Bullet Journal, Not Buckshot

—Written on July 26, 2015—

Oh, the money I have wasted on planners that I had good intentions of using—but didn’t. Woe to the trees that have ended up without a molecule of graphite scribbled upon them, tossed into the trash, and no sooner returned to the ground! My Apple iCal app found itself overly color-coded and underly heeded. Every to-do list app I downloaded quickly found its way into the oft-forgotten “second page” of my iPhone. Each of my organizational strategies dissolved as quickly as pen ink scribbled directly onto my hand (also a strategy I tried). My husband is a walking calendar, but did I remember to ask him? No more frequently than I remembered to ask Siri.

With all of this technology, one would think a soul could manage her life with some semblance of organization.


I double-booked more regularly than I input events into my calendar. When David and I were dating, there was a moment when I almost planned over our scheduled date night with a girlfriend—right in front of him. Two years later, conviction having slowly accumulated to the status of “urgent,” I found myself scouring the internet for something to help.

I stumbled upon the Bullet Journal on the Lifehacker blog. It was familiar, and I vaguely recalled Googling to this end before, only to conclude, “Hah! It’s too bad the word ‘anal’ prompts thoughts of something other than Freudian psychoanalysis these days… otherwise I’d use it to describe this method of life-keeping.” This time, though, driven to open-minded humility over a hurt fiancé and missed meetings, I watched the trailer, thinking, “Perhaps ‘excessively orderly and fussy, supposedly owing to conflict over toilet-training in infancy’ is exactly what I need.”

A day later, I went back and ordered a Moleskine and a pen holster—the modern equivalent to a pocket protector—and started journaling and bullet-ing and toilet-training my schedule.

The Bullet Journal

The Bullet Journal uses a very simple analog (i.e. pen and paper as opposed to digital) system to manage both one’s calendar and to-do list. Watch the video for a better, more brief, and more hipster overview than I could ever produce. It is worth your time.

It is essentially an organizational “catch-all.” This solved my problem of wanting to compartmentalize each area of my life into separate notebooks: calendar, to-do lists, random thoughts, writing ideas, words or phrases I wanted to remember, etc. My Bullet Journal is the central place for everything; I never have to ask, “Hmmm, was that one idea in my blue notebook with white stripes, or my white notebook with blue stripes?” With customization, you can turn the Bullet Journal into exactly what you want it to be.

In bullet form, allow me to share with you the additional top reasons I love the Bullet Journal:

  • You never lose track of to-do list items. Even if you leave one abandoned in last week’s to-do list, every week or month you return to catch any strays and add them to your future to-do lists.
  • My Bullet Journal is tangible. Sometimes, just the sight of my journal reminds me of an important task, whereas entire task lists can get sucked into the Black Hole (which some refer to as the Tasks app) on my iPhone.
  • This one takes the cake: it is customizable. Wrestle with the restrictive templates of normal planners no longer! The inventor created it to be modular; you pick and choose what aspects of the system you want to adopt. You build on top of the existing systems with ideas of your own. There are no rules, just ideas…

Any Way You Want It

The Bullet Journal website has a blog, which catalogues multiple ideas for add-ons and changes to the system. However, I have found that Google and Pinterest have yielded multiple great customizations. Having used the Bullet Journal for over a year, here are the customizations I’ve adopted that have made my Bullet Journal “home”:

  • Some people use notebooks that have regular, college-ruled lines. However, at the very least I recommend using a notebook that has a grid. My all-time favorite is the Leuchtturm A5 Hardcover Dotted notebook. The dots form a more subtle grid, so that you can choose whether or not to use the grid.
  • As a seasoned Bullet Journal veteran, I use some of the “old” bullets—check boxes. I enjoy the feeling of checking boxes. My “X” signifies a cancelled task. Then, since I don’t care whether I migrate or schedule a task, a left-pointing arrow through the check box can signify either one. My other bullets are the same.
  • On my monthly calendars, I leave a left-hand margin so that I can bracket the weeks and visually lump them together.
  • When one task has multiple tasks associated with it, I draw arrows and indent checkboxes underneath that task, so that I feel more productive when I get to check something off at each step.
  • I use sticky flags so that I can easily flip to any monthly spread to view my calendar for that month.
  • I use washi tape to visually set the months apart even more, and to make my journal look like the ones on Pinterest. Which is a priority.
  • In addition to planning out six months in advance (the Future Log), my first spread is comprised of twelve large boxes for a yearly spread, my Birthday/Anniversary Calendar. I write in all of the important dates I need to remember, and refer to it every time I start a new monthly spread. It looks similar to this, but less colorful. Next year, however, I may try the “Calendex.”
  • Sometimes I find that I need a weekly to-do list along with a monthly list. This has taken many forms. The one I prefer takes up the outermost half of the page, and is a series of seven boxes for each day of the week. In each day, I write events and tasks. I leave the unformatted margin for meal planning, notes, and tasks that don’t have a due date but need to be completed sometime in the course of the week. That said, I’ve recently enjoyed using this Weekly Food Log format for meal planning.
  • All of this will be ineffective if you don’t pick at least one day a week to plan ahead. I have found that setting aside time on Saturdays to look behind, pick up all incomplete tasks, and look ahead to the next week(s) has been extremely helpful.

No Time Not to Plan

It’s easy to laugh at my disorganization and lack of planning ability. In hindsight, my husband and I chuckle at the fact that I could forget a date night. However, the world is changing and our busy schedules are not getting any easier to manage. When I’ve asked a friend or acquaintance how he or she has been, one common response is, “Busy, but good.” Though I can’t make a universal statement, I know that my relationships are full of double-booking and last-minute canceling. Many of my texts go unanswered, and just as many—if not more—sit forgotten in my inbox.

There is a sobering reality here: A lack of organization can and does hurt other people, both acquaintances and those close to you. That was the case for me. I am still imperfect, but as David’s father says, “We don’t have time not to plan.”

The Bullet Journal, for me, is “that thing” I thought could never exist: a system that really works for me. It has revolutionized my organizational life and helped me to become a better steward of my schedule; I have confidence it can do the same for many others.


  • Joe says:

    Thanks for the writeup on this Sarah! I’m actually strongly considering getting one of the Leuchtturm Notebooks and giving this a go. A great explanation of the benefits as well as the repercussions of failing to plan.

    • Joe, thanks for the encouraging note! I’m excited to hear you’re contemplating the Bullet Journal. I find I rarely forget items that I write down in mine—but the trick is actually writing them down. 🙂 If you do decide to give it a try, let me know how it goes! And feel free to email me with any questions, too.

  • Abbie Overbey says:

    This is a great idea, Sarah! I struggle with aggregating the different aspects of my life (home, church, teaching) into a cohesive system. It always seems like I would have to maintain a bunch of different apps to keep track of events, task lists, scattered ideas, etc. But this seems organized enough to not make me freak out… and it is flexible enough to provide schema for whatever categories I would need to make.

    • Thanks Abbie! I really hope it works for you, like it worked for me. I’ve found that the problem is ultimately me—if I don’t sit down and plan, and if I don’t USE the bullet journal, it doesn’t help me stay organized (which might seem obvious… but evidently it hasn’t always been obvious to me!). But having a system in place encourages me to sit down and plan, which is great.

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