Review: What’s a Bullet Journal, or, What the Heck is My Daughter Talking About?

I’ve always liked having a physical planner as a memory aid and organizer. For the past few years, though, my memory has been failing me more often, so it’s been more necessity than supplement. Turns out I have fibromyalgia, so we have a reason, but not a fix.

I have tried a multitude of planners over the years, from Franklin day planners and the Arc system to desk calendars to Kickstarter offerings like the Time and ToDo Planner (my favorite, up to now) and the Panda Planner. They all have their strengths, but they always include things I don’t use or lack something I need.

A couple of weeks ago, my daughter, who also has fibromyalgia and inherited my need to organize, introduced me to the concept of a bullet journal. (I have no idea how I’d missed it for so long – it seems to be a huge trend just now.) I was dismissive at first, because trendy things aren’t always as useful as they may appear and their longevity is questionable. But she showed me what she was doing and I decided to look into it for myself.

After browsing for a while, I had to admit that this idea hits me right in the happy. It’s customizable in the way that things that say they’re “fully customizable” often fail to be, because you make it yourself. I do love customizable things. It lets me organize and rearrange any time and any way I want. And it’s so simple you have to wonder why no one thought of it before.

The basic concept is that you create an index at the beginning, a future planner (basically your calendar of events for the year, which you can add to as you go), and then pages for the week/month/whatever that let you know what you have coming up immediately. Then note in your index where to find those pages.

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This is my future planner. Obviously, you could go less (or more) elaborate.

After that point, it’s a journal. I label mine by day. You make a bullet point for each task, appointment, or thing to remember. If you want, you can use symbols to identify different things – I use a square for a task, a triangle for an appointment, a circle for something I’m waiting on, and a dot for something to remember or log.

If you notice you are writing down a lot of similar things, like books to read or blog posts to write, you can create a collection. This is just a page where you list all of those things together. Then you add that page to your index so you can find it later. This is the key to making the journal useful to reference.

And that’s it. You can add anything you want, though. I have a habit tracker based on a design I found online. I also have pages for my checklist for the play I’m working on, books I want to read, blog post ideas, and goals.

Some people have gone crazy with this idea. They buy expensive notebooks and get incredibly artistic, making beautiful pages and layouts. And that works for them, so that’s perfect. Personally, I’m not all that artistic, and I don’t want to spend too much time or money on it. I use a pretty journal I found on Amazon for $12, and my daughter uses a blank sketchbook.

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Yeah, I know. But I like it.

They both have a lot of pages, so they should last a while. We both like adding color, so we bought inexpensive felt tip markers and some washi tape, which will also last for quite a while. But all you really need is a notebook and a pen. As for design, I’ve put a little more effort into some pages that I’ll use long term, but for the most part they get a heading and maybe some washi tape at the bottom. My daily journaling pages just have separators for each day – more functional than decorative.  And you don’t even need to do as much as I did. Just write things down. All that matters is that it works for you.

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My theater checklist for Verdigris and a list of ideas for blog posts since I started the journal. Notice that it’s not really all that fancy. Drawing things that actually look halfway decent takes too long for me.

I find that the bullet journal system also works well with electronic planning. I keep most of my appointments in my Google Calendar, which is great because I can share them with the rest of the family, and it stores things that are too far ahead to put in my journal. Or, if I write an appointment in my journal after I make it, I’m reminded to add it to my calendar. The bullet journal also reminds me when I’ve put something in Evernote that I want to use in the near future.

The concept does have its cons, though. First, you have to make the layout and decide on the organization yourself. This doesn’t have to be tedious. If you want to spend time with it (some people use it as “me time”), you can get as elaborate as you want. Or not. You can just make notes and forget about it until you need it again. There are plenty of ideas just a Google away. At a minimum, though, you do need to number your pages.

Tied in with that is another con: Time. Even if you use a simple layout, you do need to do some routine maintenance. You’ll need to sit down with your journal daily or weekly to plan for the next day or week, and you’ll have to note tasks that you haven’t completed and move them forward. Different additions to your journal may require you to spend a little time on them, too. It’s important to choose layouts and features that you are willing to keep up on.

Con number three is that you will write tasks or ideas several times. You might add it to your journal, then move it to a collection. You may have it on your weekly schedule, then have to add it to a specific daily task, and then not complete it and have to move it forward to the next week. Some people view this as a bonus – if you start to feel like it’s not worth writing down, you can probably get rid of it. But others might find this tedious or inefficient.

Some might also find an analog journal to be a little silly in the electronic age. You can choose to do a bullet journal using apps, if you want. I find the act of writing something down helps me remember it better, and I like the feel of putting pen to paper. But that’s not everyone’s cup of tea.

Now, there are some people out there who swear that keeping a bullet journal is the best thing since the invention of indoor plumbing and that it changed their life. I’m not quite that involved, though, and I’m not going to wax poetic about my planner. Nor will I ever be referring to it as a “bujo.” It has become my favorite organization tool, however, and I can see myself using it for a long time.

If you do decide to try one, the trick for most people is to keep it simple. You can always add something later. If something doesn’t work, stop doing it. If you’re someone who likes to draw and finds it relaxing, maybe you’ll want to spend some time on your pages for the week. But if you find yourself not using the journal because it takes too much time to create the new pages, maybe try scaling back on the design. You need to find a balance of time, utility, and aesthetic that you can both enjoy and maintain.

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