How To Use A Bullet Journal: A Guide For 2021 Productivity

While its name suggests some sort of fancy ammunition-tracking log, a bullet journal is actually equal parts planner, to-do list, brainstorming space and blank canvas designed to bring pleasure to the task of organizing one’s life. Developed by Brooklyn-based digital designer Ryder Carroll, the bullet journal goes beyond simply tracking one’s tasks to lay a foundation for what its creator calls “the art of intentional living.”

Starting with a blank journal or notebook, bullet journaling relies on a simple methodology for recording bullets, tasks, events and notes and organizing them in a graphically meaningful way.

  • Bullets are brief thoughts or ideas, quickly jotted down in the moment of inspiration.
  • Tasks are denoted with a dot and fall into one of five categories: complete, incomplete, migrated to a collection, scheduled in future log or irrelevant.
  • Events are illustrated with an open circle-style bullet and are either scheduled in advance or recorded once they have occurred.
  • Notes are preceded by a dash and may be used to record facts, ideas, thoughts and observations related to experiences such as meeting someone new or attending a class or lecture.
  • Nesting can be used to add detail to items, such as subtasks that break down a task into smaller steps.
  • Signifiers give your lists context through symbols whose meaning you get to determine. For example, high-priority tasks may be marked with an exclamation point, while creative ideas needing additional follow-up may be marked with a star.

Essential Bullet Journal Supplies

To get started with bullet journaling, you’ll need just a few basic items: a blank notebook or journal and a pen. However, you may find the process more fun and interesting if you invest in some quality supplies, such as a journal with thick, smooth pages and pens of varying colors and ink weights. Some bullet journal buffs even add illustrations with watercolor paints or other art materials, but as long as you have a good notebook and pen on hand, you’re good to go.

If you need a bit of direction in purchasing your supplies, the following items have earned rave reviews within bullet journaling communities.

Leuchtturm1917 Notebook, $20

Available in a variety of colors, this compact hardcover journal includes a pocket, 249 numbered pages, an index and two bookmarks. Select from several different paper styles, including squared, dot grid, lined or blank pages. The heavyweight (60 lb.) paper stock prevents ink bleed-through. Sturdy thread binding allows the book to open flat for writing and drawing without compromising the integrity of the spine, while an attached elastic band keeps the journal securely closed when not in use.

Dingbats Journal, $20

These eco-friendly journals are crafted entirely from vegan-certified, biodegradable and recyclable materials, and each colored cover is embossed with a different wild animal or ecosystem. Pages are micro-perforated for easy removal, and the journal is available in grid, dot grid, lined and blank page styles. All journals include FSC-certified paper, radius corners and a lay-flat design as well as an elastic closure, pen loop, inner pocket and bookmark.

Faber-Castell Pitt Artist Pens, $11.37

This standard black pen set includes eight different nibs for changing stroke thickness and style. The archival-quality India ink is acid-free, pH neutral and waterproof and smudgeproof once it dries. The pens come in a handy wallet to keep them organized and ready to travel wherever you go.

Pilot G2 Pens, $12/dozen

A slightly more budget-friendly alternative to the Pitt artist pens, Pilot’s G2 line is widely available and comes in several colors. These retractable roller-ball gel pens offer long life and smooth ink flow in several stroke widths, including ultra fine (0.38 mm), extra fine (0.5 mm) and bold (1 mm).

Zebra Mild Liner Highlighters, $5

Unlike standard highlighters and their screaming neon shades, Zebra’s Mild Liners come in muted colors to attract attention without being visually overwhelming. Each double-sided highlighter includes a fine and broad tip and maintain a steady stroke wherever you use them.

Tombow Fudenosuke Brush Pens, $6

These pens are the perfect gateway for moving into artistic strokes in your bullet journal. This two-piece set includes one hard-tip and one soft-tip fine-point pen, allowing you to draw extra-fine, fine or medium strokes by adjusting the pressure placed on the brush tip. The satisfyingly smooth black ink is ideal for adding calligraphy, illustrations and more to the pages of your journal.

Wescott 6″ Ruler, $6

If precise lines and graphs are important to you, this high-quality ruler is both portable and durable, with a cork-lined back to prevent slippage on the page.

Bullet Journal Design and Methodology

Once you have your supplies gathered, you’re ready to set up your bullet journal. Bullet journals are organized into several basic components; once you get these laid out, the process will fall into place.  


The first step in setting up your bullet journal is creating the index, which establishes the organizational system on which every other component depends. Your index ensures that you’ll never waste time paging through your notebook searching for a specific note or task—simply flip to the index to find its exact page location within the journal.

If you chose the Leuchtturm1917, an index is already included in the notebook’s layout, and the pages have already been numbered for you. If you purchased another journal style, you may have to spend a few minutes creating your own index and numbering your pages. Simply label the first three pages as “Index” and begin your page numbering after the index, starting with page one. If you have the free time, you can number all of your pages now or opt to number as you go. As you create lists, spreads and other content in your journal, you can add it to your index.

The bullet journal index can be as simple or complex as you like, from a basic list of content to color-coded specific categories.

Future Log

The future log is a page for jotting down events, appointments and other important dates beyond the month(s) you have already set up in your journal. You’ll determine how far into the future you want your log to go—three-, six- and 12-month future logs are all common—and then divide the page into sections accordingly. For example, if you’re building a six-month future log, you’ll probably want to use a full two-page spread (facing pages) and divide each page into three sections to create individual sections for all six months. Then label each section with the appropriate month and use that space to record any events or goals you anticipate for that month. As time passes, you’ll be able to add those items to your monthly spread.

Monthly Spread

Just as it sounds, the monthly spread provides a clear visual reference for the month ahead. There are several popular approaches to laying out the monthly spread.

The original method laid out by Ryder Carroll calls for a calendar page and a task page. The minimalist calendar page can be used to track events and tasks ahead of time or record them for reference once they have occurred. The task page is designed to be used as a “monthly mental inventory” that sets priorities for the month, continues incomplete tasks from past months and provides space for tracking ideas, goals and inspiration.

However, some bullet journal devotees prefer a more traditional calendar-based layout for the monthly spread, with dated squares reserved for each day of the month. The best approach is the one you personally find most useful, so experiment with different designs and figure out what works for you.

Weekly Spread

Although weekly spreads (or “weeklies,” as they’re often called in bullet journal lingo) aren’t part of Carroll’s original method, some journalers have adopted them to complement or replace the monthly spread. Weeklies tackle the coming seven days in granular detail, making them particularly useful for users with lots of appointments and time-sensitive tasks. Like monthly spreads, they can be laid out as separate calendar and task sections or simply divided into seven spaces for each day of the week.

Daily Log

The daily log is the place where the bulk of bullet journal activity happens. You’ll label the top of the page with the date and over the course of your day, log any tasks, events and notes as they happen. What you record in the daily log is completely up to you: meetings, meals, feelings, ideas, projects and goals are all fair game. Best of all, the daily log is infinitely adaptable according to your changing needs. If the information you consider important to capture today seems irrelevant three months from now, simply adjust your approach going forward.

The most important consideration in creating your daily log is not to get too far ahead of yourself. Try not to set up your daily log any earlier than the night prior; otherwise, you may inadvertently create artificial restraints for yourself. If possible, let the daily log materialize organically, and don’t worry about filling a full page or starting a fresh page each day. Just add a new date where you left off the previous day and keep logging.

Custom Collections

Bullet journal collections encompass any items that don’t fit easily into any of the other established categories, although they often consist of various types of lists. You might create custom collections for specific projects and long-term goals, or you may want a centralized location for tracking accomplishments such as workouts you’ve completed or books you’ve read. You can set up a custom collection in the next available spread in your journal or start your collections at the end of the journal and work backwards—just be sure to record their locations in the index so they’re easy to find later.

Monthly Migration

Monthly migration is a powerful productivity tool in your bullet journaling practice. At the end of each month, create a new monthly log and then take some time to review the past month’s log. Note any tasks or goals you didn’t accomplish and consider why they went undone. Upon reflection, perhaps they weren’t important enough to capture your time and energy, or perhaps they need to rise to a higher priority level in the month to come. Either way, migration helps you become more aware of how you’re spending your time and where you may need to shift your priorities.

Once you’ve decided which tasks to bring with you into the new month, migrate them by adding an arrow symbol next to them and record them in your new monthly log (or custom collection, if that label applies). After you finish migrating incomplete tasks, check your future log to see if any items there are ready to be added to the new monthly log.

Final Thoughts

On the surface, bullet journals may appear to be just complicated versions of traditional daily planners, but in reality, they’re so much more. Bullet journals can be customized according to your goals, lifestyle and even your creativity level. They can be used to manage your productivity, track your moods, record memories and establish priorities for the future. They can keep you motivated, help you remember important dates and brainstorm ideas for major projects. In short, your bullet journal is anything and everything you choose to make it.

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