Productivity: How to Make a Bullet Journal Work For You

Updated: Jan 29

If you're anything like me, bullet journals never work for you. Or if they do, it's only for a short time before life gets in the way and you just sort of.... stop. You may even have an embarrassingly large amount of partially filled aspiring bullet journals sitting on a shelf collecting dust and making you feel guilty every time you spot them.

All these beautiful spreads that crop up when you search "How to Start a Bullet Journal" for the fortieth time? It's all a lie. At least, it is for people like us.

Now, I don't know about you, but I have ADHD. I've been pretty open about it, because I think it's important to share our struggles so we don't turn into some kind of idolized version that never existed in the first place. Taking two hours to design the perfect journal spread that will fit my every need for the month on one page just.... doesn't work for me. To be honest: I don't have the attention span.

I get so distracted by the prettiness and trying to replicate it perfectly that I never get started actually journaling.

I figured there had to be people like me who have this same issue. I don't really know what spurred it on, whether it was an article I no longer remember or a Youtube video about the subject, but something led me to go to the store, buy a way-too-expensive Moleskine notebook with those coveted dot-grid pages and some colored pens.

The Backstory

I wish I could remember what made me decide to try again. But I knew one thing: I was going to journal my way.

I had been neck-deep in a writing challenge known as NaNoWriMo Summer Camp this past July, where I set my goal to write 10,000 words in 31 days. Now, I had combined this with another July Writing Summer Camp from World Anvil. The latter was to write 31 world building prompts in 31 days. Whew!

NaNoWriMo's word count tracker, showing a goal of 10,000 words, and a final total of 20,142 words. There is a graph that shows progress, and the "words written" line is double the height of the "words needed" line.
I not only reached my word count goal... I doubled it.

But I not only did it, I annihilated both challenges. I more than doubled my word count goal and was the 9th person to submit the final prompt for World Anvil and earn the coveted diamond badge. I used my journal to track and log my progress each day, but I didn't have a fancy layout or graphs or any highlighters or washi tape. I had 2 pens: a black one, and a pale blue one.

I still use those 2 pens, though I have added a dark blue pen to my pen case as well.

Little flourishes emphasizing my goals and when I've reached milestones helped me stay on track and feel a sense of accomplishment, even as I was only a few hundred words in. No expensive washi tape required!

In our mad scramble to make beautiful journals, we seem to forget that the entire point of the bullet journaling system is that it's supposed to work for you. I simply can't meticulously draw calendars or boxes and ensure everything is beautifully accented and colored. I get distracted too quickly.

But, what some would call a "minimalist" journal design, I call practical. It takes me maybe an hour to set up an entire month's worth of spreads, because they are very basic and convey a lot of information quickly and easily. Because that's what I need from a journal.

The Tips

So with all of that out of the way, I've compiled a short list of tips for how to make a bullet journal work for you.

1. Determine what you know you need from your journal.

This is probably the most important step. To ensure you're actually going to use your notebook to any degree, it needs to work for you. I started off by Googling "How to Get Started With a Bullet Journal" and found the official Bullet Journal website. Gone were the inspirational spreads and the lies, and here it was: sheer practicality.

My first spreads are directly pulled from the list on the website. I have the index, future log, monthly overview, weekly overview, and rapid logging spreads in my notebook. I also decided after missing my medication for over a month (yikes!) to add a medication tracker to my monthly spread. It's not proving to be terribly useful, so I'm going to cut it from next month's planning. But on the flip side, I plan on adding a financial tracker and a social media content calendar to try and get a grip on both.

A few questions to consider when deciding how your journal will work for you:

  • How long do I have each day/week/month to write?

  • How can I make important topics stand out? With a star? A different color?

  • What sort of paper style do I need? Grid for rigid structure, lines for simplicity, blank for complete freedom, or dots for subtle structure? If you're not sure, start with a dot grid or blank and see if you find yourself adding guides on your own.

  • Do I prefer to write in pen or pencil? (Psst, I use erasable pens!)

  • What's my budget? Can I afford a fancy notebook? (Honestly, I couldn't. But that's why I'm adding a money tracker!)

I'll eventually write posts for each of these to help you make your decision, but for now, the official website has some fantastic guides to help you get started. I stopped scrolling through journaling blogs unless I was looking for inspiration.

2. You don't need to spend a fortune on a nice notebook (or supplies).

Yes yes, I know, I bought a $25 Moleskine, and don't get me wrong, I love it. It's pretty, it's sleek, it's blue. But the primary reason I bought it was because, in my area, no other notebook had a dot grid, and that was something I'd decided I needed. The dot grid helps keep my writing aligned and organized at the most basic level, but also gives me space to doodle, scribble, and make a mess as I need.

I personally adore the feeling of writing in a ballpoint or rollerball pen, but I make a lot of mistakes when I write. By pure chance, I spotted the Pilot Frixion erasable pens - and they came in pretty colors! I resisted the urge to get the 24-pack and got a pack of black and pale blue pens.

I think my entire shopping trip for my journal cost me about $40 USD. More than I could actually afford, as I found out later... whoops. You don't need to tap into your emergency savings to start bullet journaling! In fact, please don't!

3. Start Simple and go from there.

If you start with luxurious, Instragram-able spreads, you'll likely never journal. Who knows, maybe you find a style that really fits you and that's awesome! But ask yourself: do I have the time to do this every day/week/month? For me, the answer was no, so I found myself drawn to the simple and straightforward spreads on the official website. I add little flourishes to add some character to my spreads, and take care to say "Good Morning" to my journal each morning. But, of course, your journal doesn't have to have a personality and you don't need to greet it each morning if you don't want to.

I just happened to write a note to my journal on the first page (above the index), quietly crossing my fingers this time wouldn't end in failure.

My daily log and brain dump from July 21st to July 24th. Simple, straightforward, takes zero time to set up.

Sometimes I remember to also say good night to my journal before bed, but not often, and that's okay! I'm not perfect, and my journal has helped me stop forcing myself to be.

4. Routine is your Best Friend.

I discovered this about me when I was house-sitting. I had my laptop, some books, and the requirement to wake up 3 hours earlier than normal. Without my desktop.... I discovered I didn't actually have much to do. I typically woke up at 6 am, did the morning chores, and fell back asleep on the couch attempting to read a book. Once I started journaling, I realized I now had 3 hours each morning to write in it.

My morning routine has become wake up between 6 and 7 am (but whatever time works for you is perfect too!), write in my journal and read until 8 am, when the local Library opens, and then spend 3-4 hours there getting work done. (The library is where I wrote this post, actually! I only have the study room for another half hour, oh no!)

For you, your routine might be reviewing your journal for 10 minutes while you have your morning coffee and get ready for work. It might be writing what you did that day during your lunch break. It might be writing only once a week and filling in what your week looked like. Whatever works for you is the most important, but building a routine will help you stay on track and not abandon your journal!

5. Tweak spreads to fit your needs!

Remember: the journal is supposed to work for you, and no one else. If you can't make time to write each day, you can omit the daily logs! If you want a quick overview of all of your monthly bills, add a finance tracker. If you need a space to brainstorm, leave a few blank pages for you to scribble down whatever ideas come to mind.

There is no such thing as a "wrong"way to journal, unless you aren't journaling. If you aren't sure if a spread will work for you, give it a try and tweak it as-needed, or remove it altogether. (I'm removing my medication tracker for September, and adding a new tracker and another planner!)

6. Find (or make) a space to write regularly

For me, this space is the local library, or the living room couch before anyone else wakes up. I try to give myself 2 hours each morning to be productive so I can at least say I did something that day. It helps keep my little goblin brain that's constantly like "Do something!" in check.

And I don't force myself to write every day. The two days before writing this posts, I didn't write at all. Not even a good morning to my journal. The day before that? I was so busy I forgot to eat, much less write. So three days without writing in my journal, which is perfectly fine! (Remember to eat, though! I ended up spending yesterday evening eating a three-course meal to make up for the lack of food, and that's not healthy!)

Your writing space could be

  • your home office

  • your work break room

  • literally anywhere you can use your laptop as a clipboard

  • the library