I have been bullet journaling for over a year now and I’m still amazed by how such a simple analog system can have such a huge impact on my productivity and on me living an intentional life. This is why in this blog post, I would like to share with you what I learned from 18 months of bullet journaling and show you some of the advanced methods that I learned from reading The Bullet Journal Method by Ryder Carroll, which have been incredibly useful for my journaling.
The Why behind Bullet Journaling
Why is bullet journaling so popular? What makes it so unique? Why did I even get into it? Let me know if this sounds familiar to you. As a kid, I started writing a diary several times. My longest strike was probably 5 days of writing in a row. I wrote an entire page every day, but then the motivation was gone and I abandoned the project of keeping a diary. I justified this by saying to myself: I’m never going to reread all those essays anyways.
Then, I met my husband when I was 21, who introduced me to journaling. I realized that there was a big difference between journaling and writing a diary. Journaling was a more systematic way to reflect on specific things like practicing gratitude, asking important questions, setting goals, reviewing your week and so much more.
This journal served me well at the beginning. The preset layout made it easier for me to get into the practice of journaling. But over time, I wanted to add even more content to my journal. I wanted to use the same journal for reflecting on my days, practicing gratitude and also planning my upcoming YouTube videos and coming up with a strategy for passing all my classes at university. I basically outgrew my old journal and needed something that fit my specific needs. Something that was more customizable. After many trials and errors, I stumbled upon Amanda Rach Lee’s YouTube channel that inspired me to try out bullet journaling. After binge watching her videos, I bought my first bullet journal, some Tombow brush pens and I was ready to get started. I even recorded a video of my first bullet journal setup.
The Basics of Bullet Journaling
At the beginning of my bullet journaling journey, it was the creative and artistic bullet journal spreads that grabbed my attention, but as my life got more and more chaotic, trying to save my semester with 50% more classes and several weeks in bed at home or in a hospital due to severe pain, it was the journaling method from Ryder Carroll’s book that saved me.
Here, I will introduce you to some of the basic elements of bullet journaling. Keep in mind that the whole point of bullet journaling is that it is entirely customizable. So try all of these or pick some of them to set up your own unique journal.
Bullets / Signifiers
Bullets and signifiers play an important role in bullet journaling. They are the symbols that help you scan your journal fast and in an effective way to categorize your journal entries. Your entries can be tasks, events, and notes which are categorized by bullets. To give these categories a meaning, you can use signifiers. Bullets and signifiers can be unique to you, but a general rule of thumb is that less is more. If you have 30 different symbols for different things, you most likely won’t be able to keep track of what they all mean.
Here are some of the basic bullets and signifiers that Ryder Carroll recommends using:
Keep your entries short yet clear. In the picture below, you will find an example of what I mean here.
Usually, the key serves as the first page of your bullet journal. On this page, you can list all the bullets that you are planning to use in your journal and explain what they signify.
Titles are very important. It tells you what you can find on a specific page. Before I read The Bullet Journal Method by Ryder Carroll my titles were very generic such as “Meeting 2/3/2019”. These titles, however, are useless once you have an entire notebook filled with over 100 pages.
This is why titles are so important. You’re helping your future self find what you are looking for. Instead of the previous example, you could write “2nd Meeting – Ben- Feedback on Video v3”. Try to keep the title as short as possible without losing sight of the main topic of the page.
Do you ever wonder why books always have a table of contents page at the beginning of a book but our personal notebooks don’t? Well, I actually never thought about this before I discovered bullet journaling. Now I can’t live without having an index page anymore.
So much information gets lost over the years when you don’t have a system to find what you are looking for. With an index page, you know exactly that your recipes are for example on pages 3, 9 and 34-36, while your book summaries are on pages 22, 56-59 and 70. No need to have a separate book for everything, as long as you have an index to find the information that you’re looking for later.
A future log serves as a braindump for events not happening in the current month, but at some point in the future such as birthdays, conferences, exams, deadlines, etc. These events should be accounted for in your future monthly planning, but until then, you can collect them in your future log. There are many different ways for future logging, but here are two examples from my journals.
Monthly logs serve as an overview of your month to give you clarity of what you can expect from the month ahead. I don’t always create monthly logs in my journal, but as a student, it was a lifesaver. It gave me the clarity to see which exams and presentations to focus on next.
Towards the end of my studies, I even needed to have an overview of the next two upcoming months to keep my head in the game and pass all my exams.
The weekly spread provides an overview of the upcoming week. Weekly spreads help you plan ahead of time and to be intentional with how you spend your days.
I started bullet journaling before I even read The Bullet Journal Method by Ryder Carroll. Therefore, in the beginning, I didn’t even use daily logs, only weekly logs in my journal. Inspired by Amanda Rach Lee, my weekly spreads were more artistic at the beginning, but then got more minimalistic in design as time progressed and I started doing more design work for clients.
Trackers are a great addition to your bullet journal. Keep in mind that once again, less is more. Bullet journaling is supposed to eliminate things that are not important. But if you set up too many trackers in your journal, it can easily overwhelm you, so you need to find a balance here as well.
Advanced Techniques from The Bullet Journal Method
The more I used the technique, the less time I had to actually create beautiful layouts. Still, planning the upcoming weeks on Sundays, sitting down and writing with my hand without any distractions had a huge impact on me and my stress level. So when my husband and I were on our honeymoon in Asia, I was determined to read the book by the creator of bullet journaling to find out what other benefits I can get out of this journaling technique.
So here are some of the advanced bullet journaling techniques I learned after reading The Bullet Journal Method by Ryder Carroll.
In the two pictures below you can find an example of the threading technique. The index page is your first reference point to find what you’re looking for. When I read books, I like to go over my highlights in my Kindle after I finished reading and write down the most important quotes and ideas from the book. This takes a long time to do, so I dedicate 10 minutes a day for this task in the morning. This also means that it can take me weeks to finish a book review and I never know initially how many pages I will need for the entire summary.
That’s where the threading technique comes into play. Instead of going back to the index to see where the next page continues, I check what I marked at the bottom of the page. If I have a number written on the bottom right, it means that my summary continues on page 148 (see below), and if I have a number on the bottom left, then I know that the previous page of my summary is on page 125 (see below).
You can also use this same technique across several bullet journals. I number every bullet journal I started. So let’s say I wrote these notes in my second bullet journal. Then, I start a new one but I still haven’t finished my summary. Instead of copying everything over, I can just write 2.148 on the bottom left to indicate that bullet journal #2 page #148 is the location of my last summary of the book.
In case you’re curious, the example pictures are from my book summary of Loving What Is by Byron Katie.
The daily/weekly-, monthly -, future log, and index pages, I mentioned in the previous sections are the four core collections of the bullet journal. These provide the foundation for your bullet journal.
However, I also use other collections to collect all the random ideas that I have on one page. For example, I have a collection for books I want to read, YouTube videos I want to create, blog posts I want to write, and so on. Before I had a dedicated page for it, I captured my ideas in a Google Keep note, which I forgot about or on a sticky note, that I lost and plenty of other places. I had thousands of ideas but I never executed them, because they got lost just as fast as they came to my mind. Since I have dedicated collections, I know exactly where I can write my random ideas, which I can revisit later when I need them. Not every idea gets implemented, but having a single place to collect them helps me find inspiration when I’m ready to create something.
My 18 Months Experience with Bullet Journaling
I hope you found this article helpful. I know it’s super long, but I wanted to provide you with as much inspiration and ideas as I possibly could, to motivate you to try out journaling for yourself. Before I get into the final part of my journaling review, I wanted to remind you that journaling is unique to everyone. We can all learn from each other’s experiences and get inspired by seeing other people’s journals, but at the end of the day, your needs are unique to you. And this is a beautiful thing! Bullet journaling gives you all the flexibility you need to have the best journaling system for you. I’m a big fan of analog journaling with pen and paper, but I sometimes also use my smartphone to jot down some ideas on the go. Others prefer journaling exclusively on their phones. You do whatever works for you.
Alright, so where am I after four years of journaling and 18 months of bullet journaling? After many different experiments with different bullet journals and methods, I use my self-designed journals now.
When I started at the end of 2018, I didn’t have any artistic skills. I still had the belief that I wasn’t creative and I couldn’t draw. Then, I discovered Amanda Rach Lee’s YouTube Channel and her plan with me videos encouraged me to start drawing again after 15 years without a single doodle. Then, my bullet journal became the only place where I was drawing. But now, as a graphic recorder and sketchoter I draw every day as a freelancer, so my creative itch is satisfied by other means.
Since I still wanted to have a unique looking and pretty journal for myself, without all the work of drawing new spreads every week, I designed two types of book interiors. The first one is a daily planner, which I use every day to plan my day with intention.
The second one is a simple dot grid bullet journal, which I’ve been using as a combination of a notebook and diary for deeper thoughts and learnings that I need to explore. What I was missing from the store-bought bullet journals that I used before, was that they didn’t have a title box. Every time I wrote on a new page, I had to come up with a pretty design for the title and make sure that it had a clear separation from the rest of the page. This is something that I knew would save me a lot of time, so that’s why I designed a bullet journal interior with title boxes and page numbers.
When it comes to bullet journaling, there is no one size/one journal fits all. I love using dot grid journals and my daily planner, but you might prefer using an entirely blank, lined notebook or something else.
All I know is that without bullet journaling, I wouldn’t have been able to pass all my university classes a year ago when I was in bed at a hospital or at home for 16 days with severe pain at the beginning of my semester. I wouldn’t have been able to pass my final class a couple of months ago when a similar thing happened that lasted four weeks.
When things are difficult, I practice gratitude to change my perspective and to focus on the things that are good in my life right now. When I’m unhappy or sad, I journal to figure out why. When I’m happy, I journal to capture the happy moments, which I can revisit when things get tough. When I have big goals & dreams, I journal every day to make them a reality and use my planner to set up an action plan on how to achieve them. For the last 4 years, I journaled every day in some shape or form and I’m so grateful to have all of these books to remind me of how far I’ve come.
I hope this article inspires you to try journaling for yourself. Whether you start a gratitude journal, a dream journal, a success journal, a productivity planner or a bullet journal, I hope it will help you get through all the difficult seasons of life and help you capture all the happy moments that are worth living for.