It’s never a bad time to start a new planner and get your life together, right?
Or maybe you’ve been using a planner for a while, and it just isn’t working for you as well as hoped it would. Maybe you’ve seen some beautiful bullet journal spreads on Instagram or Tiktok, and you want to start your own this year.
I get it. I’ve been there. I’ve spent way too much of my free time making my notebooks look pretty. But I’ve also been bullet journaling for a few years now, and I have a few recommendations for any newbies who want to get dip their toes in the land of bujo.
Here are my best tips for starting a bullet journal (and making sure you stick with it!).
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1. Use What You Have
If this is your first time trying to bullet journal, I recommend you start by using whatever you have already lying around the house. A pencil or a pen that writes decently well and any sort of notebook will do just fine. And I do mean any notebook — it could be an old school notebook or one of those verticle flip ones that can fit inside your pocket. It can be lined or plain or coloured or graph. That’s the beauty of this system. It is a system, and it works with whatever tools you already have on hand.
You don’t need a dot-grid journal, though I admit it does make it easier to be fancy. It’s just not necessary, and if you’re not sure if the bullet journal system will work for you, it’s probably not a good idea to spend $25+ on a fancy notebook you might not be using next month.
Not that there is anything wrong with buying a new notebook. If you don’t have one lying around the house, or you just want to keep your apples separate from your oranges and not repurpose something, then it behoves you to buy a new one. Hey, at the end of the day it’s your money and you do what you want with it.
But I also think it’s easy to create excuses when we want to buy something. Be honest with yourself about why you want that notebook, and why you want to try the bullet journal method. Don’t conflate the two, because eventually, that pretty, shiny feeling you get with every new thing wears off.
2. Make it Something You Will Use
This might sound a little weird at first, but the only way to truly know if the bullet journal system will work for you is to actually use it, so I encourage you to take a look at your current lifestyle and set up a version of the bujo system that you will actually use.
If you’re not the type to carry a large bag, then maybe a hardcover A5 notebook is not for you, and a pocket notebook will serve you better. If you’re the type to lose pens, or you just don’t like the hassle of writing things down, then maybe consider going digital.
And yes, there are plenty of “digital” bullet journal systems. You do not need an iPad or a similarly priced device for that either. You could use the notes app native to your phone, or Google Calendar. There are plenty of free apps like OneNote, Evernote, and Notion that could also be turned into digital versions of the bullet journal and will serve that purpose just fine.
Maybe I’m being a little biased when I say that Notion is great for digital bullet journaling as that’s what I’ve been personally using for the last three and a half months. And maybe I’m being presumptuous when I say I’ve made a guide about how to make your own bullet journal in Notion, and I think it’s pretty neat.
Just make sure it’s accessible, and something you will actually reach for. It’s not doing you any good if you never use it.
3. Use the Original Bullet Journal Method First
If there is any piece of advice from this list that you take with you, I sincerely hope it’s this one. When you begin, spend some time on the official bullet journal website, or read the book by Ryder Carroll himself to get a grasp on the basics of the system and then use only those basics for a while. Understand how the system works, if it will work for you, and where it is failing you.
If you need your bullet journal to do more, then expand it as necessary, and add new spreads as you come up with problems and continue to iterate. Even if you are reproducing a spread of something you found online, make sure it is truly serving you, and adjust it (or remove it) if it does not.
I don’t say this with any judgement towards those who do go hard on their bullet journal set up but from my own personal experience. When I started a few years ago, I spent months trying to use a bullet journal and spent too much time and effort making beautiful spreads and trackers that I never bothered using. No matter what I did, the system never worked for me until I began to strip it back to those basic principles. I’ve made slight modifications since then, but the system worked best for me when I used it in its purest form.
And I think that is the best place to start.
4. Beautiful Does Not Mean Functional
Your bullet journal does not need to be pretty to work for you. Don’t get me wrong, it can be pretty, and if that’s how you like it and you can keep it up years from now, then I’m happy for you. Maybe even a little jealous, because I could never make that sort of commitment.
But it’s not necessary, and don’t let that stop you from starting a bullet journal or cause you to give it up. Because looking pretty is not its purpose.
Some planners claim that making a planner pretty makes them more likely to use it, and if that’s the case then I highly encourage you to do so (see point #2), but what does that mean for your system itself? What impact are stickers, title pages, and washi tape making on how effective your system is? Could you still use it without them? Would you still want to use it without them?
My point is simply this: making pretty spreads will not make the system work better for you. If they make you more likely to use it, then that’s great! But the pretty spreads are the dress that the system is wearing, and not the system itself. It doesn’t have to be pretty. It can look amazing if and when you want it to. But it has to work for you. That’s what matters most of all.
5. Don’t Worry About Making it Perfect
As a recovering perfectionist, I know the frustration you can feel when you’re working on something and it looks perfect and pristine. But then you smudge it, or something spills, and all of a sudden, all you want to do is tear it up and start the whole thing over again.
First off, that’s wasteful. And with a paper shortage being an actual thing, we could all stand to be more mindful of how we use our various versions of wood pulp.
But if that’s not enough of a deterrent, I say embrace those flaws and imperfections. Write a funny story about what happened to cause it, or turn it into a doodle. Or just cross out that line and continue underneath. Our planners and journals capture these little pieces of our lives and everything that happens in them, and if life is so imperfect and messy, why would our planners be any different?
Every time you make a spread, perfect or not, you are one step closer to making the system work better for you. Trying to make your bullet journal look perfect is just an excuse to not use it properly or a reason to procrastinate, and if that’s the case, then it isn’t really helping you much, is it? Perfectionism is hard to deal with, especially when it comes to new things, but don’t let that stop you from using and loving your bullet journal.
Of course, if it really bothers you that much, you could always go digital.
Have you used a bullet journal before? What did you wish you knew when you started? Have you started one this year? What made you decide to try the bullet journal method? Let me know in the comments below!