Bullet Journaling: Putting Pen to Paper
Billie Jo Moffett is Director of Studio 270 for Gail Borden Public Library District in Elgin (IL). Contact Billie Jo at email@example.com. Billie Jo is currently reading Thunderhead by Neal Shusterman.
To-do lists that don’t get done. Perfect planners that go untouched for days or months at a time. Important information jotted on scraps of paper and promptly misplaced. Notes-to-self that are incomprehensible. If that describes your current organization system, it might be time for you to try Bullet Journaling. This latest trend in organization and planning is an immersive experience that combines productivity and mindfulness to help you discover the optimum system that works best for you. The best thing about it? Anyone can pick up a pen and paper and get started right away.
Perhaps you caught the packed program on the topic at PLA 2018, or maybe you’ve seen enviable examples on Instagram. But what exactly is Bullet Journaling? Bulletjournal.com calls it a “customizable and forgiving organization system,” further stating that “It can be your to-do list, sketchbook, notebook, and diary, but most likely, it will be all of the above.”1The key concept is that this visual planning method offers a creative outlet and also solves the problem of how to keep your daily schedule, to-dos, notes-to-self, future plans, ideas, and more, all in one place. It is an offline system that offers an established but customizable framework and the freedom of filling the pages any way that you would like. Intrigued? Here are some steps to get you started on your own Bullet Journal.
The Bullet Journal system, BuJo for short, was created in 2013 by Ryder Carroll, a digital product designer in New York, as a way to find simplicity and clarity in his work life. Described as “the analog system for the digital age,”2the system is quite simple at the core, typically comprised of these main components: rapid log, future log, weekly log, monthly log, index, and key. The bullet journaler takes these basic concepts and customizes them to suit their individual needs.
Tools of the Tracker
To get started the only required tools are a blank notebook and a pen (though a variety of colored pens will add some zip to your pages), things that are already likely in your desk drawer. The basic elements of the Bullet Journal are listed above. These are the components that were suggested with the first iteration of the Bullet Journal and are used by most journalers in some fashion. The daily rapid logging is the heart of the Bullet Journal log, and index add additional context to your work.
Before you get started, spend some time thinking about how you want your journal to look. What elements do you need in your journal? Head over to Instagram or Pinterest for Bullet Journal inspiration. Check out these hashtags: #bujo, #bujoweeklyspread, #bujoinspiration, #bujoideas, #bujolive. There is even a #bujolibrarian!
Elements of a Bullet Journal
Rapid logging consists of writing down today’s date at the top of the page, then writing down everything that follows, meeting notes, tasks, and random notes throughout the day. The goal of rapid logging is to write down everything that is important in short concise statements and in a way that you understand.
Most Bullet Journals include daily and weekly pages. Rapid logging allows you to start a new day right below where you left off the day before. While that affords you to use as much of a page as possible some have chosen to use a single page for a day. Daily Pages will let you plan ahead and leave notes and tasks for the future. Mark out as many days in the future that you want to plan, block out one week at a time or a whole month. Mike Rohde, author of The Sketchnote Handbook: The Illustrated Guide to Visual Note Taking, added a time bar down the edge of a daily page to track his meetings and time.3The rest of the daily page is used for rapid logging. Weekly pages can be used to plan all of your upcoming meeting, events, and pressing tasks in one view. Take advantage of two pages to also paste in staff schedules, identify goals for the week, and share a short reflection for each day.
Bullets are used to code the information collected during rapid logging. A dot represents a task, a circle represents a meeting or event, and a dash represents a note. However, the genius behind the system is that the bullets can be customized however suits you best, I use boxes for tasks and dashes and asterisks for whatever I feel like on that day.
The future log is a place to write down the events and projects with a larger scope. Simply list out a few months on each page starting with the next future month. Some choose to list six months out while others layout the whole coming year. Here is where you can put the large-scale events, for example, the first day of summer reading, a library-wide event that will take six months to plan, or your coworkers’ birthdays. Look ahead to your future log at the start of each month to make sure that you know what is coming up and that you are not missing anything.
The monthly page is there to let you know of meetings, events, and important deadlines for that month. Simply write the days of the month down the left side of a page and fill in your most important dates. Don’t focus on every meeting and detail at this level, focus on events with only a monthly scope, like department meetings, large projects you are responsible for, or the occasional committee that does not meet on a predictable schedule. Leave out weekly standing meetings and events that haven’t been committed to. The opposite page can be used to list all outstanding tasks for the month, to highlight monthly goals, or track recurring daily and weekly tasks.
Collections are ways to gather similar information that last throughout the use of a single Bullet Journal and may be transferred from one notebook to the next. Collections could include a list of open projects, someday/maybe ideas, or a collection of tasks that need to be completed on the first day of every month. Book lists are also a popular collection to include. Instead of just writing down the titles to read, draw out a shelf of books and color in the books you finished.
The index is where you can keep track of all the pages you are filling up. List out projects you are working on, committee notes, or recurring meetings and their corresponding page number. The index can go in the front or back of the notebook. There are notebooks that arrive pre-numbered and with an index, such as Leuchtturm1917 brand, or you can hand write the page numbers as you go.
Place a key at the front of your Bullet Journal if you need assistance with what each bullet represents. Be minimalist and only use bullets for tasks, events, and notes. Be detailed and design your own bullets for phone calls, meetings that take outside of your library, and any other part of your work life that needs to be categorized. The key is there to help you list out all your bullets and define what they represent.
Customize It to Suit You
Once you decide to use a Bullet Journal what should you include? Remember that this is your system and you can add or exclude any of the commonly used tools. If an index is just not working for you don’t use it, if you don’t know why someone uses a weekly spread then leave it out. You have the freedom to use your journal however you wish and also to design it as you go. Many people also use their Bullet Journal to plan projects, track habits and recurring tasks, and keep meeting notes. What goes in it is up to you. I use it as my one notebook and the only paper I use. Everything goes into my Bullet Journal, I never need to find a note or a scrap of paper because it is all in one place. While all of the available options are great, be sure that your focus is on making your Bullet Journal work well for you.
Create a Digital Archive
When you have finished a Bullet Journal (filled up an entire notebook) there are several ways to keep track of that information. Carroll has developed the Bullet Journal Companion app for the iPhone. This app allows you to create a library of your completed Bullet Journals, photograph the index of each journal, and add tags to search across all your journals.
If you are looking to record each page so you can discard the physical books, consider the Evernote app. The Evernote app (available on iPhone, Android, Mac, and Windows) will allow you to photograph every page and create notebooks for each of your Bullet Journals. One of the most impressive features is the ability to search for words in images, making your Bullet Journal searchable by keyword.
Many people can get overwhelmed when starting out with their first Bullet Journal. Don’t worry about trying to fit in every page you see on Pinterest and making it look picture perfect. If you put too much thought in the setting up of your journal or try to make it look overly decorative it can become a precious object and is no longer a useful tool. It is important to start simple and add the details as you go and grow with your Bullet Journal. You have permission to make this productivity tool your own.
There are wonderfully creative people online creating beautiful bullet journals, and you can totally go down that road, but if you don’t want to remember that you do not have to have a fancy bullet journal. At the heart of this system is a down and dirty minimalist vibe that only wants you to write down your next thing. The incredible thing about this is it can represent who you are and how you work.
Pen and Paper to the Rescue
There are many ways to track your appointments, meetings, and tasks, in the end you have to find a system that you will open and use every day. Shared calendars on Google or Outlook have been life changing and it has become so easy to track tasks and projects on numerous apps. However, in a study published in Psychological Science, Pam A. Mueller (Princeton University) and Daniel M. Oppenheimer (University of California, Los Angeles) concluded that individuals taking notes longhand on paper have significantly better conceptual recall than those who typed notes on a laptop.4Writing down your day and what you need to do can give you better perspective on what needs to be done and what is just noise. It also has the added benefit of keeping you from surfing the web or answering email during particularly long meetings.
For those who refuse to give up their laptops and tablets there are still options for Bullet Journaling. Check out Evernote or OneNote if you want to input by keyboard alone, there are a variety of bullets available on these platforms that will make rapid logging easy and accessible. If you use a tablet and stylus a handwritten Bullet Journal can be practically duplicated with several apps, including Notability and Paper53.
Inspiration and instruction can be found in many places. There are well curated boards on Pinterest and robust tags on Instagram. The ideas that have been shared online are incredible and endless. Perhaps a perusal of some of these resources will inspire you to get started!
Go to where it all started, bulletjournal.com. There are detailed instructions about how to set up a Bullet Journal from the creator. The blog is a great resource to gain ideas and insights from numerous Bullet Journalers that all have their unique style.
For the beginner looking to use Bullet Journals for work and home, BoHo Berry has simple tutorials on YouTube and simple layouts on Instagram. Her style is simple yet sophisticated, keeping everything streamlined and enhancing with beautiful handwriting and color.
If you are looking for something more minimalist, seek out Matt Ragland on YouTube. He gets down to the bone on the productivity aspects of Bullet Journaling.
Looking for all out beauty and easy instructions on how to draw flowers for your pages? Look at Ady on Instagram.
If you have been toying around with the idea of using a Bullet Journal or returning to pen and paper I invite you to give it a try. Start by writing down your day’s meetings and tasks, don’t get bogged down with the details. In the end there is no right or wrong way to do this. Have fun with it, experiment, and make it your own.
All photos were taken by Andre Dyson and used with permission.
- Bulletjournal.com, May 16, 2018.
- Mike Rhode, The Sketchnote Handbook: The Illustrated Guide to Visual Note Taking (San Francisco: Peachpit Pr., 2012).
- “Attention, Students: Put Your Laptops Away,” NPR.org, Apr.17, 2016, accessed May 16, 2018.
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