Bullet Journal 101: Finding What Works

I started my bullet journal in February of 2016 (which, incidentally, coincided with me starting short-term therapy), so I’ve been in the bujo practise for over a year now.

It took me a while to find what works for me. Before I found layouts and modules that helped me be more productive, mindful, and happy in my bullet journal, I was confused. There were so many spreads for me to choose from, and I felt more disorganised than ever while I tried to find methods that were right for me. I think I spent about 6 months in bullet journal/planner hell before I realised there was a way to find what would work.

Trying new things can be absolutely terrifying, so I can understand if you’re nervous to put lines on pages that you might never look at again. I know I’m a perfectionist, but perfection is a subjective illusion, and I can decide what’s perfect, what isn’t, and when “perfection” is even necessary.

Here are my tips for finding what works and what’s right for your bullet journal.

Start with the basics.

Don’t jump into fancy and complicated layouts. It’s always easier to add modules, lettering, stickers, colours, washi tape, and all the extra embellishments. I started with simple layouts and lists, like the original creator focuses on. I wrote out my tips for getting started in a bullet journal, and they’re techniques I use if I need a soft reset.

Review what you’ve already done.

You don’t have to make a bullet journal spread for your review, like some people, but you can use a sticky note, or even type it up in a document. Ask yourself questions like, “What did I like? What did I dislike? What did I use? What did I neglect?” Some weeks, I write out my review—these tend to be near the end of the month in a larger monthly review. I focus on what I used versus what I didn’t, and that helps guide me. I also think about what I need to add, if I found myself forgetting about parts of my life, such as goals and habits.

Start with a hypothesis or a curiosity before trying something.

“If I add a habit tracker to my week, I’ll see it more often and be more aware of the habits I want to improve.” This is what I asked myself before I started adding a small habit tracker to my weekly, always-seen spread. The monthly habit tracker is nice, but I don’t see it all the time and I get lazy and neglect myself. My hypothesis was right: by seeing the module more often, I’m more aware and motivated. When you review your complete (or incomplete!) spreads, these are great questions to keep in mind. Always ask how something can serve you in your bullet journal, whether it’s adding, adjusting, or removing something.

Don’t focus on making things pretty.

The ~*~aesthetics~*~ of a bullet journal are entirely individual. I will, in the future, write a post on the basics of decorating and personalising your bullet journal spreads. But at this point, when you’re trying to find layouts and spreads that work for you, not what looks Instagram-worthy, the aesthetics and style aren’t as important. If you find yourself gravitating toward the layouts that have a nice colour palette, then consider taking some time to add decorations. I prefer a bullet journal spread that has colour in it, but it has to be minimal. I don’t want to spend my planner time decorating and fussing over the style of my spread. I want to use the bullet journal for organisation, reminders, and mindfulness.

Adapt to changes in your lifestyle and needs.

While I was in university and attending classes, I needed daily logs to help organise all the material I needed to read and places I needed to go. Now that I’m no longer in school, I don’t need daily logs anymore. I didn’t force myself to continue using daily logs just because they used to work. Changes in your lifestyle, like your job, school, home, and family, will necessitate some rearranging in your life. Your bullet journal is included in that rearranging. This is where the practise of reviewing your journal will help you.

And most of all… Permit yourself to experiment and fail.

You’ll never find what works if you don’t search for things. I looked at inspiration online and copied layouts. I sketched out small outlines of what I wanted to try. I needed to try changes and new spreads entirely, as well as allow myself to dislike what you do. The beauty of a bullet journal is a lack of commitment. Unlike printed planners and agendas you can buy, you aren’t stuck with a set layout in a bullet journal. The day, week, or month will end. Time passes. Your bullet journal, and the pages you don’t like, only exist for as long as you keep it. You can recycle the whole book if you want! The majority of my spreads in the middle of 2016 were awful and I hated them. But they helped me learn what I need to avoid. I’m in my 3rd bullet journal now: the 1st one was never filled in all the way, because I hated the notebook I used.


Let your bullet journal be the one place you can fuck up however much you need to. Let it be a place for you to explore. Let it be something you play with, rather than create. Let yourself mess up while you find what works for you. Remember to explore and consider what serves you, what might serve you, and what doesn’t serve you.

Bullet Journal 101: Getting Started

Bullet Journal 101 Series on CorylDork

Welcome to Bullet Journal 101—the beginner’s “course” where I’ll be guiding you through the bullet journal. I only started using a bullet journal in March 2016, but I’ve been watching it and internalising so many bullet journal things since the beginning of 2015 that I think I know my stuff.

So let’s get into it! I’m introducing the absolute and utmost basic, beginner parts of the bullet journal.

The bullet journal official website has a decent walkthrough for getting started on the bullet journal. But if you look at anywhere in the bullet journal (or “BuJo”) community, people have adapted this planning system substantially.

Frankly, I think that the purist bullet journal approach—following the official system developed by Ryder Carroll—is sterile. It lacks inspiration, personality, and intrigue. So the best way to use the bullet journal is to understand why and how it started, and then adapt as you go along. You’ll find what works for you if you let yourself explore.

So what are the essentials? What are the basics that come even before the introduction on the official website? Let’s get down to the grains in the sand that built this castle.

The essentials to the bullet journal are the following:

  • Index
  • Bullet-point lists
  • Collections

There are more parts to the bullet journal than these three, but if you want to dip your feet into the system, these are the three you should first be aware of. More can be added later. For the time being, let’s keep it simple.

Index

The index on the bullet journal website is a misnomer. It’s actually a table of contents. At the beginning of the bullet journal, a few pages are left blank in order to write the page number and contents of the page. (An index, on the other hand, would be at the back and work with key words and phrases, not a literal list of contents with page numbers. For shame, BuJo website.)

Personally, the index doesn’t work for me. I don’t go to the front of my bullet journal, get the page number for what I seek, and then find the page number with the contents. I can usually flip through my BuJo easily to find what I need. It’s up to you if you want to include it. After three weeks, I abandoned mine.

However, one great function of the index, if it’s maintained, is the ability to see at-a-glance all of the contents in your bullet journal. You can see a list of which days you logged, where you meal planned, the collections you have; and you can assess which of these things work, don’t work, or need to be changed.

Bullet-Point Lists

This is where the bullet journal gets its name. You use bullet points to signify and list tasks, events, reminders, notes, and anything else you may want to include in your journal.

Within the bullet-point system, there are two types of “points” you can use: bullets and signifiers.

Bullets are the dots, circles, boxes, triangles, hearts, arrows, checkmarks, X’s—whatever you’re using to create your list. The original system uses dots, circles, and dashes. Each bullet corresponds with a specific type of notation: dots are for “tasks” (typical of a to-do list); circles are for events (I classify these as time-sensitive tasks); and dashes are for notes (pieces of information to remember for something else).

Signifiers add context to the bullet. This context can put the list item into a category (such as inspiration or finances), show importance, or group the item with other items throughout the journal. The original system has signifiers for priorities, inspiration, and exploration. Each of these categories has an additional function to it: priorities with asterisks mean that list item is more important; inspiration shows a list item intended for migration; and exploration denotes a list item that needs more information researched on it.

The bullet-point system also includes variations in the bullets to say whether that list item is 1) done; 2) in progress; or 3) migrated (AKA scheduled for later).

I think everyone should find their personal style for bullet points. This function is the core of the bullet journal, so it will be present throughout. Here’s a sample of some bullet points I’ve thought of. I use triangles, circles, hearts, and double slashes because they’re easy to draw and easy to differentiate.

Bullet Journal Different Icons Bullets and Signifiers

Collections

Collections are very self-explanatory. They are pages that hold similar information, whether it’s a calendar for a specific month, a meal plan, a list of books to read, or quotations for motivation. The official website breaks collections into different logs and modules, and I think collections are more of a community-created aspect to bullet journalling instead of part of the original system. But I’m using it here as an umbrella term.

I consider collections to be anything from the calendars in “Logs” to a page of scratch notes for an active project. I also think the more unique spreads, such as goal-setting pages and trackers, are individual collections.

To put it simply, collections are places where you collect information, regardless of the format it’s collected in. Some collections are lists. Others are calendars. Each one is different, otherwise it would fit into another collection.


These are the parts I consider the most important to getting started with a bullet journal. The introduction to the BuJo is incredibly content-heavy, with tons of different things that may or may not serve you.

Pick up something and try it out. If it doesn’t serve you, leave it behind.

This week’s challenge

Get a piece of paper, whether it’s lined, grid, blank, or even a sticky note, and a writing implement. Write the date—however you want!—at the top. Start a to-do list, whether it’s for yesterday, today, or tomorrow. Use the bullet journal system’s key to categorise your list items, including signifiers. Try this for a few days, then assess the following:

  • Do these bullet designs work for me?
  • Do these icons for signifiers work for me?
  • What categories do I need on a day-to-day or week-to-week basis?

This is a quick and simple (and 100% fake) bullet journal to-do list that I’ve created, but using my own bullet icons to suit my own brain.

Getting Started Example Bullet Journal Entry Log

Look at my meaty hand. I wrote this on a sticky note and it works well! The exclamation points denote two priority items, with the filled-in one being more important than the other one.

Come back next Friday for “Bullet Journal 101: Modules, Logs, and Migration” to learn more about expanding your bullet journal out from to-do lists!

Bullet Journal 101: Getting Started for the Absolute Beginner