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Bullet journals, also known as BuJos, are all over social media, and plenty of people—from life coaches and motivational speakers to Instagram influencers—swear by them. Bullet journaling is a great tool for productivity, and it can also be an excellent way to manage your mental and physical health.
As someone who loves diaries, lists, and planning, I was a little hesitant to get on the BuJo bandwagon. Why, I thought, should I invest my time in getting used to a new system? And won’t a pre-made diary work better than a notebook where I have to manually create my own structure and systems?
But after trying a bullet journal for a few weeks, I was hooked. I totally get why people love it so much.
“Bullet journaling can increase a sense of mastery over life since tasks are logged in addition to increasing mental health by capturing one’s thoughts/feelings,” says Wyatt Fisher, PsyD, a licensed psychologist, marriage counselor, and the founder of a couples retreat.
“Traditional journaling has been shown to improve mental health because it provides a format to regularly process through one’s thoughts and feelings. As the old adage goes, ‘better out than in’,” Fisher says. Traditional journaling can require a lot of time and effort, but bullet journaling is quick and easy. Fisher says that this means that people are more likely to stick with it. “It allows people to capture anything from to-do items to thoughts and feelings all in one spot. Because everything is short and abbreviated, it’s simple to do and easy to maintain.”
Desiree Wiercyski, a life coach for ambitious and career-focused women, regularly uses bullet journals to help her clients organize their lives and reach their goals. “The flexibility of bullet journaling is the biggest benefit because it’s an organizational habit that can be what a person needs, and it can shift and grow with that person over time,” Wiercyski says.
If you’re interested in trying out a bullet journal to stay organized and improve your mental health, read on.
What is a bullet journal?
The concept of a bullet journal comes from Ryder Carroll, a digital product designer. On the official bullet journal website, he’s provided some in-depth information on how to get started. But the beauty of a bullet journal is that you can take a lot of these elements and tweak them to work for you.
Bullet journals combine elements of planners, diaries, journals, and to-do lists in one notebook. In other words, you can write about your feelings and actions, plan your day, and write down reminders all in one place.
In brief, here are the bullet journal basics you need to know:
Index: Bullet journals usually contain page numbers and an index, which is like a table of contents. This will help you find important notes quickly.
Spread: A spread is a page or two designated for a specific purpose. You might have daily spreads, monthly spreads, or weekly spreads where you track events or items on your to-do list. You might also have spreads for tracking habits, marking off books you’d like to read, or listing self-care methods.
Future log: This is a particular spread that contains a year at a glance (or six months at a glance). You use future logs to note important upcoming events (like your best friend’s birthday, the date you need to hand in your thesis, or vacation dates) or to note important things as they happen (like servicing the car, turning the compost, or filing taxes).
Monthly log: This is a month-at-a-glance spread. This is great for noting due dates, birthday celebrations, and recurring tasks.
Daily log: This is a day-to-day spread. If you don’t need an entire page for a day, you might want to divide two pages into six sections, with the last section split in two, to create a weekly spread.
Another crucial part of bullet journaling is the key, otherwise known as “rapid logging,” where certain symbols can annotate events, notes, or ideas.
The symbols suggested on the official bullet journal website are as follows:
[dot] – a task
X – a completed task
> – a migrated task (that is, a task you re-scheduled for today)
< – a scheduled task
O – an event
– – a note
* – a priority
! – inspiration (an inspiring quote or an “a-ha” moment)
[eye] – explore (an idea to look into)
These symbols are great because instead of writing “start filing taxes,” and then next to it “Didn’t have enough time! Will do it later!” you can simply write “> start filing taxes,” and migrate the task to another day. Feel free to develop your own symbols to suit your needs, too; I use a little triangle to indicate when work is due because it’s something I have to note often.
Although there is an official method of bullet journaling, you can adjust the method to make your own. You don’t have to use every element in your own bullet journal. Personally, I seldom use page numbers or an index because I don’t have any trouble finding the pages and notes I’m looking for.
The important part is that your method works for you; if you don’t find your system useful or enjoyable, you’re likely to abandon it.
Why is bullet journaling so popular?
Different kinds of planners can be useful, and each of them has its own benefits and drawbacks. Different people have preferences for different planners, and some might even use multiple kinds at once, especially if they’re managing multiple projects.
But bullet journaling is a new way to plan and organize your life, and people love it for several distinct reasons:
It’s not digital.
According to Carroll, part of the reason that bullet journals work is because they’re analog. Instead of keeping a bunch of to-do lists and appointments on your phone or laptop, you write it in your bullet journal.
In a world where we rely on technology for nearly everything, it’s refreshing to use pen and paper once in a while. Research suggests that writing by hand is great for improving cognitive functions and creativity.
Another draw for bullet journaling is that you get to write without being constantly distracted by notifications. Plus, it’s great to give your eyes and thumbs a break from your screen and keypad!
I used to love the standard planners I had since high school. They always had the same format, and they were easy to use. But I disliked the fact that I couldn’t see my week-at-a-glance since it was a page-a-day diary. I struggled with this structure for years.
With bullet journaling, you create your own structure. You design your own monthly logs and weekly spreads. If something doesn’t work for you in May, you can change it in June.
Bullet journaling is also flexible in that you can use it for any purpose in any way. “The best thing about bullet journaling is it’s completely flexible and can be whatever you want it to be,” Wiercyski says. “For example, to keep track of expenses, it can be as basic as assigning one page for debits and spending throughout the day and another page for deposits. Another person may like every transaction on one page and using different colors to represent debits and deposits. Bullet journaling is one of those few organizational practices where there’s no right or wrong way so long as you do it.”
You can be as minimalist or as creative as you’d like.
Some bullet-journal users go all out, using watercolors, stickers, washi tape, and more to turn their bullet journals into a scrapbook of sorts. Others keep it simple: They use very little color and don’t decorate at all.
Neither way is wrong. Some people like bullet journaling to be simple, and others like turning it into a creative pursuit. You can approach it however you’d like.
It doesn’t have to be Instagram-worthy to work for you. Don’t get too stressed about untidy handwriting, mistakes, or color schemes. Focus on developing a shorthand and getting in the habit of writing things out quickly.
You can start with very little.
You can buy an official bullet journal notebook if you’d like, and many enthusiasts seem to have endless amounts of accessories to use to decorate their bullet journals. Your bullet journal can be simple or complex—it’s totally up to you.
For our bullet journal essentials, see the end of this article!
How exactly can I use bullet journaling to improve my life?
Now that you understand the basics of bullet journaling, you might wonder what exactly you’ll put in it. Other than a future log, monthly log, and daily log, you can use the pages of your bullet journal to create a number of different spreads for tracking what’s important to you.
To be clear: If you just want to use your bullet journal as a simple to-do list, you totally can. However, there are many ways you can use it to improve your mental health, work on your goals, and cultivate healthy patterns of behavior. Here are some ideas:
Use weekly trackers to track your habits.
Weekly trackers, or habit trackers, are fantastic for anyone who’s hoping to cultivate a habit. And let’s face it—most of us fit in that category. We often hear about the benefits of meditating, drinking a lot of water, and reading every day, but it’s hard to actually integrate those habits in your life and stick to them.
In comes the habit tracker. You can take advantage of the grid-like structure of your bullet journal to draw a little table on your weekly spread. There are many ways to draw it, but I prefer to list the days of the week on the y-axis and the habits I’m working to cultivate on the x-axis. Whenever I commit to a goal or habit on a specific day, I color the block in. I use a weekly habit tracker instead of a monthly one so that I can feel as if I’m starting fresh each week. This reminds and motivates you to cultivate the habit.
Fisher suggests a scoring system if you’re trying to cultivate certain attitudes, which can work alongside a habit tracker. “You can log personal growth areas, such as how you did for the day from 1-10 being patient with [your] children, tackling dreaded tasks, focusing on thankfulness, putting others first, and so on,” he says.
Your habit tracker isn’t just helpful for cultivating habits—it’s also useful for tracking how your habits affect you. “I worked with a client recently who was frustrated she wasn’t making progress on a book she’s writing, even though she was carving out time,” says Wiercyski. “What she quickly noticed after a week of tracking her writing goals as well as a handful of other pieces, she made less progress the days she didn’t practice mindfulness skills. So now, she has a regular practice of meditating before writing and is seeing the progress she wants.”
Use your bullet journal to break negative patterns.
Just as a bullet journal can help you cultivate good habits, it can also help you break negative ones. Writing things out—from your feelings to your plans—is a great way to cultivate self-awareness.
This self-awareness, Wiercyski says, is essential when it comes to dealing with negative thought or behavioral patterns. “Often I work with clients who are hung up with a certain behavior or habit that they just can’t seem to break. When this is the case, chances are the habit is serving a deeper need and a bullet journal system can bring the to light.”
Wiercyski says that she helps these clients by working on a list of alternative things they can do instead of engaging in their habits. “For example, I recently worked with a client who was trying to break the habit of mindlessly snacking in the evening,” she says. “So instead of snacking, the first thing she would do would be to color for 10 to 15 minutes.” After this, if the client still wanted to snack, she’d write about how she felt, what she liked about coloring, and how she could meet her emotional needs without turning to food.
Use a mood tracker to trace your triggers.
Just as it can help you break negative patterns of behavior, a bullet journal can help you figure out what’s at the bottom of your bad moods. “Taking the time to label your mood then asking the simple question, ‘What’s making me feel like this?’ can bring so much awareness and lift us out of a funk,” says Wiercyski.
You can use this in conjunction with your habit tracker to see what’s causing you to feel good or bad. For example, if you notice that you’ve been feeling fatigued and grumpy, you might look at your habit tracker and realize it’s because you’ve been getting in very little sleep or haven’t been spending enough time in the sunshine.
Wiercyski says that she worked with a client who used a mood tracker. Her client realized that she felt down the days after she went out drinking with her friends. “Now she’s on a journey of learning what she wants her relationship with alcohol to look like,” Wiercyski explains. “That’s the beauty of using a bullet journal to its fullest potential—it shows you how things are intertwined and the unexpected pieces that may be tripping you up on reaching your goals.”
Use it to improve your relationships.
As a marriage counselor, Fisher believes that bullet journaling can also be used to improve your romantic relationships. “It could be used to log daily appreciation for their spouse to cultivate an attitude of gratitude,” Fisher notes. By writing down the reasons that you appreciate your partner and habitually thanking them for their support, you can cultivate a sense of appreciation in yourself while helping your partner feel valued.
Fisher also suggests that you use a bullet journal to log things like dates or quality time spent together, sex, and more. Having a log of your experiences together can help you pinpoint what’s working or what might be triggering an issue. You might even include a spread for fun date night ideas.
Use it as a gratitude journal.
Gratitude journaling is a fantastic tool for your mental health and personal development. Research shows that regularly practicing gratitude is excellent for your emotional and physical well-being.
When you set up your weekly spread, include a little block where you can write about your achievements or things you’re grateful for. You could also create a list on a random page in your bullet journal and use it to write down everything that fills you with gratitude. Whenever you’re feeling down, you can page back to that list.
Use your bullet journal to get creative.
“Because bullet journal lends itself as a creative outlet, it can also be used as a mindfulness tool. Taking the time to make things look nice can be very centering,” says Wiercyski.
We all heard about the benefits of coloring a few years ago when the adult coloring book craze was at its peak. Writing out your feelings is also great, as it can help you process events. Even writing fiction or writing nonsense stream-of-consciousness style can be a great way to release some stress. Combining these things—putting your feelings down in words while decorating them with a fun new pen—is many BuJo users’ favorite part of their bullet journals.
Whether you’d like to doodle or write stream-of-consciousness style for a few moments, you can do it with a bullet journal. Keep a few pages at the back of your book aside for a creative outlet if you need extra space. You can try integrating drawings with your spreads if you’d rather get creative more regularly. I love choosing themes each week and drawing little doodles all over my weekly spread; I’ve done themes like houseplants, animals, crystals and geodes, flowers, space, the beach, and more.
Remember that your doodles don’t have to be beautiful. Art doesn’t have to be good to be good for you—it’s supposed to make you feel relaxed, not self-conscious!
How can I start using a bullet journal?
The most important thing is just to start! But if you’re wondering which tools you’ll need, here are HealthyWay’s favorite picks:
If you’d rather start with a simple lined notebook, those work fine too.
You’ll want a pen that doesn’t bleed onto the next page and that writes smoothly. The world of pens is a surprisingly complicated one, but some recommendations are Sharpie Art Pens (they’re pens, not permanent markers, so they don’t bleed through or have a strong smell), Sakura Microns (these come in a variety of thicknesses), and Uchida of America’s LePen.
All the Extras
Once you’ve got the bullet journal basics, the creative itch might hit you. Then you can start looking into…
Markers and highlighters: We love the Tombow Dual Brush Pens that are perfect for hand lettering and illustrations.
Washi tape: These rolls are ideal for covering up mistakes, decorating pages, and taping in smaller pieces of paper; we especially like this vintage paper style!
Stickers: No planner or bullet journal is complete without stickers. We’re suckers for ban.do sticker books; this one has more than 700 stickers!