How to Bullet Journal for Improved Productivity & Mindfulness
Last updated: December 2020
Your bullet journal doesn’t have to be full of beautifully drawn spreads for it to be effective. You can learn to bullet journal for increased productivity and promote a mindful lifestyle using these tips and tricks.
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The Bullet Journal Method
The bullet journal is an independent tool created by Ryder Carroll to help him stay focused and get things done.
Carroll reveals that he struggled focusing growing up and needed a method to organize all of the thoughts he came up with inside of his head. Out of this struggle the bullet journal method was formed.
Throughout this post, we’ll talk about bullet journal set up, how to bullet journal for productivity, and how to use the method as a mindfulness tool. Let’s get started.
Bullet Journal Set Up
You can check out Ryder Carroll’s full version of the bullet journal set up here, but let’s talk about the basics first.
Similar to a planner, the bullet journal helps you create a to-do list of tasks, appointments, and notes throughout your days, weeks, months, and years.
It’s more than just a to-do list, but we’ll get to this aspect a bit later.
In most bullet journals, you have what are called “collections”, but could also be called chapters, or simply sections. These collections include the index, yearly, monthly, and daily collections, which are nested inside of one another.
In a bullet journal, everything is chronological, so there are no gaps, jumps, or white spaces wasted in your pages. This is one of my favorite parts, as it always frustrated me that pages would inevitably be wasted in my standard yearly planner.
So first in your bullet journal is the index, where you create a table of contents. Following the Index is your yearly spread where you can include major events and dates that you are aware of right now and before the respective month arrives. This often looks like a calendar over two pages.
After the yearly spread, begin creating your monthly spread to include more specific events, due dates of tasks, or significant life milestones. My monthly spreads are simply a list of numbers (1-30/31) down the left margin of the page and the item to the right of these numbers on each line.
After the first monthly spread comes your daily logs. These vary in form, but mine consist of two columns on each page with content in list format, and the date/day listed above each day’s events, tasks, and notes. Carroll explains that the original bullet journal method includes a visual key for these events, tasks, and notes, but I simply use bullets or dashes, as I found I didn’t need the visual key he suggested.
Aside from these four sections, anything else is called a “custom spread” and can literally include, or be whatever you want it to be. For example, my custom spreads include a meal planner, gratitude tracker, cleaning tracker, list of herbs and their purposes, and brainstorming gift ideas for friends, among other collections. These custom spreads don’t look the same and don’t necessarily follow a specific template each time.
What About the Gorgeous Spreads I’ve Seen on Pinterest?
Say it with me. The Bullet Journal Method was not meant to look perfect. The Bullet Journal Method was not meant to look perfect. The Bullet Journal Method was not meant to look perfect.
When Carroll created the Bullet Journal Method, it was out of necessity. He truly needed a way to organize his mind, and organize it efficiently. Creating cutesy labels and using different colors was not a part of his plan.
It’s a working document that will include crossed off words, changes in structure and outline, and possibly pages that you decide you no longer need to use after you created them.
However, if drawing beautiful BuJo spreads is your thing, by all means, please continue! It’s not harming me one bit, and drawing can be therapeutic! However, I believe that many people (including myself) initially feel overwhelmed by the idea of having this perfect, artsy journal to work at all the time.
Sometimes, when the standards are too high, or morphed into something different than they were initially, people don’t even try. And I’m telling you that it’s SO worth it to try out the bullet journal!
So no, those gorgeous spreads you see of different logs, trackers, and collections are not a necessary part of the Bullet Journal Method. Just a nice side project for some.
Adapt the Bullet Journal Method to You
To further this idea, you can make the Bullet Journal Method work for you.
As I mentioned earlier when discussing bullet journal set up, my bullet journal doesn’t follow all of Ryder Carroll’s rules! And it’s still a bullet journal!
For example, Carroll classifies events, tasks, and notes separately with a x, o, and – . I just use the bullet point for everything because I found that the process was simpler for me, and that I didn’t need the visual distinction in my bullet journal to still be effective.
You might find when your first learning how to bullet journal that you like starting with Ryder Carroll’s Rapid Logging process, but PLEASE adapt it for your own needs!
This system is made to be individualized. You pick your goals. You pick your tasks. You asses what you need to do differently.
The whole point of the bullet journal is to learn why you do the things you do, and to intentionally do more of the things that work for you.
You can make your bullet journal set up look however you want it to and that’s when it’s going to be the most useful for you.
How to Bullet Journal for Productivity
First things first, the bullet journal is a productivity system. At it’s core, it’s meant to help you manage day-to-day tasks, while still focusing on your long term goals.
You Decide How You Want to Spend Your Time
When you bullet journal, you get to decide what to spend your time on. To some, time is the hottest commodity, so choosing to control where your time is spent can really help increase productivity.
To start, let’s take a look at the yearly spread. When you consider your calendar, academic, or fiscal year, what do you notice?
For me, I’ve been in school for most of my life and I’m just now finishing up my graduate degree, so most of my life has been defined by my school’s calendar. This means my yearly calendar focuses mostly on major academic deadlines, events, and due dates. However, I also include personal and religious events on this page including car maintenance month, and holidays. I’ve decided that these are the things that I want to keep track of and monitor, so I’ve written them down.
However, I haven’t included everything! For example, I don’t include bill dates (like “rent due”) because I know I don’t need to focus on remembering these as much. You might find that you do, and that’s good too!
On the other end of the spectrum, your daily logs show what you focus on in the grind of things. My daily logs mostly consist of blog tasks, cleaning tasks, and academic type tasks as these are primary long-term goals for me. However, I’ve been able to notice that recently, many of the tasks I plan for one day often get moved to the next, so I’ve noted that I’ve either spent more time than expected on a scheduled task, or I’ve done something that I haven’t written down.
Now, some might say that it’s not necessary to write down, “watch movie with husband” in your bullet journal on a day you intended to complete other tasks or do other events. However, I would say that this is the whole point of bullet journaling. If I write down, “watch movie with husband” on a day I also failed to complete my school work, I know that I might want to reassess my priorities (or I might not if this was an important date night! It just depends!)
You Can Get Organized
When you bullet journal, you can organize everything going on inside your head easily by simply writing it down in a place you know where to look.
I believe many people incorrectly think that they have a bad memory because they forget tasks and get distracted by other things.
This simply is not true! Guys, I consider myself to have a rather good memory and appropriate intelligence, and I still forget things if I don’t write them down! You’re human. This is to be expected.
When you use a bullet journal to write down things that are floating around in your head, you become more organized because they are concrete and you don’t have to worry or wonder if these tasks have been taken care of or the note was addressed. You can just see it on the page.
And, you know that you didn’t write it somewhere else because you only have one journal – not pieces of paper in different rooms, different planners, etc. Also, as a side note, your journal does not have to be dotted or grids, as commonly shown. I use a regular lined notebook and it works just fine!
One thing that I find very helpful about the bulled journal method is the ability to write down everything – it’s not just tasks. So when I became frustrated a year ago, I made a mind map outlining all the reasons why! Having everything written out on the page not only helped me rationalize that I had legitimate concerns, but also explain them to other people to discuss more practically.
You can use the bullet journal method for productivity in simple to-do tasks, but also to make progress toward your life goals.
Use Your Bullet Journal to Stay Focused
Finally, the bullet journal method can be used to stay focused on a specific task.
Say you have three things to do this week (I know, quite a low number, but hang with me). One thing must be done by Tuesday, another by Wednesday, and the last by Thursday. To stay focused and meet your deadlines, you know to finish the Tuesday task before the other two.
However, say you get a phone call Monday evening while you’re working on the Tuesday task that you know is not an urgent crisis. Instead of answering this phone call in the moment, you can stay focused by writing in your bullet journal “return call” and wait shift your attention until the priority task (Tuesday’s) has been completed.
The Bullet Journal Method keeps you focused on the tasks at hand in the order you need to complete them, helping you maintain your productivity.
How to Bullet Journal as a Mindfulness Tool
As you might have noticed if you’re familiar with other mindfulness tools, the bullet journal lends particularly well to promoting this practice.
For those of you who haven’t heard of the term mindfulness before, it’s basically what the word sounds like – having a present moment awareness of what’s your thinking, feeling, and doing and approaching this awareness nonjudgmentally.
Mindfulness has been heavily researched and has now been shown to help improve various mental health concerns such as anxiety. That’s why using the bullet journal method as a mindfulness tool is so great. It’s a simple intervention that improves productivity and your mental health.
To quote Ryder Carroll, “The best way I like to describe bullet journaling is that it’s a mindfulness practice that’s disguised as a productivity system. It’s more about why we’re doing what we’re doing”. In other words, the whole point of the bullet journal method is to pay attention (mindfulness tool) to what you’re doing.
Set Goals for Yourself
While you’ll discover many individualized ways that the bullet journal can be used as a mindfulness tool, one of the broader more common ways is through goal setting.
If you think about it, when you decide what to spend your time on, you’re setting goals for yourself whether you recognize it or not. Where you spend your time is where your intention is!
As mentioned earlier, I spend much of my time on academic requirements. This is because one of my long term goals has been to obtain a graduate degree. While I’ve not explicitly written this goal down in my bullet journal set up, I have a collection for my academic tasks from my syllabus and often have academic tasks in my daily log. You can clearly see that I have an academic goal by looking at my behavior choices.
Another more concrete example is my goal of eating healthier. I don’t have strict rules for myself, and am currently learning about intuitive eating, but eating healthier is included in my monthly goals list each month. Additionally, I’ve created a separate page – a meal planner – to help me maintain a mindful awareness of what I’m eating each day. When I write recipes in my meal planner, I get to ask myself, “Is this helping me meet my goal of eating healthier?”
Goal setting using a bullet journal can be a great mindfulness tool for you to use!
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Track Your Goals
While I don’t consider my meal planner a strict habit tracker, it is a way to monitor what I’m eating each day.
Your goal tracking can be as informal as my meal planner is, or it can be more intense.
Another of my goals is to implement a morning routine. For this goal, each month I create a collection where I briefly write out what I want my morning routine to look like (e.g. wake up at 6:45a, yoga at 7a, etc.) and make a list from one to 30 in the shape of a calendar (i.e., 1-7 on the first line, then 8-14, then 15-21, followed by 22-30/31 on subsequent lines) Then, each day I either cross off, or don’t over the number that corresponds to today’s date if I’ve completed my morning routine or not.
While I mentioned earlier that bullet journaling does not have to look like the in-depth art pieces found on Pinterest, you can consult these images for ideas on what you might want your custom collections to look like. However, I do recommend that if you’re just getting started and you’re learning how to bullet journal as a mindfulness tool that you really try to avoid the fluff for now and learn the basics first.
Tracking your goals should be a simple and quick process every day so that you can easily adapt it into a habit itself.
Assess Your Goal Progress
After you’ve finished tracking your goals for a certain amount of time, it’s time to assess your goal progress.
While we’ve addressed the first part of mindfulness (present awareness) through long-term goal setting, and daily/regular goal tracking, we now get to discuss the nonjudgmental aspect of mindfulness when we address goal assessment.
When you set a goal and you fail to meet it, it’s so easy to be hard on yourself and speak negatively to yourself. I know I’m guilty of this!
However, I challenge you when using your bullet journal as a mindfulness tool, that you remove the idea of failure from your vocabulary.
As I mentioned earlier, I am attempting to implement a solid morning routine that I complete every morning when I wake up. However, if you were to look at the past two month’s morning routine trackers, you’d see that I’ve only completed my desired morning routine successfully a few times!
It would be so easy for me to tell myself, “Wow, Caroline. You must really not be trying hard enough. Do better.” BUT this is not helpful!
Instead, take an attitude of curiosity. Try, “Hmm, I’ve noticed that I completed my morning routine two out of thirty days last month. I wonder what made those two days different than the rest?” This attitude of curiosity allows your bullet journal to be used as a mindfulness tool because you are noticing without judging yourself.
If you simply looked at last month’s morning routine tracker in my bullet journal, you’d have insufficient data. Instead, when I go to asses my morning routine progress I need to look at last month (only two mornings completed) AND look at this month (almost a week completed atm!). When I assess my goal progress, I can note that something is working because the frequency has increased, but I can also assess what I’m doing right (potentially adding a series of alarms and changing my sleep cycle to prepare to wake up earlier).
When I assess my goals at the end of the month, I write a brief sentence about what I did during the month and what I want to do next month to continue working toward my goals. You could write this on a new page at the end of the month, or you could write it underneath your goals from the beginning of the month like I do.
In short, the bullet journal is the perfect mindfulness tool because it allows you to be intentional with your values, long-term goals, and approach your current behaviors with a curiosity and kindness that allows for future growth and progress toward those goals and values.
Be Intentional with Your Bullet Journal
When you really delve into the bullet journal method, you get to learn more about yourself, your goals, and how your day-to-day choices and behaviors match up (or don’t!) with your goals. As you bullet journal, you can truly discover what your own values are, how these values shape your short-term and long-term goals, and whether how you spend your time is reflective of these goals.
My challenge to you as a beginner in the bullet journal method is to take some time and really think about what you want your life to look like. What are the things you’re passionate about? What do you want people to say about you when you’re gone? These are the values and goals you get to write down in your journal because they’re the ones truest to you.
Take some time and think about how you might take actionable steps to get closer to these goals and become more reflective of these values.
Let me know what you’ve discovered about yourself and what you’re going to do about it! What other questions do you have about the bullet journal method? What are you most looking forward to about bullet journaling as a mindfulness tool?
Disclaimer: Although I am a mental health professional, I am not YOUR mental health professional. The information provided on this website is for educational and informational purposes only and using this website does not establish a counselor-client relationship, or constitute provision of mental health services. I am not responsible for any damages resulting from your use of the content on this site, as the information provided does not substitute for collaboration with a health professional. Please consult with your health professional before making changes to your health regimen.