For as long as I can remember, I’ve had an infatuation with paper. Books. Notebooks. Pens. Stationary. Sticky notes. Stickers. Highlighters. *handflap* Fountain pens. Wax seals. Embossing tools and bone folders and waxed thread. You know — a paper nerd. I always thought it came with the territory of loving books so much: one begets the other.
You would think that the inevitable would have happened way sooner, given this confession: that I would have fallen headlong into the planner community ages ago and never looked back. That never actually happened. I’ve been a digital person for the past decade-ish, spending upwards of fourteen hours in front of a computer on a regular day. I like having all my platforms connected and syncing together: computer, tablet, iPhone. Everything accessible as long as there’s a device somewhere on my person. Partially, this is due to the nature of the work I do (design) and the work I aspire to do (novel writing.) I’m faster and much more aggressive with a keyboard in front of me. *shrug* Also I like tech. I like tech a lot.
You know what the problem with too many digital tools is? It’s not freaking paper and ink.
There is a certain romance in being a “woman of letters” that I really appreciate, but hadn’t really cultivated… until recently.
Early on, I’d developed the habit of collecting journals. I’d write in the first couple of pages, and decide my handwriting was too terrible to continue. This has resulted in the accumulation of so many partially-completed notebooks that when I finally gave up and went completely digital, I had decided that trying to keep notes by hand “just wasn’t for me.”
I’ve been wrong on occasion before, I suppose. I don’t particularly like admitting to it, but yes, being wrong happens. Being wrong teaches you humility, and in my case, it also teaches you about ink stamps and washi tape. Being wrong taught me that practice makes for better penmanship. Being wrong taught me that when you sit in front of a piece of paper with a pen in your hand, you think differently than when you’re in front of a screen.
The most important thing that I learned about being wrong this time was the following, and this is the thing that makes french fries out of ordinary potatoes, so heed it well:
Sometimes it’s not the tool, but the method that’s lacking.
The Origin Story
I was looking for a creative outlet that would ultimately fuel a generative process. In less fancy-pants terms, I was reading Guillermo del Toro’s Cabinet of Curiosities, and I became obsessed with the idea of his notebooks. The dude’s been recording his ideas by hand for years — he writes in the morning and in the evening, at a dedicated space which also houses his collection of oddities (he calls it the Bleak House.) Those books are the creative fuel that have manifested into his film work and art, and I loved the idea. I loved the idea of keeping a record, and I loved the idea of being able to dump a bunch of journals into a box someday and hand them over to my future-unborn-children’s children, wave my arthritic gnarls over it, and tell them, “This is how Gramma birthed nightmares.”
This, in short, was the catalyst for my search: I wanted someone to hold my hand as I ventured forth and started recording all the scraps of strange that I collect (i.e. “that occur to me as I’m scrubbing my armpits in the shower”), but I also wanted to record the process since that hadn’t been a consideration as of yet… but I was scared of the page. What if I made mistakes? What if my handwriting was hideous? A small part of me weighed my smartphone against a pound of feathers and worried that I’d be abandoning all my expensive toys for hand cramps and ink stains.
And then I bought my first Leuchtterm 1917 dot grid notebook, and leapt down the rabbit hole.
The Bullet Journal: An Introduction
At it’s core, the Bullet Journal is an ultra simple organizational system intended to bolster your productivity and unfuck your life that requires exactly three things: a notebook and a pen and your fogged-out, over-stressed noggin.
In The Absolute Ultimate Guide to the Bullet Journal from the Lazy Genius Collective, their opening remarks describe the Bullet Journal like a potato — an apt comparison, which I like to reference when someone asks me about my bujo:
It seems boring and bland and easily replaced by flashier starches like couscous and black forbidden rice, but the potato is special not for what it is but it what it can become. Tell couscous to turn into a French fry, and we’ll talk. Until then, the potato is king simply because it can be whatever you want it to be.
That’s what makes the Bullet Journal so special. The market is saturated with every planner you could dream up, but somehow not one – no matter how fancy – perfectly serves your needs. It’s just couscous trying to turn into a French fry. But the Bullet Journal is different. It starts with a blank journal and a pen which is deceptively simple and almost boring, but it’s also the lazy genius organizer you’ve been waiting for.
This is to say that you can make it what you want, but before you start looking at some of the amazing spreads on Instagram and Pinterest and worrying about the amount of effort required to maintain one of these things, know that at it’s core, the system is much, much simpler than the heights to which it’s been elevated by certain wildly talented individuals — though if you aspire to, and you have the willpower but not the natural talent, you can do it, you can get crazy, you can get hyphy with it if you work at it.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
Let’s begin at the beginning.
The official Bullet Journal video from Ryder Carroll
What is a Bullet Journal in super simple terms
A note-taking method and system of organization for those notes that takes into consideration the next year, the next month, the next week, and the next day of your time, and organizes the various things you need to keep track of into collections. It’s a planner, a journal, and a goal maintenance machine… if you want it to be. At its most simple, it’s a planner; at its most complex, it’s magical thing that prevents you from forgetting anything so long as you use it, and in metaphorical terms, it’s a little bit of magic: a spell book, an alchemist’s cookbook, a record personal development, an archive of aspirations, a sketchbook, a notebook, and a bit of a commonplace book too.
For me, it is also ground zero for my writing: it’s where ideas are seeded and with some nursing, eventually grow into stories.
What makes a Bullet Journal
A Bullet Journal consists of a few key elements that organizes the crap-ton of information you throw at it:
- A Key
- Future Log
- Monthly Log
- Daily Log
In the cliff notes version of the explanation, this is what each element is and does:
Each page within the journal is numbered, and the best way to reference the contents is by maintaining an index of items at the beginning or end of the book. You log each page like it was a table of contents for easy reference.
The key is a page of notational symbols. It’s called a “bullet journal” because logging items in it is meant to be quick. Bullets (little dots) are tasks that can be crossed out as they’re completed, cancelled, or migrated. The key takes these symbols into account, and acts as a reference for the notational system used throughout the book.
A page of upcoming events, organized by month and date, for the next year.
An overview of events and big tasks, organized by date, for the next month.
An overview of events, tasks, and appointments that you need to work on for the next week. This is the meat of it, and where I spend the most time. It’s where you plan your day-to-day activities.
Anything else that doesn’t fit into the above structure is considered a collection. These are often lists, trackers, notes, doodles, ideas, brainstorming, whatever. I use my collections for story notes, travel planning, and logging various things like sleep, what I’m eating, movies I want to watch, books I’m reading, blog posts I want to work on, and design projects that have a lot of moving parts. It’s where things really start to get interesting.
Check out Ryder Carroll’s video above to see how to set up the basics.
Beyond the structural rules of the system, there are a lot of ways that you can adapt a basic setup for your needs. I hope that in this series of blog posts, I can shed a little light on how I’ve adapted mine as a creative professional — as a writer and designer who’s re-learning to love analog.
You shouldn’t feel intimidated, or that it’s going to take you hours to master. At the end of they it’s a tool meant to help you get more done, and become the master of your everyday life. Your work. Your studies. Your creative projects.
For what it’s worth, I maintain two bullet journals: one for personal use, and one for work that lives on my desk at the office.
To summarize the difference between the adoption of both of them, I’m quoting a recent post I made on reddit:
“The one difference I can make a note of is that the (work) BuJo is, in its purest form, what a bullet journal is ‘supposed’ to be: ultra paired-down, jotted in really quickly, not experimental or artistic at all, and completely functional; whereas my personal bujo is experimental and gradually getting more expressive. It’s MUCH more meticulous in organization and execution.
The personal (bujo) is a thing of love and craft; the work bujo is utilitarian.”
Both do the same thing. There’s no right way or wrong way. There’s only the way it works for you.