First Published: June 9, 2021 | Last Updated: June 9, 2021

The gist: Reading the actual Bullet Journal Method book by Ryder Carroll gave me total clarity on my bullet journaling to the point that I haven't gone more than a week without using it since. Here's what you need to know from it.

Long-time readers of this blog know how I've struggled to manage my planning and journaling over the years, and how bullet journaling has influenced its evolution.

The short version?

I've heavily relied on paper planners and notebooks my whole life, with varying levels of effectiveness.

Until I was maybe 23, I heavily segmented and organized everything. Separate notebooks for separate subjects, separate sections for separate topics, lots of highlighting, color coding, and other maintenance.

But around then, I started hearing about something called bullet journaling in planning communities on social media and YouTube.

I still vividly remember the day in 2014 I finally checked out bulletjournal.com, sitting sideways on the couch of my Wilmington, DE apartment. The site was new, the internet was slow, and I would look outside at the snow while the videos buffered.

Something changed that day, and I've been bullet journaling pretty consistently ever since.

However, my mindset around it was super influenced by the planner communities and trends back then, which were (and still are, I think) very maximalist and extra.

So there were spells where the amount of work and different markers it took overwhelmed me, and I'd take a little time off.

But once Ryder Carroll published the Bullet Journal Method book, I got totally clear on why I was bullet journaling and how to do so effectively for me. 

And I don't think I've gone longer than 2 weeks without picking up my journal since.

Note: Some of these links are affiliate links. So if you decide to buy anything, I'll receive a commission. Most creators say something like "100% of this goes back into the business," but I'm not most creators. Some months it goes into the business, others it will be used to buy inappropriate amounts of chocolate. Remember, working brighter is about balance!

What I Love About the Bullet Journal Method Book

The book is crucial for any journaler to read, in my opinion. Even if they don't follow the bullet journal method to the letter. 

The parts about the mindset of bullet journaling, how Ryder built the system, and the different habits that it helps create can be easily translated to other journaling or planning systems too.

And on a more personal note, I loved hearing about how Ryder Carroll developed the bullet journal as a toolkit to help him manage his ADHD.

It felt similar to my own story of developing the tools, techniques, and practices I teach in Work Brighter to help manage my own chronic illness, mental illness, and neurodivergence. There were parts of the backstory where it felt possible that I could create something with the impact of the Bullet Journal Method one day. 🥰

Finally, it included a lot of journaling exercises that I'd never heard explained this way before. The book is really actionable and designed to help you start bullet journaling, not just throw information at you.

So let's talk about the best parts of the book.

Getting Started with Bullet Journaling

What is Bullet Journaling?

The first section of the book was like bullet journaling basics, or intro to bullet journaling. It went over what the system is, why he created it, and who it helps.

The bullet journal system is a cross between a planner, diary, notebook, to-do list, and sketchbook built to manage the Ryder's ADHD brain.

The reason it can feel so "scattered" or disorganized to neurotypical people is because it was built to match the way his brain worked.

That's why so many other neurodivergent planners like myself felt so seen in it.

Why Bullet Journal?

Ryder's main reasons you should bullet journal are improving mindfulness (perhaps the biggest benefit I've seen) and combatting decision fatigue.

Improving Mindfulness

The purpose of bullet journaling is to become more mindful about how we spend our time and energy.

It combines productivity, mindfulness, and intentionality using a flexible, forgiving, and practical system. Writing slowly and by hand helps you practice pausing and bringing yourself into the present moment.

Ryder suggests viewing your bullet journal as a living autobiography, and the process of checking in with yourself as the research that hones your self-awareness.

Decluttering Your Mind & Combatting Decision Fatigue

Decision fatigue is real, and can lead to decision avoidance.

Emptying your mind (or as I like to call it, taking a brain dump. 🧠💩 helps with both.

You can practice this with his mental inventory exercise:

  • List out everything you're working on in one column...
  • Add all the things you should be working on in another, and...
  • Put everything you want to be working on in the third.

Then for each item, ask (1) if it matters and (2) if it's vital. What you say yes to are your goals and responsibilities.

Why Use Paper?

The intro section also talks about why you want to use paper for planning and journaling. In an ideal world, of course. I've learned that a hybrid approach between digital and paper is best for me, since some things I just won't do if they're not digital.

But the reasons I write on paper myself are all touched on in this section.

Software isn't flexible

Software forces you into its system or framework, but a bullet journal can be multiple things at the same time. Instead of thinking of it as one tool, Ryder suggests thinking of it like a toolkit that holds multiple tools, and one that evolves as you do.

(I would say Notion is an exception to this rule about software. In fact, I say one of the reasons I love Notion so much is because it feels like a digital bullet journal.)

Slowing down is good

The fact that writing by hand is slower is exactly why it's beneficial for the purposes we tend to journal for.

It helps with memory and forces you to slow down your thoughts so your hand and pen don't "miss them."

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Productivity isn't black and white, it's personal as hell. And there's no single lifehack or framework to solve your problems. 

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Main Elements of the Bullet Journaling System

The second part of the book laid out the basics of the bullet journaling system, and the most important elements and habits.

Individual Modules

Because it's modular, a bujo can be a to-do list, journal, planner, sketchbook, or all of the above and anything else. In my life, it's also been a moving checklist, a business plan, a content calendar, and more.

It's like legos you can assemble into whatever you want, and build one piece at a time (again, like how I describe Notion).

The reason it can work for almost anyone isn't because it's this one universal framework or something. It's because bullet journaling can hold anything, it's a container for other tools.

Rapid Logging

Part of bullet journaling is writing things out as they come to us, and dealing with it later, similar to principles like the capture habit in Getting Things Done, another one of my favorite books.

This is done through what's called rapid logging.

Rapid logging is a way to organize our thoughts as living lists.

You write thoughts, ideas, and reminders down as you have them, then deal with them later. Instead of keeping lots of different lists and notebooks, you just have an ongoing log of your thoughts (categorized through different bullet symbols) that you add to rapidly.

Get it? 😀

Using Topics and Pagination

Another element of bullet journaling that makes quickly logging easy is topics and pagination (along with the index as an overview of it all).

Giving pages a topic name helps frame your rapid logs by identifying and describing your logs, prompting you to clarify your intention for journaling. Most of my bujo pages are daily spread topics, with weekly spreads and braindumped collections in between.

The topic headers, combined with numbered pages, makes it easy to jump around to certain collections or spreads and keep track of them in an index.

Bullets

Bullets are the syntax for the bullet journaling system and rapid logging language. They're how you capture your thoughts as short, objective sentences and categorize them based on symbol.

The symbols in the basic bullet journal method include:

  • Regular bullets for to-dos
  • Dashes for notes to remember
  • Circles for events or appointments

Then, the way you cross them off can also use different visuals:

  • Turning the bullet into an X means the to-do is done
  • Turning it into a right-pointing arrow means it's migrated to the next day
  • Turning it into a left-facing arrow means it's added to a future log
  • Crossing out the whole line means it's no longer relevant

Of course, you can customize this in your own implementation of the method. I have heavily!

Tasks

The cool thing about the bullet for a regular note is that it's so basic (literally just a dot) that it can easily be transformed into other kinds as the note progresses in form or type.

And the value of writing down (rapid logging) everything that comes to you is that it creates a record of both your thoughts and actions, which is important when it's time for your review. A daily spread can contain all the different to-dos, events, and important thoughts you had that day in one simple summary.

Events

Depending on how you choose to use or log events, they are things that are currently happening, or will happen, depending on how and when you log them.

The method suggests logging events quickly in the moment, like "2pm had Slack back and forth with boss." Then during your daily review, you can unpack any deeper thoughts or emotions around the events.

Notes

In your daily log, rapid logging combines your to-do list of tasks and events with the notes and thoughts of a journal. Your journal entries happen one rapid logged note at a time.

Keeping notes short forces you to distill and condense the thoughts down to what's most essential. You can go back and expand on them later, so try to write them in a way that will be helpful to your future self.

Signifiers and Custom Bullets

Like I said before, the symbols and key can be customized to your own life and needs, which is why bullet journaling is so aligned with working brighter.

You can signify important things with signifiers and custom bullets, but overuse can overcomplicate the system.

Collections

Collections are the containers of bullet journaling, used to organize the chaos.

The basic ones are the daily log, monthly log, future log, and index, and you can build onto those based on your needs. I've got self-care collections, writing collections, life admin collections, and more.

Migration

Most productivity systems encourage you to make lists but don't cover reengaging with them (another rare exception being Getting Things Done & the review).

Bullet journal migrations are built-in reviews of our commitments, and I now do them in every productivity tool I use...not even just my bullet journal.

If it's not worth migrating and rewriting, it's probably not worth doing.

If your instinct is to feel guilty about what you haven't finished, try to look at it with curiosity instead and ask why it's incomplete.

Are you ready to start working brighter?

Productivity isn't black and white, it's personal as hell. And there's no single lifehack or framework to solve your problems. 

Sign up to get weekly tips and stories to help you create your OWN definition of productivity working better and brighter.

Starting a Bullet Journal

Bullet journaling helps ensure you're working towards the right things by creating a buffer in between things that happen and our reactions to them.

Here are the book's suggested steps for getting started:

  1. Set up the index
  2. Set up the future log
  3. Create the current monthly log
  4. Start a daily log
  5. Complete a mental inventory
  6. Migrate mental inventory
  7. Create custom collections

Once you have the structure set, you can start using daily logs until the end of week, at which point you'll do your first bullet journal reflection.

Bullet Journal Reflections

You can find meaning in your actions and feelings by reflecting on what happened or what you felt and asking why. Start with the small whys and work up to the big ones.

And the bujo system has mechanisms for all of it built in. There are daily reflections (ideally two, morning and night), weekly reflections, monthly reflections, and yearly ones.

And they all build on each other.

Goal Setting in Your Bujo

If you set goals, you need to do it with intention so they provide the right structure, direction, focus, and purpose. Not knee-jerk reactions or copycats.

Otherwise you can end up moving fast in the wrong direction, a problem I'm very acquainted with and can tell you...sucks.

You can prioritize them with the "5, 4, 3, 2, 1" exercise:

  • Divide a piece of paper into 5 rows (and two columns, if you want to separate professional and personal)
  • Write the goals you want to accomplish in the next 5 years, 4 months, 3 weeks, 2 days, and 1 hour
  • Prioritize one goal per cell
  • Add short-term goals to your daily log, and long-term ones to their own collections where you can break them down into smaller projects

This exercise helps because you want to be working on as few things as possible at any given time. Then you break them down into smaller self-contained goals.

Again, containers!

Mindsets Bullet Journaling Helps Cultivate

Embracing Small Steps

You know I'm a fan of baby steps! Large changes can scare us so much, our stress becomes self-sabotaging.

Small change lets you change in a more sustainable and less stressful way. The practice of doing this intentionally is known as Kaizen, or continual improvement, and is also a foundational principle for books like Tiny Habits and Atomic Habits.

It requires problem-solving that focuses on small problems, solutions, and asking small questions with curiosity rather than judgement.

Just focus on solving one of these problems at a time, then focus on breaking those those problem-focused sprints down into tasks. Put these small questions and tests for solutions through a cycle of plan → do → check → act.

An example of this is the Bullet Journal system itself - it was built one piece, one sprint, and one problem solved at a time.

Time Abundance

(This term is explored in depth in the book Overwhelmed by Brigid Schulte.)

You want to bring more attention to the present moment, and occasionally get into flow. Flow can't be forced, but you can create the best conditions for it, for example by timeboxing to focus your attention.

Gratitude

Celebrating your wins trains you to better seek out the positive (countering negativity bias), giving you the muscle to discover more of them. This snowballs to build momentum, optimism, and resilience.

Control

We spend immense resources trying to change things we have no control over, while ignoring things we do. Stoics preach knowing what is and isn't in our control, and therefore what we can and can't change.

We can't change external events or even our immediate feelings, but we can change how intentionally we react to them.

The daily review can help you do this by thinking about events of the day, once you've had some distance from them. Notice which items are in your control and which aren't. One hint is that processes are in your control, but outcomes aren't.

Are you ready to start working brighter?

Productivity isn't black and white, it's personal as hell. And there's no single lifehack or framework to solve your problems. 

Sign up to get weekly tips and stories to help you create your OWN definition of productivity working better and brighter.

Radiance

Carroll calls influencing the world around us radiating. If you want to radiate out to others, you need to start with yourself, which journaling can help with.

The radiance concept can also be a reminder to be mindful of who you surround yourself with, and journaling can help you work through that, too.

Endurance

Reframing the mundane things in your life to reveal their connection to your purpose or sense of meaning can help you endure longer consistency because you're reminded of why it matters.

Deconstruction

Breaking down large problems into their individual components can help you see them differently, especially when you continue asking why.

Intertia

Regaining momentum when you're stuck can be boosted by simplifying the problem. Try rubber ducking, where you pretend you're explaining them line by line to a rubber duck.

It helps you get out of your head. Explain the problem, what's not working, why, what you've tried, what you haven't, and what outcome you want to reach.

If that doesn't work, take a break. If you need/want to still work, just work on something else (Carroll calls this a break-sprint).

Imperfection

Perfection is unnatural.

Embracing imperfection puts more emphasis back on continual improvement. For example, Japanese culture focuses on mastery instead of perfection, which looks more at the process and mindset than the end goal. To do this in your journal, ask yourself small questions like small whys every day in your reflection.

The Art of Bullet Journaling: Customizing Your Bullet Journal

Now, what I loved about this book is that so much of it focused on the BASICS of bullet journaling. On the other hand, it wouldn't have given an accurate picture of being a bullet journal if it didn't talk about customizations and the contributions of the bujo community.

This last section did that, talking about how you can go beyond the basics and transform your bullet journaling from a practice to an art.

Designing your own collections makes the bullet journal your own. It lets you turn the bujo into whatever you need it to be, and that can change over time. It becomes your personal productivity ecosystem.

Custom Collections

Custom collections let you personalize your bujo to solve your own challenges.

As you create them, you can avoid being an information hoarder by always thinking about what you plan to do with the information. You can also start new collections with a brainstorm and mission statement to keep yourself focused.

Design

The content of the bujo matters more than the presentation. Your bujo should help you progress towards your goals, not stand in your way because you're not artistic or don't have enough time. Keep things focused on your priorities and write things so that future you can understand.

The minimalist bullet journal community sector embraces this part heavily.

Lists

The most basic template for a collection is a list. Keep them focused to avoid them becoming overwhelming.

Schedules

Once you list out and plan what you need to do, you can create an itinerary to schedule when you'll do it.

Trackers

Trackers that monitor progress toward an intended goal are a great example of deconstructing big goals into actionable steps.

Customizations

The core collections can always be customized or adapted to your own situation. If you want to do long-form journaling too, for example, you can add a + to the rapid long items you want to come back to for longer for entries, then store those in collections. Other popular customizations are adding habit trackers, the weather forecast, and affirmations.

Are you ready to start working brighter?

Productivity isn't black and white, it's personal as hell. And there's no single lifehack or framework to solve your problems. 

Sign up to get weekly tips and stories to help you create your OWN definition of productivity working better and brighter.

The Correct Way to Bullet Journal

The only wrong way to bullet journal is the way that's wrong for you. It's very aligned with how the Work Brighter community defines productivity in general.

So if getting real artistic is therapeutic for you? Elaborate decorations is the right way to bujo.

If you think in lists and journal to simplify your thoughts, like me? A more minimalist approach might be in order.

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