley delivers her new adage to me. “My new mantra is ‘humility does not serve me.’ Humility does not serve Black women. The world works so hard to humble us anyway,” she says.
On this Thursday afternoon in April, the LA-based entertainer is seated inside her closet/dressing room wearing a cerulean blue tank top with matching shorts and eating hot wings. This current phase of healing hinges on balance. It’s about having discipline and consistency, but not at the risk of inflexibility. She was planning to head to the gym, for instance, but she’s still tired from the “exhausting” day before. Instead, she’s spent her day receiving a massage, eating some chicken wings, and planning to spend quality time with friends. “I’m not going to beat myself up for it. I’m not going to talk down to myself. I’m going to eat my chicken wings, and then tomorrow I’m [back] in the gym,” she says.
“My new mantra is ‘humility does not serve me.’ Humility does not serve Black women. The world works so hard to humble us anyway."
This is the balance with which she's been approaching much of her life these days. It's why she's worried less about whether or not people see her as someone who is humble. She'd rather be respected. "I think you should be a person that's easy to work with, but in the moments where I have to ruffle feathers and make waves, I'm not shying away from that anymore. You can do it in love, you don't have to be nasty about it, but I had to finally be comfortable with the fact that setting boundaries around my life – in whatever aspect, whether that's personal or business – people are not going to like it. Some people are not going to have nice things to say about you, and you gotta be okay with it," she says.
When Amber talks about the constant humbling of Black women in Hollywood, I think of the entertainers before her who have suffered from this. The brilliant, consistent, overqualified Black women who have spoken of having to fight for opportunities and fair pay. Aretha Franklin. Viola Davis. Tracee Ellis Ross. There's a long list of stars whose success hasn't mirrored their experiences behind the scenes.
Credit: Ally Green
If Black women outside of Hollywood are struggling to decrease the pay gap, so, too, are their wealthier, more famous peers.
Riley says there’s been progress in recent years, but only in small ways and for a limited group of people. “This business is exhausting. The goalpost is constantly moving, and sometimes it’s unfair,” she says. But, I have to say it’s the love that keeps you going.”
“There’s no way you can continue to be in this business and not love it, especially being a plus-sized Black woman,” she continues. “We’re still niche. We’re still not main characters.”
"There’s no way you can continue to be in this business and not love it, especially being a plus-sized Black woman. We’re still niche. We’re still not main characters.”
Last year, Riley starred alongside Raven Goodwin in the Lifetime thriller Single Black Female (a modern, diversified take on 1992’s Single White Female). It was more than a leading role for the actress, it also served as proof that someone who looks like her can front a successful project without it hinging on her identity. It showcased that the characters she portrays don’t “have to be about being a big girl. It can just be a regular story.”
Riley sees her work in music as an extension of her efforts to push past the rigid stereotypes in entertainment. Take her appearance on The Masked Singer, for instance. Riley said she decided to perform Mayer’s “Gravity” after being told she couldn’t sing it years earlier. “I wanted to do ‘Gravity’ on Glee. [I] was told no, because that’s not a song that Mercedes would do,” she says. “That was a full circle moment for me, doing that on that show and to hear what it is they had to say.”
As Scherzinger praised the “anointed” performance, a masked Riley began to cry, her chest heaving as she stood on stage, her eyes shielded from view. “You have to understand, I have really big names – casting directors, producers, show creators – that constantly tell me ‘I’m such a big fan. Your talent is unmatched.’ Hire me, then,” she says, reflecting on the moment.
Recently, she’s been in the studio working on original music, the follow-up to her independently-released debut EP, 2020’s Riley. The sequel to songs such as the anthemic “Big Girl Energy” and the reflective ballad “A Moment” on Riley, this new project hones in on the singer’s R&B roots with sensual grooves such as the tentatively titled “All Night.” “You said I wasn’t shit, turns out that I’m the shit. Then you called me a bitch, turns out that I’m that bitch. You said no one would want me, well you should call your homies,” she sings on the tentatively titled “Lately,” a cut about reflecting on a past relationship. From the forthcoming project, xoNecole received five potential tracks. Fans likely already know the strengths and contours of Riley’s vocals, but these new songs are her strongest, most confident offerings as an artist.
“I am so much more comfortable as a writer, and I know who I am as an artist now. I’m evolving as a human being, in general, so I’m way more vulnerable in my music. I’m way more willing to talk about whatever is on my mind. I don’t stop myself from saying what it is I want to say,” she says.
Credit: Ally Green
“Every era and alliteration of Amber, the baseline is ‘Big Girl Energy.’ That’s the name of her company,” her manager Brooks says, referencing the imprint through which Riley releases her music after getting out of a label deal several years ago. “It’s just what she stands for. She’s not just talking about size, it’s in all things. Whether it’s putting your big girl pants on and having to face a boardroom full of executives or sell yourself in front of a casting agent. It’s her trying to achieve the things she wants to do in life.”
Riley says she has big dreams beyond releasing this new music, too. She’d love to star in a rom-com with Winston Duke. She hasn't starred in a biopic yet, but she’d revel in the opportunity to portray Rosetta Tharpe on screen. She’s determined that her previous setbacks won’t stop her from dreaming big.
“I think one of my superpowers is resilience because, at the end of the day, I’m going to kick, scream, cry, cuss, be mad and disappointed, but I’m going to get up and risk having to deal with it all again. It’s worth it for the happy moments,” she says.
If Riley seems more comfortable and confident professionally, it’s because of the work she’s been doing in her personal life.
She’d previously spoken to xoNecole about becoming engaged to a man she discovered in a post on the site, but she called things off last year. For Valentine’s Day, she revealed her new boyfriend publicly. “I decided to post him on Valentine’s Day, partially because I was in the dog house. I got in trouble with him,” she says, half-joking before turning serious. “The breakup was never going to stop me from finding love. Or at least trying. I don’t owe anybody a happily ever after. People break up. It happens. When it was good, it was good. When it was bad, it was terrible, hunny. I had to get the fuck up out of there. You find happiness, and you enjoy it and work through it.”
Credit: Ally Green
"I don’t owe anybody a happily ever after. People break up. It happens. When it was good, it was good. When it was bad, it was terrible, hunny. I had to get the fuck up out of there. You find happiness and you enjoy it and work through it.”
With her ex, Riley was pretty outspoken about her relationship, even appearing in content for Netflix with him. This time around is different. She’s not hiding her boyfriend of eight months, but she’s more protective of him, especially because he’s a father and isn’t interested in becoming a public figure.
She’s traveling more, too. It’s a deliberate effort on her part to enjoy her money and reject the trauma she’s developed after experiencing poverty in her childhood. “I live in constant fear of being broke. I don’t think you ever don’t remember that trauma or move past that. Now I travel and I’m like, listen, if it goes, it goes. I’m not saying [to] be reckless, but I deserve to enjoy my hard work.”
After everything she’s been through, she certainly deserves to finally let loose a bit. “I have to have a life to live,” she says. “I’ve got to have a life worth fighting for.”
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Janelle Monáe's Reveals The Real Reason Why She Stopped Wearing Her Signature Tuxedos
Singer and actress Janelle Monáe exemplifies how change can be a powerful catalyst for growth and transformation.
Monáe, who rose to fame in 2010 following the release of her debut album, The ArchAndroid, captivated fans' hearts with her powerful vocals, catchy tunes, and style. Around that time period, when various female artists were known to wear provocative ensembles on stage, the "Tightrope" songstress set herself apart by wearing her signature black and white suits and continued to do so for almost a decade.
In the later years of her career, after the release of her studio albums The Electric Lady in 2013 and 2018's Dirty Computer, many began to notice the shift in Monáe's artistry and fashion, which some widely praised.
Although the now 37-year-old rarely addressed the reason behind the transformation over the years, that would all change when Monáe sat down with radio personality Angie Martinez on her IRL podcast earlier this month.
During the interview, Monáe --who was promoting her latest album, "The Age of Pleasure"-- opened up about her mental health struggles, how she would cope, and why she chose to live in freedom.
Janelle On Why She Stopped Wearing Her Signature Suits All the Time
Photo by Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images
In the May discussion, the "I Like That" vocalist revealed she suffers from anxiety, which she claimed would occur around "winter to spring."
Monáe added that when she has her bouts with anxiety, she tends to turn to food as a coping mechanism. Further in the interview, the "Lipstick Lover" singer disclosed that her emotional eating habits caused a weight fluctuation and that she could no longer fit into the suits she once wore earlier in her career.
Monáe explained that even though she tried to diet and exercise to return to her smaller figure, she ultimately stopped and made peace with herself with the help of therapy because she acknowledged that she isn't the same person she was nearly a decade ago and shouldn't try to be even if it was a highly "celebrated" version.
"I'm petite, but it can get thick... When I couldn't fit them suits anymore, and I was like, 'Oh my God, what is going on?' I would be dieting, running, or exercising, trying to fit into [it]. I'm just like, 'No. No, we're here. This is where we are.' We [are] not about to be utilizing life trying to be an old version of ourselves. No matter how celebrated that version of me was. I'm here. I'm here," she said.
Janelle On Freedom
As the topic shifted to freedom and what that meant to Monáe, the "Primetime" vocalist shared that in this new era of her life, she enjoys it because she can boldly express herself however she wants and honor who she is as a person right now.
Monáe also revealed that she had found ways to become a better artist and the best version of herself because of her freedom.
"What is the new version of freedom? What does that feel like? That's usually when I feel the most free is when artistically, I can honor exactly who I am right now," she stated. "I feel most free as a human when I can honor exactly who I am right now."
Monáe's fourth studio album, The Age of Pleasure, is set to be released on June 9.
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