Productivity: Bullet Journal
Bullet Journal

Written by Natalie Luhrs

I'm a lifelong geek with a passion for books and social justice.
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March 9, 2016

Bullet Journal

I promised a couple of weeks ago to share how I use a Bullet Journal. I want to emphasize that this is how I do it and what’s currently working for me–what works for you might be something completely different. Everyone’s brain–and life–is a little bit different and it would be ridiculous to expect one solution to work for everyone.

First, though, I want to direct you to the official Bullet Journal page, where there are videos and explanations of how the framework functions–and I think that’s important to recognize, that this is a scaffold that you can hang different things from and not a prescriptive process.

Me and Planners

A bit of history: I’ve been using paper planners and digital planners for a long time. I started with Day-Timer systems back in the late 90’s and early 00’s with little success. They were too bulky, the inserts were too expensive for me at the time, and they assumed that one had a schedule full of meetings.

Then I just kept lists of things to do in notebooks and that worked out pretty well–and was my main method of keeping my work tasks organized for around a decade. I wasn’t always consistent with the lists, though, and I didn’t incorporate any of my personal tasks into the notebooks–they lived on my desk at work.

So things at home often languished, if not undone, not done when I wanted or needed them to be done.

When I got a smartphone, I tried to migrate tasks and reminders to any number of apps but none of them worked for me. Part of that is because of the nature of my day job: I have tasks that repeat every month on specific days but not always on the same day each month–I am tied to a financial closing calendar, so have things due the third work day, sixth work day, et cetera–but those are different days each month. No digital task manager or calendar is smart enough to repeat them properly, particularly when you take regional holidays into account.

So back to paper I went. I tried an Erin Condren LifePlanner and while I loved how it looked and the customization, the paper didn’t hold up to fountain pen ink at all. And there just wasn’t enough room. Next, I think, I tried the Levenger smartPlanner but really took a strong dislike to it, I don’t know why–I just did.

Next I tried a Passion Planner. Better paper but the printing was too dark and there just wasn’t enough space to write in the junior size version (my preferred planner size). And again, it assumed that one scheduled things to do at particular times each day. And the goal-setting stuff didn’t really work for me and sometimes when your goal is just “get through the week without injuring yourself or anyone else” you don’t want to write that down in the little goal-setting box. The demarcation between work and personal projects was nice, but it never gelled for me.

I used a Hobonichi Techo last year for a personal journal and really liked it for that purpose and didn’t want to change its use for this year–I like having a dated personal journal even if I don’t use it every day. Thought about getting a Filofax, but those can be pretty expensive and let’s be honest: I have expensive taste and not always the budget to go along with that taste. I have a Filofax notebook at work and like it a lot, though. I should use it more.

Finally: Bullet Journal to the rescue!

So it was only after looking at and trying a lot of options (and spending way too much money over the last few years) that I circled back to the Bullet Journal. I’d read about the concept back in 2013, but at that point, I was trying to keep everything digitally. And, let’s be honest: on sticky notes on my desk at work.

It was with some trepidation that I decided to give it a try. I had a Leuchtturm1917 notebook that I’d half-assedly used for a sketchbook that I could repurpose (I ended up cutting out some pages and paperclipping the remainder of the used pages together) and a pen.

That’s all you need. Which is great. I do use more than just that but that’s because I have a large collection of pens and stickers and whatnot and it makes me happy to be able to express my mood through sticker selection. It’s the little things, okay?

So how do I use it?

I just switched to a new notebook (I told myself that if I managed to be consistent for two months I could buy a new one and the new one is orange and it makes me so happy) and I put a some thought into how I wanted to set it up.

The first thing is the index. As you can see, I’ve divided it in half vertically–the left side is the running index for non-dated items and the right side is going to be for monthly pages. I have my ongoing collections at the beginning of the book–these are all things I’ve transferred from my first notebook. Some of them, like the books I’ve read or want to read, will be transferred wholesale from book to book but others, like the shopping list or gratitude journal, will not be. I’m also planning on using this notebook for some work notes–you can see that I took a class on developing and giving presentations and had a meeting on internal controls last week. Scintillating stuff! (The presentation skills class was really great, though.)

Bullet Journal - Index

Bullet Journal – Index

Then we get into the monthly pages. I tried a grid calendar and it didn’t really work for me, but the list calendar does. I’ll mention that this isn’t even close to all my meetings, this just captures the important ones. I have a calendar in Outlook and that’s what I use when planning and scheduling the rest of my meetings and appointments and that’s the first thing I look at when figuring out what I have going on in a given day or week. This is intended to be a high-level summary so I can know, at a glance, the high points, as it were. And, as I mentioned in my post on productivity apps, I use Trello for planning Pretty Terrible.

Bullet Journal - Month

Bullet Journal – Month

I also have a few trackers: one for habits and another for the hours I work at day job (which is a holdover from my many years as a contractor; I am an exempt employee now, but I can’t seem to stop doing this). Then I have a custom monthly task list which holds all the stuff I need to do each month at work–as you can see, my months are front end loaded.

Bullet Journal - Habit Tracker

Bullet Journal – Habit Tracker

 

Bullet Journal - Work Day

Bullet Journal – Work Day

As I want to work on things, I add in pages. For example, I have an idea for a talk that I’d like to develop so I’ll probably set up a page for brainstorming soon (it’s starting to take over my future planning log). I brainstorm blog post ideas and do free-form goal-setting–free-form goal-setting works much better for me than more formalized processes.

Then there are my daily lists. I was devoting a single page to each day and segregating work from personal tasks but that wasn’t working well for me. So what I do is each day I create a list and populate it with any carry over items from the previous day and then add any new ones. I check my work day task list to be sure that I’m capturing that task as well. It ends up being a jumble of work and personal tasks, but that is what works for me. Anything that’s critical, the box gets filled in with a color so I can see it at a glance.

Bullet Journal - Daily Spread + Notes

Bullet Journal – Daily Page + Notes

 

Bullet Journal - Daily Page

Bullet Journal – Daily Page

I’ve thought about developing a weekly grid so I can assign tasks to each day in advance, but I don’t know how that would work in practice. I like having to sit down each day and think about what I want to do that day and the work day task list helps me remember things that have to happen at work. It’s sort of crap for helping me keep track of brilliant things I want to do in two weeks when my days aren’t quite so slammed, though. This is something I need to work on.

Tools

As for what tools I use, this is what comes along with me–I try to keep it pretty minimal. Some Pitt pens, a couple of spare black pens (one is extra-fine), a couple of rulers, and some stencils if I feel like getting fancy. I do use the green one all the time for drawing checkboxes because I am persnickety like that. The pens and tools all fit into the little zipper bag–which is an Orla Kiely cosmetic bag I picked up at Target. I get a set of three for $16 and this is the smallest. The rule is that if it doesn’t fit in the bag, it doesn’t get to be part of my daily carry–otherwise, I’d end up with about a hundred different pens scattered across twenty different pen cases.

Bullet Journal - Tools

Bullet Journal – Tools

 

Bullet Journal - Pens

Bullet Journal – Pens

I was carrying these stickers in the back pocket of the notebook but wasn’t ever real happy with the way the notebook laid because of the extra bulk. So one day when I was at Staples I picked up a $1.49 coupon envelope and it makes things a lot easier for me. Obviously, if you’re not a sticker person this is not something you’ll find useful. But I love stickers and having them nearby makes me much more likely to use them instead of hoarding them for the great sticker shortage of 2025. And seriously, I know the scrapbook section of Michael’s can be a little bit frightening, but there are some great stickers hiding over there. I won’t tell anyone where you got them from.

Bullet Journal - Stickers

Bullet Journal – Stickers

You’ll note that there’s no washi tape here. That’s because all the washi tape lives in a box on my desk and I only use it when I’m setting up a page or when I’m reviewing the day to be sure I’ve accomplished everything I want to accomplish.

I do have a page (a “collection” in bullet journal jargon) for different things I want to try to improve on or try with this system. Mostly around different layouts for days and weeks–I have no interest in expense tracking or tracking online order shipment status on paper, I feel like those things are better handled elsewhere, at least for me.

I like that I can use this notebook to keep my list of things to do and to take notes during meetings and to brainstorm ideas for essays or other writing. It’s also good for doodling and practicing fancy handwriting and just, in general, giving me an external outlet for my brain.  I’ve really discovered over the past few months that I need more structure than I thought I did and this is what works for me. I like being able to modify things on the fly and make it work in a way that other planner systems really haven’t in the past–and if something doesn’t work, I just turn the page and start over again the next day. It’s great.

P.S. If you want to use a habit tracker but don’t feel like drawing a grid? Here’s a blank printable of the format I use.

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19 Comments

  1. inksea

    Thank you so much for the template, using it right now.

    • Natalie Luhrs

      Yay, I’m glad you find it useful! 🙂

  2. Sabrina

    I have so many notebooks and so many stickers, I need to make more regular use of them. (My hoard will probably still get me through the sticker storage in ’25, though.)

    Do you mind my asking where you found the stencils?

    • Natalie Luhrs

      Hi Sabrina! The stencils came from the Hobonichi Techo store. You can also find resellers on Etsy–but be careful of the markup, it’s sometimes pretty gnarly on Japanese stationery items. Another option would be these stencils, readily available from JetPens. JetPens also has lots and lots of adorable stickers.

  3. Sunita

    Great post, Natalie, and lots of interesting ideas for planner types. One question: what do the different colors in your habit tracker mean? And are those all daily habits, or do they have varying goals/schedules?

    • Natalie Luhrs

      Sunita, the colors don’t mean anything–I just like having a different color every day. An X means that I have made the deliberate decision to take a break from the habit (I’m taking a break from morning pages right now, for instance) or that it’s an off day (I want to catch up with correspondence once a week), while a blank means I missed it (I’ve missed knitting two days in a row since I took the picture).

  4. Sunita

    @Natalie Luhrs: Got it. That’s a great idea. I don’t have very many daily practices, but I like the idea of keeping track in some way. I do some of that in my planner but not all of it.

    • Natalie Luhrs

      Between this habit tracker and a daily task on Habitica, I’m way more compliant on my meds than I was before–that’s really the most important habit I have. That and being awesome, of course. 😀

  5. Ros

    I am glad to notice that you achieved ‘Be Awesome’ every single day.

    I love this. I’ve always been a bit scared of Bullet Journals, and I am enjoying the framework of my Passion Planner at the moment, but I don’t use a lot of its features. Does the Leuchterm come with the index page at the front?

    • Natalie Luhrs

      I was wondering if anyone would notice the “be awesome” habit. 🙂

      The Leuchtturm does come with the index and the pages are numbered, so it’s quite ideal for this type of organizational system. I can see how any why people love other systems, but it’s really been transformational for me to realize that while I need structure, I also need to be able to build that structure myself.

  6. Ros

    @Natalie Luhrs: I am tempted to combine a Passion Planner with a Bullet Journal system. And not only because it’s an excuse to buy a new notebook…

    • Natalie Luhrs

      Ros, I am not going to discourage you from making your life more organized. 😉

  7. Liz

    This is such a great post! I’m not into bullet journals per se, but I recently started using a Clairefontaine notebook as a personal journal/vague novel planner/thing I take notes in at cons and lectures, and I’m going to switch to a Hobonichi come April. I especially like your stencil collection.

    (I … need to stop taking washi tape to work. I don’t mean to, it just ends up in the pack, and next thing there’s washi holding my memos together.)

    • Natalie Luhrs

      Oh Liz, I love Claiefontaine paper so much! I wish the lines were less…emphatic (and closer together). But it’s lovely, lovely paper. Hobonichis are great, too–are you going to get the April start one? I very specifically put the washi tape back in the box when I’m done with it because otherwise it would be all over my stuff at work and no one needs that.

  8. Liz

    @Natalie Luhrs: Have you heard the Clairefontaine song?

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ShbYp4GTAxw

    (Apologies if the link messes up.)

    I knew the song before I realised it was a real brand – but then the notepads turned up in the Borders where I worked, and I was earwormed for MONTHS.

  9. Sabrina

    @Natalie Luhrs:

    Thanks! (We have a couple of Japanese stationery stores here, so maybe one of them has similar stencils. I’ll have to keep an eye out.)

  10. Anton

    I use a bullet journal too! It seems to be the only one that works for me as well.

  11. Rose Lemberg

    Just wanted to say thank you. I’m trying out Bullet Journaling – this entry helped me figure out that it’s something I want to try in my quest to restore executive functioning to semi-former levels. <3

    • Natalie Luhrs

      !!! I never even thought of this from that perspective, but it makes so much sense. Let me know how it works for you, if you’re comfortable sharing?

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. The Value of a Daily Art Practice - Pretty Terrible - […] just like with planners, I need to do my own thing. Most online classes teach you how to draw like…
  2. Productivity: Bullet Journal Update - Pretty Terrible - […] couple of months ago I talked about how I use a bullet journal to keep my life […]

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