A Guide to Your First Bullet Journal
By Andrea Panaligan
While I’m a huge self-betterment nerd, I’m not invincible to the pesky tendency to abandon all my New Year’s resolutions a week and a half after I make them. That is until this year when I decided to throw all the “eat better” and “stop scrolling on Instagram for hours” out the window and challenge myself to take on the biggest, scariest resolution yet—start a bullet journal.
Who’s Afraid of Bullet Journals?
A lot of my friends have made the switch from planners to “BuJos”, but I was still super hesitant to get started, mainly for three reasons:
I’ve never finished a single planner in my life. I have been using them since I was 9 years old but I have NEVER. FINISHED. A. SINGLE. ONE. In the end, I always revert back to my phone calendar or using post-its.
I felt like I wasn’t creative enough. From what I’ve seen on Pinterest boards and YouTube flip-throughs, everything—everything—in the BuJo is made by you, and as someone who has not drawn a single successfully straight line in her life, I was not exactly beaming with anticipation at the prospect of having to make an entire planner on my own.
Honestly, I was lazy. Surely laying out that entire thing would take hours, and if I didn’t even have enough time and energy to maintain a store-bought planner, I definitely wouldn’t be up for a DIY one. Between school, work, and trying to not die of starvation in my dorm, my to-do list was not cut out for it.
So, what converted me?
When I started doing actual research on BuJos (pinning pretty pictures of other people’s BuJos isn’t exactly research), I began to realize that everything I knew about it were merely all misconceptions. For starters, I watched this YouTube video by Ryder Carroll, the creator of the Bullet Journal, and I was surprised by how simple it actually is. BuJos were made to cater to you, so everything is totally up to you; the concept of BuJos being aesthetically pleasing is against what it was initially made for (this is not to say you have no right to make your BuJo pretty, just don’t let the fear of it being un-pretty hold you back). It doesn’t have to be as fancy or follow the same format as everyone else’s. As long as it’s working for you, then it’s doing its job.
So don’t let your lack of creative juices scare you. It really is a helpful tool, proven by the fact that I have never finished a planner in my life but I’m still using my BuJo (I made it to half a year! Never made it this far!). It’s also surprisingly quick. I found out that when you’re just starting out, it’s best to take it slow and make it as simple as you can, so it’s not overwhelming. The different sections of planners that all needed constant maintaining are what mainly put me off from regularly using them, so I just stuck to the bare bones with my BuJo and allowed myself to discover what sections I want. Each monthly spread (which for me is the monthly calendar and the four weekly calendars for that month) takes about 30-40 minutes—not even long enough for one podcast episode.
Here are other benefits that set BuJos apart from your usual planner:
It’s 100% customizable, so if something doesn’t work for you, you can change/remove it next month.
I found it easier to maintain than store-bought planners. Making the spreads monthly increases my commitment, and I was more likely to use something I know works for me because I made it. For example, most planners have weekly spreads that are horizontal, and over the years I found that really inconvenient; having a BuJo fixed that because I could try out vertical weekly spreads.
Frankly, it’s exciting to create the spreads every month. My BuJo is basically just calendars and to-do lists, but I really enjoy making them every month. I find it very cathartic; it’s forcing me to pause from my hectic life to sit down and slowly draw lines on a notebook. It’s relaxing and productive, so it’s wins all ‘round!
But Where Do We Start?
1. The Notebook
Most BuJo users have dotted notebooks because it has the guidance of lined paper without completely ridding you of your creative freedom. Personally, I use a grid notebook because I’m a lil’ baby first-timer who’s gravely afraid of drawing lines. Here’s what you should look for in your notebook:
Binding: While the norm is to choose thick leather-bound journals, I opted for a ring-bound one (so when I make a mistake—which I did, many, many times—I can just tear the page off) that’s also a bit thinner (so it’s handy and I can carry it around no matter what bag I use).
Paper: It is also important to choose a notebook that has relatively thicker paper. You’ll be using a lot of pens and drawing a lot of lines. Mine is 90-100gsm, which is about as thick as your usual copy paper.
Cover: Your BuJo will go where you go, so it should be resistant to constant flipping and throwing around. Mine has a hard clear plastic cover that’s sturdy enough not to be folded, but still light enough that I can fit it in my usual school tote.
Size: Mine is a half-letter, so it’s just the same size as all my other school notebooks and personal journals. A lot of other sizes do exist though, so it’s completely up to you! You can pretty much get these grid notebooks anywhere. They’re on Amazon for just $5.59.
2. The Pens
This part of bullet journaling always seemed arbitrary to me because I learned from experience that the type or brand literally does not matter. Just make sure you use a thicker pen for the spreads (I use a 0.3, or literally any pen that looks thick) and a thinner one for writing. I also use different colored pens (more on why later). They don’t have to be fancy—cheaper is better, so you can stock up on them and never run out.
3. The Sections
Watching BuJo flip-throughs and scouring Pinterest is helpful so you can get an idea of the kind of sections you’d want to include. However, remember that it shouldn’t dictate what your BuJo should look like—function always comes first! As I said mine’s pretty bare-bones at the moment, and here are the sections:
Future Log: This is really important! Because you don’t have a monthly spread until that actual month comes, having a future log means you don’t lose all the important dates that are a little later into the year.
Monthly Calendar: This is pretty basic, and it looks like your standard calendar.
Weekly Calendar: I find it more efficient to have daily logs that are vertical rather than horizontal, so that’s what I do. I also have a ‘This Week’ box on the corner for tasks I have to get done within the week but doesn’t necessarily have a specific deadline (like, say, fixing my notes for an exam the following week).
You totally have the freedom to add more sections, and the most common ones I see are habit/mood trackers, grocery master list, reading lists, and an expenses tracker.
Not everything you see will be fitting for you! I had an expenses tracker during the first month but I found it hard to maintain because I couldn’t whip out my BuJo every time I bought something. I now use an app and have removed that section for the next month.
4. The System
Having a system and sticking to it is an incredibly helpful habit. Once you get the hang of navigating your BuJo it makes planning out tasks easier and quicker and it’s just a godsend. While I advise making your own system and deciding on your own symbols so you’d memorize it easier, here’s mine to get you started:
I use boxes for to-dos. I check it if it’s done, shade it if it’s partially done, cross it out if I migrated it (postponed it for another day), and slash it out if it’s canceled/I don’t have to do it anymore.
I use unshaded bullets for events and shade them in once they’re done.
I use stars for priority tasks, usually for homework with next-day deadlines or running overdue errands.
Since I have school and work, I find color-coding really effective. I divide my weekly spreads into these categories and use the respective color for each one.
I use post-its for notes and guidelines for class-related activities, mostly because I need it to be transferable. I can write homework instructions on a post-it, stick it in my BuJo, then transfer it to my textbook while I’m actually doing the assignment.
I write big tasks on the ‘This Week’ panel, divide it into smaller tasks, then distribute it throughout my week.
But the best part of all this? The possibilities, quite literally, are endless. The life of a BuJo is never a monotonous one, but it is extremely patient—it takes a while to arrive at a system that works for you, but when you do, it changes everything.