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WTF Is A Bullet Journal And Why Should You Start One? An Explainer

I'm low-key obsessed.

Ellie Sunakawa / BuzzFeed

You may have seen the term "bullet journal" popping up on these here internet webs in the past few months.

In late December, one of my favorite bloggers mentioned she was thinking of starting something called a "bullet journal." As someone who used to be a pretty prolific journaler but who has since gotten out of the habit, I was super intrigued. I followed her link to learn more about the concept, and my immediate reaction was, "Wait...what???" The website's explanation (and this video) left me totally overwhelmed and filled with tons of questions. Like, is it a to-do list or is it a diary? What the fuck is a "future log"? And what kind of to-do list doesn't have you crossing things off, which we all know is the best part of keeping a to-do list?

So I looked at some other bullet journal blogs...and was still confused AF, especially because these beautiful, hyper-detailed layouts seemed so at odds with the barebones pages shown in the video above.

But after hearing that a lot of my friends were both interested in the concept and also super confused by it, I was DETERMINED to figure it out.

So a few nights later, I bought a journal and sat down with the website and some scrap paper, determined to figure out this entire concept. And it actually didn't take long for the lightbulb to go off. Turns out, it's super easy to do, but incredibly difficult to explain to people!

I've been using my bullet journal daily since the beginning of January, and I'm low-key obsessed!

A bullet journal is good for...

- People who have a million little to-do lists floating around

- People who like pen and paper to-do lists

- People who are into goal-setting and habit tracking

- People who like stationery, journaling, scrapbooking, beautiful pens, etc.

- People who really love planners

- People who want to really love planners, or who want to be more organized

- People who would really like to keep a journal/diary but are having trouble sticking with the habit

But! None of these things are requirements for liking bullet journaling.

Here's what you need to know to get started:

Ellie Sunakawa / BuzzFeed

1. First, the bullet journal system uses a lot of fancy language that makes everything more difficult to understand. Here's what those terms actually mean:

Rachel W. Miller / Ellie Sunakawa / BuzzFeed

Bullet journal: a method of journaling and note-taking that uses bullet points as the core structure

Index: a table of contents that you update as you go

Daily Log: shit you did and/or need to do today (+ other observations)

Monthly Log: traditional month calendar + shit you need to do that month + shit you forgot to do last month

Rapid Logging: symbols that help you get that shit done

Future Log: year-at-a-glance calendar where you can put events, goals, and long-term shit you need to do

2. The main idea behind the bullet journal is that you jot down quick notes instead of writing long sentences.

Rachel W. Miller / Ellie Sunakawa / BuzzFeed

The bullet journal website calls this "rapid logging," which makes it sound WAY more complicated than it is. It's simply taking quick notes on any number of things, and then marking those notes with simple symbols to easily categorize and track them.

3. You can use any journal.

Rachel W. Miller / Ellie Sunakawa / BuzzFeed

The website says, "The two main things to keep in mind are size and quality. If it's too big you'll never take it with you. If it's too small it will be impractical. Be sure to get something that's rugged enough to keep up with you."

For my first journal, I bought a Moleskine with a dotted grid; the dots mean it's very flexible for different layouts, which I love. When I started my second journal, I tried a Leuchtturm* dot grid journal; it comes with the page numbers already on it and has a blank index ready for you (more on what the hell that is in a moment). I switched to that for my second bullet journal and really like that one too.

*Pronounced LOISH-term.

4. Is it a to-do list or a planner or a diary?

Ellie Sunakawa / BuzzFeed

This was my main question, and I was very annoyed when people told me it was all of these things. But it is all of these things!

I like bullet journaling because it's a great way to track my day-to-day activities and experiences, as well as my long-term goals. Planners/to-do lists typically only focus on what you're doing in the future, and diaries typically focus on what you did that day. But all of these things give us the complete picture of who we are. Before I started bullet journaling, the idea of keeping my diary and my personal to-do list and my work tasks in the same place seemed absurd. But now I understand both how to organize that, and also why it makes sense to do it that way.

I'm always amazed at how many things I left out of my old diaries — I basically just wrote about boys I had crushes on and nothing else. I didn't write nearly enough about my friends, cool things I was reading, or simply what my daily routine was like. Bullet journaling helps you record all of the things that are going on in your life, and makes it easy to keep track of the things you want to do in the future.

Ellie Sunakawa / BuzzFeed

5. When you're jotting down your quick notes, you'll use a few different symbols to mark them.

Rachel W. Miller / Ellie Sunakawa / BuzzFeed

Use the bullet symbol next to things you need to do.

Write an "x" over the bullet to mark to-dos that are now complete. (I know this isn't as satisfying as crossing the item off, but it's nice because it leaves the item more visible, which is helpful when you're looking back.)

Write the less than symbol (<) over the bullet to show that that task has been scheduled, and write the greater than symbol over it (>) to show that the task has been "migrated" — AKA you didn't finish it today/this week/this month, so you moved it to another day/week/month's list.

Use a dash for quick thoughts, notes, or smaller events. Write an open circle to mark big events.

It's also suggested that you keep a key (either at the front or back of the journal) to track what all your symbols mean.

Rachel W. Miller / Ellie Sunakawa / BuzzFeed

If you don't like these symbols, you can experiment with whatever ones suit you.

6. When you're taking notes, the idea is to keep them super short, even if you're dealing with something really major and dramatic.

Rachel W. Miller / Ellie Sunakawa / BuzzFeed

BUT you can expand on your quick notes on the next page in full sentences like you would in a typical diary. So that's where you can really get into how you're feeling about the Sam situation, if you so choose.

Ellie Sunakawa / BuzzFeed

The idea of the bullet journal is that once you understand the basic symbols and approach, you can use it to record and organize basically any type of task, thought, or idea — daily, monthly, work, home, personal, school, etc.

*If, like me, you get overwhelmed by the the pressure to make a new notebook look perfect and hate making mistakes in pen, I recommend sitting down with a couple sheets of scrap paper and writing out what you want to go on each of the first few pages after you read through the next few points, before you actually start using your bullet journal.

7. Every page in your journal gets a number.

Rachel W. Miller / Ellie Sunakawa / BuzzFeed

You could number the entire thing at once, but I didn't bother — I just number about 10–20 pages at a time.

8. Your bullet journal will start with an index.

Rachel W. Miller / Ellie Sunakawa / BuzzFeed

It's basically just like a book index, where you list all the important topics and the corresponding page numbers. When you first start the bullet journal, there probably won't be much on it — you'll go back to the index and add in the topics and the page numbers it as you go. I gave myself two pages for my index, just to be on the safe side.

You don't have to put everything in your index, but it's a good place for the important stuff you will likely want to easily reference later. Mine includes DIY projects, work, friends, music, books, and writing. Your index can be as specific as you want it to be. For example, you can create a single entry for "Travel," and put all travel-related page numbers there, or you can break things into more specific entries (like "Texas trip" and "Vermont trip").

9. The next four pages are your "future log" — which is just your yearlong calendar for the big stuff.

Rachel E. Miller / Ellie Sunakawa / BuzzFeed

Calling it a "future log" makes this whole thing feel way more dystopian than it is. It's a damn calendar.

This calendar is for things like birthdays, travel, or even goals you want to revisit later in the year. Again, you don't have to fill it out in detail right away; you just need to set up the pages for it, and then you'll add to it as needed later.

Rachel W. Miller / Ellie Sunakawa / BuzzFeed

(You'll continue to use the symbols outlined above to mark the things you add to these pages.)

10. After that, you can set up pages for any big things you'd like to track over time.

Rachel W. Miller / Ellie Sunakawa / BuzzFeed

And if you decide you want to add one of these pages (or, sorry, MODULES) later on, you can just create them wherever you are in the journal. Just add the page number to your index so you can easily find them later on.

11. Next, many bullet journalers have at least two pages devoted to the big-picture view of each month: a monthly calendar page, and a monthly tasks page.

Rachel W. Miller / Ellie Sunakawa / BuzzFeed

There are tons of cool layouts for these pages (get some inspiration here), but the simplest way to do the monthly calendar is to just list all the dates down the left side of the page. Then you can write in the bigger stuff — travel, birthday, important meetings, etc. If you're using this to replace Google calendar (something that I do not do because I have too many frequently rescheduled work meetings), you may want to do a more calendar-like layout.

The monthly task list is for the bigger stuff you want to tackle each month — things like "make an eye doctor appointment" and "KonMari sock drawer." These things do not need dates associated with them. Again, when listing these things, you'll use the "rapid logging" symbols... so the bullet, the X, the open circle, etc. (This is where the "migrate" and "scheduled" symbols really come in handy!)

12. If you want to have other monthly calendar pages, you can. For example, you might want to track your workouts, or the time you spend working on a hobby each month. So you can use the same format to create those specific pages.

Rachel W. Miller / Ellie Sunakawa / BuzzFeed

13. OR you can track them all on a single calendar, like this:

Rachel W. Miller / Ellie Sunakawa / BuzzFeed

(TBH, this is where everyone's face lights up because how cool is that layout?! Hat tip to Boho Berry for the inspiration.)

When you're setting up your journal, you only need to do the monthly pages for the current month. So in this case, May. You'll create the monthly pages for June on May 31 or June 1. And when you do that, you can re-read your May task list and move any tasks you didn't finish to the June list.

Once your monthly pages are set up, you can just start using the bullet journal for your daily tasks, notes, etc.!

14. Despite this long-ass explanation, bullet journaling is not something that takes a lot of time (unless you want it to).

Rachel W. Miller / Ellie Sunakawa / BuzzFeed

I see you racing to the comments to yell "Ain't nobody got time for that!" at me, and I'm going to stop you right here.

The initial setup takes less than an hour, and I spend about an hour doing my new spreads for each month. Beyond that, I tend to write in mine for 10–20 minutes each night; it's a nice way to unplug and unwind before bed. Like most things, I've found that once I get started on it, I end up doing more than I expected to. But how much time you spend on it is really up to you.

15. Some people put a lot of effort into making their bullet journal look beautiful and fancy...which you can do, but you certainly don't have to do.

Lauren Zaser / Ellie Sunakawa / BuzzFeed

Many "bullet journal junkies" — as they are known on Instagram — put a lot of time into making their pages look gorgeous. If you're looking for a creative outlet/hobby and are already artistically inclined, this makes sense. But that approach isn't a requirement.

While I have nice handwriting and some experience with hand-lettering, I knew if I got too precious about layouts and color-coding, I'd be less likely to actually do it. After I was a month into bullet journaling, and was sure it was a habit that was going to stick, I felt OK adding some color. Then a couple months later I started doing more involved weekly layouts. But it's totally, totally fine to take a more minimalist approach. (I also only use color on the headers/flair so if, say, I forget my green pen, I can just use pencil as a placeholder.)

16. Don't overthink it!

Rachel W. Miller / Ellie Sunakawa / BuzzFeed

While I do think mapping out your first few pages before you get started is helpful, there's no need to plan out an entire year's worth of layouts on the first day. Not only will you likely fill multiple journals in a single year, but you'll start to discover what you need and don't need as you go along. One of the biggest lessons I've learned since I started bullet journaling is that you will make mistakes (in pen!) and you just have to roll with it. It's best not to get too precious about it and to just start writing.

OK, now that you (hopefully!) understand the basics...my co-worker Nicole put together a roundup of the really fun/smart/cool stuff you can do with your bullet journal.

(You know, if you want to.)

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