How to Start a Bullet Journaling Habit in 2021
Here’s what I learned by BuJo-ing in 2020.
“The best time to start was yesterday. The second best time is now.”
The above quote doesn’t appear to have a source, but it does appear to be a revised version of the phrase attributed to ‘Chinese proverb’, “the best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago, the next best time is now.” No matter the source, it’s something I tell myself whenever I find myself in a bit of a rut.
One of the main problems in life, at least for me, is kicking out bad habits and installing new, healthier ones. Does this sound familiar to you?
You wake up, maybe spend some time in bed looking through your phone’s notifications and end up on social media. The time flies by, and suddenly you’re feeling rushed to start the day. You either skip breakfast or pick up a boxed/unhealthy breakfast on your way to work. Then, you slog through the rest of your day. You’re never quite sure what you need to prioritize and why. Your days go by in a blur on this same loop.
That was me a little over a year ago, then I lost my job, and without the structure of employment, I became lost.
But one day, I came across a video on YouTube talking about ‘Bullet Journaling’ by the creator of the method himself, Ryder Carroll. It seriously changed my life, and it could change yours too.
What Is Bullet Journaling?
Caroll describes the Bullet Journal Method as:
“- a mindfulness practice disguised as a productivity system. Once you’re comfortable with the system above, you’ll be ready to move on to the mindfulness practice, and learn how to live with intention.”
At the time, I was also getting into Minimalism after watching the documentary of the same name on Netflix. Both of the philosophies compliment each other greatly.
In essence, bullet journaling can act as your home for planning big events or goals and your everyday life as well as for daily self-reflection. To get the most out of the ‘mindfulness’ aspect, it needs to be done on real paper, with a pen/pencil.
What Does It Look Like?
Some days, a bullet journal may end up just looking like a to-do list, which is okay. The magic is in the different types of ‘logs’ you create as part of the process. As a result, bullet journaling is super personalized, and no two BuJo’s are the same.
Take mine, for example, when I started, I stuck to the basics of the ‘future’, monthly, and daily logs, which looked a little like this:
After I got the hang of sitting down to write in my bullet journal, I started adding other types of logs I’d seen floating around on the internet including habit, mood, and sleep trackers, reading logs and even a tally chart of games won and lost between my brother and I (we’re a competitive pair).
A bullet journal itself is what you make of it. Many people get super creative. If that’s your bag, there’s a whole genre of YouTube videos dedicated to the craft of beautifully presented BuJo’s (where I got design ideas for the trackers).
If, however, you’re more of a minimalist or you don’t have the time to sit down for a few hours to decorate yours, you can stick to the basics like I did in the beginning and it will work just as well.
Why Start Bullet Journaling?
Bullet journaling is different from other kinds of journaling, namely longhand or diaries. While long-form journaling can be great for longer periods of reflection or ‘morning pages’ practice, it can be cumbersome to do it in everyday life.
Using the bullet journal method helps you build a daily habit thanks to its quick and minimalist nature. You can set out your tasks for the day, note any events coming up, and keep track of your overarching goals, all in a few words, lines, and dots.
Bullet journaling is also something we call in the personal growth space a ‘keystone habit’. The term coined by Charles Duhigg in “The Power of Habit” means:
“Small changes or habits that people introduce into their routines that unintentionally carry over into other aspects of their lives”.
After setting up, it only takes 5–10 minutes of your day and will boost your level of productivity significantly.
3 Lessons I Learned From Bullet Journaling in 2020
My journal's first daily log entry was New Year’s Day, I’d been unemployed and out of formal education for two months already, and my money was dwindling.
Despite this undeniable problem of no income, my first week was spent being interviewed by a reporter and preparing to present in my first academic conference. As you can see by the photos that I included earlier; my daily logs were filled with filming related tasks, contacting various people, and general notes of productivity levels.
Without being able to write all this down, I would have had a tough time keeping track of it all. And there is the first lesson:
#1. When you lose structure in life, daily logging can help bring it back.
Of course, I did eventually have to address the elephant in the room. After the conference, I started focusing on getting a job and writing here on Medium in the meantime.
After a short while of applying and tracking application submissions (again, in my journal), job interviews started rolling in. Now, I don’t know about you, but when I put something in my Google calendar, I usually forget about it until the event is on top of me.
However, because I was opening my journal every day (and writing in it most days) my weeks and days ahead were in front of me in black and off-white. Thus, the second lesson:
#2. Bullet journaling can help to organize and remind you of future events.
Naturally, that’s not all. When my rejections started coming in after my interviews, I also used my journal to reflect on what I thought went wrong. As well as that, how I could improve for my next interview, in bullet-pointed notes of course.
By actively practising this self-reflection instead of moaning in self-pity, I took the points forward and eventually landed a new job in March. After that, we all know what happened. Thankfully, my new job was generous enough to keep the newest staff on payroll (forever grateful). But here is the main lesson:
#3. Using a bullet journal can help you develop a habit of self-reflection, which has been especially important in 2020, and will be just as important in 2021.
How to Start Your Bullet Journal
Alright, so now I’ve got you convinced that you should at least try giving bullet journaling a shot. How do you get started? What do all the symbols even mean?
You’ve already seen an example of what a daily log looks like for me. But to explain, the bullet journal method uses a language called ‘Rapid Logging’, where different bullet types are the syntax. For example:
• This traditional bullet point represents a task you need to do.
- A dash represents a note, something you don’t want to forget.
○ A circle point represents an event or memorable moment in the time period you’re writing in.
As you complete a task, you can put a little ‘x’ over the bullet point to indicate you’ve finished. You can fill out the daily log throughout the day if you want to. Even if you didn’t manage to finish your tasks, you could put a half cross like this ‘>’ to indicate it still needs finishing.
Here’s the catch, if the task is actually important to you, you need to copy (by hand) the task again into your next log. If you can’t be bothered to do that, is the task even that important to you? If you’ve realized it’s not, then go ahead and strike through the text.
So that’s the language you’re going to be using when using your journal on a day-to-day basis. However, as you may have noticed there are also monthly and future logs in the basic setup. Thankfully, the new year is rolling around, so I’ve got fresh examples ready for you.
Monthly logs are my favorite pages, mainly because I always stick a tracker in them, as you’ve seen. For the sake of ease and minimalism, this month I’ve opted for this simple spread that you can easily copy:
The letters on the second page indicate habits you can track, for me that’s: meditate, write, exercise, water, vitamins, and learn respectively.
The left page runs like a list calendar to place events or task deadlines/start dates. This feature became particularly useful when I had a few interviews on the go in a short space of time last year.
I also use the left page to place the short term action deadlines towards my quarterly goal (more on that in the future log section). According to this study, by giving yourself shorter deadlines instead of focusing on the overall goal, you’re less likely to procrastinate and sabotage your efforts.
If you want to add more, some other ideas to include in your monthly log pages are reading lists, TV watch lists, body measurements etc. There are plenty of examples and ideas online if you search for them.
For those of us who were lucky enough to get through 2020, the idea of planning for the future may sound like a pipe dream, but hear me out. Oftentimes, especially at this time of year, we tend to make lofty goals but don’t have any concrete plans for achieving them.
This is where bullet journaling comes into play. Mark Murphy’s study emphasizes the benefits of writing them down:
“Writing things down doesn’t just help you remember, it makes your mind more efficient by helping you focus on the truly important stuff.”
With a Future Log, what you want to do is put down key dates for your work or home life and deadline dates for achieving your goals. This is my blank example for you:
You don’t have to include the little calendars, I like the look of them, and it helps me notice days of key dates when I log them. In this case, what I’ll be doing here is having one main, big goal per quarter listed towards the bottom. Then, in each monthly column, I’ll list actions with deadlines to help me achieve those goals.
Last year, I tried the ‘1 2 3 4 5 method’ for setting goals in my future log, but it didn’t really work out so well for me because it made me feel like I had to have lots of goals. So I’m hoping this time around, by focusing on one goal only, per quarter, I’ll have a greater chance of success. Keep in mind that what doesn’t work for me might work for you. So it may be worth checking the ‘1 2 3 4 5 method’ out!
Bringing It All Together
So you may be wondering, how on Earth will you be able to flick through and find certain pages when you’ll be having daily logs in between it all?
In comes the ‘index’. Preferably you’ll want to invest in a journal that has numbered pages and an index, like the Leuchtturm1917 or the official bullet journal notebook! Though you can do it yourself with a different notebook, as I did in my first one (but a little tidier):
By continuously making notes of the page numbers your main logs sit on, you can refer back to them like a normal textbook when you want to.
A Note on Structure
Before you get your pen out, it’s worth making a note of the most sensible way to structure your logs. This year, I made the mistake of adding logs wherever I wanted in random orders, which made things difficult even with an index.
So, based on my experience, as well as that of the official guidelines, you’ll want to structure logs as follows:
- The index pages (if your book doesn’t come with one)
- The future log
- Your first monthly log
- Additional spreads you might want for the month (reading list etc.)
- Daily logs
- Next monthly log and cycle back through to daily logs
Bullet journaling is one of those habits that once you’ve started, you can’t quite remember how you managed to function through life before. If you’re at all into minimalism, mindful living or productivity hacks, this is the keystone habit to adopt.
Before I started, my life was a bit of a mess being an unemployed graduate, and I had no idea where I was going or what I was going to do about it. That was until I took responsibility and created tasks in my future, monthly, and daily logs that would change my life for the better.
This year has been quite testing for many us, and I feel extremely grateful for being able to get through it and do a degree, thrive.
Alexander Boswell is a Business Ph.D candidate specialising in Consumer Behaviour and uses this knowledge as a freelance writer in the Content Marketing and B2B SaaS space. Find him on Twitter @alexbboswell or his website alexanderbboswell.com