Notebook. Pen. That’s all you need. Photo by Estée Janssens via Unsplash.
You may have heard of bullet journaling, probably from your sister or your coworker or some other enviably competent person you have the pleasure of knowing. It’s a productivity pocketknife—customizable, indispensable, satisfying to use—that is helping people track and organize anything and everything in their lives.
Its popularity blossomed in spring 2016 and intensified as back-to-school season approached. By January 1—a heady day for the latent productivity nerd—the bullet journaling community was evangelizing in full force. Myself included, I guess.
What Is Bullet Journaling?
First of all, the system is totally analog. By that I mean it is done with a notebook (any notebook!) and a pen (or pencil, if you're one of those people). It's so simple it's stupid. It's so simple it's brilliant, too.
The idea first percolated in the brain of a dude named Ryder Carroll, who explains the concept very succinctly in this video. The basic premise is this: you have one book that contains every list, note, and plan in your life. It's like a planner, except not at all like a planner—because there are no templates and no rules. Because of this, it's very flexible and low-pressure. It's nothing more than you can handle; it's exactly as ambitious or exhaustive as you need at the exact time you are using it.
The concept hinges on just two “requirements” (they’re not really required, honestly): an index and numbered pages. These elements let you see, at a glance, where to find the exact list you want to refer to—goals for the month, plans for your trip to Bermuda, health insurance reminders, etc.
Because there are no templates, you can also use this notebook for non-list things, too. You can journal or doodle or hand-letter a quote. You can tape in photos or ticket stubs or receipts.
Your bullet journal is a catch-all for everything that itches your brain. It’s your to-do list and your calendar and your junk drawer.
Why Do People Bullet Journal?
Decades of studies have demonstrated a positive correlation between writing (particularly journaling) and health. Take, for example, the many studies of psychologist James Pennebaker at the University of Texas. In one, he asked half of his participants to write 20 minutes a day, three days in a row. That's it. Even months later, those who journaled were much happier than those in the control group. As New York Mag once reported, "in the months after the writing sessions, they had lower blood pressure, improved immune function, and fewer visits to the doctor. They also reported better relationships, improved memory, and more success at work."
Beyond the benefits just mentioned, therapists often use journaling to get their patients to better understand how parts of their lives relate to each other. This helps people triangulate who they are and how they might react to different actions and emotions. Bullet journals, which by nature are collections of tasks and ideas that span the full spectrum of a person's physical, mental, and emotional life, are particularly well-suited for synthesizing information and drawing conclusions from it.
If you like Harry Potter, you can think of a bullet journal kind of like a Pensieve—a place to unload thoughts and reminders, which frees and focuses your mental and emotional efforts. Once you've written down all the tiny things you need to get done, you give your brain the capacity and the encouragement to actually do the things.
It's easy, particularly (old man voice) these days, to underestimate the swell of satisfaction from making progress on something physical. To-do lists give nerds like me the thrill of checking something off. It's a genuinely pleasurable experience.
Bullet journaling takes that a step further: By treating task lists like archival records of your life, as precious as letters from a loved one or photos from a vacation, you’re letting yourself feel proud of small accomplishments, and soothing your weary existential soul by recording the things you’ve done with your life—at every scale.
It’s Just Fun as Hell:
Here are some of the things people commonly use when bullet journaling: gel pens, stickers, decorative tape, highlighters, and magazine clippings. Here are some of the things people track: book and movie recommendations, vacation plans and packing lists, moments of gratitude, favorite Prince lyrics, and sex stuff.
How Do I Start a Bullet Journal?
Here you list where to find spreads that you may want to refer back to in the future. (A one-off grocery list? Probably not. German adjective declinations? Add it.)
Some notebooks already have numbered pages and room for an index, but more on that later.
You can refer to this any time you want to make note of a date in the far future. If it’s January, you probably haven’t created a June spread, but you want to note your college roommate’s wedding anyway. That kind of thing.
Your monthly spread (above) is where you write down appointments, pay days, meet-ups, classes, vacations, holidays, due dates, etc. There are a few ways to do this. Personally, I just draw up a calendar on a two-page spread, leaving room for a box that says "next month" to jot down future items, and a tinier version of the following month's calendar, like this.
Another popular way to get a glance at your month is to use a “calendex,” where one writes down page numbers as opposed to event titles. For example: If you took notes on a meeting you had on the 13th, you could go to the calendex for that month and make a note of the page number by that date. Here’s what it looks like:
To be totally honest: weekly planning (above) doesn't work for me. The scale is too weird. I either want to dump every tiny task in or nothing at all. My impression is that people who don't have a lot of tasks to do every day (maybe their jobs are much more straight-forward than mine), use a weekly spread as opposed to the long, convoluted day-by-day pages I prefer.
I do, however, use these stickers from Muji to write down my non-work appointments for the week: German class, drinks with friends, medical appointments, and more.
Daily spreads (above) are the bread and butter of your bullet journal; at its core, a simple to-do list, bracketed (if you want) by journaling, doodles, and tip-ins. (Tip-in, noun, planning lingo meaning ephemera taped in on one side, so it's like a little flap on the page.)
You can have collections that track spending, the status of job applications, your sleeping habits—basically any "collection" of thoughts you'd like to keep on hand. Collections like these are scattered throughout my journal, and have no explicit tie to the daily spreads that surround them. Other collections relate to your dated spreads, like grocery lists, money spending trackers, and monthly gratitude logs.
What Are the Best Supplies?
Again, you can bullet journal in any notebook, using any writing implement. If you insist that you need a whole new set-up, though, there are a few unambiguous fan favorites to consider:
If you’re buying a shiny new notebook anyway, don’t mess around with anything but a dot-grid. It keeps your handwriting from drooping, but feels as liberating as a blank page.
The Leuchtturm 1917 is popular because the book already has an index and numbered pages. It's also a lie-flat hard-cover, which journal nerds know is just the best. The grammage of the paper (80 grams per square meter) is also superior, so if you're one of those people who can't stand bleed-through or ghosting—or you use fountain pens or some other particularly inky implement—this is a good buy.
That being said, a Leuchtturm will cost you $20. Personally, I use a $7 dot-grid notebook from Muji. It's cheaper, I don't mind numbering the pages myself, and I think everything that comes from that store is imbued in an aspirational, ethereal quality that I should not even try to explain. It's like Marie Kondo herself has held each product and encouraged it to give me serenity and pleasure. But that's just me!
There are also many Moleskine die-hards, but the price is steep, the pages aren’t numbered, and the paper is a bit flimsier (70 g/sqm) than that of the Leuchtturm.
I started my bullet journal with a set of 12 gel pens from Muji I got for $12. I love these pens, but must admit to true aficionados that the ink does occasionally skip, and they smear when used in conjunction with a highlighter.
The Staedtler Tri-Plus Fineliners are top-notch color pens, too. They don't bleed through and don't smear. The difference is that they have metal-encased fiber tips, which (to put it in pen nerd terms) simply aren't as expressive as bolder, inkier fountain pens or, in my mind, gel pens.
TL;DR Writing stuff down is cool again—and just might be the key to getting shit done.