How to Start Bullet Journal without Feeling Overwhelmed

Bullet journal is an analog planning and note-taking system described by Ryder Carroll. He describes his system in a video, which went viral and the bullet journal sensation spread across the globe.

Now bullet journal has evolved to something completely different. If you search for bullet journal in Instagram or Pinterest, you will encounter hundreds of journal spreads for everything possible from ‘migraine tracking’ to ‘mythology of the day’. There are very artistic people out there, and their spreads are so disorientingly gorgeous. I couldn’t help but feel inspired to jump in!

But when I first started bullet journaling, I felt super overwhelmed with all the possibilities. Even Carroll’s original system was too complicated to me. There are keys, index, future logs, daily logs, collections. All these concepts you need to keep track of and think about. There are just too many things that I don’t even know if I want to use. And I want it to look pretty too, of course! These ideas made me feel a little paralyzed.

However, I started anyway. By experimenting and being very kind to myself, I am happy to say I started to find planner peace in bullet journaling! I want to share my journey with everyone who is just getting started and might feel the same way I did.

Unlike most blog posts about starting a bullet journal, I will not talk about the basic ingredients of the system and the terminologies. If this is the first time you heard about bullet journal, you can learn about basic concepts from the original video. Instead, this post will talk about my method of discovering my own bullet journal structure and planning style. Hope this will help those of you who are struggling with bullet journal to find your peace as well!

Developing your planner peace

For lack of better words, I call my system ‘flow journaling’. The use of the word ‘system’ is misleading, because it’s not a rigidly structured system of its own so much as it is a guide to develop your own planning and journaling routine over time, using only pen and paper.

First, just grab a cheap notebook. It doesn’t have to be anything fancy, the $2 notebook that was supposed to be used for who-knows-what on your bookshelf is totally fine (me secretly hoping I’m not the only one who has a gazillion of empty notebooks around my apartment).  Then, grab your favorite pen.

And start bulleting away! Make a list of something. Some fine topics to start with would be ‘why you’d like to use a bullet journal?’, ‘what do you want to journal about?’, ‘what do you want to write down on a daily basis?’, ‘what about monthly?’, ‘what areas of your life need organization?’. Write these out in bullet form. At this point, don’t worry about organization or aesthetics of the journal whatsoever.

What I understood later is that writing your stream of consciousness helps vent out your confusion about where to start. After bullet journaling for several months, I started using this bullet brainstorming method to reconcile any confusion that prevents me from getting started, on anywhere from designing my Christmas spread to developing a software. Seriously it’s an awesome hack!

After the initial ‘listing like a mad woman’ session, I started carrying that cheap notebook around with me to work, to bed, to everywhere. And when an idea comes into my mind, I write. I jotted down to-do lists, emotions, energy levels, dinner, money spent, conversations with coworkers. Whatever significant things that come to my life, I jotted it down. Note that some days you will be too busy to make any bullet and it’s okay. No pressure! Just let the thoughts flow onto the paper whenever possible!

After tracking my thoughts for a while, I started developing some form of organizations on top of that note stream.

Tag it and date it

Over time, I started noticing some patterns in my thoughts. Things I often think about. Flipping through my thought flow notebook, I saw a few themes. For example, I love to write down ‘life lessons’ that I discovered as I go through the ups and downs of my life. I usually write these down quickly to not forget them. Another thing I wrote down a lot is ‘daily resolution’, like ‘I must be brave and do [insert scary tasks] today!’ Other common themes are ‘blog ideas’, ‘business ideas’, etc.

So I started tagging these thoughts! I use a red pen for this purpose. I want the hashtags to stand out.

So now my thought streams have some organization to them and I have a much better idea of what my bullet journal will contain. I can see my planning system starting to form itself! The hashtags are basically labeling what would become my ‘collection’ (as the bullet journal system father would call it). Each of my bullet thoughts are categorized into different collections.

As soon as I was ready, I started to put a date label together with my stream of thoughts. I would flip to a new page, write down the current date, and add some bullet list. At first, I only included some items in my daily log, whereas some others I left in the thought stream page. It started with something like a dry to-do list with a date, like the image below. This is basically my early ‘daily log’.

Over time, I integrated more of the stream into my daily logs. The frequently-used tags kind of follow me to the daily logs and I got something like this.

Notice that my bullets are also changed to some bullet keys that I know are relevant to me. Like in the page above, I used open circles for events planned, closed circles for events that happened, dots for to-dos, cross for completed to-dos, stars for tagged items (or ‘collections’), and dollar signs for spending-related items.

What I later understood is that I was learning to CATEGORIZE my thoughts. It’s weird, but most of us are not going about our days organizing our thoughts — thoughts just happen to us in random order! So the process of classifying your mental streams is not at all intuitive to us. Bullet journaling and planning require you to categorize your thoughts to know where to write each piece of thoughts down. (Isn’t that literally ‘keeping your head straight’?!) So this flow journaling method helps you achieve that over time.

Finally, I need some of my collections to have their own place (for example, I want all of my ‘blog ideas’ to stay in one place, so that I can access it when I need to write blogs). So I migrated them from my ‘thought stream’ to a separate collection, to make things a little more organized.

Let your planner form itself

After these thought tracking experiments, you will have a full bullet journal system that is customized to your life! You will have all your collection ideas and keys developed to suit YOU. I didn’t know planner peace was sneaking up on me when I started this journey, but it’s been an amazing experience! Now I keep a side-kick bullet journal (a small dotted notebook) to capture my thought streams for integrating into my main journaling system.

What do you think about this? Leave me some thoughts on the comments so that we can develop the idea further.