Should you start a bullet journal?

If you’ve spent any amount of time online in the past few years, chances are you will have come across the Bullet Journal (also called BuJo). If you have no idea what I’m talking about, or if you’ve seen it but still aren’t sure what it is, let me try to explain — it is a method of planning and tracking that is highly adaptable to whatever you need it to do. There is a key of icons you can use to denote the status of your tasks, if you want to. There is an official journal you can use, if you want to. There are suggested indexes, spreads, and logs you can use, if you want to.

I know, it sounds too vague and simple to warrant such a huge cult following. But that might be what endears so many people to it — that and its penchant for being featured in the YouTube videos and Instagram posts of truly gifted artists and designers. It’s become its own industry.

But it really can be a useful tool for whatever you want to plan or track. Use it for work, exercise, nutrition, school, your side projects, your family’s activities and household finances… the possibilities are endless. And the starting cost is as low as you want it to be; you can use any old pen and any old notebook or napkin or whiteboard that suits you — it even has its own sister app if a pen and notebook aren’t your thing.

So with a seemingly infinite scope of versatility, surely that means every single person should be using it.

Well, not necessarily. Maybe it’s the rebel in me, but I am wary of anything anybody tries to push on me with the claim of “it will change your life, and finally you won’t be so lazy/sad/unmotivated/lonely anymore! It’s the only thing you need in order to achieve your dreams!”

But I’ll admit it is a really cool system, if you do it properly.

So if you’re wondering whether or not it’s worth giving a try, or if you just want to learn more about how I failed at it, here are 4 things to consider if you want to know whether bullet journaling is right for you:

Consistency is key

In order to bullet journal, you have to get into the habit of using it, and then use it consistently for it to work. Now, the beauty of it is that you can design it to adapt to whatever barriers stand in your way of being consistent — if you need something to be light and portable, buy a small notebook. If you need something to be all on one page and easy to read, you can design it that way.

It’s also meant to improve with use. The more and longer you use it, the more you can fine-tune its design and optimize your abilities. And of course, the more meaningful insight you can glean on your goals and projects. Suddenly you’ll see that you blow your budget around the 27th of every month, and that you always seem to gain 3 pounds in the weeks when your water consumption is way low — but you’ll only see that once you’ve logged a lot of data and have the introspection necessary to go back and reflect on what it means.

However if you aren’t generally the self-motivated and self-reflecting type, the bullet journal might not save you. You are the one who builds each page, index, spread, and tracker. You are the one who fills it out daily. If you forget one day or week or month, no pressure, just start again. But if you are a person who gets demotivated by perceived “failures” and cannot get back on that horse for whatever reason once you’re off it, the bullet journaling process may actually hinder your motivation rather than help.

No Place for Perfectionists

I am not really a perfectionist, but I do tend to get overwhelmed easily when something doesn’t go right — I conflate that error into this giant barrier that I can’t overcome and step right into overwhelm. So for people like me who need something to be just right or else it niggles them and they can’t focus and feel less because of it, then the BuJo could prove a daily nuisance rather than the saviour to your productivity.

In order to do it successfully, you have to let go of your need for total perfection. Of course, the big draw of the system is that because you are the one building it, it should be perfect for you — and it can be, if you use it consistently (see previous point) enough to know what worked and what didn’t from month to month and improve on it with each iteration.

It doesn’t have to have all the artistic additions and perfect spacing and different pen widths and zero spelling errors in order for it to be useful. But if you can’t let that go, you may not be able to use it long enough to make it the few months necessary to really unlock its potential.

Know Your Goals

When I first started bullet journaling about 18 months ago, I was in the midst of a job hunt and also planning a trip and it was the start of a new year with new goals, so I was really motivated to stay organized and see progress. The BuJo was great while I was focussed on achieving specific goals. But when I got a job and my trip was over, I’d also stopped exercising and reading books and meal planning, and I couldn’t find the self-motivation to fill it in every day. The process had become too complicated for the payoff.

Sure, I could have just kept the task management system but done away with the fancy weekly spreads and trackers and logs, but there was literally a month when all I’d written was “buy razors”. And I didn’t see it getting any busier after that. My job wasn’t one where I had different projects to work on, my New Years resolutions had been long forgotten, and I’d replaced a few of the trackers with apps that I could configure to give me more valuable, real-time data. It seemed silly to use Google to find the nutritional information of my homemade hummus, then do all of the calculations to plan out my meals, to then put all of that info into a pie chart I would then fill in with four coloured pens. Or, I could just use My Fitness Pal and be done with it.

If you know your goals, and you can use the system with intention, the BuJo can really enhance your ability to track progress and achieve results. However if you are just using it to log your water consumption and when your bills are due, it might seem like overkill and plain old diary or calendar app might work just as well.

It doesn’t have to be beautiful to be useful

There is so much inspiration out there for how to design pages on a bullet journal, and even what pages and spreads people use. Check out #bulletjournal on Instagram or search for it on YouTube and you will find hours of this type of content.

But one major downfall of that is that now the process of bullet journaling is perceived as competitive or showing off. For some users, it’s become less about how well it works, and more about how cool it looks or coming up with a different spin on it, regardless if it’s the best way to do something.

And that’s not fair for the people who truly love combining their creativity with their productivity. I once encountered a person who told me that they’d love to bullet journal, but their writing just wasn’t neat enough. Umm, what?

Bullet journaling shouldn’t be reserved for people who are talented artists. Some people are drawn to it because it speaks to their data-drive side, and others for their love of order. If aesthetically pleasing planners are your thing, and if you don’t have the talent or the skill to make a bullet journal as beautiful as you want, that is totally fine. Buy your diary from a shop and revel in its beautiful pages and pre-made spreads.

 

Ultimately, it is up to you to decide how your bullet journal works, looks, and how long you want to spend with it. You really get out of it what you put into it. I may pick it up again in the future, but I may not. And that is ok.

If you’re looking at the bullet journal expecting it to solve your lack of self-motivation/perfectionism/lack of drive/imposter syndrome, then look elsewhere. It is only a tool and it is up to you to decide whether it succeeds or fails. But once you’re ready to give it a real go, there are plenty of awesome tutorials online for how to get started.

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