A little over eighteen months ago, I started to hear about something called bullet journalling. If you’ve been anywhere on the internet these past couple of years, it’s likely a term you’ve also heard – at least in passing, if not in-depth. It is not an exaggeration to say that deciding to start my own changed my life. Here’s how.
So What’s a Bullet Journal?
At its most basic, a bullet journal is a to-do list that uses a specific key to allow you to list notes, tasks, events and more with small, simple symbols. You can see examples of those symbols at the link above.
The idea with the symbols is this: a dot (task) is crossed out to denote completion. It can also be migrated (moved to a different day) by turning that dot into a >, which in turn can be transformed into a cross when done. Events and notes are marked separately and clearly.
The second fundamental aspect of a bullet journal is the idea of using a modulated framework. This means building things like an index, a future log, monthly log, daily or weekly log into your journal – in much the same way that a diary would have.
Except, and here’s the brilliant thing about bullet journals, that you can make them however you want.
Many people turn them into works of art, like you can see here at the wonderful Little Coffee Fox. Shelby’s lettering is a big part of what inspired me to start learning watercolours – but more on this later. For now, I want to take you through my own bullet journal journey.
When I first started my bullet journal, I did everything. I had an index, a future plan, a monthly plan, a book list, a TV/film list, then a weekly log. I quickly discovered in the ensuing months that I used…well, not all of this.
For me, the most important aspects were the daily logs I started with and the weekly logs I moved to. Here, to illustrate what I mean, is an example of some of my earliest daily logs. Note that some parts of this, and of subsequent images, are redacted to preserve secret or private information.
Before starting a bullet journal, I used a lot of to-do lists – and this is basically just a neater version of that. You can see in this where I have completed tasks, migrated tasks, and one lone event.
Here’s the thing you probably can’t tell from this: at this point, I was pretty depressed. A lot was going on for me and my family. I was working, but not in a structured way. Much of my effort went into preparing for roleplaying games, because it was how I was coping with everything.
I was convinced that I did nothing with my time. But this, writing all of it down, seeing it day by day rather than just as a never-ending to-do list, made me realise just how much I was doing.
Here’s two months later. You can see that, slowly, I’ve started to structure things differently. I now have a double spread for the whole week, and on that I list everything. I list the things I’m doing for work. I list the things I’m doing for fun. I list everything I have done, no matter how small it might be. If it’s an achievement, it’s there.
And you can see, too, that I’m starting to manage to do more and more.
Bullet Journalling for Mental Health
Thanks to bullet journalling – thanks to holding myself accountable and beholding the things I had done in a real, tangible format – I learnt to do a lot of really, really important things. You might not think them things that I, as a 30-year-old adult, had to learn. But I did. Depression had made me forget them.
For example, I started showering or bathing every other day. I can’t tell you how huge a thing this is. I doubt anyone who hasn’t experienced depression will truly be able to get how big a thing it is. But I started to do it. I started, and I kept doing it.
Then I started cleaning my teeth daily. Twice daily. I made meal plans and cut our food spending in half. I got myself onto (and off again, and on again, and off again) regular exercise. I knew, at all times, where I was and what I had to do.
I became less anxious.
Let me say that one again because it’s gigantic.
I became less anxious.
Why? Because bullet journalling is a form of self-care. True, real self-care, the sort that is hard and you sometimes have to force yourself to do. The sort that has a huge and tangible effect on who you are. The sort that changes your life.
Here’s my journal six months later, in March 2017.
I’ve now divided my time up so I can see what I’m doing. This is something that I maintain now, with work tasks and life tasks kept separate so that I have a clear concept of the balance between them.
And look how much I’m doing. Look how different I am. Look how much better.
This continued on all through 2017. I started doing slightly different layouts – the layout I am still using today – and as I continued building up towards the release of Mundane Magic, creating this blog and doing many other things, my bullet journal kept me organised through it.
At the end of that journal, which I pleasingly reached the last page of in December 2017, I did a two page spread listing everything big that I achieved in 2017. I wish I could show you it, but alas it would require too much redaction to look nice.
It’s one of the most empowering things I’ve ever done. Just looking at those two pages fills my heart. I am so proud of myself when I look at it. I am so proud of what I have done, and what I have become and how I have changed – and I am a person who has been, for a very very long time, afraid of being proud of myself. In fact my family are banned from saying that they are proud of me, because it (genuinely) makes me sob whenever I hear the word.
My Bullet Journal Today
Through a lot of experimentation, I’ve found that the pages I use the most are year-long goals, month-long goals, and weekly spreads. I no longer put anything else in my journal.
Things like stuff I want to read or watch goes in my monthly goals. Larger goals – like finishing a book, being published in journals, etc – go in my yearly goals. The vast majority of things go in my weekly goals. This is what works for me, but I wouldn’t have found it if I hadn’t tried – and failed with – a whole bunch of other ways of doing this.
This is what my weekly layout looks like today. It’s a lot more minimalist than you’ll see in many other bullet journals on the internet, because this is what works for me.
On the lefthand page, one column is for work and one is for non-work. The labels on the righthand page are self-explanatory. But there’s one thing I’ve started doing which I would never have done before bullet journalling. That big, blank space on the righthand side.
It becomes this.
Not this picture every week, of course. Not this quote. But each week I ‘do art’.
I’m terrified of drawing, or painting. I’ve always been good at – well, anything I try to do. But I thought art was the exception. My family, on my mother’s side, is exceptionally artistic. They are capable of creating things that you would put up in galleries. Somewhere along the way I decided that if I couldn’t be that good, it wasn’t worth doing anything at all.
But bullet journalling gave me courage.
Thank you, Pinterest, for the example image that I copied. It’s the first one I did, and I was too afraid to do it without some guidance. But I kept doing them. I kept practising and making things that meant something to me.
I think, more than giving you a list of all the self-care tasks I have learnt to do thanks to my bullet journal – more even than saying how much of a difference it has made to my mental health – more than anything, this articulates the difference that bullet journalling has made to me.
Before it I was not brave, and now I am.
Maybe you think that sounds silly. It’s just a to-do list. But if you let it, if you throw everything you have at it, it becomes so much more than that. It seems like a shackle, but actually it’s freedom. And suddenly you’ll find that you’ve started to do things you never would have done before. You’ll be taking your fears, your anxieties, your stress, and making them into art.
And that’s not a good thing. It’s an incredible thing.
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