Reflections on a Year of Bullet Journaling

Over the course of my life, I have often, sporadically and with long intervals in between, tried to keep a journal. But like a lot of people, these attempts typically fizzle out after a few days or weeks. Missing one day leads to missing a few more, then a week, a month, and so on. The journal gets lost. Time marches on unrecorded. 

But finally, I have discovered a strategy that actually works for me--one that has allowed me to keep the habit going now for more than a year. That strategy is a method called "bullet journaling." For a basic primer on this method, check out the first video below, but before you do, keep in mind that one of the best things about bullet journaling is that it is a system that is infinitely customizable. Some people keep journals that are very minimalist and others turn them into veritable works of art--see the second video below for an example of the latter style. For me, the most essential elements/benefits of this method are as follows:

  • The index and page numbers. The first couple pages of your journal should have an index, which you will then fill in as needed. In order for that index to work, each page of the journal must also be numbered. You can number them all at once or do it as you go. 

  • The combination of journal and to-do list. It's called a "bullet journal" because the foundation of each day's entry is a series of bullet points representing items on your to-do list. As explained in the video, you then mark each task as completed by putting an X through the bullet. Uncompleted tasks are usually marked at the end of the day with other symbols as you either carry them forward to the next day, schedule them for a later date, or decide not to do them. What's nice about marking finished tasks this way--as opposed to crossing them out completely--is that they remain easy to read, so you can see what you've done.
  • Regularity and habit reinforcement. As I said, there are infinite ways to adapt this system to your own needs. Every one of my daily entries includes a header with the date and a standard list of items that I do every day, such as reading, writing, piano practice, calisthenics, and walking the dogs. I also make a note of the times for sunrise and sunset and the forecast high and low temperatures for the day. If I write nothing else down for any particular day, I have at least these basic items. Having daily bullets for all the things I try to maintain as good habits reinforces those habits and simultaneously reinforces the habit of journaling. This has been the key to my success in keeping my journal going for over a year.
  • Preserving memories and enhancing the richness of life. While the daily habit bullets are my bare minimum for each entry, I always try to make at least a few notes about what happened that day. It could be as simple as what I ate for dinner and what the weather was like, or it might be several paragraphs about some project I was working on, conversations I had, unusual activities, big news events, etc. I usually try to write down the names of any new people I met, which helps me remember them. If the daily habit and task bullets are the vegetables of my journal, the more narrative sections are the fruit. Now that I've kept my journaling habit for a full year, it is a treat each day to look back on the entries for the same date last year. I feel like this looking back helps to give me perspective on the arc of my life and helps preserve memories of moments both big and small that would otherwise fade away.
  • An analog oasis in a digital world. Sure, there are a million apps for tracking habits and productivity, and much of our modern lives are journalized through social media. But aside from the aesthetic pleasure of keeping a physical journal, there is actually scientific evidence that writing things by hand improves our ability to remember them. I also just love having the physical, personal artifacts that my journaling has produced. I've been on Facebook now for just over ten years, and theoretically, I could download all my entires into a massive file and...what? Print them out? I guess I could do that. But if I had to choose between keeping those ten years of data and the three journals I've filled up over the past year, there's no contest. The journals are far more precious to me.

A note on materials: My first year of bullet journals pictured above. I use soft-cover Moleskine dot-grid journals. Any type of notebook will work, but most people prefer dot-grid journals because they offer a nice balance between the rigidity of ruled notebooks and the totally ungoverned chaos of black pages. The soft covers are nice because they are easy to stuff in your bag, yet durable enough to withstand months of daily use, and I love that they have a pocket built into the back cover--handy for saving postcards, ticket stubs, love notes, and other paper ephemera.