You may have heard about the idea of a bullet journal, which is a method of journaling that has been all over the web as of late.
If you’re not familiar with it, you can learn all about what it is and how to start one here.
Bullet journals are amazing for tracking tasks, thoughts, activities, and life events, so they lend themselves really well to recording info about your physical and mental health.
And since we’ve heard several bullet journalers mention that they are looking for better ways to track their mental health in their journals, we decided to create some layouts for doing exactly that. (And even if you’re not technically a bullet journaler, you can still use these layouts/ideas in a regular journal or planner. )
But! Before we go any further, we wanted to say this: The main thing about your journal is that it should be real.
Your bullet journal is for you — not for Pinterest or Instagram or even your IRL friends. The spreads we created for this post are *literally* not real: They are examples, created in a journal we bought just for this, meant to look nice and photograph well because that is our job (and because people will yell at us if the handwriting is bad), and Rachel had to sketch them in pencil first and made multiple mistakes/had to redo them a bunch of times because that’s how life is. We both use bullet journals IRL, and our spreads look a bit more chaotic than the ones you’re about to see.
That said…we both do choose to put time and effort into our personal journals because we like it and find that that’s helpful on multiple levels. And clinical psychologist Andrea Bonior, PhD, tells BuzzFeed that the mere act of bullet-journaling can be really meaningful, especially if you’re going through a rough time.
“When your life and emotions feel so out of control or chaotic, there is something immensely therapeutic about organizing it into a systematic structure like a bullet journal,” she says. “You lay things out in an aesthetically pleasing way and already it feels more manageable. Like you can really tackle it and make it through. It feels luxurious, too. It’s like saying, ‘I’m worth it. I’m worth this notebook and the time it takes to turn it into something beautiful.’”
Whether or not you turn your journal into something ~beautiful~ is up to you! In the meantime, here are some ways to make it helpful and effective for tracking your mental health.
This is one of the most popular functions of bullet-journaling for mental health. There are a few different ways of organizing it (like daily, weekly, monthly) and lots of things you might want to keep track of. Here are some different ways of doing it, with sample layouts for each…
1. You can create a monthly habit tracker to easily see everything at a glance.
The point of this layout is to be able to see patterns. When you keep track of your habits and how you feel physically and mentally, you can start to play detective and make connections, Bonior says — meaning you can look at your month and think, OK, I did this and felt good, and I did this and felt bad. Which can help you make better decisions in the long run.
2. First, you’re going to want a place to track how you’re feeling physically.
That includes things like headaches, nausea or other tummy issues, sleepiness, and appetite.
3. Next, consider tracking habits and behaviors — good and bad — that can affect your mental and physical health.
Think: servings of alcohol, servings of caffeine, minutes of exercise, hygiene, daily habits (like whether you made your bed or not) and hanging out with friends. Not only will you be able to see patterns like we mentioned above, but the act of journaling itself will make you more likely to stick to your goals.
“There’s an activating factor with tracking things — if you write it down, you’re more likely to do it, because it holds you accountable,” says Bonior.
4. But before you start tracking your habits, set realistic goals so you don’t get discouraged if you have an off day (or two or seven).
It’s only natural that you want your tracker to look perfect or to reflect your ~best self~ — and to fall into all-or-nothing thinking. “You’re going to be tempted to be like, ‘Oh, I filled in that box. I drank too much. Now the seal has been broken and I ruined it. Now I may as well just drink tomorrow, too,’” says Bonior.
To help, make sure you’re setting realistic goals. Ask yourself: What do I want this chart to look like a month from now? Am I going to be OK with not having totally abstained from this behavior or done this healthy thing every day? Don’t set yourself up for failure by expecting your habit tracker to reflect a lifestyle that’s unattainable.
5. Next, you can note your moods.
So, we talked about the importance of tracking moods so you can really pin down what causes them — like maybe you’ve been sleeping too little or drinking too much — but also, simply recognizing your emotions has benefits all on its own.
“If you weren’t keeping track of your mood, it’s easy to try to push those feelings down and invalidate them,” says Bonior. “And then they can kind of come back to haunt you, because you’re not acknowledging that you feel that way.”
There are a few different ways to keep track of your moods within this layout. You could just color or check the box to imply “yes, I felt this thing on this day.” You could rate the intensity of your mood on a scale of 1 to 5 (with 1 meaning “kinda felt this way” and 5 meaning “OMG REALLY STRONGLY FELT THIS WAY”). You could also utilize some kind of symbol (like the triangle in the above layout) as shorthand for “I explained more about what I was feeling on another page.”
6. Then you can expand on any of these things either in your daily spread, or set up a couple separate pages that are just for these notes.
7. Instead of the monthly layout (or in addition to it), you can also create spaces to track all of these habits on your daily spread. Here’s an example of what that could look like:
If you tend to slip into all-or-nothing thinking, tracking your habits on your daily spread instead of a monthly one can help a LOT. With a daily tracker, you start every day with a totally clean slate. “That way, you don’t wind up two weeks in avoiding the monthly habit tracker because you don’t want to stare at how you messed up a week ago and give up all together,” says Bonior.
8. Here’s another super-simple daily layout for tracking some of the things mentioned above:
Totally gives you that “clean slate” feeling, right?
PS: Here’s how it looks when you add your notes to it.
9. If setting up a layout like that each day seems stressful or you don’t have time for it, you could try a weekly version instead, like this:
Here’s a closer look:
10. Here’s another weekly option:
Beyond tracking your daily habits, there are other cool/smart/helpful things you can do with your bullet journal. Like…
11. Instead of making a daily to-do list, make a “done” list.
As BuzzFeed has previously reported, to-do lists make some people more productive, but for others, it can actually have the opposite effect. That’s because a to-do list might set you up to feel bad about the things you don’t accomplish, especially if you’re dealing with something like depression, which can make self-motivating really difficult.
Instead, list the things you accomplish as you finish them — it can give you an instant uptick in your mood and self-confidence. Yes, we’re totally giving you permission to add things that are already done to your to-do list just to enjoy that moment of checking them off.
12. Set up a gratitude log each month.
A super-simple setup? List all the dates for a single month down the left side of the page and then add one thing you’re grateful for each day.
“Reminding yourself of what you have leads to appreciation that helps you feel measurably more content,” Bonior previously told us.
13. Make rant boxes for the days when you just can’t with the world.
Journaling has been shown to help with your mental well-being, as BuzzFeed has previously reported, but there’s a fine line between what actually helps you and what’s just harmful rumination. So limiting yourself — whether that means doing a half-page setup like this, or giving yourself a full page — so you have a beginning and an end point will help you not obsess over it.
And if you DO want to keep writing? Bonior suggests switching gears from ranting to writing down action steps — so instead of writing “fuck all y’all” a dozen more times, ask yourself, What can I do tomorrow to help address this? and write that down instead. Your action step might even be, “If I’m still still pissed about this, tomorrow I’m going give myself another 20 minutes to write about how pissed I am.”
14. Create a template for debriefing after therapy sessions.
Therapy is wonderful — and can be intense and weighty and give you a lot to think about. And with all the important takeaways you’re probably getting, journaling after each session is a helpful tool.
Bonior suggests summarizing what you talked about, pulling out any key lessons or things you want to remember, going over what things came up that were hard to talk about and why, and finally, things you either forgot to bring up or that you want to remember to talk about next time.
“I think to write things down afterward can give you more strength to bring it up later,” says Bonior. “It also helps you validate the feelings that came up in therapy and get more out of the experience.”
15. Try a food-tracking layout to keep track of nutrition and be more mindful of your eating habits or patterns.
Only you and your doctor know whether or not food-tracking is something you can do healthfully, since for some people, it can lead to obsessive behaviors. But if tracking your food is something you can do to support a healthy goal, that’s definitely something that will have a positive impact on your mental health. Because proper nutrition = better mental health.
Similarly, you can add a notes section where you can jot down general feelings to help you spot patterns and make you a more mindful eater, says Bonior. “In general, mindful eating — being present and aware of your thoughts so you’re not eating mindlessly — is a good thing,” she says. “But don’t overanalyze every bite. Ask things like, ‘How did I feel during the meal? Was I in the moment? Was I emotional eating because I was upset? Did that make me feel worse?’ That kind of thing.”
16. If you’re artistically inclined, give yourself a little space to doodle every day.
If you need inspiration for what to draw, there’s tons of inspiration on Instagram — user @passion.themed.life posts a list of daily prompts like this and this each month, while the #ZenArtChallenge is more abstract.
And while this example is done with just pen, you could definitely add some color if that’s your thing!
17. If you always struggle to think of things to write about in a journal, create a page with some go-to prompts:
You don’t want the prompts to be too broad or too restrictive, so simple things are best if you find yourself needing a little direction.
18. Add additional symbols to your key to denote important things.
Your key is yours to customize, so consider adding things like self-care, goals, or anything else you want to be able to spot at a glance in your journal pages. Blogger Jessica Chung uses a heart to denote “moments that make [her] heart full,” which is really sweet. If you’re into color-coding your journal, you could use different colors or highlighters to do this instead.
And, finally, one more reminder: Your journal is for you and no one else.
A bullet journal should really truly have the nitty-gritty of you, so don’t put form over function. As Bonior explains, “If you’re so concerned with washi tape and calligraphy, and you screwed up behaviorally, it’s going to be tempting to be like, ‘Maybe I won’t put that in there, because I don’t want to taint this journal that’s supposed to be a beautiful thing with my negative behavior or my sad thoughts.’”
“But once you get in the habit of not being real within your journal, it defeats the purpose,” she says. So make your goal something like, “Sure, I want this to be beautiful, organized, and reflect that I’m doing well — but more than that, my goal is that it actually represents my life and helps me work on things and do better.”
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