When you first start to investigate the world of bullet journalling, it’s easy to experience an initial pang of intimidation. As well as hiding a plethora of unidentifiable symbols and markings within their pages, often they are intricately beautiful as well as practical, making them seem like a pursuit for the artistic alone.
But worry not: while your bullet journal (or BuJo, for those in the know) is a wonderful place to express your creativity (and we’re ALL creative beings at heart), you don’t have to be an accomplished artist to get started. What’s more, once you get to grips with your own system of symbols, bullet journalling can be an incredibly useful way of collating all the goings-on in your life, from appointments and events, to emotional tracking and goal setting. All of which can be calming and cathartic.
‘Hearing people talk about bullet journaling can sometimes be like hearing someone speaking a foreign language,’ reveals Alison McDowall, co-director of The Positive Planner. ‘Even just looking for inspiration can trigger feelings of overwhelm! But it doesn’t have to. Actually, Bullet Journalling can be a great way to get organised, have a creative outlet and as a result look after your own mental wellbeing.’
Here’s how to get started – and why it’s so good for you.
What is a bullet journal?
‘As well as being a place that is practical to organise and document your day-to-day life, a bullet journal is a method designed to be an inspirational space to encourage productivity, positivity and creativity,’ reveals McDowall. ‘It shouldn’t cause you any anxiety; it should be a place of calm and tranquillity, where you can embrace who you are, what you want to achieve and unleash the creative AND productive side of you! It’s a place of self-expression: the best thing about keeping a journal or a planner is that there is no comparison or external noise – it’s all you.’
McDowall says a bullet journal can be used for:
- Keeping a day-to-day diary, being organised and feeling in control
- Being creative, doodling and practising penmanship
- Putting pen to paper and using it as a place of inspiration
- Connecting with emotional well-being
- Tracking habits, moods and progress
- Setting intentions and goals
- Compartmentalising lists and keeping them in one place
- Practising art therapy through doodling and collaging
- Making time for personal development and planning self-care
How to start a bullet journal
From what you’ve seen on Pinterest, you might think you need a special journal to get started, plus a multitude of different coloured pens and pencils. But actually, all you really need to begin with is a notebook and a pen!
Many people, however, use a dotted notebook, which allows freedom for creativity while also affording structure.
‘Bullet journalling is a technique used in dotted notebooks, usually A5, that helps you keep your diary, your lists and your ideas all in one place,’ says McDowall. ‘At The Positive Planner, we believe that they are also a great way to track your mood and keep a log of your emotional reflections, too.’
And in terms of pens, while one will certainly do, this is your time to get creative, even if it’s just assigning different colours to different themes.
‘With your bullet journal, you’re free to explore colour-coded pages, tables and calligraphy titles, and you can become as creative as you like to create detailed plans or task lists,’ says Andrew Wilson, owner of stationery retailer, Executive Pens.
Susie Pearl, author of The Art of Creativity: 7 Powerful Habits To Unlock Your Full Potential, agrees that bullet journals are a great place to express your creativity through colour.
‘I like to handwrite my bullet journal, as it has a lot more gravitas and works in a more powerful way for the brain – the science supports this,’ she says. ‘Keep it simple, make it very visual, use colours and colour coding, as well as images. If you’re not good at art, you could copy something from Pinterest.’
How to set up a bullet journal
Now you know what you need to get started, how do you set your BuJo up?
‘Typically, a bullet journal comprises 12 months that are broken into “spreads”, so you can see your month in full, your week in a double-spread layout and even your day-to-day activities all in front of you on the page,’ explains McDowall.
Here’s how to set it out:
Your index is the first double-page spread of your bullet journal. As your pages fill up, you’re going to need to know how to find key information fast. Here, you can list your page numbers and content, so everything is easy to locate.
‘What sets bullet journalling apart is the use of a key,’ reveals McDowall. ‘A key, put simply, is just a method of using different types of bullet points that help you track what you need to do, what you have done and what type of activity it is. We suggest curating a key that works for you. We also recommend adding keys that are specific to your emotional wellbeing, to help encourage you to practice gratitude, plan self-care and write down your general mood each day.’
For example, you could use a dot bullet point for general notes, a triangle bullet point for daily tasks and a circle bullet point for appointments. Once you have completed tasks and attended appointments, you can colour them in, or if you decided to move them to the following week, you can draw a little arrow inside them, to indicate you need to move them into next week’s planner.
Your future log will occupy the double-page spread directly after your key, and can list events, appointments and reminder across the coming year (and beyond), as well as your long-term goals, visions and aspirations.
A collection is a list of things you want to track, remember or refer back to. It could be a list of books you want to read, films or box sets you want to watch, or dream holiday destinations.
You can begin each month with a double-page spread, which you can divide into a monthly planner, like a calendar.
After each monthly planner, designate a double-page layout for each day, in which you can record your daily tasks, events, appointments and reminders, plus positive actions you can tick off (such as exercise), as well as reflections at the end of each day. If you’re a person who has periods, you could also chart your menstrual cycle.
While this is a rough guide, it’s important to lay your bullet journal out in a format that fits your own personal style.
‘It’s important not to be too rigid with the format, just chose something that works for you,’ says Pearl. ‘There are no hard and fast rules. You can make it your own.’
She also says it’s important to maintain an optimistic tone, in order for the BuJo to keep you feeling positive, proactive and inspired.
‘Keep all the content positive and simple,’ she reminds. ‘Don’t beat yourself up about specific things.’
Mental health benefits of bullet journalling
Once you’ve started bullet journalling, you will likely experience the positive mental effects for yourself. Pearl says that, by beginning to consciously organise your thoughts, tasks and appointments – and by having everything in one place – it can help bring calm and clarity to your mind.
‘I use bullet lists every day – it helps keep me organised,’ she says. ‘In my new book, The Art of Creativity, I explain how journalling helps the brain to process events, desires and wishes, and bring awareness to thoughts that may be buried deep inside.’
Pearl says key mental health benefits of bullet journalling include:
- decluttering the mind
- helping you generate new ideas
- helping to give the brain clarity
- support if you’re trying to live more mindfully
- helping you achieve important life goals
- enabling you to objectively review your thinking and to monitor the tone of your self-talk, so it becomes positive and encouraging
Tips for keeping a bullet journal
If you engage with your bullet journal on a daily basis, it will soon become a habit that has a positive impact on your life. And think about the way you use it, to maximise its wellbeing potential.
‘Our top tip for staying positive is to practice gratitude in your bullet journal,’ says McDowall. ‘This will help promote a sense of wellbeing and allow you to reflect on what you already have in your life. Research suggests that gratitude may be associated with many benefits for those practicing it, including better physical and psychological health, increased happiness, decreased materialism and more life satisfaction. We suggest keeping a list of all the things you are thankful for and writing them down in your journal before you go to sleep.
‘We have designed a tool called The Positive Bullet Diary, which has all the monthly and daily layouts done for you. It’s the perfect combination of structure and free creative space, to help eliminate some of those initial worries when entering an unknown territory.’
Last medically reviewed on: 10-06-2020
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