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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.