All of a sudden, the bullets are flying.
No, not literally! I’m talking about the latest trend in personal organization, the bullet journal. Since 2013, this method for keeping track of to-dos, thoughts, budgets, tasks, and basically anything that can be written down has been exploding in popularity.
It started out as the brainchild of a Brooklyn-based digital designer, Ryder Carroll, who was looking for a project to do in between contracts and settled on sharing his personal organization system with the world. And man, did it get shared—appearances in major media led to a TEDx talk and more.
What’s so special about a blank notebook and some pens that has people all over the world obsessed?
And why should writers, in particular, care?
Bullet Journaling is Simple and Effective
A bullet journal lets you record, organize, and reference all those thoughts running through your head each day in one convenient space. It’s like having a searchable index for your brain, with space for everything.
Whether you need to keep track of your next plot point, an idea for a new nonfiction book, or your budget tracking and grocery list, a well-thought-out bullet journal can manage it for you.
Given all the beautiful examples of artist-level bullet journals online, getting started can seem intimidating.
But basic bullet journaling doesn’t require much in the way of materials, time, or artistic skill! Just be willing to commit to learning the system and trying it out for a few weeks. You’ll be amazed you ever lived without it.
Here’s the basics to get you started.
What Is a Bullet Journal?
Basically, a bullet journal is a blank notebook that you fill with anything you might need to reference later. It’s sort of a physical, real-world Evernote or a searchable database of your life and thoughts.
This isn’t a classic diary or personal journal. While you can write down what happened in your day in prose or freewriting form, that’s not all that bullet journaling does. It’s more of a next-level list-making system, combined with a reference or index scheme to let you quickly find anything you might want to. You’re not writing out long entries—just short notes to “brain dump” what you’ve got going on.
From there, the possibilities are endless—there are bullet journal templates and ideas for just about anything you might want to record. Because it’s based on a blank notebook, bullet journaling is amazingly flexible. You can adapt the system to record anything you might want to reference, in whatever form works best for your brain.
It can be as simple or as fancy as you need it to be—you can get started with just a blank notebook from the dollar store, or you can spring for a nice Moleskine or dot-grid notebook. Likewise, you can use a ballpoint pen you picked up at the bank, or go for fancy multicolored Micron or Staedtler pens.
Who Should Keep a Bullet Journal?
Anyone who needs a little organizational help in their daily life could benefit from trying out a bullet journal—but writers, given our penchant for collecting every thought and scrap of interesting information that wafts by, can really shine with this system.
- Do you have a billion new book ideas floating through your head, only to forget that genius plot point when the time comes to write?
- Are you struggling with outlining your work?
- Do you need a hand keeping on top of writing deadlines and assignments?
- Are you having trouble referencing information you’ve found to support your writing?
- Do you have trouble organizing your to-do list(s)?
- Do you want to keep track of your habits and goals?
If you answered “yes” to any of these, then give bullet journaling a try!
The basic setup for a bullet journal is simple: all you need is a notebook and a pen.
The original bullet journaling website has a handy walk-through to get you started, teaching you the Rapid Logging system, which is how basic information is sorted with little coded bullets (hence the name).
A dot indicates a task. An X means you’ve done the task. A greater-than (>) means you’ve moved the task to another time or day, and a less-than (<) means you’ve scheduled it to be done.
Boom. Your daily plan is made.
Add to that with events, marked with an O, and notes, marked with a dash (—).
At a glance, you can now see everything lined up for your day, clearly marked out and ready to go.
From these basics, you can start adding additional layers of information, like * for something important or ! for noting inspiration. Maybe you’ll start color-coding information to sort through it even faster and easier.
You can set up different sections of your notebook for different things, like your daily plan near the beginning, notes on your current book in the middle, and genius ideas you don’t want to forget at the back.
You’ll go through and number all your pages as you start setting your notebook up. This helps in a bunch of ways, especially when it comes to retrieving notes you’ve written for yourself. The bullet journal system suggests ways you can index all this information for easy reference in a section at the very front of the book. You can also use sticky note flags and magnetic bookmarks to help.
Obviously, there’s a whole industry around bullet journals to help you make your trusty notebook prettier, easier to use, and so on.
From the basics of just a plain notebook and pen you can upgrade in nearly infinite ways.
One choice that lots of folks make is going with a notebook that already has numbered pages and places to store stickers and flags; the Leuchtterm is designed especially for bullet journaling.
Plain ink pens work great for bullet journaling, but if you’re using more sections and topics, you might want to add color to really highlight what’s what. Any colored ink pen will work, but many bullet journalers suggest using archival inks that won’t fade or eat through the paper if you want to keep your notebooks long-term—which is often important if you’re using it to organize your writing. From gel pens to archival markers, there’s an option for every interest and budget.
To add some flair and start turning your bullet journal into the works of art seen all over Instagram, consider picking up some reusable metal stencils and rulers. These help you create neat lettering, write straight, add swirls and designs, and more. There’s a zillion varieties all over Etsy and Amazon.
Washi tape, a sort of decorative masking tape popular in Japan and among crafters, can also be a helpful tool for marking off headers or dividing pages…or just adding some zip to your journal pages. It comes in an insane number of colors, widths, and prints, including metallic options!
What to Record
Now that you’ve got all your tools together, it’s time to think about what you want to record in your bullet journal.
Traditionally, this is a replacement for a paper planner or calendar. So you’d start out by setting up your index, then adding a long-range planning section either for the year or by month, then a section for daily planning, events, and to-dos.
This is a great way to organize your life and take charge of your schedule to maximize your effectiveness. It also means that you’re not stuck with the pre-printed planning guidelines in many paper planners, but you still have a formal system to help you keep track of what you’ve got going on, instead of a cluttered set of scribbles.
Another typical use for a bullet journal is to stay on top of your various lists. That doesn’t just mean today’s to-do list, either.
Bonny Christy, the editor of Furnish My Way, says: “I use my bullet journal for gathering my thoughts throughout the day, making grocery lists for the week, daily to-do lists, and keeping track of books I have read and movies/TV shows I have watched.”
Habits and Goals
Because the bullet journal format is so flexible, it can keep track of basically anything you want to document on a regular basis. Bonny suggests using different sections to track your budget or spending habits, your exercise routines, or your eating habits.
Heather Nelson, an author and blogger, uses her bullet journal to run her entire household, including setting and tracking blood sugar readings for her diabetic family members.
Ideas and Inspiration
Writers always have a thousand ideas for the next thing we want to do—or for where to take our current project. Bullet journals are invaluable for getting all those great ideas out of your head and down on paper in a fast, searchable way.
Just create a section for ideas and inspiration, or for each of your projects, and start recording your thoughts. Or create them as a note on your daily pages, marking them with a dash (—) for note and otherwise tagging them in symbols or colors to relate to their topic. You can experiment until you find the method that works best for you!
How to Use a Bullet Journal to Turbocharge Your Writing
Bullet journaling is an insanely powerful tool for writers. Depending on how you choose to use it, it can be an organizational system, an inspiration log, a research index, a writing progress tracker, and more—or all of the above! That’s the value of this system…it’s infinitely flexible.
Track Writing Progress
Writer Holly Lyn Walrath uses her bullet journal to keep track of her writing progress and works-in-progress, setting goals for herself and logging where she’s submitted her work and what the response has been. Holly says, “It’s pretty much changed my entire approach to writing. I track each day in terms of writing, listing which projects I worked on. In April, which is National Poetry Writing Month, I wrote 30 poems in 30 days using my bullet journal!”
Make Reading Lists
Whether you’re trying to note down all the references you need to read for your next nonfiction book or keep track of the fiction that inspires you, using your bullet journal to log your reading is a huge help.
The best writers are also avid readers, and using your journal to keep track of what you’ve read can help you stay organized—and on top of your library books!
Organize Your Thoughts
Heather Nelson has the same sort of busy mind that many of us writers do, churning out great ideas while doing other things:
“I am often awakened at night for blood sugar checks and can’t get to sleep…or out and about with the kids and then struck with ideas on projects. Throwing down a quick bullet on my phone (sometimes with a snapshot picture if need be) and emailing it to myself helps me capture those creative inspirations and, again, focus on being present.”
This brings us to a great point: you don’t need to have your notebook on you to use bullet journaling. You can send yourself a text or email, then transcribe it into your journal when you’re able. What matters is that you quickly and clearly record your thought, then put it into a place where you can reference it later.
Found a perfect piece of background information for your book? Jot it into your notes in your bullet journal and index it. You’ll be able to quickly look it up and incorporate it into your piece—all without breaking stride on whatever you were doing when you got the idea.
We all have certain words and phrases that jump out at us—I like to call them “zingers.” Maybe the guy next to you on the train made some pithy comment that you’d like to include in dialogue later. Maybe you just heard a new-to-you word that’s perfect for your book. Or maybe your niece just made up a silly song that you’d love to turn into a children’s story.
All of these brilliant thoughts and phrases could flutter away with your next distraction if you don’t write them down. Enter the bullet journal!
Holly says, “I’m thinking of adding a section for vocabulary—a kind of word dictionary which focuses on ‘shiny’ words that I love and want to reuse in my work.”
With all these ideas swirling in our heads, it can be hard to prioritize and, therefore, hard to get our daily word count done. Heather notes, “As a writer, I never have just one book or blog or article going on—I have eleventy-billion! I may be actively typing up one blog post and be struck with ideas for 10 more. I will be working on one column while mentally rabbit-trailing into two others. Currently, I have literally five books in the works. Bullet journaling gives me a quick way to put my thoughts down on the other ideas so I can refocus on the task at hand.
“It allows me to feel like I’m not losing ground in the multitude of thoughts in my head, while clearing the clutter to really focus on what needs my attention most in that moment.”
Fast, flexible, and infinitely customizable, a bullet journal is a perfect place to start organizing your thoughts and goals as a writer.
Do you use a bullet journal? How has it helped your writing?
For more on building great habits for success as a writer, read on:
- Planning for Productivity: Accelerate Your Success by Planning Right
- 15 Success Habits of Professional Writers and Authors
- How to Get More Done in Less Time: Create Systems That Work for You