Using a Bullet Journal To Change Your Life: Part 1 – Learn the System

Using a bullet journal to change your life - Part 1: Learn the System

“Your life doesn’t get better by chance, it gets better by change.” In this 4 part series, we’ll walk through how to use a bullet journal to change your life. We’ll look at bullet journal basics, and then explore how you can use your bullet journal to form better habits, to be happier and to get the right things done.

The Bullet Journal system has many fans and deservedly so. It’s completely customizable and adapts to become the exact solution you have been looking for. Using a Bullet Journal is a small thing that can have a huge impact over time.

Today we’ll learn the basics of what the bullet journal system is, how to set one up, and why I think everyone should start with a cheap notebook. Let’s Dive Right In!

Part 1: Learn the System: What is a Bullet Journal?

A Bullet Journal (aka BuJo) is both an object and a system. The bullet journal object is a notebook. There’s an official Bullet Journal notebook, but you can use ANY notebook.

The Bullet Journal system was created by Ryder Carroll and is described as “the analog system for the digital age” that will “teach you to do more with less.” It is a completely customizable, forgiving, flexible organizational system. The BuJo is a tool that becomes exactly whatever you need or want it to be. It can be a to-do list, planner, notebook, sketchbook, diary, tracker, and more, or all of the above.

Bullet Journaling might be exactly what you’re looking for if you:

  • Prefer pen and paper over digital for lists and note taking
  • Are easily distracted on digital devices or you simply want to spend less time on them but still be productive
  • Want to form better habits and establish routines
  • Like making lists
  • Want to get organized
  • Wish there was one place to manage all the different parts of your life
  • Want a way to remember things your mom brain easily forgets
  • Are looking for a way to put all your “I want to try that” ideas into practice.

What do you need to get started?

A lot of people in the Bullet Journal world are super particular about having the “right” kind of notebook and pens. Seriously serious about it. Many will tell you there are “must-have” supplies for bullet journaling. Sometimes those items can cost a small fortune.

I am not one of those people. You can create an awesome bullet journal with only 2 supplies, which you probably already have laying around the house.Using A Bullet Journal to Change Your Life - Supplies

All you need is a notebook and a pen. ANY notebook and ANY pen. Heck, you can even use a pencil. The supplies you use are so much less important than learning and using the system.

Let me repeat that:

The supplies you use are so much less important than learning and using the system!

Don’t get hung up on having the “right” supplies. The prettiest or most expensive notebook and the “perfect” pens are not what will change your life. The Bullet Journal system is. Just get started and you will see.

The System Is The Secret Sauce

By definition, a system is made up of different pieces that work together as a whole. It takes a little time to figure out the pieces of the BuJo system and how they all work together. Learning the bullet journal system is a time investment initially, but it actually saves you time in the end.

In the business world, this is referred to as a multiplier. The time you put in at first will be multiplied and given back to you later. I took several hours researching about bullet journals and browsing online before I started and then 1-2 hours setting up the first journal and 10-20 minutes per day. Now it takes me about an hour a month and 5-10 minutes a day but I get all that time back in increased productivity.

Getting Started Video:

The Bullet Journal creator, Ryder Carroll, has a great video that walks you through each piece and how to set one up. If you are new to bullet journaling, that is a great place to start.

Go right ahead and watch the video over and over until you feel like you have a good grasp of the system and each individual piece.

A Word of Warning:

When you are just getting started bullet journaling, be careful if you do a google search and get sucked down the internet rabbit hole. There are so many beautiful, gorgeous, stunningly perfect bullet journal pages and spreads that people have posted online. You might look at those and think you don’t have the time or the skills to create anything like that. And you might decide to quit before you even start.

But let me reassure you, it is absolutely ok if your bullet journal is ugly (mine often is as you will see shortly). It can be messy and doesn’t have to take much time. It can look imperfect and be something you would never want anyone else to see and yet still be effective. Your pages do NOT have to be works of art to make your journal the most amazing tool for changing your life.

Remember the magic is in the system! The system that you tweak until it is perfect for you. Focus your attention first on learning the system. Then once you have the basics down and are ready for more, by all means, google away and marvel at the amazing creativity and inspiration in the BuJo community. And then create some of your own.

Parts of the Bullet Journal System

A little disclaimer: Most of these are pictures from my very first bullet journal, which is an inexpensive composition notebook. These pages are not going to win any design awards. They are simple. And messy. They are the chicken scratches of someone who is trying to get her life together and her mind organized. But that is not the person that I am today. I want you to feel confident that you can do this. I want you to know that it’s okay to do it imperfectly. Even done imperfectly, it can still be the perfect system for you.

Here are the parts of the BuJo system:

Numbered pages in your notebook:

If it’s not already a pre-numbered notebook, you will need to number all the pages. You can number only every other page if numbering each page is too tedious.

Index:

The first spread (2 pages that face each other) is for your index. This is where you list a title of the content found on each page of your BuJo. If your pages are small, you might want to leave 2 spreads for the index. The index helps you easily find what you are looking for later.

Using a Bullet Journal to Change Your Life - Index
There are two ways to write your index. You can write the subject first and the page numbers second, as shown. Or the page numbers first and then subject second. Use whatever method makes the most sense to you.

Future Log:

A spread (or two, or 3 ) where you list the events that are coming up in the near future, grouped by months. Approx 1 spread for every 4-6 months.

Using a Bullet Journal to Change Your Life - Future Log
In my first journal, I did 2 spreads of Future Log with 3 months per page.
Using A Bullet Journal to Change Your Life - Future Log 2
Now I do 2 months per page (the next 4 months) on the first spread and 4 months per page (the 8 months after that) on the next spread. The reason is that the months closest in time I found I had more things to schedule and needed more space, but 11 months out I basically only had birthdays and a very few date-specific items per month. I fill up a composition notebook BuJo about every 4 months.

Monthly Log:

A spread for the month you are currently in (or just about to start) where you list all the days of the month and date specific items for that month (like a calendar) on one page and list tasks that need to be accomplished during the month on the other page of the spread.

Using A Bullet Journal to Change Your Life - Monthly Log

Using A Bullet Journal to Change Your Life - Monthly Log 2
The second month I started adding Focus Projects to the task page.


<img class="size-full wp-image-524" src="https://smallthingsovertime.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/04/img_2119.jpg" alt="Using a Bullet Journal to Change Your Life - monthly log 3
Monthly log evolving over time.

Daily Log:

A to-do list and place to quickly log any information that comes up throughout the day. This is where the action happens.

Using A Bullet Journal to Change Your Life - Daily Log
This is my very first BuJo daily log. (I was so excited to begin that I started mid-month. I knew if I procrastinated, I might never start.) Each night you spend a few minutes writing down the things that you need to do the next day and move any open (not completed) tasks from the previous day. You also jot down notes or ideas as they come to you throughout the day. Some people also record their meals, the weather, their time block schedule, the moon phases, water consumption, etc. on their daily logs.
Using A Bullet Journal to Change Your Life - Daily Log 2
This is where I was trying out some different formats for the daily log. And testing out a few different “fonts”.
Using A Bullet Journal to Change Your Life - daily log 3
Now I just stick with simple. For me it doesn’t need to be pretty, it just needs to be efficient.

Collections:

Multiple pages that have a similar topic or purpose.  This is where you really customize the Bullet Journal for you and fill it with the things that are important or relevant to you. A few of the collections I have in my BuJo are:

  • Habit trackers
  • Current Project trackers
  • Routines
  • Gratitudes
  • Meal Ideas
  • Birthdays
  • Books to Read
  • Sewing Projects
  • Parenting Class notes
  • Planning for vacations and Christmas
  • Blog ideas
  • and more.
Using a Bullet Journal to Change Your Life - Habit tracker
Habit Tracker
Using a Bullet Journal to Change Your Life - Habit tracker 2
Habit tracker made with a table in Microsoft Word. Tip – print it on sticker paper
Using a Bullet Journal to Change Your Life - project tracker
Project tracker. I was curious about how often I was working on different things.


<img class="size-full wp-image-524" src="https://smallthingsovertime.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/04/img_2119.jpg" alt="Using a Bullet Journal to Change Your Life - gratitude
Gratitude Log. Read more about why I started doing this and why it is awesome.


<img class="size-full wp-image-524" src="https://smallthingsovertime.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/04/img_2119.jpg" alt="Using a Bullet Journal to Change Your Life - brainstorming
Brainstorming ideas


<img class="size-full wp-image-524" src="https://smallthingsovertime.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/04/img_2119.jpg" alt="Using a Bullet Journal to Change Your Life - notes
Notes from The Peak Work Performance Summit

Collections Continued:

One of the most brilliant (but confusing to me in the beginning) parts of the BuJo system is that pages in a collection do not need to be physically housed together in your journal. For example, if you are working on planning for Christmas, and you know it will take more than one page, but you’re not sure how many, you don’t need to guess how many blank pages to leave together.

When you fill up a Christmas page, simply turn to the next blank page in your journal, wherever it is, and continue planning Christmas. Indicate in the index that Christmas is now on page 17 and page 32 (Christmas – 17, 32). On page 17 down by the page number, write “see also p. 32” or something like that. This is called linking. And it is brilliant! No more wasted blank pages!

Weekly Log:

After a couple of weeks bullet journaling, I added a weekly log because I like to see my week at a glance. It took me a couple of weeks trying out different formats to find one that works. And even now I still tweak it a little from time to time.

Using a Bullet Journal to change your life - weekly log
My first attempt at a weekly log. This format didn’t work for me at ALL.
  • Using a Bullet Journal to change your life - weekly log 2
    Another weekly log spread format. Getting closer to what works well for me.
    

<img class="size-full wp-image-524" src="https://smallthingsovertime.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/04/img_2119.jpg" alt="Using a Bullet Journal to Change Your Life - weekly log 3
    Weekly log evolving over time.

    

<img class="size-full wp-image-524" src="https://smallthingsovertime.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/04/img_2119.jpg" alt="Using a Bullet Journal to Change Your Life - weekly log 4
    This is the weekly log format I’m using these days.

Some Bullet Journal Terms:

Signifiers – the symbols used as you are making entries in your daily log. Generally a dot for tasks, a circle for appointments, an x to signify the task is completed, a forward arrow to indicate the item has been moved forward to the next log (migration), and a back arrow for items that you move from your daily log into the future log (scheduled).

Using A Bullet Journal to Change Your Life - Signifiers
You can customize the signifiers to your taste. Many people put a signifier Key somewhere in their BuJo for reference. I recommend it in the beginning. I don’t use one now.

Migration – moving an unfinished task ahead to the next daily log.

Scheduling – moving an unfinished task or appointment from the daily log onto a specific future date and logged in the future log.

Linking – when you have several pages of one collection in different places, you indicate that down by the page numbers and in the index (ex. Meal Planning – 4, 17, 128).

A Couple Other Handy Tips

Using A Bullet Journal to Change Your Life - Rulers
A ruler or see-through straight edge comes in handy for drawing straight lines. When I started doing my weekly logs with the boxes, at first I was using a ruler and measuring out the boxes each week. That got old real quick so I cut a rectangle out of the plastic packaging of a Barbie box and made a see-thru template I could just trace around. Much more efficient and just the right size.
Using A Bullet Journal to Change Your Life - Pens
Colored pens can add variety and help color code your pages if you like. Pictured are a variety of pens that I’ve used in my BuJo’s.
Using A Bullet Journal to Change Your Life - Ink Test
An ink test page at the back of the journal allows you to test new pens for bleed through on your journal’s paper.

My first journals were made with composition notebooks. On the left side of the spread, you can see the bleed through from some pens on my ink test page. And also some brainstorming about what I liked about my first journal and what I wanted to change in my next one. On the right side of the spread, I taped an envelope onto the inside back cover to hold small loose papers or mementos.

Using A Bullet Journal to Change Your Life - Cover Page
Since the Index is on the first 2-page spread of these journals, that leaves a single page at the beginning. You can do whatever you want on that page. I’ve used mine for a cover page, inspirational quotes, or in this case, a note from my daughter asking if we could write back and forth in this notebook until she turned the page and saw I’d already been using it for something else. We now have a separate journal that we write in and pass back and forth to each other.

There you have it, those are the basic components of the system. It may not look like much, especially with my basic beginner pages. But believe me, it’s awesome. All your stuff in one organized place.

It Gets Better Over Time

If you’re ready to give Bullet Journaling a try, go for it! As you go along, you’ll figure out what works for you. You might tweak the format of your future log, monthly logs, and daily logs. Like I mentioned above, I added a weekly log because I like to see the whole week at a glance. You’ll decide what collections you want to add depending on what is going on in your life.

With each page, you’ll learn what works for you and what doesn’t. Over time, your bullet journal will become exactly right for you.

Why You Should Start with an Inexpensive Notebook

I started my first bullet journal in February 2017. Historically, I have a track record for being super excited about new things and giving them a go for a few days until I was either

  • 1) distracted by the next amazing idea or
  • 2) getting a lot of pushback from my family because they hated the new thing.

I felt deeply that Bullet Journaling could really be the answer to so many of my frustrations so I promised myself, I mean I really PROMISED myself, that I would commit to trying it every day for 2 months without fail. That no matter how much anyone else living in my house complained about me doing it, or how much I felt a little guilty for taking some solitary time, I would stick with it for 2 months. I figured that after 2 months I’d know if the bullet journal system was right for me.

A Budget of Zero

At the time, I was living on a small Caribbean Island and my husband was attending graduate school full time. As the spouse of a student, the visa that allowed me to legally stay in the country didn’t allow me (or him) to work, so our budget was tight. Like, I could spend exactly $0 on a bullet journal tight.

Because everything has to be shipped into the country, the selection is limited and the prices are high. I knew that if I wanted to give the bullet journal system a sincere try, I would have to do it with supplies on hand.

How to Make an Inexpensive Bullet Journal

I had previously made some scripture study journals using composition notebooks and those had turned out well, so I decided to go that route. The main drawbacks of using a comp notebook were that it wasn’t very attractive or very durable.

In order to make it prettier, I found a cute printable online, printed it out on white cardstock and covered the cardstock with clear vinyl book cover that we had left over after covering all the kid’s school textbooks. (Each student has to do that here, not the school – a new concept for me, lol.)

Next, I laid the journal upside down on the backside of the cardstock and traced the edge with a pencil so it would be the same size and shape as the notebook. Then I trimmed it down to size along the line and attached it to the front cover using mod podge and a sponge brush.Using a Bullet Journal to Change Your Life - inexpensive notebook

I was very pleasantly surprised by how nice it looked for not spending any money on it. I was also surprised at how well it held up with the new cover on it. And how much more excited I was to use it and carry it around with me simply because it was cuter than just a regular comp book.

The Magic of Doing It Badly

However, the real benefit of using a cheap notebook to start bullet journaling is that I wasn’t afraid to “ruin” a $20 notebook by making “mistakes”. I didn’t agonize about how to make it perfect. I just jumped right in and started! Its’ okay to do it badly. Just START!

I tried different layouts, made list after messy list, brain dumped pages worth of jumbled thoughts, scribbled notes all over, x-ed out entire pages, tried writing in different “fonts”, tested different layouts and more.

My first bullet journal is a hot mess. At the time I was kind of a mess too. But I love that journal and am so proud of it. It’s proof that I tried something new and stuck with it. It is proof that I’m making progress.

After the 2 month trial period I’d set for myself, I was 100% hooked. I was happier, more organized and getting more done than before.

Honestly, I truly think that if I had been using a “nice” journal, I might never have caught the Bullet Journal vision. I would have been too pressured by wanting it to be pretty and perfect. And then I might never have known how much joy it would add to my life and how it would help me become closer to the person I want to be.

Using a Bullet Journal to Change Your Life      Using a Bullet Journal to Change Your Life - author story

I am so grateful I had a $0 budget, because that small thing, changed my life.

Try This Small Thing Today:

Stay tuned for Part 2 where you’ll learn how to use your bullet journal to change your life by building better habits.

Using a Bullet Journal to Change Your Life – Part 3: Get the Right Things Done (using GTD)

Here are a few other places where you can learn more about starting a bullet journal:

Give it a try. You might never be the same again.

Let’s Chat!

Have you heard of the bullet journal system? Have you tried it? What do you think? Let me know in the comments.

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